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Behind the Crime Scene

For investigators, the Michelle Gardner-Quinn case is about more than law and order


Published November 8, 2006 at 5:00 a.m.

Violence is seemingly endemic to American society these days. Though statistics clearly show that each individual in America today has an incredibly slim chance of becoming a victim of violent crime in a given year, those same statistics show that your chance of being so victimized now is greater than at any point in the last century. For those not well versed in statistics, it is a paradox.

For me, and others like me, it is simple reality. We live professionally in the part of our society that deals daily with this interpersonal violence, an ugly, brutal reality of the human condition that is not often spoken of in polite circles. It is the 600-pound gorilla in the middle of society's spacious living room. Most people know it exists, but they usually prefer to ignore it and pretend it is for others to acknowledge and deal with. It thus becomes an abstract threat. Sort of like the inevitable cooling of the sun or Ebola.

This is particularly true in bucolic Vermont. Though violent crime does occur here, we traditionally enjoy one of the lowest crime rates of any state in the union. The reasons are many and varied, but the fact remains. What violent crime we do have tends to occur outside of most folks' normal routine, as the societal profiles of criminals often mirror that of victims. In other words, criminals often prey upon those in their own socio-economic strata, preferring to stay close to home in terms of both geography and class. This has the effect of, usually, keeping violent crime away from the middle and upper classes, especially here in Vermont. Violent crime is largely a problem of the under-class.

I am not judging or preaching. Just pointing out the way things are.

This past month has seen one of the rare exceptions to this general rule, with the kidnapping and senseless, brutal murder of a University of Vermont senior. At 21, she was young, pretty, loved and protected, yet by all accounts had lived a rich and varied life thus far. She was outgoing and friendly, experienced in living in dangerous communities, but not jaded by the experience. A woman from a good family, she did not fit the stereotype of the typical victim, much less that of a criminal. She was, in a very real sense, the classic girl next door.

She had spent the day and early evening with her parents, who were in town for UVM's Parents' Weekend. Her father took some snapshots of her to memorialize their visit that afternoon. It was a timeless scene, a happy one for everyone involved. They casually planned to meet the next day for lunch.

They never fulfilled that plan.

Walking downtown that Friday night, having left one group of friends to join another in celebrating one of them having turned 21, she walked a few short blocks in the middle of downtown Burlington. She went alone. It is an action undertaken by dozens of her peers every weekend here in town and probably one that she had done herself more than once.

In trying to connect with the friend that she was trying to meet, her cellular telephone battery ran out of power. Without much thought, she asked a man on the street if she could use his telephone. Her casual trust and this small act started a chain of events that would end tragically for them both.

The man she had asked was, unlike the vast majority of people in our community, not a good person. Indeed, he was the single-worst person she could have asked for help that night. Though I am not a religious person, I would call him evil. Through nothing more than blind bad luck, she had found a violent sexual predator, a man who preys on the vulnerable in the dark places like some kind of two-legged hyena. She was alone and demonstrated her vulnerability by asking him for help.

He helped her, offering his telephone and talking to her. Smooth. Friendly. Deceptive. He was heading back to his car and, as fate would have it, she was going the same way towards her dorm, having failed to find her friends. How seemingly fortuitous that she had found a nice guy to escort her part of the way home.

Only he was not such a nice guy. And she never made it home as a result.

Somewhere that night, she died, having endured what no person should ever have to endure. He then shoved her under some rocks and leaves in a wooded area near his home. She trusted him, for just a brief moment, and it cost her the single most precious possession she had. It is not her failing at having trusted, but his at having taken advantage of that trust in so heinous a fashion.

I wear many hats in this state. Amongst other things, I am a law enforcement officer, a citizen of this community, the parent of a daughter, a spouse, a UVM alum. I had many reasons to be interested in this case, all of which and more have run through my mind over the week. I wanted with every fiber of my being to find this girl alive and to catch her abductor, though, as time passed, I knew that the chance of the former was dropping. Happily, the latter was rapidly looming larger.

