My sister-in-law used to live in the shadow of Judgment Ridge, a defunct ski area located on granite outcropping in central Vermont. Located in the town of Vershire, it is east of the town of Chelsea. These are both tiny villages where most of the population is poor, yet proud. Twelve hundred and fifty souls call Chelsea home. Farming and construction are typical jobs, yet the towns are also close to Ivy League Dartmouth College, in nearby Hanover, New Hampshire.
The murder, in 2001, of well respected, likeable, generous German-born Dartmouth professors, Half and Suzanne Zantop, dominated the local and regional news for months. My sister-in-law slightly knew the Zantops; no one had a bad word to say about them. They would often invite students into their home; they were frequent mentors to young men and women.
Murder is always a heinous crime, but especially so when there is no clear, personal motive, when the people murdered are strangers. Here’s what happened: two teenage boys from Chelsea, Robert Tulloch and James Parker, decided they could no longer stand the boring, small-town life. They had not yet graduated high school, where both got quite good grades. They did not do drugs; they had a circle of friends. They believed they needed to gather together a large sum of money so they could leave the country and become life-long adventurers. The best way they came up with to do this was to kill people so they could take their cash, ATM numbers and credit cards. After two false starts, they entered the Zantops’ home and brutally, quickly killed them.
The older boy, Robert, was the instigator. Throughout the entire process, including the trial, he showed no remorse. His friend, James, was a more sensitive boy, shyer, who might not have done such a thing if he had not followed his buddy’s lead. Tulloch pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to a mandatory life sentence with no parole. Parker pleaded guilty to being an accomplice to second-degree murder and will spend at least 25 years in prison. The young men are now 20 and 19. At current writing, Parker is doing yoga; he is in constant contact with his parents and takes courses. The partners have never seen each other since just after their brutal act; they will never be housed together.
There are at least two deeply disturbing things about the murders. The boys didn’t know the Zantops; they picked their house quite randomly. And no one suspected the direction in which the best friends were veering. Sure, they were high-spirited, had done some minor crimes. They were often times restless and they considered themselves somehow superior. But none of their friends or family members had an inkling that their sons could possibly do such a crime in such a way. They both came from what were considered "good" families. "Chelseans were as startled as the rest of the country by all the missed danger signs," write the authors.
This book, one of two about the murders, is an investigation of the young boys’ lives, thoughts, and activities up to and including the murder. It covers the trial and their entrance into prison. It goes somewhat into detail about the family backgrounds, although this reader wishes it had been possible to bring more of this to the fore. The murders not only hurt their immediate families, but also hurt the entire town of Chelsea, which became a media center for the nation for months after the event.
The book is well written, a cliffhanger, especially if one is familiar with the story and the area. Things like this seldom happen in bucolic, rural Vermont. One discovers, in part, the reason for Tulloch and Parker’s actions. But one is also left wondering why their families or teachers didn’t pick up on small hints or never took action, and why a vulnerable boy like Parker followed the likes of Tulloch. What, if anything, snapped? Why are some people bad? Judgment Ridge is a chilling read that leaves the reader with more questions than answers.