Fear Settles on the Farm After Two Brothers Survive a Violent Robbery
Mike and Harry Dutchburn shared a life as predictable as January’s blizzards and July’s blackberries.
Awake by 4 and asleep by 9. Off to the barn at 4, 2 and 5. Errands once a week: St. Albans for parts, Newport for fertilizer, John Deuso’s store at the crossroads for potatoes, hot dogs and bread.
In a weather-beaten farmhouse on a lonely stretch of highway 10 miles from Canada, the brothers passed their evenings in unmatched armchairs in a kitchen papered with sailing ships and maps of the world.
The wallpaper was hung by a sister years ago. Mike, 77, and Harry, 79, likely would have chosen pictures of cows over maps of a world they have had precious little to do with, until it burst in on them one January night.
Anyone in town can point out the Dutchburn place, with its blistered white paint and drawn shades. Surrounded by open fields, house and barn sit near the road on a curve that’s unexpectedly tricky. Mike and Harry have lost track of the cars they’ve pulled from the mud over the years, a habit of helpfulness that was to cost them.
From their kitchen window, they can see their hillside birthplace, the only other home they have ever known. They still remember moving day, June 15, 1915, just as they do every journey away from home ever since: their brother’s funeral in Massachusetts in 1944; Mike’s trip to their sister’s in Michigan in 1960; the 65-mile drive with their niece, Sandra Lyon, to Burlington a year and a half ago. Harry hadn’t been there for 40 years.
Except for pies and cookies from Grandma’s Bakery in Richford, the Dutchburns’ list of indulgences is shorter than the list of their trips: an aborted attempt at cigar-smoking in 1940 (Harry), and two chug-a-lugged bottles of gin in 1939 (Mike).
“We don’t owe anybody,” says Mike. “We pay cash, or we do without. We go right along. That’s our way.”
The Dutchburns’ ways--modesty, hard work and thrift--were common knowledge on the frugal little farms of Franklin County. So was their habit of carrying large sums of cash.
On the last day of January, 1986, the ways of the world--violence, cruelty and greed--were brought home to the Dutchburns by two strangers who called them by name.
They pretended to be out of gas. The Dutchburns didn’t have any, but Mike climbed out of his narrow iron bed in the middle of the night. By the time he’d walked the few steps to the kitchen, the two men had kicked in the door.
“You shouldn’t be here,” Mike told them. He got hit in the face.
Harry, who had $7,000 in his shirt pocket, walked in right behind him and got hit in the head with the thick maple cane he used to prod cows.
Mike put up a fight, but it was over in less than five minutes. Afterward, Mike says, “the kitchen looked like you’d cut a bunch of hens’ heads off and let ‘em fly.”
Five minutes was all it took to teach two old men about fear. The fear never left them, not even after the robbers went to jail.
“I don’t sleep anymore. I hear the cars all night. You don’t forget it,” says Mike. He only has to look at his brother to remember. Harry’s right eye hangs like a crooked picture in his face. It swells and weeps in the cold; since the beating, he no longer goes out to do chores.
The cane hanging on its peg is another reminder. So are the dents it left in the old Kelvinator in the kitchen. “They could have taken the money,” Mike says. “There’s no sense beating a person up.”
He rubs the dents gently. “It’s the people in the world that’s changed,” he says. “They don’t care who they take from.”
Detective Sgt. Bill Northrup, an 18-year veteran of the Vermont State Police, calls it “as brutal as any homicide I’ve ever investigated.”
Except that it wasn’t a homicide. The Dutchburns survived.
They just didn’t recover.
Mike Dutchburn lay for 3 1/2 hours on the kitchen floor after the beating, afraid to move. Harry was unconscious. When Mike saw a light go on next door at dawn, he crawled out to his Chevy pickup and drove half a mile to the neighbor’s.
When their niece got word at 5:30 that morning, she drove straight to Montgomery. At the farmhouse where she had spent childhood vacations petting calves and eating ice cream, Sandy Lyon found two state police troopers in a kitchen spattered with blood. In her uncles’ hospital room, she says, “I didn’t recognize either one of them.”
Lyon, a bank teller with three grown children, has the manners of a Sunday school teacher--until she talks about the beating. Then she starts saying “hell” a lot.
She remembers two strong, handsome men who teased and spoiled her.
“They were easygoing. They took you for who you were. Mike pulled my pigtails. Harry was the perfect image of my dad, who died when I was 17.”
Since the beating, she says, “Harry has been to the barn once. Mostly, he sits there and broods. They’re withdrawn now. They have that constant fear. Any little noise on the porch and they’re petrified.”
