Lauren Daverin and her friends thought they were invincible. On August 22, 2013, they gathered on a bridge on Long Island one afternoon as they had done countless times before. They drank vodka and smoked pot. They all had problems to escape: absent parents, the deaths of friends, and the fact that school was starting in two weeks—at least for those of them who hadn't dropped out.
As Lauren's friend Vicky Tanza recalls, "It was a normal fucking day."
Lauren, who was about to turn 19, was the center of attention. Her hair was the first thing people noticed—that day it was almost shoulder-length and dyed the color of red wine. She had arched eyebrows, blue eyes that peered out from half-closed lids, and big lips made up to look even bigger.
Some outsiders considered her distant, but she treated friends like family. "If she liked you, she loved you and she would do anything for you," one friend tells VICE.
UPDATE: On Thursday, Lauren Daverin's killer was sentenced to 18 years to life in prison.
The pedestrian bridge, located in the village of Rockville Centre, spans three lanes of traffic and lets people cross from one side to a park. There are no buildings nearby, just parking lots, a blue-and-white water tower, a river lined with cattails, and soccer fields covered in goose shit. That summer, overgrown trees and bushes hid the bridge from view. From its center, the kids could see the sunset. If they closed their eyes, the rushing cars sounded like the ocean.
As night fell, Max Sherman, 18, showed up on a bicycle with a green army-style duffel bag. He was a husky five foot six and 185 pounds, with red hair shorn into a buzz cut and teenage stubble on his chin. Vicky's boyfriend had invited him there; no one else knew him. "He seemed perfectly fine," Vicky says. "I just thought he was shy."
All those hours of swigging from a cheap bottle of vodka seemed to catch up with Lauren. Friends offered her water, but she was stumbling around, slurring her words and smashing bottles against the pavement. "She got, like, crazy when she was drunk," Vicky recalls. "Like, obliterated." Exhausted with her antics or preoccupied with their own, the group left Lauren and Max alone. "Lauren is a tough motherfucker," says Steve Garcia, Vicky's boyfriend. "I didn't even think twice about leaving her with Max."
When the friends returned a while later, Lauren was the only one still there. Her body was curled in an awkward position, her clothes strewn about nearby. She was slumped against the bridge's green metal fence—lifeless and naked except for her combat boots.
Rockville Centre, about an hour east of New York City, has a handful of pedestrian bridges leading to parks on the outskirts of town. They all have ramps or steps going up and down from them, and tall fences that run their lengths. The secluded locations naturally attract high school kids at night. The cops sometimes show up, but drinkers might walk away with just a warning. "We give it as much attention as we can," one local officer tells VICE, "but we do have to prioritize."
Being a teenager isn't easy on anyone, but people who work with kids on Long Island say they've never had it harder. High divorce rates and an economy in which people take on multiple jobs or work longer hours means parents aren't around as much. The college admissions process is always getting more competitive, putting more pressure on kids to score higher on SAT exams. Social media has given rise to meaner bullies. The number of teens using heroin is "exploding," news reports say. "You get groups of kids and they feel like throwaways, that nobody really needs anything from them. And that, to me, is heartbreaking," says Anthony Zenkus of the Safe Center LI, a local nonprofit that helps victims of abuse. A church employee who helps youth with substance-abuse issues adds, "They're raising each other."
Ray Longwood, a local church pastor, called Lauren's group the "fence kids" because when they weren't by the bridge they drank at the fence behind his church. Sometimes, Longwood would offer them pizza and Lauren would confide in him. He recalls her talking about how her father had left the family when she was little and why she drank. "I think over time she had built up some calluses from her past hurts," Longwood says. "But I felt like we were just at a place where we were starting to peel some of that back."
Lauren was sassy, loud, and did what she wanted. She dropped out of high school before completing ninth grade, never worked besides babysitting her nephew, and slept past noon. "She really didn't care what people thought of her, at least on the outside," according to Kathleen Daverin, her mother. "But on the inside it bothered her. People made fun of her. She always had this wall up, this shell of security."
Lauren used social media to build that wall higher. She posted on Twitter with the handle @fuckkk_youuu and her profile photo shows her with her pants unzipped, pink underwear exposed. Her bio reads, "I do my thing and you do yours. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations, and you are not in this world to live up to mine."
In early 2012, she met Kashawn Gresham at a house party in town. He had grown up nearby and was on leave from the Air Force. "Her first words to me were, 'You have no chance,'" Kashawn recalls. But when he returned to his base in Louisiana, they kept in touch. "It went from talking once every couple of days to every day," he says.
About a month and a half after they met, Lauren told him they were in a relationship. That summer, Kashawn proposed over the phone. Without hesitation, Lauren said yes, even though they had only seen each other in person a few times. When Kashawn visited New York again that fall, they married at a city clerk's office ceremony that lasted less than two minutes.
