Investigators Disclose Motive in Dartmouth Murders

02/20/02 12:00AM John Dillon, Neal Charnoff, Betty Smith

(Host) New Hampshire prosecutors say that the Vermont teenagers accused of murdering two Dartmouth College professors had tried to kill others before.

On Tuesday, officials disclosed an apparent motive for last year's brutal murders of Dartmouth College professors Half and Susanne Zantop. Prosecutors say that the two Vermont teenagers tried to enter other homes in Vermont and New Hampshire. Officials allege the teenagers wanted to steal bank cards and then kill the homeowners.

VPR's John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) The indictment says the New Hampshire home of Half and Susanne Zantop was the fifth target chosen by Robert Tulloch and James Parker. The Chelsea, Vermont teenagers are accused of stabbing the Zantops to death on January 27, 2001.

The indictment says that in the six months prior to the murder, Tulloch and Parker went to four other homes in nearby towns.

Prosecutors allege that the teenagers tried to talk their way into one house by claiming their car had broken down. At other times, officials allege that the teenagers claimed that they were students conducting an environmental survey.

But according to the indictment, the first time they tried their plan, a homeowner in Vershire refused to let the teenagers inside. No one was home at the other houses, the indictment says.

Robert Sherman lives in nearby Washington, Vermont. He knew the kids had a wild streak - they once rock-climbed on the granite wall of the Vermont State House. But he says there was no hint that they were capable of violent crime:

(Sherman) "If it's true it's really horrific¿ And if it's true, it means those of us who knew them at all, were really out of touch with where they were¿. I mean, you didn't look at them climbing on the Statehouse and say, 'Oh they're going to be a murderer.' It's too big a leap."

(Dillon) The new indictment charges Tulloch with conspiring to commit murder. James Parker has pleaded guilty to reduced charges and has agreed to testify against his friend. Tulloch's lawyer has begun to lay the groundwork for an insanity defense.

The indictment indicates that one possible motive for the murders was to obtain automatic teller machine cards. It says Parker and Tulloch planned to enter a house on a pretext, and then kill the residents. The indictment says that the Zantops let them into their home after the teens told them they were conducting a student environmental survey.

Audrey McCollum lives in the house on Trescott Road that was nearest to the Zantops. On Tuesday, she received a call from a prosecutor telling her that her house was probably one of the ones targeted. The McCollums were not at home at the time.

It was from the McCollums' house that a 911 call was placed when the Zantops were found dead. The woman who found the bodies sought help at the McCollums' house nearby.

Now that the new information has been released, Audrey McCollum finds the tragedy back in her mind:

(McCollum) "It would appear that the young men had visited this house the day of the murder. Yet at the time of the murder, there was a long interlude before the two boys were first suspected and then arrested. And during that time I felt a deep terror because we didn't know who this might be and where that person or people might be. When Kelly Ayotte mentioned that from the description of the house they had visited that day, it seemed as though this must be the one, that terror just welled up again, mixed with such a welter of emotion that it's going to take both me and Bob quite a while to sort it out."

(Dillon) The Dartmouth murders drew intense media interest from around the country. Three books on the crime are in the works, and the "60 Minutes" television newsmagazine was interviewing Vermonters this week about the crime.

Middlebury author Ron Powers has published a book on teenage murderers in his hometown of Hannibal, Missouri. Powers wrote about the Dartmouth murders in a recent issue of Atlantic magazine. Powers says the state must focus a massive effort now on working with young people:

(Powers) "I think we need to form some kind of a Vermont version of a Marshall Plan, to really turn around and face the issue of reconnecting our kids to our communities. By Marshall Plan, I mean initiatives, I mean funded efforts to get kids involved in the arts, researching community history, in volunteering, in doing all kinds of useful work ¿ and realizing in their hearts that they are of value in a deeply organic way to the community. And I think that until we start giving them this message, we're going to wake up episodically and confront the kinds of horrors that we're talking about now."

(Dillon) Meanwhile, officials at Dartmouth College say they want to help the campus recover after last year's brutal crime. A college spokeswoman says the school's focus is now on helping the community heal.

For Vermont Public Radio, and reporters Betty Smith and Neal Charnoff, I'm John Dillon.

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