The Trail Of A Serial Killer?

AT THIS TIME OF YEAR, THE ADIRONdack Mountain landscape is unforgiving, hardened under three feet of snow and near-zero temperatures. Yet in one of the most brutal weeks of winter, 165 police, National Guardsmen and volunteers scoured a remote field in Raquette Lake, N.Y., sifting for any clue that might yield the grave of 12-year-old Sara Anne Wood. In a startling turn, they were led to the spot by Lewis S. Lent Jr., 43, a Massachusetts janitor who, police say, may be involved in abductions from Florida to New England. Sara's body has not turned up, but if there were any hope about her fate, her father dashed it when he urged the army of volunteers who'd sent out 4 million posters to turn off their fax machines. "I believe we're on the verge of being blessed by God, getting an answer to a prayer my family has had not to be kept in the dark about where Sara is," said Robert Wood, a Presbyterian minister.

Once again a small town waits to mourn its daughter. Last month, Petaluma, Calif., buried Polly Klaas, the 12-year-old snatched from her home during a slumber party. Now, Litchfield, N.Y., a rural community 70 miles southwest of the search site, must grieve for Sara. And for itself. Like Polly, Sara stirred the nation's fears that, in the '90s, no child is safe. Like Petaluma, Litchfield amassed a hefty reward. And like their Petaluma counterparts, the people of Litchfield turned out in force, flooding faxes and tying trees with pink and turquoise ribbons. the colors Sara wore on Aug. 18, the day she disappeared while riding her bike on a country road.

In the end, Sara's case turned on a chilling break: the near abduction of another 12-year-old. There was fresh snow on the ground Jan. 7 as Rebecca Savarese walked the 1 1/2 miles to Notre Dame Middle School in Pittsfield, Mass., just over the New York border. The seventh grader says she was listening to the Smashing Pumpkins on her Discman when a man--"all dressed in grungy clothes"--approached and said, "You see the gun I have?" He motioned her toward a blue pickup parked outside a nearby bank.

Rebecca chose to risk her life rather than obey. Every day, she had heard the same warning from her mother, a convenience-store cashier: "If you get approached, do anything you can--kick, bite, punch." The words resonated. "I knew if I got in that truck, everything would be over," Rebecca told NEWSWEEK. When the stranger prodded, she feigned dizziness. Before he could react, she slipped out of her purple backpack. He grabbed for her, but got the bag instead. Rebecca ran to a maintenance man in the bank lot.

Lewis Lent was eating a tuna sandwich at the home of friends when Pittsfield police arrested him that afternoon and charged him with attempted kidnapping; he has pleaded not guilty. But a cascade of revelations followed. First, police charged Lent in connection with the murder of a 12-year-old Pittsfield boy, Jimmy Bernardo, who was last seen in October 1990 at the local strip mall where Lent works; the body was found the next month.

Police say Lent also gave them a sketch of an area in Raquette Lake, promising they'd find Sara's body there. Overnight, a task force of police and FBI agents began retracing Lent's movements over the last decade, searching for connections to a dozen missing children. So far, Lent hasn't been charged even in Sara's abduction, but Capt. Frank Pace of the New York Bureau of Criminal Investigation said he would be "remiss" not to treat him as a serial killer.

Lent is described by his neighbors in North Adams, Mass., as quiet, not sinister. "You know how some people are just kind of there? He was one of those people," says Ralph Gould, who had known Lent in high school. If there was anything remarkable, it was the vulnerability of his friends--children, the handicapped. the elderly. OneLime neighbor Bob Johnson remembers always seeing Lent with a broken-down car and a youngster or a blind friend helping fix it. And though Johnson describes Lent as "kind," he also recalls a gun bolstered to his side.

Where any of this takes police may have to wait. By the weekend they had zeroed in on a corner of Raquette Lake, aided by a Swiss mountain dog and ground-penetrating radar to help detect what's buried under the frost. in New Hartford, N.Y., at the Sara Anne Wood Rescue Center. volunteers waited for a body. "It hasn't been easy," said Roseann Grotevant. "Our operation dealt every moment and second with the belief that Sara Anne is alive." But at Robert Wood's request, they've sent out a new batch of posters. These were for two other missing girls.

Volunteers search the field where Lent (top) told them they would find Sara's body. Police hope to link him to a string of other missing or murdered kids throughout the region.

Age 12, missing since Aug. 1993

Age 21, missing since 1985

Age 15, missing since 1992

Age 12, found dead in 1990

Age 16, missing since 1987

Age 18, found dead in 1988

Age 15, found dead in 1983

Age 10, found dead in 1990