Harry lets Mike take him to the barber, but outings are rare. He has trouble climbing into the truck; his back, like his brother’s, is bent from years of work in the low-ceilinged barn.
The money Harry carried in and out of that barn, the money ripped out of his pocket, helped lead police to the attackers.
“You spend 20 hours a day in a barn,” Northrup says, “and your money will smell like a barn.”
Salesmen at Champlain Chevrolet in Enosberg knew that smell. It had lingered long after Mike Dutchburn drove off in his new pickup truck. They finally tracked it to the cash in the safe.
Northrup alerted all Vermont banks and stores to be on the lookout for hundred-dollar bills with “a strong barn odor.” That led to some of the Dutchburns’ money. The money led to one of the men.
Judge Frank Mahady can still picture the two stooped figures in faded green work clothes who shuffled into his Burlington courtroom as if from another century to talk sorrowfully about locking doors and mistrusting strangers.
Harry told of no longer being able to work. “The best part of my life is gone now,” he said.
Mahady listened patiently as the Dutchburns and their niece tried to explain why two years and eight months in jail--the terms of a proposed plea agreement--didn’t feel much like justice.
Sees Fundamental Right
“There is a very fundamental right, the right to be simply left alone,” the judge said finally. “It is so important and so basic it doesn’t have to be set forth in any documents. That basic, fundamental right was taken away. That’s unpardonable.”
Mahady isn’t known for rejecting plea bargains. “To the hard right,” he says wryly, “I’m known as ‘the criminal’s judge.’ ”
He made an exception in the case of Darrell Clark, 39 and unemployed, with a record of larceny and assault. In July, 1987, Mahady gave Clark five to 10 years in jail. Another judge gave Louis Gilbeau, 33, a stainer at a furniture factory, eight to 10 years, with all but five suspended.
Both men can expect to serve three years and nine months. “A rope around the neck would’ve been better,” says Harry.
He and Mike spent three days in the hospital after the beating, then signed themselves out. The doctors wanted to keep them longer. The Dutchburns had had enough doctoring.
They opened a checking account and had telephones installed in the house and barn. Then they shut themselves up behind new dead-bolt locks.
The house still looks sealed. Vulnerable and exposed alongside the highway, it could be abandoned but for the truck in the driveway and the two figures sitting still as statues in the kitchen.
They greet prolonged knocking with silence. Eventually, they respond to introductions shouted through the locked door.
The gray sky is spitting snow, but inside an ancient stove warms the kitchen. Harry’s gold plaid chair is stationed by the side window. Mike’s green vinyl recliner guards the door. A Holstein and her calf watch over them from a wall calendar, courtesy of Eastern Milk Producers.
Thin Bag of Memories
A paper bag worn thin as tissue paper holds their memories. One ghostly snapshot shows two hardy young farmers in matching coveralls and caps sharing a joke. Side by side, they are broad-shouldered and handsome, heads tipped back, mouths stretched wide, eyes crinkled shut.
Slowly, stiffly, Mike hands the picture to Harry. Out of their armchairs, both men are curved like question marks, fragile figures who move gingerly about the kitchen.
All along the valley in farmhouses much like the Dutchburns’, doors and windows left unlocked for decades were bolted and sealed that winter, and shotguns put away for next hunting season were retrieved.
Franklin County’s 37,000 inhabitants had known crime, but mostly of a different sort: patches of marijuana tucked away in a field, or burglaries of unoccupied vacation homes owned by out-of-state skiers. Not the sort of face-to-face crime that has people afraid to come to the door at night.
“There was talk of forming a posse. There was talk of lynching and tarring and feathering--an old-fashioned killing party,” Sandy recalls.
“No hole is deep enough, no rock big enough, to hide scum like you,” neighbor James McGroarty wrote in a letter in the Franklin County Courier. “I promise you, we’ll find you, and I pray to God the police do before I or the other people in our town of Montgomery do.”
Eventually, things quieted down. Two men went to jail, and life went back to normal. Except for Mike and Harry.
This month, an out-of-court settlement was reached in a lawsuit the Dutchburns filed against their assailants. Sandy says they brought the suit “out of principle. My uncles are never going to be better. Why should two innocent people have to live this way?”
At the same time, she says, the $55,000 settlement “will never pay for what they have to live with.”
It won’t make up for the locked doors. Or the fear.
Not long ago, yet another driver missed the curve by the Dutchburns’ and spun off the road into the field. He pounded on their door for a long time, but Mike and Harry sat very still. Eventually, he went away.