After the wedding, Lauren moved to Louisiana. The newlyweds rented a house next to Kashawn's Air Force base, but she didn't fit in with the other military wives, who were mostly Southern Belles who pulled rank. Sometimes the interracial couple got disapproving looks in public. Plus, their personalities clashed. He was older, a second-generation military man preparing for nuclear war; she just wanted to have fun, her friends say.
As summer 2013 approached, a major fight sent Lauren packing and back to Long Island. "The only time I've ever seen her cry was when she came home," her sister Catherine says. "He did something."
Kashawn won't go into details, but says, "We were having communication issues... We didn't know if we were going to make it. There were issues on both ends."
Lauren returned to her old routine, sleeping late and drinking with friends. But that May, a friend died of a heroin overdose. The loss affected Lauren, and she decided to get busy planning her future. She worked on a résumé and discussed getting her GED certificate and enrolling in community college. "She wanted to better herself," her mother says. "She didn't want to be the dropout. She didn't want to be left behind while everybody else was doing things." Her efforts inspired friends to make similar changes. "We both were really trying to get our lives together," Vicky says. "We realized we needed to grow up."
By all accounts, Lauren Daverin and Max Sherman never crossed paths before the night on the bridge. Growing up, Max and his family split time between Rockville Centre and Barrington, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. (I grew up in Rockville Centre too, and knew Max's brother.) Max would get in trouble at home and with the cops; his parents accused him of stealing from them and doing drugs. Police records show that his parents called about a missing or runaway juvenile several times. He wrote in a Facebook message to someone he knew: "I don't mind growing up faster than others." (His family and lawyer declined to comment, and Max declined to meet me.)
Around the time he was 15, his parents may have sent him to a residential program to deal with his apparent drug use, according to three people with knowledge of his family history. But his troublemaking continued. He was adopted, and the Shermans thought maybe his issues stemmed from not knowing his real parents. So in 2012, they contacted his biological mother, Stephanie Hileman, with whom they had stayed in touch. She was 16 and a high school dropout when she was pregnant with Max. When the Shermans reached out, she was around 34, recently divorced with three more children, and was living in rural Washington State. She, too, wanted closure, and agreed to let him live with her.
By January 2013, Max had enough credits to graduate high school early, and he journeyed west.
Hileman prepared a room for Max, the Shermans enrolled him in college courses, and a resource center got him a job at Subway. But the plan fell apart. He and Hileman clashed over his cigarette and pot smoking. He left her house and crashed with people around town. He claimed someone stole his computer and likely never started his courses. And when Subway fired him for not having a Washington ID, Max went to the sandwich shop at night, smashed the front window, and stole $450, according to police records and the manager at the time.
"We live in a town with less people than a New York City block," Hileman tells VICE. "When Max broke into Subway, it made it in every paper in our county." In May 2013, days before he turned 18, police arrested him for theft, burglary, and vehicle prowling.
"He really looks like he's telling the truth a lot of the time, when you know he did something, you know he was lying, and yet his face was so convincing that you almost doubted yourself." —Susan Elser on Max Sherman
He gained a reputation in the small town of Davenport, population 1,700. "I've partied with the guy," says Paul Jurasin, a local. "He hung out with people that I know in town and just never was very trustworthy and was just always kind of shady. My girlfriend never liked him. Things would disappear when he was around... cigarettes, money, pills."
"Max made me feel really, really nervous," adds Susan Elser, Paul's girlfriend. "He really looks like he's telling the truth a lot of the time, when you know he did something, you know he was lying, and yet his face was so convincing that you almost doubted yourself."
In July, after his release for the earlier charges, locals discovered him squatting in a house blocks from Hileman's home while its owners were away. He was with a 16-year-old girl who had run away from home. The cops charged him with criminal trespass and unlawful harboring of a minor, according to police records. "He is very good at having this mask of, 'Oh no, not me, I wouldn't have done that ever,'" says Julie Lawson, who knew Max and found him that day.
Max was sent to county jail, where he spent about two weeks. When the Shermans agreed to look after him again, the county dropped the charges on August 2, 2013, according to records and the prosecuting attorney, Mel Hoit. Bill Dehler, a counselor and part-time jail chaplain with whom Max had become close, drove him to Spokane, the closest city. He bought Max some McDonald's and eight dollars worth of secondhand clothing and put him on a Greyhound to New York City, a three-day journey. He gave Max an old military duffel filled with food and water and handed him a Bible.
"Max, you have three days," the chaplain told him. "You need to really change your life around."
"I can't even wrap my mind around this right now," Vicky posted on Facebook. "Someone please wake me up from this nightmare."
