Chelsea has mixed reaction to arrests

by Julia Levy | 3/2/01 6:00am

Chelsea Constable Carol Olsen was in Connecticut when she heard that two teenagers from her town, Robert Tulloch and James Parker, were wanted for the Zantop murders.

She tuned the television to New England Cable News to find out what was going on in the tiny Vermont town where she has lived for nearly 30 years.

Olsen told The Dartmouth yesterday, "Everyone that was questioned about this from town responded, 'These kids were O.K.'"

But Olsen said she believes the town's comments about Tulloch and Parker were misleading. In fact, she said of an early morning conversation she had the day after the arrest warrants were issued, "Both of us thought, 'Well, that doesn't really surprise us.' Not that they had ever done anything violent in the past, but if I had to pick a couple of kids, these kids were weird."

Olsen speculated that many people in Chelsea are hesitant to make negative comments about the teenage suspects in public because of the very fact that it is a small, tight-knit community.

"We all live together here and we all know the Parkers and the Tullochs," she said, adding that this may be the reason many may not be commenting.

Among the people who have commented publicly, few residents of Chelsea have spoken very negatively of the duo.

Tyler Smith-Strutz, who debated against Tulloch this year and last, said he only knew Tulloch in the context of competition, and called him "funny," "congenial," "very intelligent," "very driven" and "always cool and collected."

And Molly Jackson, a neighbor and a ninth grader at Chelsea Public School told a crew of reporters who flocked to Chelsea's Main Street the day after the warrants were issued, "[Tulloch] was your run-of-the-mill good student." She said he played soccer, was president of the student council and a member of the debate team.

Teachers who knew Tulloch and Parker said they could not imagine the two committing a crime of this nature.

Chelsea Public School math and physics teacher Paul Callens said even retrospectively, there was no warning that, "we should have been careful of these kids."

After the initial news coverage that described the 17 and 16-year-old suspects as average teenagers, some friends indicated that they believed Tulloch and Parker had more flaws than the media first reported.

A close friend and classmate of the suspects, Kip Battey, said the two could be bullies, and he called Tulloch "cocky." He and others also revealed that Tulloch had a very poor attendance record at school in general -- this fall he was not even taking classes.

"I think he was the only one who wasn't taking any classes," he said. "It's normal for seniors to take a light load, but not that light. Usually if you take no classes, you just decide to graduate early, but he didn't."

Battey also said the pair had been caught breaking into houses, and Orange County Sheriff Dennis McClure told the Dartmouth, "I've had some professional dealings with the boys."

Although some said the suspects were less-than-perfect citizens, very few have speculated that Tulloch and Parker could have been capable of committing the heinous murders.

Olsen, however, who has a degree in education and has worked in the field of children's education and counseling, said she believes that it is common knowledge in town that the two boys are "odd." She said she has spoken with people who knew Parker well since the arrest, and she said they were not surprised.

During discussions, she said fellow residents of Chelsea, "went on to discuss just how antagonistic and arrogant he could be."

Also, Olsen said her son, who attends Chelsea Public School, told her that in his circle of friends, "Everybody kind of says they probably could have done it."

"Obviously, I don't want to think that things like this are going on in Chelsea, Vt., but why would we be immune?" she asked.

Former Orange County Sheriff Sam Frank told The Dartmouth he was not particularly surprised to hear that Tulloch and Parker were wanted for the Zantop Murder: "After being in this business for a long time, you don't get really too surprised about a lot of things."

But the county's current Sheriff, Dennis McClure, said while he has dealt professionally with the two boys, he never thought they had the potential to commit any serious crime, let alone a homicide.

Olsen said she was "appalled" by the time she left the Chelsea town meeting last week, which was convened as a time for the citizens to support each other and try to start the healing process.

She said at the event, which was closed to the press, citizens "were saying we needed to send the boys cards and letters and cookies. The Zantops were hardly mentioned."

Despite Olsen's strong feelings at the meeting, she said she did not contradict the comments that various citizens were making because she said she felt overwhelmed.

"I felt like we were talking about two boys who were at summer camp and not two young men who were charged with first degree murder."

She said another aspect of the meeting that disturbed her was that some citizens were rallying around the idea of bringing Tulloch and Parker back to Chelsea from the jail as they await trial -- a move that would be impossible since the two are being held without bail.

Olsen said she thinks it is important for her community right now to feel compassion for the Tulloch and Parker families while looking inward and assessing problems and trying to fix them, a sentiment that is shared by many in the town.

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