When she left this small town 10 years ago, Jennifer Casolo was a spunky and popular teenager who had been a high school cheerleader. The social activism came later, but her enthusiasm never waned.
Wednesday night, friends placed a "Welcome Home" sign on the town green and waited for her to return home from Miami. Casolo was deported from El Salvador after being held 18 days on subversion charges that supporters said were part of a campaign of rightist aggression against the Catholic Church."I don't think I've suffered as terribly as thousands of Salvadorans have suffered here," she told reporters before leaving El Salvador.
Casolo was released after a Salvadoran judge announced there was insufficient evidence to hold her. She and her friends were arrested during a police raid on her rented house.
Salvadoran police said they dug up 103 mortar shells, 213 blocks of dynamite, 405 detonators, 150 feet of slow-burning fuse and 21,945 rounds of ammunition for Soviet-made automatic rifles in the garden.
Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani said there wasn't enough evidence to continue holding Casolo. But he said he was "morally convinced that Miss Casolo is guilty." Cristiani said the case against Casolo would proceed.
"If the evidence against her becomes sufficient, she will be summoned to return for trial," he said, acknowledging that little could be done to make her come back to El Salvador.
The decision to drop charges brought to a close an unlikely drama for Casolo, 28, who grew up in a working-class family and followed a spiritual quest to El Salvador, wracked by a bloody civil war.
In high school, Casolo was a popular student who finished at the top of her class. In her senior year, honors came easily - yearbook editor, student body president, voted most ambitious, most creative and "did the most for Thomaston High School."
"She was the hit of the school," said Edward Wilkinson, now a vice principal. "She was very intelligent, inquisitive, a bundle of energy. If anything needed to be started for school spirit or something, she would always do it."
"She's got a spirit that keeps her going," said Ann Lutterman, who worked with Casolo in El Salvador in 1987 and 1988. "She was a cheerleader in high school, and it's that same kind of bubbly spirit. Only for her it's directed toward the poor."
During that period, Casolo, who's barely 5 feet tall and weighs less than 100 pounds, was known as "Little Miss Hyperactivity," recalled Maureen Torrence.
But Torrence and other friends say there was little sign then of the spirituality Casolo would say she found working among El Salvador's poor.
In a letter sent to former classmates last summer, Casolo recalled "how ashamed I was of being poor in high school" and how pained she was by the memory of demanding that her mother buy her expensive blue jeans like those her friends wore.
After her parents divorced, Casolo's mother supported the family by working as a bookkeeper at a vocational high school in Waterbury. Casolo has one younger brother.
Friends say Casolo became more religious and more interested in social work during her years at Brandeis University, a prestigious liberal arts college in Waltham, Mass.
At Brandeis, she took a double major in American Studies and Latin American Studies, was captain of the soccer team, graduated summa cum laude and wrote a senior thesis on American popular literature that her professor, Lawrence H. Fuchs, described as "brilliant" and "totally non-political."
Friends say Casolo experienced some anxiety about choosing a career, torn between an attraction to social work and a feeling of obligation to find a well-paying job to help her mother.
Social work won out. After working with Salvadoran refugees in Seattle, Casolo, fluent in Spanish, left for El Salvador in 1985. Since then, she has worked for Christian Education Seminars, a Texas-based ecumenical religous group that organizes visits for Americans - among them U.S. Congress members - to El Salvador.
"I think that she was something she felt called to do rather than simply take a job and make a lot of money," said Susan Abbott, a close friend from high school.
Casolo quickly formed a spiritual attachment to the country and its people, particularly the poor. In one letter to a friend, she spoke of joining the Catholic Church to become a nun. In another letter, she wrote, "I'm a pastor without religion. Only with lots of love."
Her work in El Salvador ended abruptly late last month, when armed government police stormed the rented, white stucco house where she lived in San Salvador. From the walled garden in the back yard, they dug up dynamite, mortar shells and 22,000 rounds of ammunition. Casolo and two Salvadoran guests were arrested and jailed.
According to Abbott, Casolo's strong feelings for the country made it inevitable that she would form opinions about what was best for El Salvador. But Abbott is certain that Casolo had nothing to do with the arms.
"If you know Jennifer, you know how important Jennifer's work was to her," Abbott said. "And if she were seen as being (supportive of the leftist rebels), the government would never talk to her or allow her to bring delegations in."