Week 43: Joan’s Joy: Turning Tragedy into Action: Keeping the Children of Tomorrow Safe
April 19, 1973…. It’s Maundy Thursday. Seven-year old Joan Angela D’Alessandro is playing in her front yard after school when she sees her neighbor, Joseph McGowan, drive by on his way up to his home three houses away.
Eager to deliver her last boxes of Girl Scout cookies, Joan runs into the house and tells her mom she’s going to walk over to Mr. McGowan’s house to give him the 2 boxes of Thin Mint cookies he ordered.
Joan never came home.
Later that night Joan’s mom, Rosemarie, knocked on the McGowan’s door where Joseph, a 26-year old chemistry teacher at Tappan Zee High School, lived with his mother and 87-year old grandmother. Rosemarie was looking for Joan. Did he see her – she asked. He said no but Rosemarie said she could tell right then he was lying and that he knew where she was. Panic stricken, she called the police.
Joan’s tiny body was found Easter morning in Harriman State Park, in an area of Bear Mountain. Naked and horribly abused, the Coroner would later say Joan was the most viciously attacked of any victim he had seen up to that point.
Joseph McGowan would eventually plead guilty and tell the court he lured Joan into his home and to the basement where he sodomized and sexually molested her, beat her, then murdered her, driving her naked body to the State park to dump in the woods.
He was sentenced to life in prison, which made him eligible for parole in 14 years.
I had the honor of meeting Rosemarie D’Alessandro and two of her sons at a bowling fundraising event for The Joan Angela D’Alessandro Memorial Foundation (JoansJoy).
The grassroots organization was founded in Joan’s memory to promote child safety and protection, advance victim’s rights, and provide relief to neglected, homeless and abused children. The organization holds several events a year, including an Annual Child Safety Fest in September at the local train station (the month of Joan’s birthday) to educate parents, community members and children about safety and stranger danger. I had volunteered to help at their Annual Bowling event – raising general funds for the organization’s many activities. I was assigned to help organize the tricky-tray display, sell tricky tray tickets and help greet guests.
Rosemarie founded the organization in 1998, after the 25th Anniversary of Joan’s death and in response to her family’s repeated trauma each time McGowan came up for parole.
McGowan first came up for parole in 1987 and was denied. He became eligible for parole a second time in 1993. Rosemarie told me the prosecutor contacted her to tell her that if she did not fight to keep McGowan in prison, there was a strong possibility he would get out this time. Thus, Rosemarie started a 9-month campaign with candlelight vigils, petitions, and a video message from Rosemarie to the parole board to keep him behind bars.
He was denied parole and given an additional 20 years, which were subsequently reduced to 12 years because of work credits and good behavior. During that time, he appealed his ineligibility for parole twice, using monies he’d inherited from his family to pay for a legal team.
Each time he appealed or came up for parole, Rosemarie and her family had to relive the nightmare of Joan’s murder in minute detail in order to convince the parole board to keep him incarcerated.
After the 1993 parole denial, Rosemary believed changes in our laws were needed to protect children and support the families of victims who were brutally sexually abused and murdered. She wanted to make sure no other family had to deal with this repeated trauma. She worked tirelessly and passionately to lobby for change and helped create and pass Joan’s Law on April 1997 in New Jersey. This meant that anyone convicted of murdering a child under the age of 14 in conjunction with a sexual offence will NEVER be eligible for parole and will NEVER get out of prison. Rosemarie says her goal is to see this law passed in all 50 states. A Federal version was signed into law by then-President Clinton on October 30, 1998, and in New York State on September 15, 2004, a week after what would have been Joan’s 39th birthday. Then-Governor George Pataki signed the law in Harriman State Park, at the site where Joan’s body was found.
Because the laws were enacted after Joan’s death, McGowan is not eligible for them. This means every so many years he will continue to be eligible to come before the parole board and try to gain release. He has come up for parole two more times since 1993: in 1998 and 2008.
Each time Rosemarie testifies at the ‘victim impact interview’, bringing photos and videos and recordings of Joan and recounting, yet again, that awful day she disappeared and the nightmare of finding her body that Easter morning. She shares the trauma and loss her family has experienced since Joan’s death in order to persuade the State to keep her daughter’s killer behind bars. McGowan will soon be up again for another parole hearing. For the McGowans, the cycle will be endless. For others, thanks to Joan’s Law, it will not be.
