Tiny Vermont town baffled by accused teens

They're not outcasts. They're not potheads or drunks. They're not from broken homes. They aren't obsessed with guns.

Talk to almost anyone in this rural hamlet folded among the forests of the Vermont highlands, and they'll tell you the two boys arrested on charges of killing two Dartmouth professors are, in fact, quite the opposite.

James Parker is the funniest member of his junior class, played the Big Bad Wolf in a recent school play, and is a talented bass and keyboard player. Robert Tulloch is the best debater in Chelsea Public School, is a senior smart enough to finish his coursework early, and plays a decent game of soccer.

The pair even won a local tubing race down the First Branch of the White River.

All of which has left the dairy farmers and store clerks of Chelsea, wondering what might have led these two

to allegedly stab two professors 35 miles away in New Hampshire. Moreover, it's causing an entire nation to wonder how much parents really know about their kids, as two well-liked and seemingly well-adjusted teens are now accused of committing a savage act of violence.

"There weren't any warning signs as far as I'm concerned," says Diane Mattoon, town clerk for the City of Chelsea, and a seventh-generation Vermonter.

And in a town like Chelsea, it would be hard for warning signs to go unnoticed.

There are only 1,200 residents wedged into this corner of the snow-covered Green Mountains, and when any of them walk into the Dixie II Restaurant or Button's feed store, they are greeted by their first name.

There's no supermarket here, no movie house, no stoplight. The Chelsea Town Talk bulletin board in front of Will's general store announces the Cabin Fever Dance and a National Wild Turkey Foundation fundraising banquet. Timber trucks loaded with logs rumble through every so often, but few people stop on their way down Route 110.

So it is perhaps no surprise that almost everyone in this insular community knows something about Robert or James. For the most part, people have been taken aback by the whole episode. Late last week, just before the police issued warrants for their arrest, the two left town. On Monday morning, they were arrested in an Indiana truck stop as they tried to hitchhike across the country.

"I was as baffled as anyone else," says Bob Button, owner of the feed store.

On this morning, Mr. Button's tiny rough-hewn store of wooden shelves and bare concrete floors has become an impromptu town hall, and he and his four customers are talking about the case. None of it makes sense to them.

"I can't imagine what these kids would have to do with college professors," notes the bearded Button.

Beyond that, these kids don't seem like the type, others add. James is the son of a carpenter who's well known around town for helping the town build a new sports complex. Robert was student council president as a junior.

Both boys are also part of what students call the "prep" group - a set of classmates who have stayed apart from drugs, alcohol, and smoking.

That's not to say they have always been model students, however.

Robert, in particular, has had run-ins with teachers and fellow classmates. When he was student council president, a group of students tried to have him impeached, saying he wasn't doing his share of the work. He survived, but many students have said Robert is sometimes smug about his intelligence.

"He knew that he was smart and he could boast about it," Kip Battey, a friend and fellow debater, told The Associated Press. "Sometimes he carried himself very confidently" and that grated on people, especially teachers.

To be sure, not many people say Robert is a typical Vermont teen. In a town where Barre, Vt., is considered a big city, Robert talked about running races in Australia or traveling to Europe. He has already earned enough credits to graduate, with one-third of the school year remaining.

What he's done with that freedom has been the subject of much discussion. Some reports say he has skipped classes while others say he spent much of his time rock climbing. The Boston Globe has quoted a family friend as saying that Robert spent so much time on the Internet his father revoked his privileges.

What is known is that Robert and James said they were going to rock climb in Colorado just after Dartmouth professors Half and Susanne Zantop, who taught earth sciences and German, respectively, were killed in their home in late January. Days later, they returned because of an infected cut on Robert's leg. He said he had hurt himself on a maple syrup spigot. After being fingerprinted last week, they disappeared again. Police apprehended them in Indiana.

Investigators first turned their attention to Robert and James when one of them - authorities won't say who - bought a knife on the Internet. Robert returned to New Hampshire yesterday to face arraignment. James remains in Indiana, where he may fight extradition.

For now, all the people of Chelsea can do is wait - and get used to the attention. Leaning out the door of the country store, one woman yells to a friend: "Watch out for the out-of-state plates!" Button says he's already been interviewed six or seven times in the past few days. But he and others say they're in the same spot as the press - they just want answers.

Says Ms. Mattoon: "What was the motive? What was the connection? It's just unbelievable."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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