Port St. Lucie was not built for teenagers. Named after the patron saint of people with eye problems, the town was the brainchild of three Jacksonville brothers — Frank, Elliot and Robert Mackle — who were determined to profit from the massive migration of retirees to south Florida. In 1961 the Mackles bought approximately 40,000 acres of swamp and pine flatwood forest a hundred miles north of Miami, subdivided the land into plots measuring 80 by 125 feet, and placed full-page ads in Life and Newsweek that promised fulfillment of "the Florida dream." A young girl with a blond ponytail held a gigantic beach ball in her arms beneath a palm tree; a man with graying temples helmed a motorboat, accompanied by two young beauties; blueprints touted the modern designs of "fun filled, sun filled. . . Space Age Homes." The images were fantasies, of course — the land was still swamp — but the price was right. You could buy a house in Port St. Lucie for just $10 down, and $10 a month, much cheaper than the more expensive retirement communities farther down the coast. But you would keep paying for the rest of your life.
By 1980, Port St. Lucie's population had grown to 15,000, and the city had begun to sprawl inland, overtaking I-95, nine miles from the coast. In 2006, at the height of the real estate boom, Port St. Lucie's population surpassed 150,000. It was the fastest-growing city in the United States. The winding suburban lanes were graded so quickly that no one bothered to make sure the street names were spelled correctly. Driving through the city today you will pass Galaxie Street, Voltair Terrace, Hershy Circle, Twylite Terrace. The names were designed to give the former swampland a patina of sophisticated grandeur. The street on which the Hadley family had lived since 1987 is named "Granduer."
Blake and Mary Jo Hadley moved to Port St. Lucie from Fort Lauderdale 24 years earlier to be closer to Blake's parents, who had retired in neighboring Stuart. Though Port St. Lucie was eviscerated by the real estate crash, Tyler's parents held recession-proof jobs. Blake was a watch engineer at the St. Lucie Nuclear Power Plant for thirty years. Mary Jo was a beloved elementary school teacher. "No matter who you were, even if she didn't like you, she would never give up on you," says Cameron Adams, a friend of Tyler's who had been Mary Jo's student.
The space-age design of the Hadley home, and those of its neighbors, are unable to disguise how recently the land was confiscated from nature. A half-century after the Mackles' ads first appeared in Life, there remain throughout the city properties that to this day have not yet been sold, and therefore have never been developed. Driving through the city, after passing an orderly series of 10 or 15 neatly landscaped suburban homes, you might arrive at a square plot of what resembles wild jungle: a dense, overgrown plexus of pine flatwoods, wiregrass, wax myrtle, fetterbush, Dahoon holly, wild blueberries and saw palmettos, their leaves shaped like limp hands with dozens of fingers. Granduer has more than a half-dozen undeveloped plots. The Hadley house is sandwiched between two of them. Across the street from the Hadleys are four additional consecutive plots of subtropical wilderness. At the end of the block lies the St. Lucie River, hemmed on either side by a narrow track of riparian forest. Bewildered bobcats, raccoons, wild boars and alligators often climb out of the river and onto their neighbors' lawns.
During Tyler's adolescence, Port St. Lucie was known nationally, if it was known at all, for two things: the New York Mets, who held their spring training camp there; and marijuana. During the real estate boom, dealers from Miami began buying up empty houses — often for as little as $50,000 — outfitting them with LED lights and hydroponic systems, and using them as grow operations. The practice became so common that it earned the city a new nickname: "Pot St. Lucie." An investigation in 2006 by local and federal law enforcement agencies busted 69 pot farms in town, but the phenomenon persists. "They're still out there," says Joseph Waddle, who recently graduated from St. Lucie West Centennial High School. "Marijuana is out of control. It's everywhere. You can't go to a party without smelling it in the air."
As the population of Port St. Lucie has grown, its median age has plunged. More than a third of the city's inhabitants are now younger than 24. Teenagers complain incessantly about having nothing to do.
"The whole mindset of Port St. Lucie is that it's boring, so I'm not going to do anything but throw a party," says Waddle.
There are a lot of shops but nothing to do, explains Terry Nguyen, a senior at Centennial who was friends with Tyler. "In other towns there are places where teens can hang out, but not in Port St. Lucie."
"The town is so boring," says Anthony Snook, a lanky 20 year old with an ironic mustache and a surfer's drawl, while shopping for a new glass pipe at 420 Peace Avenue, a local head shop. "It drives kids nuts. There's no role models. And the parents are always on everyone's ass because everyone's stressed about money."
For a city without any rough neighborhoods — without any neighborhoods, in fact, or, for that matter, sidewalks — there is a surprising amount of crime in Port St. Lucie. Much of it is committed by young people. Within months of Tyler Hadley's party, a 19 year old was found to be having sexual relationships with at least one, and perhaps two, 14 year olds; an 18 year old and a 16 year old were arrested after breaking into a house and shooting a middle-aged couple during a robbery; a group of 14 year olds vandalized a house, causing more than $10,000 of damage; another 14 year old was found wandering the streets at night in a daze, with a massive head wound, wearing nothing but underwear; and teenage marauders, carrying skateboards, videotaped themselves ransacking local chain stores. At Walmart they leapt into a six-foot stack of Pringles cans; at K-Mart they skateboarded into giant stacks of paper towels; at Target they ran through the aisles with their arms outstretched, like marathoners racing across the finish line, clearing the shelves of pillows, dog food, bread. On the surveillance film they can be seen cackling hysterically the entire time. "They're really doing this without regard for society, rules or regulations," said Fran Sherman, a local psychotherapist, who was shown the videos by local reporters. "They're getting joy out of torturing people and things."
