Lebanon teen touched by tragedy forges path of his own making with help of mentors

By TRIS WYKES

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 03-11-2023 10:01 PM

LEBANON — When Lebanon High basketball player Chris Perriello approached a microphone stand at half-court in December, he carried, in addition to his speaking notes, the memory of his late mother.

The senior forward briefly addressed the home crowd before tip-off, explaining the evening’s significance as a fundraiser for WISE, the domestic violence center, and expressing his belief in the organization’s work.

Left unsaid, but widely understood throughout Lang Metcalf Gymnasium, was Perriello’s personal connection to the subject: his mother, Natalie, was shot and killed by his father, James, at the family’s Grantham home in April 2012. For those close to Chris Perriello, his resilience and growth in the decade since are striking. Kieth Matte, Lebanon High’s vice principal and boys basketball coach, said many administrators and teachers discussed years ago how best to extend extra support to the Perriello children. Many of those same educators marvel at Chris’s coping skills and maturation.

“Everyone knows his story and assumes they know who he is because of it,” said Sara Bennett, who taught Chris Perriello as a high school freshman. “That’s a downside to a small community. But our school is so strong in helping kids work through things.”

A 1987 Lebanon High graduate, Natalie Perriello, 42, was in her fourth year as a technology teacher at her alma mater. The crime left the four Perriello children — Chris is third in birth order — parentless. James Perriello was sentenced to 35 years to life. Per the terms of his plea agreement, he will not be eligible for parole until he is 75.

Chris has not spoken to him since before the night of the shooting and no longer regards him as his father.

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“I think about it a lot,” Chris Perriello said. “The memory feels far, but the pain of what happened still resonates.”

Chris Perriello was 7 at the time of his mother’s death. He said he has some pleasant recollections from his early childhood but also recalls many instances of hiding away while his parents argued. James Perriello hadn’t been living in the family home for several months before the murder.

“When you grow up in a household where you don’t dare speak and don’t dare to step out of line, you spend a lot of time in your room,” Chris Perriello said.

While the couple’s marriage had been troubled for years before her death, Natalie Perriello hid the severity of their discord from nearly all friends and family.

James Perriello shot his wife in the head six times while their 3-year-old son, Max, slept in a nearby bed. The other children were in adjacent rooms, and the eldest, Jill, read her recollections at her father’s sentencing.

The Perriello children’s maternal grandparents, Robert and Ann LaFlam, became their legal guardians. Robert LaFlam died in 2015.

Ann LaFlam recalls Chris as a quiet youngster who overcame a speech impediment but who often seemed pushed into the background.

“He was a forgotten child,” Ann LaFlam said. “The kids hadn’t experienced family meals and we’d sit down to eat, and if Chris started to say something, the others would talk right over him.”

Chris Perriello regularly spoke with a therapist until seventh grade, then took a break. But he started seeing a different therapist as he began to falter as an adolescent.

“In eighth grade, I missed lots of school with loneliness issues, and I got diagnosed with depression,” Chris Perriello said. “I would go to school and get through one period and sleep the rest of the day.”

Since his mother’s death, Perriello said, he’s struggled to maintain a sense of comfort and safety at home.

“It’s not because of my family, but because of what (home) represents,” Perriello said in an interview this winter in Lebanon High gymnasium. “Home is supposed to be that safe place, and what happened was a victimization.

“In a twisted way, it kind of helps me. I wake up early and I go to the gym because I don’t want to be in my house. When I’m (home), I’m thinking about what happened and I’m anxious that something else could happen.”

Anthony Perriello, Chris’ older brother, recalls similar feelings while growing up. The 21-year-old is now a community college student in Portsmouth, N.H., studying analytics.

“Home just never felt the same,” Anthony Perriello said. “Holidays were different. Everyone at school would get all excited for Christmas break, and you just want to get it over with and done.”

(The eldest of the Perriello children, Jill, only has occasional contact with her family, LaFlam said.)

When Perriello arrived in Bennett’s ninth grade English class, she quickly felt he could benefit from her self-described “maternal teaching style.”

“He’s crazy smart and super funny, but he came in with an edge,” Bennett said. “He tried to push adults away, but I said, ‘Nope, that’s not going to happen with me.’ By the end of sophomore year, it was night and day how he had changed.”

