Before the Alphabet Killer, before Shawcross, and before America’s weird obsession with serial killers and forensic science, there was Kathy Bernhard and George-Ann Formicola. The girls, friends who grew up poor in a rural part of the Town of Chili in western Monroe County, were abducted and horrifically murdered in June 1966. Bernard was 16. Formicola, 14. Their mutilated remains were found by a farmer in the vicinity of Archer Road. Their killer was never caught.
An engrossing new book by true-crime writer Michael Benson tells the tale of the killings, but it’s more than that. Benson grew up in Chili, knew the victims, and much of the book is his attempt to extract slivers of memory from people who were part of the story that summer. He reconstructs the girls’ movements that day, their interactions, their individual and connected histories, and tries to put forth a plausible theory about what (and who) happened to them. The book does wander a bit too far into memoir territory for my taste, however, and it is difficult to keep track of the labyrinth of names and connections.
But “The Devil at Genesee Junction” appealed to me because I grew up in Chili, too, and I am familiar with the locations and many of the people and organizations mentioned in the book. Some of Benson’s hometown hasn’t changed; I’d still characterize the neighborhoods around Ballantyne Road, for example, as lower middle class or maybe working poor. But nobody swims in Black Creek anymore, as far as I know, and Ballantyne has become a backdoor dragstrip into the sprawl of Henrietta; it’s far from the poor country road of Benson’s memory.
The politicians and law-enforcement officers of the era don’t come off well in Benson’s book, particularly the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office. But what sticks out for me is how this terrible event, despite the passing of decades, is never far from people’s minds; it is imprinted on the DNA of the neighborhood and it just takes a pinprick to bring it gushing out: how absolutely sweltering it was the day the girls disappeared, the scream that everybody heard but chose to ignore, and mostly, how the neighborhood was never the same after the bodies were found.
I drive Archer Road and the surrounding area all the time. I’ve watched it change from cornstalks to subdivisions; the intersection of Archer and Paul roads graduating from a two-way stop, to a blinking light, to a fully signalized intersection. I think about those girls now, every time I’m there. I look out over the area where their poor, mutilated bodies were found and think about how there’s almost nothing left of the hometown they knew, nothing left of them except all the unfulfilled potential of their lives.