Former Ireland rugby captain Jill Henderson can’t remember everything that happened when she went to America as a 20-year-old college student in the summer of 1986 to work as a team leader at a children’s adventure camp.
he doesn’t remember the name of the man who pulled her off a bus in a small New Hampshire town.
She does not remember the name of the secluded place she was taken to.
She doesn’t remember the name of the German, who was there with eight children, but she remembers how stressed he looked when she first saw him.
Jill Henderson clearly remembers other things.
She remembers feeling that all was not well when she drove to the camp with the man in the truck.
She recalls seeing a six-foot-tall wire fence surrounding the compound and the locked gates at the entrance.
She remembers being there for about three or four days and not being able to walk.
She was hardly fed.
She remembers a huge lake surrounding the camp on the right.
She remembers washing at the lake with the children and turning to see the man on a hill staring down at her, gun in hand.
Jill Henderson is forever crowned as the first ever captain of Ireland women’s rugby team for their first international match against Scotland in 1993. She was 26. It was her first and only game as national captain.
The following year she played all of Ireland’s matches at the 1994 Women’s Rugby World Cup and she estimates she has played for Ireland less than 10 times in total. Originally from Newtownards Co. Down, Henderson played at numerous clubs including Waterloo – whilst studying architecture in England – as well as Old Belvedere, Blackrock RFC, Ballymena and Cooke RFC. She even spent a brief stint playing with Canterbury in New Zealand, where she met her future husband.
Henderson was addicted to rugby. She started at 19, ended at 39, and missed the years pregnant with her sons, Ben and Zach. She started in the second row, played all positions in the back row and spent her final years at the club as a props assistant. Above all, she loved the friendships, the familiarity and the integration into a team.
Seven years before she became captain of Ireland, Henderson signed on to an American program to work with children at an adventure camp during the summers.
She flew from London to New York, took several buses to New Hampshire, and was picked up by the man in charge of the children’s camp. The reality turned out to be not what was promised in the brochures.
“It was like something out of a horror movie,” says Henderson. It was a run-down compound, and the German – who had also traveled there as a team leader, or advisor, as they called it – became their ally right away. He confirmed that it was as bad as it looked and that he was worried about the children. Henderson quickly felt that her life was in danger.
“Absolutely. We didn’t see a way out. He [the owner] had a gun and he would just fly off the handle. He would just scream and say things that didn’t really make sense. Just very unpredictable. The day he stood on top of the hill and watched us really freaked me out. The kids were really scared too. We tried to pretend everything was fine, but it clearly wasn’t,” Henderson said Irish Independent this week from her home in Belfast.
“We tried to get food. At first I kinda thought I can go or make a call. And the German had tried all these things and said, “No, he won’t let you”. And I said, ‘Well, what else are we going to do? We can’t swim across the lake and leave these kids here.
“We couldn’t even hear streets or anything like that. We just stuck by and asked for food for days. Occasionally we got sandwiches with jam. If you don’t sleep or eat and are nervous, you’ll get worse pretty quickly.
“If I had been there alone, it would have been much worse. It was survival mode, you know.”
Henderson came up with an escape plan after a few days. The man responsible finally gave in and drove her and two of the children to a laundromat in the next town.
She recalls that it was an L-shaped building and she got the kids to pretend to talk to her while she went out through a back window and ran to a payphone. She was just getting to the police to give them the location of the camp when she saw the man walking towards her.
“He opened the door and got me out of there. I said, ‘I just called my mom and dad and let them know I’m fine.’ He was really bad. He didn’t scream or anything. He just pushed me into the truck and off we went.”
A few hours later, police cars arrived at the camp. Henderson was taken away first. She made a statement to the sheriff, who also called her concerned parents at home in Newtownards.
She traveled with the sheriff to a judge’s mansion that night and recalls that the judge came out in his pajamas. They went back to the others at camp and the sheriff told her to wait outside.
“I just thought it was a little bit unbelievable. I stood there and the lake was beautiful, I just thought, ‘I’m in a movie, this isn’t real, I’m about to wake up’. Maybe there was a little bit of me in the denial thinking, “Oh, that really didn’t happen.” That’s partly why I don’t remember names and places and things like that, because I don’t really want to.
The story made the front page of the New Hampshire daily Union Leader two days later, on Friday, July 4, 1986, after the camp had closed.
“Children and counselors were removed from Camp Leo at the Gilmanton Iron Works by state and local officials late Wednesday night following allegations of dirty facilities, broken plumbing and inadequate medical equipment,” the report said.
“Police and investigators from the Attorney General’s Office removed the campers approximately 10:30 p.m. pursuant to an ex parte restraining order issued by Belknap County Superior Court Judge Robert Dickson.”
The newspaper report to the Irish Independent this week from the New Hampshire Judicial Branch fills in the blanks Henderson couldn’t remember.
Camp manager Leonard Francis defended himself on the witness stand in court.
Michael Carlson was the name of her ally. The children were held in protective custody until they were reunited with their families.
Lines from Henderson’s statement that she was “scared” were included in the news report as she faced Francis again.
“It was horrible,” Henderson recalled of the trial. “He didn’t admit, he was still deluding himself that everything was fine. There was no level of apology.”
Two years later, Camp Leo was completely closed down by the courts. The union leader reported in November 1988 that at least four lawsuits had been filed by parents who said their children allegedly suffered “significant emotional upset and anxiety” while at the camp near Lake Manning.
Henderson recalls feeling “really fragile” in the days that followed. One morning before the trial, Michael Carlson told her he heard her screaming in the night. Despite the ordeal, she moved to another camp in the area to work. She knew it affected her because she said she’d gained five pounds that summer, but she didn’t want to come home at the time.
“I didn’t want to give up. I didn’t want to come home with my tail between my legs, that’s how I would have seen it. I just felt like I still had a chance to salvage something from it. Maybe I should have come home better, but that’s how I was raised. So I stayed out there.”
When Henderson returned home at the end of the summer, she initially didn’t tell other people and kept it to herself. But she soon found her rhythm and started playing rugby again, which helped.
“I think it was definitely because there was a familiarity – you get to be yourself with your teammates, you’re not trying to be anything other than yourself. If you’ve experienced something not good in your life, or someone who is cruel or evil, experiencing the opposite shows you that not everyone is like that – that it’s a rarity. I would say my experience with other players is their kindness and compassion.”
Henderson no longer works as an architect and is now a consultant at a GP clinic in Lisburn. “It’s a strange thing to enjoy, but helping people is . . . You have someone who is struggling and you see a shift in the right direction,” she says.
“I think I would like to understand why people tick. What is behind the different behavior of people?”
Henderson has also helped coach rugby with Queens and there will be meetings with former players ahead of Ireland’s games against England and Scotland during the upcoming Women’s Six Nations. She appreciates these connections.
She never had contact with anyone from that time in New Hampshire. She recently Googled this area in search of information for this article, but it brought back unpleasant memories. “It wasn’t very comfortable,” says Henderson. “It was just a short time – it wasn’t like someone who’s been locked up for years, or these horrible things that happen to people. Overall it is very low. I suppose I survived – we all did. I think if I can get through this then I can get through most things.”
https://www.independent.ie/sport/rugby/the-camp-owner-had-a-gun-the-kids-were-scared-i-just-pretended-everything-was-okay-41489234.html “The camp owner had a gun. The kids were scared, I just pretended everything was fine.