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Friends gather to remember Eric Zieba

  • Nick Demers, 29, of Turners Falls prepares a luminaria memorial for his childhood friend Eric Zieba with help from his wife and kids at Unity Park on Wednesday.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

    Nick Demers, 29, of Turners Falls prepares a luminaria memorial for his childhood friend Eric Zieba with help from his wife and kids at Unity Park on Wednesday.
    Recorder/Micky Bedell Purchase photo reprints »

  • Sarah Westbrook reminices about her son Eric Zieba with some of his high school friends at a candlelight vigil in his honor at Unity Park in Turners Falls on Wednesday.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

    Sarah Westbrook reminices about her son Eric Zieba with some of his high school friends at a candlelight vigil in his honor at Unity Park in Turners Falls on Wednesday.
    Recorder/Micky Bedell Purchase photo reprints »

  • Nick Demers, 29, of Turners Falls prepares a luminaria memorial for his childhood friend Eric Zieba with help from his wife and kids at Unity Park on Wednesday.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell
  • Sarah Westbrook reminices about her son Eric Zieba with some of his high school friends at a candlelight vigil in his honor at Unity Park in Turners Falls on Wednesday.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

TURNERS FALLS — Friends of Eric Zieba gathered Wednesday night on the bank of the Connecticut River for a candlelight vigil in memory of the slain teenager.

Many arriving in the bicycle path parking lot stopped to hug Zieba’s mother, Sarah Westbrook, wearing her son’s Montague Blue Fish swim team T-shirt.

Zieba died in a hospital room 10 years ago Wednesday morning at the age of 16.

Steven Brown, then 14, beat Zieba in the head with a baseball bat just before 10 p.m. on the night of Aug. 5, 2004, in a wooded sand pit off Unity and Park streets, just up the hill from Wednesday’s 10-year anniversary vigil.

Brown was on house arrest at the time of the murder and believed Zieba had told police he had been stealing from cars.

The two met to fight, but Zieba refused a weapon and Brown attacked him from behind when he turned to leave, according to witnesses and courtroom arguments. Zieba died of his injuries the following morning and Brown pleaded guilty to murder in the second degree two years later. Brown is serving a life sentence, currently in the medium security Old Colony Correctional Center in Bridgewater, with the possibility of parole in three years.

Westbrook remembered her son as someone who did what he wanted to do and made friends with everyone.

“I went to a teacher conference once and the teacher said to me ‘If I have Eric’s attention I have everybody’s attention; if I don’t have Eric’s attention I don’t have anybody’s attention.’ His charisma was boundless. There was never a dull moment,” she said. “He was his own person.”

Westbrook believes the system failed her son; Brown had violated his house arrest multiple times before the murder and police told Brown that Eric had given him up, she said.

“There were a lot of systems in the town that failed my son,” she said.

Westbrook said she hoped her son’s murder had taught people a lesson.

“I hope this raises awareness of teen violence and that there are other ways to solve things other than fighting, and my son, he didn’t want to fight, that’s why he ran,” she said.

Kara Bongiovanni, 25, of Turners Falls, said she only knew Zieba for a year but the group of about 35 gathered in the dark 10 years later was a testament to the impression he made on people.

Nick Demers, 29, of Turners Falls, said he grew up with Zieba in the Patch neighborhood, remembered playing in his pool as a child, and said the pain of Zieba’s death changed people. “There was a lot of awareness at that time, I think it changed a lot of people for the good,” Demers said. Demers said he and others are less likely to mind their own business if they see a situation escalating.

Another friend, Matt Cassidy, 27, of Lowell pointed out faint, painted-over lettering on the back of the warning sign facing boaters approaching the Turners Falls dam. “We spray-painted that 10 years ago, it’s still there,” Cassidy said. “RIP and then underneath that Erk, we called him Erk, ‘We love you.’ Still there.”

You can reach Chris Curtis at: ccurtis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 257

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