Chelsea waits in eye of the storm

by Rachel Osterman | 7/13/01 5:00am

Chelsea, Vt. -- With the release of arrest warrants for the stabbing deaths of Dartmouth professors Half and Susanne Zantop last February, Kip Battey, like this sleepy rural town where he lives, was thrust into a brutal and unexpected spotlight.

Overnight, the 18-year-old high school junior found himself faced with the vexing predicament of how and if to respond to the constant stream of media inquiries about his close friends and murder suspects, Robert Tulloch and James "Jimmy" Parker.

His solution -- to answer reporters' questions about Tulloch, 18, and Parker, 17 -- catapulted him into the role of unofficial spokesperson for Chelsea's student population. It is a role similar to what a small group of students who happen to live in places of high-profile tragedies involving young people inevitably face.

"I wanted to make sure that people don't get biased views about Robert and Jimmy," he said. "It has its ups and its downs. I heard both sides of it. 'Why do you say things?' and 'Why don't you say more?' You have to try to find the middle ground."

As he expected, that role has nearly subsided for Battey.

"It's nice that the phone is ringing all the time now, there were a few weeks of utter chaos," he said. "Now everything has kind of evaporated. But that could change next year."

Like Battey, Chelsea is in the eye of a storm, slowly recuperating from the internal shock and external media attention that came last winter, and not quite ready for the next barrage, which is sure to come when Tulloch faces trial this January.

The differences between Chelsea today and Chelsea last February are clear. Parking spaces, once occupied by media vans, have opened up for local residents. Townspeople talk less about the brutal slayings and more about such matters as the fire department's request for a new truck. Schoolchildren can walk down the street without being asked to reveal their intimate thoughts to lurking reporters. And the Tullochs' Main Street home, which once displayed a "Media keep out" sign, currently bears no such warning and is separated from the outside world by a mere screen door.

But life in Chelsea has returned to only a proxy of its previous state, locals say. While the murders are no longer the talk of the town, Tulloch and Parker's possible guilt or innocence, in addition to other unanswered questions, lurk beneath the surface.

For Helen Hestop, the mother of two teenagers, healing has been a difficult process.

"We still talk about it, but it's more indirect," she said. "We talk about how we can heal and what we can learn from this, and we question how things like this can happen. We need to have a really good awareness of how we bring up our children. It shook the very foundations of our community."

John Upham, who runs a liquor store in Chelsea, said both he and his customers and friends have begun to move on.

"I really want to believe that life is back to normal. People pay attention to what's released in the media, but they're not scouring the papers for it," he said.

For Upham, like some others, time -- and with it the gradual release of new evidence by New Hampshire officials -- has meant a growing suspicion that Tulloch and Parker could be guilty.

"People would like to think that they didn't have anything to do with it, but there's a 'but.' What little information that has been released makes it sound not very good for the kids. A lot of scenarios have been thrown around, like 'How would you feel if one of them got released on a technicality and came back to live here?'"

Some, like Battey, are waiting to see what if anything becomes of Tulloch's slated trial.

"Now that so much time has gone by, nothing extremely new has come of it. With the trial, it will be good to get some more information," he said. "But on another level, you'll have to admit things to yourself and confront it all over again. It's not exactly fun."

For many of Chelsea's residents, last winter's media buzz caused a deep frustration with news organizations.

Hestop, who said she moved to Chelsea because of its remoteness, said: "We couldn't walk out of the school, we couldn't walk out of the country store, we couldn't move without someone reminding us and taking something we might say out of context and putting it into the national news. We found it a terrible invasion of our quiet live."

The media also served as a distraction from the more disturbing fact that two of Chelsea's sons were charged with murder.

"People were mainly talking about the irritation of the media, and not the incident," said Heather Doyle, who recently moved to Chelsea after marrying a native. I remember reporters were still trying to get into the church for the town meeting. It was horrible.

"Because it's sensitive and you don't really talk about it, things are almost back to the way they were, and we're hoping the trial won't do anything to what we already have," she added.

Spike Carter, a rising high school sophomore, said the presence of reporters exacerbated what was already a difficult time at school.

"It was really weird, since that's never happened in a small town like this before. It was hard with all the rumors going around," he said, adding: "Things have calmed down quite a bit at school."

Tim Carter, Spike's father, said the news of Tulloch and Parker's alleged guilt forced him to navigate a difficult path in addressing the issue with his children.

"As a parent, it was hard," he said. "We all knew the kids. It's hard to think about the kids in jail, and it's hard to talk about."

Henry Bicknell, a recent graduate of the Chelsea schools who knew both suspects, said the news of Tulloch's and Parker's arrest caused him to consider the perception of the town.

"With Chelsea making national news, I thought that people, when they heard 'Chelsea high school,' will think that's what generated the two murderers, like with Columbine."

Bicknell said he anticipates the trial because he hopes it will help solve unanswered questions.

"I'd like to see what the connection is, what he pleads to and what the story is. Because right now there is no connection. Why would they follow through and what would cause someone to follow through with that?"