WOOD RIVER JCT. — Seniors in the criminal justice program at Chariho Tech took a fresh look at three notable Rhode Island murders and presented their findings on Wednesday to senior prosecutor Patrick Youngs, who has worked in the state Attorney General’s Office for 33 years and prosecuted two of the three cases.
“When you get someone like this that comes in the school, it adds so much value, because it’s going right to the top,” said Chariho Tech director Gerald Auth. “Someone who had that experience, worked on the cases and can provide really specific feedback about what the kids are doing well and what maybe they missed on.”
Youngs was visiting Chariho at the invitation of instructor Kristian Calise, a retired North Providence detective who teaches the criminal justice program with another retired North Providence police officer, Robert Wild.
“I teach our freshmen and sophomores and Lt. Wild teaches the juniors and seniors,” Calise said. “So when Lt. Wild was going over this assignment with the seniors, I immediately thought that it would be a pretty good idea to have AG Youngs come down and talk about his experience prosecuting two of the three cases that they’re going to present to him today.”
Divided into three teams, each group of students focused on a single case and spent a week and a half learning about it.
One of the team members, 18-year-old Dreyden Cianci of Richmond, has a passion for criminal justice and plans to work in the field as a lawyer or a forensic psychologist. Cianci, wearing a necklace with tiny silver handcuffs, said she hoped Youngs' visit would give her a deeper understanding of the case and the criminal justice process.
“A cohesive understanding of the case itself and how law truly works, because I don’t think we’ve had a lawyer yet come in,” she said. “It’s a really neat experience to be able to have someone from that law background, which is something that some of us are thinking of."
Before hearing the first presentation, Youngs talked about his career as a prosecutor.
“We try cases and a lot of them have forensics, like you studied, and a lot of it is just the human drama, the human condition,” he said. “People getting on the stand and raising their hands and lawyers like me hopefully being able to yank the truth out of them.”
Youngs said he loved his job, despite the demanding hours and low pay. “I wouldn’t trade this type of law career for any other one,” he said. “You hear about people that go to law school because they want to make a lot of money. That’s not what prosecutors do. We’re very underpaid and very overworked. My phone often goes off at 2 o’clock in the morning and I have to get dressed and go to a crime scene.”
One of those 2 a.m. calls, Youngs said, was the infamous Station nightclub fire in West Warwick in 2003, in which 100 people lost their lives. “The worst thing I ever saw in my life,” he said.
The first student team, John Pellegrino, Isabel Couri, Riley Cullota, Ian Morgan and Hunter Schofield, presented the notorious Christopher Hightower case.
Hightower, a former commodities broker, murdered the Brendel family of Barrington in 1991 over a soured business relationship with Ernest Brendel. He is serving a life sentence for killing Ernest, his wife, Alice, and their daughter, 8-year-old Emily.
Youngs, who prosecuted the case, answered questions from the student team members and showed them several pieces of evidence from a box that he had brought with him, including arrows from the crossbow that Hightower used to shoot Brendel.
“I went over how he died a torturous death, how long it takes to reload a crossbow when he’s running for his life,” Youngs said, recalling his plea to the jury. “And that’s torturous, because he was alive for all three shots.”
Wild said the students had studied famous murder cases in other states but this was the first time they had focused on Rhode Island.
“It was just a spur of the moment idea,” he said. “We do major investigations outside of Rhode Island, we said ‘OK, let’s focus on Rhode Island’s famous murders,” he said. “They did all the research. They presented the other day in front of us and did an awesome job.”