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Backstory: Strangest Reader Response


Christopher Hayden - FILE: GLENN RUSSELL
  • File: Glenn Russell
  • Christopher Hayden

This "backstory" is a part of a collection of articles that describes some of the obstacles that Seven Days reporters faced while pursuing Vermont news, events and people in 2019.

I knew my March story about a man who sends threatening messages to Jewish and nonwhite public officials would provoke a response. Journalists, including some at Seven Days, have been among Christopher Hayden's go-to targets. Some readers might object to the publicity I was inevitably giving to a volatile white supremacist.

I did not expect ferrets.

Shortly after the story ran, my editor took a call from a man who claimed to be Hayden's cousin. He'd read the story and wanted to defend his relative, promising an incredible story. I arranged to visit his apartment in Winooski.

"Brother, bring a recorder and prepare to stay a few," he texted me.

The home had a sign planted in the front yard that read, "Whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting light."

I opened the door around back and nearly stepped on Moses.

Moses, the ferret.

The man, John Brown, told me he and Hayden were long-lost cousins who became friends on the streets of Burlington in the '90s. He looked ruggedly biblical, and we talked about his interpretation of Christianity for a long while. Brown had been a member of the Aryan Nations in Idaho; he showed me the large swastika tattooed on his calf. But religion had saved him. Now he and his partner, whom I met there with him, had plans to build an off-grid cabin in the woods.

Talking to me seemed like it had been an accomplishment for Brown.

As I closed the door to leave, I could hear him say "I did it" to his partner.

Four months later, Burlington police issued a press release announcing the arrest of Brown for assault, robbery and unlawful restraint. He'd allegedly held a folding knife to the throat of a man on Church Street and threatened to kill him. Officers arrested Brown at gunpoint. Their announcement noted the swastika tattooed on his calf.

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