Rockville Centre police arrived at the bridge around 10 PM, and pronounced Lauren dead 15 minutes later. Police reports say officers discovered signs of assault on her body, including blunt-force trauma to the back of her head, and noted it was "a dark secluded area" with "no streetlights or other lighting sources."
The cause of death, they determined, was strangulation. Her face was black, blue, and purple.
In the early-morning hours, word spread among the "fence kids" that Lauren was dead. "I can't even wrap my mind around this right now," Vicky posted on Facebook. "Someone please wake me up from this nightmare." Some of them guessed Lauren had fallen off the bridge or gotten alcohol poisoning. "We had been up to the bridge a million and ten times," Vicky tells me. "I had always assumed it was, like, a safe space." Detectives started showing up at kids' houses, and at least some of the kids said they last saw Lauren with Max.
"I thought it was Max that night, right away," claims one friend who spoke with detectives. "No one knew him, and he was sketchy as hell." Steve Garcia, who had invited Max, says he was social at first but later isolated himself. "He changed... Something flicked on in his head."
At the time, Max was living in his parents' beach house a few towns over. The morning after the murder, he returned to the bridge on his bicycle. He was chain-smoking and had cuts on his face and hands and a bruise below his left eye. He was wearing a gray plaid long-sleeve shirt. Reporters were interviewing passersby and Max agreed to a TV interview. He told the reporter he had been there the previous night.
"What was everybody doing? Just hanging out?" the reporter asked.
"They were chilling by the, uh, soccer post or whatever," he said. "I just rode by, saw my friend Steve, and got a cigarette from him."
"And what's your reaction to this now?"
"Amazed, kinda," he said, stumbling over the words. "It's right in the middle of town. Surprised." He was facing the sun and squinting. He brought his right hand to his mouth and inhaled from a cigarette, the hand shaking.
"And there was nothing going on in the group last night that would suggest that somebody was getting hurt?" the reporter asked.
"Nah, everybody was just chilling," he exhaled. "Hanging out."
It wouldn't be Max's only taped interview that day. Acting on tips, police got a court order to access his phone data. They also had Steve Garcia do controlled phone calls, which they recorded. "I got jumped last night," Max said to him in the recording, which was subsequently played in court. As for what happened with him and Lauren, he told Steve, "She said she was fine and I left."
That evening, police tracked down Max for questioning. He told them he had been in a fistfight after leaving Lauren alone on the bridge, and that he didn't have sex with Lauren. He offered up his DNA for testing. "A swab, a hair, whatever it is," he said according to a recording played at the pre-trial hearing. "I didn't do shit."
On August 24, 2013, police arrested Max for second-degree murder. By that time, Lauren's death had made headlines: "Teenager Found Dead on Long Island Footbridge"; "Long Island Teen 'Wild Child' Is Found Slain." The county held Max without bail. At his indictment, a grand jury added first-degree sex abuse to the charges. At his arraignment days later, dressed in a suit and tie and with his buzz cut grown out, Max pleaded not guilty.
Kashawn, Lauren's widower, watched from the gallery, wearing fatigues, as he had done at their wedding.
"I hope he rots in hell... because I'm in hell and he deserves to be." —Kathleen Daverin, Lauren's mother
The 21 months since Max's arrest have seemed interminable for everyone involved. Families have been crushed, and even those people who knew Max out west feel guilty. "Her family and mine will forever grieve," says Stephanie Hileman, his biological mother. Now 20 years old, Max has spent two birthdays behind bars. The Daverins have awaited justice.
After nearly two dozen closed-door conferences between the judge and lawyers, pretrial hearings began this year. Lauren's mother attended each one and would look upon her daughter's accused killer, a wooden railing the only thing separating them.
The judge set a trial date, but on April 24, Max changed his plea to guilty. His attorney told the press that Max wanted "to spare both his family and the victim's family a long, drawn-out trial," and that "his state of mind from the beginning was one of remorse, genuine remorse."
Kathleen doesn't buy it. "I hope he rots in hell," she says, "because I'm in hell and he deserves to be."
Sentencing is scheduled for Thursday. Max faces 18 years to life behind bars, according to his attorney. Lauren's family plans to attend, and afterward, they will either visit the cemetery or the makeshift memorial they set up on the bridge just after her death, which is still there. Burned-out tea candles and melted candle wax cover the ground. Plastic flowers poke through the fence. Mourners spray-painted "R.I.P. LAUREN" on the pavement.
"I knew this was going to affect me, but not so horribly," someone wrote in purple ink on a Hallmark card. "I know you wouldn't want anyone to feel sad, but it's just so bad."
Another person inscribed a message on a red candle with the image of Saint Michael, believed to assist the dying.
"I hear paradise has the best parties."
Max Kutner is a journalist from Long Island, New York. He has written for Boston and Smithsonian magazines and is a staff writer at Newsweek. Follow him on Twitter.