by Rachel Osterman | 4/5/02 5:00am

NORTH HAVERHILL, N.H. -- In what began as James Parker's and Robert Tulloch's plan to escape the small-town life of Chelsea, Vt., the two teenagers dug graves for attempted murder victims, brutally stabbed Dartmouth professors Half and Susanne Zantop to death and then stopped at a bookstore for information on how killers cope with bloodshed, prosecutors detailed yesterday at sentencing hearings that concluded the shocking murder case.

Tulloch, 18, abandoned his insanity defense to plead guilty to charges of premeditated murder, accepting two life sentences against the advice of his lawyers who had urged him to go to trial.

Parker, 17, who prosecutors described as the follower in the friendship pair and whose testimony they credited with providing context to the Jan. 27, 2001 murders, accepted the terms of his plea bargain, which he struck in December. The plea bargain accepts guilt to accomplice to second-degree murder and carries a sentence of 25 years to life with the possibility of parole.

Tulloch appeared stone-faced and unremorseful throughout his roughly hour-long hearing, occasionally smirking at the judge's questions about whether or not he understood his rights and declining his option to offer a statement.

Parker, by contrast, was barely able to hold back his tears, quietly sobbing as he told the victims' friends and family, "I'm sorry. There's not much more I can say than that. I'm just really sorry."

In a case shocking for its seeming inexplicability, prosecutor Kelly Ayotte outlined the events leading up to the murders, describing how Tulloch and Parker, once top students who were generally well regarded in Chelsea, randomly murdered Susanne, a German studies professor, and Half, who taught in the earth science department, 31 miles from their secluded hometown.

The two teenagers grew bored of life in Chelsea and discussed travelling and getting out of the area, deciding on Australia as an ultimate destination, prosecutors said. To get there they concluded they would need $10,000 in cash. They first sought legal ways to obtain the money and, when those efforts failed, turned to illegal methods.

Yesterday's hearings marked the first public statement by the Zantops' two surviving daughters, Veronika and Marianne.

"There's no statement in the entire world that can capture the absolute horror, disbelief, sadness and anger that I, my sister and our family and friends" have experienced, Veronika said to Tulloch and Parker, her voice wavering.

Friends of the Zantops also read statements to the court.

Women's studies and German professor Irene Kacandes said: "This isn't just a news story, and it isn't Robert Tulloch's story. It's about two beautiful people who showered love" on their family, their friends, their colleagues and "everyone they came in contact with."

Staring Tulloch in the eye, Kacandes continued, "You had a chance on Jan. 27, 2001 -- Susanne and Half did not, and now we don't either."

The proceedings offered a window into the teenagers' more than yearlong murder plot. Planning how to get funds for Australia almost daily, Tulloch and Parker stole a television, but were frustrated at their inability to sell it over the Internet, Ayotte said.

The teenagers' next scheme was to loot postal mail in the hopes of finding credit cards they could then use to commit fraud, but Tulloch and Parker never found a credit card in the loads of mail they snatched.

Frustrated, Tulloch -- the older and seemingly the ringleader of the pair -- came up with the idea of jumping people to demand their credit and ATM cards, also suggesting they would be better off killing those people to eliminate witnesses and so they would be "bad-asses" when the teenagers got to Australia, Ayotte said.

Tulloch and Parker began spying out houses to burglarize, first settling on a home in Vershire, Vt. On July 15, the teenagers dressed in black, dug a grave in which to dump the bodies in a nearby empty lot and cut the targeted house's phone line. When Tulloch approached the door, Andrew Vatti answered with a gun in hand and the plan was aborted.

The next time they tried to finesse their way into a home, they came up with a new strategy: pretending to conduct an environmental survey. That temporarily failed when the resident of a Rochester, Vt. home said he was too busy tarring his indoor pool to answer any questions.

The teenagers by this time had acquired SOG Seal 2000 knives over the Internet. They also had secured a pair of stun guns through the web. Tulloch's mother had found and intercepted the first pair of stun guns, but the teenagers, inseparable at the time, managed to buy another set without their parents' knowing.

Last winter was when they started talking about how wealthy people in Hanover are. About one week before the murders, they drove to Trescott Road in Etna, where the Zantops lived, and approached a house with the intention to commit robbery and murder, plans which they abandoned out of fear.

But they returned on the fatal morning of Jan. 27, just after Susanne Zantop had called Dartmouth French and Italian professor Roxana Verona to invite her over for dinner and while Susanne, a celebrated cook, was preparing a European-style lunch.