I spent a week working alongside almost every law enforcement officer I know in Chittenden County, and many I was meeting for the first time, looking for her and trying to capture her killer. We all worked tirelessly, chasing every lead, no matter how nebulous. Never did I see a single one of my peers complain or snap at one another. Never did anyone despair, even though we all knew that her odds of being found alive went lower and lower with each passing minute. Instead, each worked harder still, hoping to find her alive, knowing that we would avenge her if she were not. Each of us asking ourselves deep down inside, "Why could he not have tried this with me instead? Why could I not have been nearby when this happened?"

I would arrive earlier than I was required each day. I worked late into each night, going home near 1 or 2, physically and emotionally drained. One night I left only when my boss ordered me to. then I snuck back a few hours later. I was quickly caught and sent home again, this time with few illusions about my fate should I come back within a few hours. Every one of us had a similar story.

Surveillance teams worked around the clock. Managers strategized until the wee hours. Uniformed officers canvassed neighborhoods and took tips from anyone who had something to say. Investigators interviewed, searched, typed and contemplated. Crime scene techs pored over scenes suspected of being involved with the crime. Every detail of every bit of information was examined and reexamined, then discussed with others, in a constant effort to find the piece we were missing, the one bit of info that would break the case wide open.

Hope for her survival was slowly replaced by cold resolve to find her, no matter how long we had to look, to bring her home to her family and to bring her abductor to justice. Determination hardened in everyone.

Many of us interviewed and followed the man we eventually arrested - the man who lent her a cellphone. The man who turned a young woman's trust into a deadly weapon.

He did not just snuff out her life that night, but, in a very real way, he snuffed out his own. Only he gets to keep on breathing. And, like ripples in a still pond, his act radiates out beyond just the two of them, grievously impacting those around them in gradually widening circles. His children will suffer for his sin, fair or not. His parents, good people in their own right, now suffer. Her parents and family now suffer. Our community suffers. All because he made the choice to strike out and to kill.

And while she is dead and he is in jail awaiting trial, others are safer now for it. He has been sexually assaulting women in vulnerable positions for decades, unreported and undetected. There was no sign that he was going to stop. My professional experience and training tell me that, if anything, he was going to become more and more violent in his sexual rampages. Indeed, this case bears that out. Her death brought to light who he is and, in all likelihood, saved many others from enduring his ministrations in later years.

His actions deprived our society of her life, of all the things she would have gone on to do for herself and, by extension, the rest of us. Yet as a group, we will be safer now because of them. This is what I dwell on in order to keep my own perspective, to keep my own frustration and rage under control. I will not sink to his level and take his life, though I admit the idea does not repel me. I have attended the deaths of others who did not deserve it nearly as much as he does, at least not to my way of thinking. To me, he has forfeited his right to life. But I am not the final arbiter of such things.

I am a cop.

My respect for the law stays my hand, twitch though it may. I believe that it speaks well of us, as a profession and as a community, that we go to great lengths to extend the protection of the law to someone who has so terribly violated it. I may not like it sometimes, but it runs counter to who I am not to live with this system.

Because I am better than him.

I have never been one to deal well with the survivors and victims of such brutal crimes. I do not have the temperament for it. Others do, and I applaud them. It is necessary and important work that I choose not to do. I lack the drive and the sensitivity.

Instead, my peers and I hunt the evil. We choose to stand a post between society and chaos, to do what we can to stop these things from happening. And when they do happen, we put our effort into trying to catch those who transgress, in order that society can visit rightful judgment on their crimes.

And though in this case I failed to find him before she did, and I failed to save her once their paths crossed, I, and those like me, did catch him. By doing so, we can let our wounded community mete out the justice that we will. It will be on our terms, at our leisure, and it will be a justice in keeping with the law, imparted only after extensive review and discussion. For "not guilty" is not the same as "innocent." It may sound like cold comfort, but it is the best we have. It will suffice.

It is also the best we can do for her now, as we mourn her senseless passing and try to heal the communal wound left by his brutal act. Random violence can find us even here, as he has clearly demonstrated. It is a sad, terrible lesson, and one that we would all do well to keep in mind.

Seven Days has verified the identity of this law enforcement officer but agreed to allow him anonymity, given the tragic inspiration for writing this essay and the nature of his job.