By midnight at the Hadley residence there were a hundred people and two dogs, a black Labrador named Sophie and an old, partially deaf and blind beagle. Sophie was nowhere to be found but the beagle was hiding in the bedroom that had belonged to Tyler's older brother, Ryan, who had moved to North Carolina six weeks earlier to attend college. The party was only several hours old, but the room looked as if it had been ransacked by thieves. Clothes and bedding were scattered across the floor and the bed frame was cracked. The beagle cowered under the bed.
Stephanie Castaneda arrived with her friend Joshua Korte around midnight. She had a crush on Tyler, but didn't know him well. He was standing awkwardly by the wall next to his mother's computer and wasn't talking to his friends. When Stephanie went to the bathroom she found a beagle hiding in the shower.
William Goodall had known Tyler since the sixth grade, but had seen less of Tyler since freshman year of high school, when Tyler started smoking weed. He couldn't tell whether Tyler was acting especially strange, because Tyler always acted kind of strange.
At 12:30 a.m. the party was running out of beer so Tyler asked Mark Andrews and his girlfriend, Ashley Gershman, to drive him to the Sunoco gas station a block away. Tyler gave a wad of $20 bills to Mark, who was 21, and asked him to buy four cases of Busch Light. While they waited in Mark's car, Tyler mentioned to Ashley that his father had died. Ashley, who didn't know Tyler very well, assumed he meant that his father had passed away a long time ago.
When they got back to the house the kids at the party were playing water pong, because they wasn't enough beer. One boy walked around with a baggie of round white pills, selling them for a dollar apiece. Another sold marijuana. Anthony Snook showed up around 12:45 a.m. Someone had texted him that Hadley's party was the "biggest thing ever."
"Thanks for throwing this party, man," he said to Tyler. "How've you been?"
"All right," Tyler replied, his voice flat. Snook knew Tyler from school as a sullen, introverted kid who avoided eye contact and laughed at his own jokes. But tonight, despite the party's increasing chaos, Tyler seemed perfectly calm. At least until one boy, who had taken off his shirt and run out of the house screaming, returned holding a mailbox over his head.
"Where the fuck did you get that?" asked Tyler.
"I took it off the neighbor's lawn!"
The boy wheeled around the living room with the mailbox, knocking beer bottles to the floor.
Tyler started yelling. Stealing a mailbox was a felony, he said, and the police were going to come. Someone removed the mailbox from the house and returned it to the street.
Snook noticed that the door to the master bedroom was closed. Assuming that there were people inside getting high, he tried to enter, but it was locked. It was dark in the house, but he noticed a black smear, about a foot long, beneath the door. It looked like an oil-based paint that someone had tried unsuccessfully to wipe away.
Justin Wright, a collegiate soccer player who asked that his real name be withheld, arrived at 1:15 a.m. The first thing he noticed was the stench. It smelled like sweaty clothes that had been sitting around too long. The place was a mess. The white ceramic floor tiles were grimy. Several picture frames were missing from the wall. Others hung askew. Dishes smeared with the remnants of instant macaroni and cheese accumulated in the kitchen. Justin asked Tyler if there were any house rules.
"Just do whatever you want," said Tyler.
During Justin's game of beer pong, the ball bounced to the floor and rolled beneath the table, where it came to rest in a sticky, thick brown substance. Justin was mildly grossed out, but didn't think much of it. He carried the ball to the kitchen sink and rinsed it under the faucet. Then he resumed the game.
As Mark Andrews was leaving the party, Tyler asked if they could speak privately. Tyler went outside and ordered all the kids standing there to get back into the house, so that his neighbors wouldn't call the cops. Once everyone was inside, Tyler turned to Mark.
"Dude, I did some things. I might go to prison. I might go away for life. I don't know, dude, I'm freaking out right now."
"What are you talking about?" said Mark.
"Dude, I know you are not going to believe me, no one will believe me. I freakin' killed somebody."
"Dude, you killing somebody is your own business," said Mark. "Don't be telling me that sort of thing. I don't need to know."
Tyler returned to the house and ran into Ricardo Acevedo, an 18 year old who had met Tyler that night.
"Thanks for having us over," said Ricardo. "And thanks for the beer."
"I just wanted to do something fun before I left," said Tyler.
"Where are you going?"
"I'm going to kill myself," said Tyler.
"Why would you do that?"
"'Cause I did something really bad."
"What'd you do? It can't be that bad."
"Don't worry," said Tyler. "If I get caught, I'll be in jail a long time."
In his bedroom Tyler found Kimberly Thieben, a chubby, black-haired 20 year old who was then known to friends as "K-Nasty." She and Tyler were close friends; she lived two houses down the street.
"I'm going away for 60 years," he told Kimberly. His voice seemed to come from a faraway place.
"Why?" she asked.
He said she'd find out tomorrow.
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