He can relate to boy who found bodies in North Philadelphia

Jason Culler found the body of Aimee Willard, 22, in 1996 while playing in a vacant North Philly lot.

JASON CULLER'S heart sank as he read about the kids who found the corpses of two newborn babies in an alley behind a North Philly car lot on Saturday.

It's disturbing enough that babies were dumped like garbage. But Culler's thoughts kept going back to the 9- and 12-year-olds who made the gruesome discovery of the baby boy and girl.

Twenty years ago Culler was in their shoes. And now, as he watched an all-too-familiar scene of reporters circling a 9-year-old boy who detailed his shocking find, Culler hoped the young boy would get the help that he hadn't.

Culler was 14 in 1996 when he found the body of Aimee Willard in an empty lot in North Philadelphia. Willard, 22, a college lacrosse star from suburban Philly, had been kidnapped, raped and killed by a paroled murderer.

When I met Culler in 2013, he recalled how he'd gone to the empty lot near his home with his buddies.

"We were just going there to have fun, to act like boys . . . and then I saw her."

I went looking for Culler after I wrote a column about a memorial garden for Willard built in the same lot where her body had been found. The years had passed and the garden had long been lost to the weeds, but I hoped there would be a way to rebuild it.

When I reached Willard's mother, Gail, she told me she was much more concerned about the boys who had found her daughter's body than the lot.

Find the boys, she told me. Find out if they're OK.

I found Culler, who by then was a thoughtful young man with two jobs. Culler told me how after the discovery, he'd withdrawn from friends and family. Later, the isolation turned into anxiety and depression. But it would be years before he realized that finding Willard's body was partly the cause.

At first, Culler thought the naked body whose face was turned toward the ground was a mannequin, he told me. But as he got closer, he saw the blood and bruises and flies.

Same with the kids who found the babies' bodies on Saturday.

"I saw the two babies," the 9-year-old told reporters. "I thought it was baby dolls." He went home and told his father, but it wasn't until the next day, when the boy told his father that he remembered a smell, that his father realized his son really had seen something. Officials quickly determined that the bodies had already been autopsied, but police were still trying to find out why and by whom.

For Culler, reading about the 9-year-old hit home. "When I saw that he had to live with this all by himself for a whole night . . . " he said, his words trailing off. "Think about how much it must have been weighing on him that night."

Back when Culler found Willard's body, one police officer told him and his friends that they had done a good job by alerting adults. Another cop handed him a Coke, but no one ever asked the eighth-grader how he felt about what he had seen.

"No one ever asked me how I was feeling," Culler said. "No one ever asked me whether I was sad. They just said, 'Good job.' That was it. That just shows you how times have changed."

"For a kid to come across a dead body is terrifying," said Steven Berkowitz, director of the Penn Center for Youth and Family Trauma Response and Recovery. "It's essential that they are assessed and that they get the support they need."

Police told me that services are available to the children. That's good. I hope they take advantage of them. So does Culler.

Culler said it helped him to get to know Willard's family, who often shared memories of her. But that may not be an option for the children who found the two newborns.

"It helped to know Aimee's name and her favorite flower," Culler said. "To concentrate on how she was in life, not how I found her in death. I don't know if these kids will get that, but I hope they do."

Yesterday, the Philadelphia Medical Examiner's Office said the bodies of the two newborns were "medical specimens" that may have been used for research or training.

Police, still investigating, were calling the newborns Jane and John Doe.

Mourners who left candles and stuffed animals at a makeshift memorial where they were found called them "little angels."

Email: ubinas@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5943

On Twitter: @NotesFromHel

On Facebook: Helen.Ubinas