Friday, June 11, 2010

Killer transportation

In January of 2001, a young man named Eugene Hunter shot and killed his mother in their shared home in Wells, Vermont, population about 1200, near the New York border and south of Lake Champlain. The back story was sad--the savagery of the matricide aside, it was obvious that Eugene was nuts at the time of his mother's death. His sister told police that her brother, 23 at the time, thought the Mafia was looking for him. He was afraid to go outside, and when he wasn't holed up in his room he would often roam the house searching for enemies he was sure were there, hiding.

Eugene was arrested and immediately put in the state hospital--there was little question he was both guilty and psychotic.

Then, as often happens with stories like these, a whole lot of time goes by. In late winter your correspondent and honorable husband decide it's time to upgrade the kitchen, which means spending a lot of money, and we decide to sell a handsome Nissan pickup that we bought in 2005. We've never used it as much as we thought we would, and, since we both work most of the time at home, we don't really need a second car. The ad runs in late May, both in the local papers and on line.

Eugene Hunter calls from a place that caller ID pinpoints as Copley House; he's interested in the truck and wonders if it's been sold. We run through the usual stuff--the truck's condition, the age of the tires, the mileage, all that stuff. An unremarkable transaction on every level except for one minor point--he can't just come over and look at the truck because he will need to arrange a ride. "I'm not sure when that will happen," he says, so I give him directions and explain that someone is here almost all the time--I tell him to call ahead just to make sure the truck isn't out trucking around because I'd hate to have him waste a trip from Morrisville.

Eugene calls again that evening and talks again to honorable husband. As far as I can tell, the call is a near-perfect clone of the first call, except it's Vince doing the explaining.

Eugene calls again two days later to say he hopes he can get a ride on Thursday; I give to phone to honorable husband since it's his truck after all. The next day, Eugene calls again and we learn that Thursday won't work after all.

By now I've had enough incoming calls from this Copley House whatever-it-is to be curious, and a quick web search reveals that this is a group care facility in Morristown that looks like it was built at the turn of the century--it has a lumbering turret and a massive porch and three different kinds of exterior shingles. All the pictures and copy indicate it's a place for old people who have dementias, and I figure Eugene is on staff. On the phone he sounds sort of young, and Vince and I decide he may work in the kitchen or in maintenance or something and walk up to work from town.

But I am nosy. I Google people who attract my attention for some reason. Often this leads to uninteresting results, but not always, and this is how I learn about Eugene's past and about his mother. I also learn that, back in November, Eugene was ruled competent to stand trial and released from the state hospital to an undisclosed secure location. There's a black-and-white photo of Eugene's mother with the story and she looks nice, pretty but a little tired at the same time. She took care of her hair.

Our decision point on Eugene Hunter passes almost immediately--Vince and I don't think there's any obvious problem with selling a pickup to a psychotic murderer, and that he seems a nice enough fellow on the phone. "Just don't piss him off," I joke, "and don't imply that someone is following you or anything along those lines." Vince has five or six years of mental hospital staff work under his belt, plus a degree in psychology, and he explains that Eugene will probably be fine since he's got keepers and medications. The meds, he says, really do control the symptoms but also flatten the person out and make them seem off, disconnected, and tired. We spend half an hour talking about how devastating schizophrenia can be, how painful it is for the person who has it, and the people we've known whose lives have been ruined by it.

Fast forward about four days: Eugene arrives with a driver-cum-keeper. He's a stubby fellow who looks older than his mid-thirties, with a large beard and a habit of looking mostly at the ground. But he really looks at the truck, carefully, and he likes what he sees--his keeper retires to the car they arrive in and lets Eugene talk to Vince on his own.

After just a a few preliminaries, it becomes obvious that Eugene wants this truck--he has no plans to look at any other vehicles once he's seen this one. He doesn't have his license, just a learner's permit, and says he wants Vince to test-drive the truck for him while he sits in the passenger seat.

Off they go, but on an unfortunate route--they end up clogged up in a road-repair mess on the Paine Turnpike, sitting for many long minutes while a stretch of paving gets rolled flat, and Vince says it was a little bit uncomfortable but my husband is very poised. They fill the time talking in a general way about mileage and winter handling, and Vince runs an orange light just going to red on the way home. He makes a joke about breaking the law and sort of regrets it later.

When they finally get back, Eugene looks at the ground and looks at the truck, but he doesn't make eye contact with either of us. But he clearly covets the truck, and reluctantly accepts that he must shake hands with us to put the first seal on the deal. Then he asks if we can keep the truck in our driveway until he can get it registered and insured and pass his test and actually drive it. We say sure.

Two days ago, Eugene came (with a keeper) to the house to deliver the check; it's for the full asking price, and oddly there was never any discussion or haggling on this point. It's also a treasurer's check, the reliable kind. Eugene's driver explains that, while they're in Montpelier, they will get insurance and go to the DMV, so they may have new plates by the close of business. Would it be okay if they came back then and switched out the plates? And then, once Eugene has his license, they will come and get it.

I have an idea: "What if we bring it up to you once the plates are on? It's no big deal to do that, and it just seems like once you've paid for it, it's yours, and you should have it. Would that work on your end?"

For the first time since we've been face to face, Eugene looks at me, then Vince. "You'd do that?"

"Sure. I mean we're happy to store it for a while, but if you have it at your place you can practice driving it on your permit and take your test in it. Or just sit in it and listen to the radio or something."

"You'd do that?" he asks again. He has brown eyes, flat and lusterless, and gray streaks in his big beard.

"How about this evening? If you've got plates by then, there's no reason not to."

Eugene and his keeper exchange a look and the keeper gives a short little nod.

Eugene says, "Thank you." It's a short, strange moment--my radar tells me that this change in plan gives Eugene an actual moment of power over something in his life. He looks at both of us again and, once we confirm the timing and the details, he willingly shakes hands. He doesn't offer to, but he's willing.

As I follow Vince in what is now Eugene's truck to Morrisville, I try to think about what it might be like to be Eugene, and my imagination fails me. I just can't do it. I am heartily sorry for Eugene's mother, but my prayers are for Eugene. I am suddenly worried about whether Eugene will be required to go to trial now that he's been judged sane. He should be tried, our society requires it, but for a lot of complicated, confusing reasons that I can't locate, I'm bothered by the thought of all those courtroom people looking at him. Guilty as I'm sure he is, he hasn't earned that.


  1. What a story!

    I'd be curious about the source of the money and, if Eugene is competent, his authority to spend it, why a nod from the "keeper". I'd also wonder how a person who needs a keeper gets to have a truck.

  2. We wondered about that too. I hope the money wasn't from mom's life insurance, That would be weird.

    We also think Eugene may have some sort of job--he let Vince use his pen, and it had the name of so e sort institutional food service on it. It could be they hire scary people and have the ability to keep them supervised.

  3. My ex-BIL is schizophrenic - it is a maddening and heart-breaking disease that destroys lives. I agree that folks in its grip deserve special prayers and considerations.

  4. And I also think they deserve a truck if they can afford it and stay on their medication. But it was a truly weird encounter, one I'm not going to forget anytime soon.