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Montville - Fourteen years to the day she went missing, with her killer recently convicted of murder, a core group of April Dawn Pennington's friends celebrated her life on Saturday.
That life was cut short at the hands of serial sex offender George M. Leniart, but it was the outgoing girl who helped play pranks on friends at Montville High School with soda cans filled with Alka Seltzer that friends like April Riske of Norwich remembered.
"This is our way of taking her back from him, because he's not telling us where she is and I don't think he ever will," Riske said as other friends stood, chatting or signing a guest book donated by the Montville Funeral Home of Church and Allen. "But we don't have to have her physically to lay her to rest and give her peace."
Pennington's body has never been recovered, so no memorial had been held - until Saturday.
Another former classmate, Daniel Coon of Montville, has kept alive a Facebook page titled "Remembering April Dawn Pennington," and told a reporter, "She definitely was a social butterfly."
"She defined the term," Riske chimed in.
Riske and Stephanie Poirier of Gales Ferry organized the memorial gathering by renting out the Fair Oaks School gym, decorating tables spread with roses and a flower arrangement prepared by the Montville Florist.
Intending to invite mourners to speak into a microphone, the friends kept the gathering informal instead during the first two hours as a handful of people munched on chips and sandwiches and reminisced. Shortly before 9 p.m., a slightly larger group made its way by candlelight to lay roses at the high school flagpole in final tribute.
Diane and Howard Riske Jr. of Oakdale, April Riske's parents, attended the gathering in support of their daughter. She plans to give the signed guest book to Pennington's parents, who now live in Pleasant Garden, N.C., and could not attend.
"I know I could never take it if one of my kids disappeared," Diane Riske said. "I couldn't handle it. Stuff like that isn't supposed to happen."
Fewer people came to the gathering than Riske and Poirier expected, but they said a long holiday weekend, rain, and the long road to closure in the murder case may have kept folks away.
Ellen Hillman, vice chairman of the Town Council, attended and described her personal connection to Pennington. Hillman's daughter, Jenyll, was with Pennington and another classmate the day she disappeared. Jenyll but didn't go with them when they left with Leniart, in part because there wasn't room in Leniart's truck, Hillman recalled.
"It was so close for my daughter, too close, way too close," Hillman said.
Until recently, Pennington's mother, Hazel, kept in close touch with Hillman, who is also a foster parent and occasionally takes in runaways, apparently thinking, Hillman said, that Pennington might return to town and seek out Hillman. But, Hillman said, she never did.
Riske posted a poem by the guestbook titled "Dear April" that read, in part:
Your laugh, your smile, your personality, the you that we all knew
That is all we need to say our final goodbye to you.
Look at all the people who feel the loss of you.
They came here in hope those memories help to carry them through.
From 6 to 9 p.m., Poirier played a playlist of upbeat and melancholy, meaningful songs softly on her iPhone through speakers. It included "One Sweet Day" by Mariah Carey, one of Pennington's favorite singers, and Boyz II Men. The irony, Poirier said, is that the song was written for a friend who had died.
"This is the song (April) and I had recorded on her Karaoke machine," Poirier recalled. "We had a little blank tape and ever since she disappeared I can't really listen to the song without getting upset.
"Even though she's not here, it reminds me of the time we spent together, the sleep-overs. I know she would have wanted me to play a lot of Mariah Carey songs" at this gathering.
After that, she broke from the others to stare out the window at the falling rain and, she said, remember.