STONY POINT — A pile of illegally dumped stones recently appeared at the edge of Harriman State Park. They had been left near a memorial for a child murder victim whose body was discovered at the edge of parkland some 50 years ago.
Now the family of Joan D’Alessandro, whose brutal killing by her schoolteacher neighbor shook New York and New Jersey a half-century ago, has a plan to turn a careless act into one of support.
Joan D’Alessandro:Nearly a half-century after 7-year-old’s murder, a girl’s spirit inspires
With longtime volunteers and support from the Joan’s Joy Foundation, they are going to repurpose the rocks and debris to enhance the site and make it more welcoming for those who spend time there in reflection.
Site check turns up damage
The damage was discovered by Ernest VanDenHeuvel, a Pomona resident who periodically checks on the memorial as a favor to Joan’s mother, Rosemarie D’Alessandro. Rosemarie still lives in the Hillsdale, New Jersey, home where 7-year-old Joan was last seen, leaving to sell Girl Scout cookies to a neighbor.
VanDenHeuvel grew up in the same Hillsdale neighborhood. He was 15 the day Joan disappeared. He and his friends, along with much of the borough, joined the search for the missing girl.
VanDenHeuvel recently found dozens of various-sized stones adjacent to the green-and-white sign that reads “In memory of Joan Angela D’Alessandro.”
He reported the incident to the Haverstraw Town Police and to officials with the New York State Parks Palisades Region.
‘Make it more spiritual’
Rosemarie D’Alessandro visited the site Nov. 16 to see how the debris could be repurposed. She hopes to create a frame around the memorial in a way that respects the natural setting.
“We want to make it more spiritual,” she said.
VanDenHeuvel agreed. With a background in excavation, he plans to obtain equipment to move the stones and, at the same time, will shore up the path, marked with green ribbons on trees, near where Joan’s body was found.
The memorial to Joan, near where Willow Grove becomes Kanawauke Road, has long been seen as a passive place for meditation, similar to the butterfly garden constructed at the Hillsdale train station in her memory.
A brutal murder
It was the spring of 1973 when Joan set off to sell Girl Scout cookies to a neighbor, Joseph McGowan, a Tappan Zee High School chemistry teacher.
Within minutes of his opening the door, he had sexually assaulted, beaten and strangled the young girl.
That was on Holy Thursday.
McGowan wrapped up her body, loaded it into his car and drove north. He dumped her body under an outcropping along the edge of Harriman State Park.
On Easter Sunday, she was found.
Legacy of child advocacy
Rosemarie D’Alessandro has focused on protecting children.
That includes her work with Joan’s Joy, which supports child safety programs and helps families in need.
She has also been instrumental in the passage of Joan’s Law. In New York, the law forbids parole for anyone who kills a child under age 18 during a sexual assault. In New Jersey, it’s under age 14.
Because the law was not in effect when Joan was killed, the family repeatedly had to fight parole for Joan’s killer.
He died in prison on June 5, 2021.
Nancy Cutler writes about People & Policy for lohud.com and the USA Today Network New York. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow her on Twitter (X), Instagram and Threads at @nancyrockland.