June 22nd, 2007

Looking for Sense in the Senseless: Michelle Gardner-Quinn and Carmen Tarleton

by Philip Baruth

From my window overlooking the main green at the University of Vermont, I can see the central fountain, and beside it a small memorial to Michelle Gardner-Quinn. The memorial is a temporary thing, a posterboard with some photographs and bunches of fresh flowers, but at this point the green would seem altogether incomplete without it.

michelle gardner-quinn

In case you’ve forgotten, Michelle Gardner-Quinn was kidnapped in Burlington, on the night of October 7. Her body was later found near Huntington Gorge, and evidence suggests that she died one of the most brutal deaths imaginable.

If I look off to the south out my office window, toward the leafy streets of the Hill section, I can almost see the spot where she vanished.

I was thinking about Gardner-Quinn the other day because another horrific attack was in the news, this one in Thetford. Carmen Tarleton, a young woman in the midst of a divorce, had been attacked by her estranged husband, Herbert Rodgers, and burned over most of her body with lye.

Doctors rate her chances of survival as exceedingly slim.

But in the article I read on the Tarleton attack there was a quote from Thetford Police Chief Jim Lanctot that stuck with me. Lanctot had apparently spoken with Carmen Tarleton before the attack, and he’d offered her help without being asked.

I was so struck by that that I decided to call Chief Lanctot and ask him about his conversation with Tarleton personally.

Lactot told me that, at first, he and Tarleton were talking about something else entirely — he no longer remembers exactly what — but when he asked Tarleton about life in general, she mentioned that she was in the middle of a divorce.

At the time, she didn’t sound worried or threatened, but Lanctot did what he routinely does: he mentioned the Women’s Information Service, a hotline network that goes by the acronym WISE and draws together many of the area’s support services for battered women.

Tarleton was a nurse at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, and she already knew about the WISE hotline. And again, she gave Lanctot the impression that there was nothing to worry about in her particular case.

Still, before letting the subject drop, Lanctot quickly mentioned both 911 and the possibility of a restraining order, if either ever seemed necessary.

That was it. I thanked the Chief, and I hung up.

The call seemed to confirm some of the things I’d been thinking: that in this case, in spite of the tragic outcome, the social network itself seems to have been working. Quality services were available; and although he hadn’t been asked for the information, Chief Lanctot provided it anyway — made it clear that he was ready to help.

In that way, the system was not only prepared but proactive, in ways that other police forces might envy — even in large metropolitan areas.

Of course, none of that prevented the Thetford attack. Herbert Rodgers told police that only the actual word of God would have stopped him. And it’s unrealistic to think we could ever rid ourselves entirely of bouts of insanity, or homicidal rage.

But Lanctot’s attempt at intervention struck me as the one lone ray of hope in the entire sad story. This was not a case where no one stretched out a hand, or where people ignored a woman’s screams.

And when you work in an office that overlooks the memorial to UVM’s own Michelle Gardner-Quinn, you have to take your rays of hope where you can find them.

[This piece aired first on Vermont Public Radio. You can listen to an MP3 of the ]