Perriello said there was no sudden moment, no special impetus. He just came to the realization that despite anything that had happened in his life, he could still dictate its direction and tone. Now when he has self-doubt, he asks himself the same question: “What would my mom want me to do?” Perriello said. “I feel I’m a reflection of her, and I want to live up to her standards of intelligence and being a good person.

Perriello had butted heads with Bennett at times and advanced to 10th grade thinking she disliked him. He was surprised, then, when the teacher inquired after him while he was a sophomore and off campus because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The two chatted on Zoom that year, and with Bennett’s encouragement, Perriello elected to take a more demanding course load as a junior. When students returned to in-person learning, Bennett says she’d find him in her classroom when they both had a period off, Perriello studying chemistry or reading books for his English class.

“I was like, ‘This change is going to stick,’ ” Bennett said. “In ninth grade, I wouldn’t have imagined that he could get where he is now. He can talk through his mistakes or missteps and figure out what’s important to him and what drives him.”

A scholarship in Natalie Perriello’s honor coordinated by WISE is annually given to a Lebanon High senior at the end of each school year. Chris Perriello spoke at the presentation ceremony last spring, and it was his idea that the Raiders’ Dec. 20 basketball game become a fundraiser for the effort. Numerous faculty and staff attended the contest.

“Chris’ whole time with us has been a testament to his character, because he took a hard path to becoming a starter,” said Matte, who also coached Perriello’s older brother, Anthony. “He’s an intense kid you never need to get fired up and often have to calm down.”

Chris Perriello, who played three JV seasons, didn’t enjoy watching his classmates from the varsity bench. The rise of his academic work ethic coincided with another on the court. Despite missing time because of injury this winter, he was an important part of the team, credited by his coach for his nuanced understanding of the Lebanon’s offense. “Kids were ahead of me because they were working harder than I did,” Perriello said. “I was disappointed in myself.”

Anthony Perriello, who has attended several of his brother’s games this winter, said that while sports have helped him them, games and other school events can also bring a reminder of all that’s been lost.

“It’s difficult to go to games or graduation and most everyone has their parents cheering them on,” he said. “Lots of times, I’d be thinking that my mom and dad should have been here for this.”

Amusing, opinionated and self-aware, Chris Perriello is popular with his classmates but also realizes his work isn’t finished. He wants to improve the warmth of his relationship with Max, to not bottle up his emotions so often and to develop the sense of compassion for which his mother was known.

How does Chris Perriello think of James Perriello?

“I used to have hatred and wondered why he did it, but after therapy, I decided it’s not worth thinking about him,” Chris Perriello said. “I’ve forgotten a lot of memories with him, and I don’t see him as a father any more. He’s just a guy who did something really bad, and all the contact my older sister and brother have had with him since has been negative.”

In contrast, Perriello’s memories of his mother are soothing. Her deep roots in the Upper Valley mean he’s surrounded by people who revere her contributions as an educator and human being. Matte said receiving the news of the murder by phone as he drove to school on April 27, 2012, is a tragic memory seared into his brain.

“She was truly a great person,” said Matte, who at the time taught physics in the classroom next door. “Not all kids like me, but they all loved her.”

Perriello said his mother rarely allowed unrest in her marriage to affect interactions with her children. Doing so took an enormous strength, for which he is grateful.

“My mom always made sure I had a good time and that I was safe,” Chris Perriello said. “She was always so very kind and incredibly understanding, and she always knew the right thing to say and do in the moment.”

Ann LaFlam said her grandson’s friends have proven vitally important. As many as a dozen will sometimes stay over, LaFlam arising to discover sleeping bodies strewn throughout her house, the teenagers later awakening to wolf down her pancakes and bacon for breakfast.

“Chris is very comfortable at Lebanon High,” LaFlam said. “And he seems like he’s in a good place overall, but who’s to know? I think the next few years will be very telling.”

Bennett believes Chris Perriello is part of his mother’s legacy and that he, too, possesses uncommon intelligence, empathy and strength. She’s excited to see him head off to college in the fall and is determined to stay in touch.

“It’s going to be a whole new start for Chris,” she said. “He’ll get to be who he is without people assuming they already know.”

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com.

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