2018 is the 45th anniversary of Joan’s murder. In those 45 years McGowan has never shown any remorse. He has never written a note to the family or the court apologizing or asking for forgiveness. He has never apologized during parole hearings.
In Judge Lorraine Parker, in her denial of his parole, said McGowan “has made no substantial progress in addressing the issues that led him to murder the child in 1973… he denies his pedophiliac fantasies and tendencies, has lied and manipulated evaluations, played word games during parole hearings and demonstrated a substantial risk for recidivism.” Experts who reevaluated the case and evaluated McGowan reported that he has the makeup of a mass murderer or serial killer.
Rosemarie has spent countless hours working to pass laws that would raise awareness and protect children. For her, channeling her grief into protecting children and civil activism is an outlet that brings her peace and joy. Her family supports her efforts and works alongside her to continue Joan’s legacy.
“Out of very terrible things good can come, but you gotta work for it and you gotta believe it,” Rosemarie told me. “See how people can come together and do so much good together?”
The night of the bowling event, Rosemarie was full of joy. She said Foundation’s activities are a testimony to Joan’s spirit. “The physical body may leave,” she said to me, “but the spirit remains. Joan’s spirit is ever-present.” She feels it all around her, like Joan never left.
Rosemarie shared that she can see the McGowan’s house through the trees when she looks out the large front window of her home in Hillsdale – that house of horrors where Joan was brutally murdered. But she said she finds purpose in knowing her family’s efforts will make a difference in the lives of others. She finds strength in memories of Joan dancing and laughing. “She was very theatrical and loved the color green. She was joy,” Rosemarie recalls.
“Joan’s wonderful spirit and heart are remembered each day in my work,” Rosemary said. From this unimaginable tragedy good things have come to fruition through her passionate advocacy and persistent dedication to helping others. Rosemary said when she thinks about Joan’s Law and the work of the Foundation, she knows in her heart Joan is at peace and that brings her comfort.
In April 2014 (the 40th anniversary of Joan’s death) the family unveiled the Joan Angela D’Alessandro White Butterfly Garden in front of the Hillsdale train station. This is where they hold their Safety Fest each September. One side of the sculpture has an engraved butterfly with the slogan “Remember Joan Today So Tomorrow’s Children Will Be Safe.” The other side of the sculpture has Joan’s photo and her story.
The white butterfly is an enduring symbol of Joan for the D’Alessandro family. Joan always loved butterflies but that symbolism became especially significant one cold April day when Rosemarie visited Harriman State Park and went to the hill near where Joan’s body was found. Even though it was early in the season, a white butterfly fluttered about and remained right over the spot Joan was found. “I felt Joan with me,” Rosemarie shared. The white butterfly has become a symbol of Joan’s energy and spirit.
During the bowling event, I met many wonderful people who are involved with the Foundation and were advocating for victims’ rights. I especially bonded with a few of my fellow volunteers – Keara and Samantha – who were also new to learning about the organization. It was great to feel and see the passion of the participants, board members and sponsors who attended the event.
Since Joan’s Law passed, Rosemary has remained actively advocating for more changes. She proposed and advocated the Justice for Victims’ Law which was passed in New Jersey in November 2000. This eliminates the statute of limitations for wrongful death actions brought in murder, manslaughter and aggravated manslaughter cases, allowing the victims to sue criminals if they acquire inheritance or other assets anytime after the crime. She and her family used the law to file a wrongful death suit against McGowan to ensure he could not access any more money he received as inheritance for appeals for parole. McGowan did not contest the suit and in September of 2001 a judgment was awarded in the family’s favor. Any of McGowan’s inheritance monies will go towards Joan’s Foundation.
Rosemarie also told me that in July 2017 then New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed an expansion of Joan’s Law, increasing the age from 14 to 18. She felt great pride in knowing more children and their families would be protected.
Rosemarie told me that this June, Joan’s Law will be applied to a case being prosecuted in New Jersey. She said she is planning on attending the sentencing. She said Joan will be right there beside her in spirit.
To find out more about the Joan Angela D’Alessandro Memorial Foundation, or to make a donation, please visit: http://www.joansjoy.org/
Thank you for reading my blog and following my journey!
Until next week,
-Penny XO XO