Half Zantop answered the door. With Parker carrying a backpack stuffed with the military-style knives, notebooks for the mock environmental survey and zip-ties to strap up the victims, the teenagers introduced themselves using their real names.

But they misleadingly informed the beloved earth science instructor that they were from the Vershire, Vt. Mountain School, an actual school. After consulting his wife, Half returned to the door and said, "I know the Mountain School, and I like what the Mountain School does," inviting the teenagers into his study, Ayotte said.

For 10 minutes, Tulloch and Parker, who prosecutors said thought this foray would end like all the previous ones, questioned Half and took notes, after which he suggested they do more research and talk to a friend of his. Searching in his wallet for that phone number, Tulloch observed a wad of cash poking out. That was when he reached for the military-style knife and began to stab Half from behind.

"Half was screaming, screaming terribly," Ayotte told the court.

Hearing Half cry out, Susanne rushed in from the kitchen. Tulloch instructed Parker to slit her throat, which he did. Tulloch then began stabbing Susanne's skull and body.

When the murders were complete, the blood-drenched teenagers nervously gathered their belongings. Escaping, Tulloch hid the knives under the mat in Parker's car, where investigators later found a DNA match for Susanne's blood.

What they did not bring with them, and what would become the critical clue that led officials to the unlikely murderers, were the sheaths for their combat knives. When investigators searched for the sale of such knives, they discovered that a pair had been bought by one James Parker of Chelsea, Vt.

Driving away from Hanover, the teenagers discussed trying to use Half's ATM card with various number combinations they found in his wallet. But they decided that withdrawing money, the very reason they had embarked on their nearly yearlong murder plan in the first place, was too risky. Instead, they washed themselves up in the snow and visited the self-help section of the Burlington, Vt. Barnes & Nobles Bookstore for advice on how killers, especially soldiers, live with their deeds, Ayotte said.

That night the teenagers slept at Tulloch's house. They didn't get much sleep because every time a car drove by, they thought it was the police. Robert Tulloch discussed killing a police officer if one did arrive.

But nobody from law enforcement visited, at least not for several weeks. Observing no mention of the forgotten sheaths in media reports, Tulloch and Parker considered themselves undetected and decided to keep the knives, which they hid under their mattresses, because "they thought it would be helpful to have the knives for a trip to Australia," Ayotte said.

On Jan. 30, they tried to escape Chelsea for Colorado without informing their parents. The night before he left, Tulloch told his girlfriend Christiana Usenza that he had done something "really bad," and admitted that the cut on his leg was from a knife, not a maple syrup spigot, as he had told everybody else. The pair ended the escape when Tulloch's leg wound became too serious to go on.

Late on Feb. 14, 2001 prosecutors tracked the knife to Parker, marking the first major breakthrough in a case so perplexing because no one close to the victims could postulate a motivation, much less identify possible suspects who had grievances with the slain professors.

On the night of Feb. 15, having been just visited by police, the teenagers contacted each other over AOL Instant Messenger. They decided their only chance was to escape, and they waited for their parents to go to bed before they set out for California, where they hoped to work on a boat and make their way to a far-off country.

Hitchhiking from Massachusetts to New Jersey and then on another westward heading truck, they were stopped by a suspicious sheriff in Indiana with a hunch.

There, so far from their homes and still so far from California, the teenagers were arrested on Feb. 19, 2001.

Among the statements Tulloch made to Indiana officials was, "It's a house of cards, it took me 17 years to build and I just blew it down. I can't put it back up again." He also repeatedly said, "I'm sorry, Jim" and that he wished he had not involved his younger friend, Ayotte said.

Yesterday, his glare firm, his posture straight and his expression occasionally contorting into a smirk, Tulloch, dressed in a white collared shirt and green khaki pants, calmly informed the judge that he understood his right to a fair trial. He then surrendered that right, pleading guilty instead.

Zantop family and friends watched tearfully throughout the proceedings.

Just hours later that afternoon, Parker also pleaded guilty to his role in the grisly murders. Wearing blue jeans and a navy blue collared t-shirt, he choked back tears throughout the proceedings.

Afterwards, the younger teenager's parents, clasping hands and holding back sobs themselves, addressed the press. "Joan and I would like to say to Half and Susanne Zantop's family friends, Veronika and Marianne and their friends, that we're very, very sorry," said the father, John.

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