A tragic story lies herein.
The Green Mountain State is doing what it does in January, and nobody should be surprised. Still. For this Southern transplant, at this particular mile marker in the journey, bone and sinew object. I find the kind of cold that dips below zero (my Weather Channel app comically expresses it as ‘minus’ zero—maybe they missed that day in maths), actually physically painful. I live with somebody who thinks nothing of walking outside in shirt sleeves in minus zero to start his car, so maybe if one does not grow up in these parts, one simply lacks the constitution. I could be convinced of that.
But the other thing Vermont does to me in this kind of cold (and snow, and ice), is derail my running regimen, and thus Scout-the-Goldapeake-Retriever’s. We observe parameters: Are there icy patches on the sidewalk? We stay inside. Sidewalks wet or snowy but mainly navigable? We go, knowing Scout will need an undercarriage wash when we return. Is it below 25 degrees? We might go, if there is no wind—wind ruins everything. Below 32, but conditions okay? We go, and Scout wears his warm fleece jacket. That kind of thing. Last year I procured a set of crampons for my running shoes but thus far have lacked the courage, or fortitude, call it what you will, to try them, especially after shredding my knee last spring. So there they sit on a bench in the mudroom.
But now I lack another kind of fortitude.
For the most part, we run in downtown Bennington, which I’ve referred to before as scrappy; it’s a quaint Vermont hamlet you might say needs its face washed. The casual observer will note evidence here and there of the kind of vernacular architecture that adds so much character to a small New England town, but façade-omized, if you will, by unfortunate facelifts through the ages. It’s the same story in so many small-town Main Street blocks everywhere, though. Some of the most charming examples in Bennington are coming into their own again, and I suppose we’re lucky to be here long enough to witness the town taking on a new, improved demeanor in a chapter that seems to hold promise for the future—Bennington is finally getting the facial scrub it deserves, maybe. But anybody who spends even a little time here exploring can tell that Bennington has been down on its luck for a while; the divide between the haves and have-nots is noteworthy, with an invisible (but abundantly clear) line drawn not far to the west of us, separating the two. For the most part though, as I’ve also mentioned before, people of every ilk live reasonably harmoniously cheek to jowl, in this relatively packed-in downtown area.
On Monday, January 18th, a young woman died after an assailant slashed her throat just before high noon in downtown Bennington, ironically on a lovely stretch of curvilinear pathway that runs through town on the south side of the Walloomsac River here, and on the north side there, one and the same that flows through our sprawling back yard. And it is the same pathway that’s part of the roughly 3.2-mile circuit I run with Scout all year long, Vermont willing. On January 18th, Vermont gave us permission, and so we went.
Several hours had passed between the moment young Emily Hamann fell victim to her assailant, in full view of a security camera, turns out, and our passing through. I still didn’t know about it, but when Scoutie and I crossed School Street and approached the entrance to the pathway, we found it cordoned off with crime scene tape, and a pair of Bennington police officers standing there to block passersby. They said hey to us, and nice dog, and we trotted quickly past them to find a detour. I didn’t ask, but had a bad feeling. A few feet farther down the sidewalk detour I recognized one of the residents from the apartment complex that abuts that section of the pathway, a man I routinely nod hello to when we pass; he was taking his cigarette break there, instead of sitting on one of the benches opposite the river, now inaccessible. His face struck me as careworn and worried, and he scarcely acknowledged us as we ran past him.
When we came home, I found the online version of the story as printed in our local newspaper, and sat there in front of my laptop in horror and disbelief, immobilized. I tried to process what I was reading, imagined (hoped?) the assailant knew his victim, not that their acquaintance could possibly justify a grizzly homicide that unfolded less than a mile from our home, but thought maybe at least might explain it.
The night before the murder, a Victorian-era apartment house around the corner burned after the owner improperly disposed of pellets that had not cooled sufficiently. The day after it, a man was found dead on another stretch of sidewalk that is also part of our running route. That same day, one of my coworkers linked me a photo of a car flipped onto its roof—you guessed it, on our running route. There is no link between these events, and it’s pure coincidence they each occurred where I run with my dog whenever Vermont allows it. (And the police suspect no foul play in the death of the man on the sidewalk; sounds like he had an ill-timed medical event, and that is all.) Still, all of this was enough to unsettle me, rock my foundation for a few days, make me want to draw the curtains, push furniture in front of the doors, and crawl under the covers.
In the intervening weeks since Emily’s death, more details have emerged about her, and her assailant’s history of violent behavior. He had threatened this same kind of end to others; he had caused impressive damage to his neighbors’ property; and he had threatened to arrange for one young couple’s children to be abducted. He had been diagnosed recently with schizophrenia, reported his sister. In short, this man was a disaster waiting to happen.
For her part, Emily evidently had significant problems she was working through, her mother reported during a local television news interview. Her mother seems articulate, intelligent, and has kind eyes that betrayed her unimaginable pain and grief. But the most disquieting part of the unfolding story, to me, seems an apparent unwillingness on the part of local authorities to have done more to get the assailant off the street, out of the population, and somewhere he could obtain the kind of help he evidently needs before he could kill somebody.
Did he know Emily? Yes, evidently so; what motive he might or might not have harbored to kill her is uncertain. Whether or how he knew she might be traveling that pathway at that moment also seems uncertain. Maybe someone knows, certainly he does; the local police encountered him nearby right after he attacked Emily, and he referred to her as Emily Grace when they questioned him. He was arrested, has pled not guilty, and now awaits trial, in another Vermont town.
On Saturday I opened the weekly email from St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, and was struck by these words from Reverend Angie Emerson, the interim rector:
It both saddens and puzzles me that the community is not in a complete uproar over the murder of Emily Hamann. She was young, energetic, and passionate. She was a mother. She was on one of the most beautiful stretches of the Walloomsac walking path when she was attacked, pinned to the ground and had her throat cut. The residents of the Walloomsac apartments are traumatized. Many of us who walk that pathway frequently or live close by are traumatized and fearful for our safety.
And then a little further down in her missive, this:
The manner of Emily’s death exposes a huge public policy and public safety void.
I must say I’m inclined to agree; this void is one I’ve observed on several occasions over the last few years, including the known reluctance (taking on almost folkloric proportions) of certain authorities to confront a certain logger operating illegally because of his reputation for violent retribution; and a certain game warden in the town where we lived a few years back, who comically told us ‘good luck’ after we reported a nuisance bear whose natural fear of humans had been compromised because a neighbor would not secure his trash—the bear posed a threat to us and to our dog, and we needed help. Maybe it is a systemic problem that extends beyond the borders of the Green Mountain State. And anyway, this void is overshadowed by the much bigger problems fueling our national conversations just now. (But aren’t all these ‘small’ systemic problems the very cornerstones of the much bigger ones?)
When I mentioned this story to a person at work after it unfolded, without missing a beat he quipped, They’ll probably let him out—it’s what happens in Bennington. I hope the sick man’s crime is sufficient to put him away for a long while, but his early release is one eventuality that scares the hell out of the people who’ve had run-ins with him before.
Which brings me back to where I am, and I realize now it’s firmly in the ‘traumatized’ bucket. A day after the murder I made myself go for a run—the same way you make yourself climb back into the saddle after a horse throws you. The spot where Emily lost her life was covered in the granular material that soaks up liquid, like human blood; it is just opposite the place Scout and I came upon the Great Blue Heron in the river. Mourners had erected a makeshift memorial of ribbons, flowers, and candles nearby. Now I find running past that place so difficult I’m thinking of changing my running route; I can’t fathom how the people who live in the apartments situated right on that pathway must feel—the people whose balconies overlook the flowing Walloomsac, but now also overlook the place where Emily met her assailant.
Where is the outcry indeed. I don’t know. Not so long ago I stood in the fellowship hall at St. Peter’s after Sunday morning eucharist, speaking to a young family who had come to visit. The dad was a cop who had just assumed a new post as a resource officer at the local high school; I quizzed him some about Bennington, asked his thoughts about how safe it is here. He shrugged. Most towns, he said, have a ‘bottom’ six percent of the population who are habitual criminals. For Bennington, he opined, that number is closer to ten percent.
On Sunday I went on a brisk six-mile walk in the bucolic countryside that is North Bennington and Shaftsbury. It was invigorating in the bracing cold, but the day was sunny and beautiful, and it was the first time in several weeks I’ve been able to join a pair of my friends on one of these outings. I felt restored and at peace when I returned home.
But I still can’t stop thinking of young Emily Hamann, the instant my mind goes idle. So I’ll sit with my sadness, send my love out to everyone who is hurting, and remain grateful for the opportunity to breathe in the waning winter days in this Green Mountain State, probably my last winter here. I’ll think of the truths I know that reassure me, of my Southern neighbors on the corner with whom I feel a particular kinship; of the people across the street from them and their interesting multicultural story; of the kind woman across the street from us who’s lived there forever and occasionally blows the snow out of our driveway when we aren’t looking, and who once gave us a fantastic snow shovel she said she didn’t need; of the neighbors on the other side of us, good people who would give you the shirts off their backs without thinking twice about it; and of the neighbor around the corner who’s a little reclusive but has amazing gifts and talents many people don’t know about. I’ll try to focus on the good in people, and not the bad.
And when I circumnavigate the pathway that used to be mine, and Scout’s, and all of Bennington’s, I’ll try to remind myself of the little, seemingly inconsequential things that somehow, against all odds, restore one’s faith in humanity.