Man Who Found Slain Family Learns to Rebuild His Life From Tragedy
Andy Gustafson wears two wedding rings: one from his new marriage and one from the marriage that ended in murder.
Two and a half years ago, Gustafson, 36, a small-town lawyer, came home to find his wife raped and shot to death. Their two children had been drowned in bathtubs.
A 17-year-old neighbor arrested two days later is serving life in prison without parole for the murders. He apparently had been in the house when Priscilla Gustafson and her son got home; the little girl was killed when she came home later.
“I was too afraid of going to look for my children because I was afraid I’d find them dead,” Gustafson said of that day. “It was so shocking and unbelievable. I screamed. I wailed.”
Except for the moving eulogy he delivered at his family’s funeral and his testimony at the murder trial, Gustafson has remained out of the public eye.
He has not remained a victim, however.
On Jan. 1, 1989, a date chosen to signify beginning, Gustafson married Carol, a 42-year-old widow. They have known each other since they were married to others and both couples attended Townsend Congregational Church. Carol’s first husband died of a brain tumor in 1984, after 15 years of marriage.
“It certainly would have been much more difficult without her,” Andy said, sitting in his book-lined study. “I don’t know whether I would have made it or not, without her. Now I have a reason to get up in the morning, something to live for.”
Rather than try to erase the past, they make it a point to remember. Both wear two wedding bands, their new ones on their left hands and their original ones on their right hands.
At their wedding, Carol’s first husband’s father gave her away. Andy’s dead wife’s brother sang. Carol’s matron of honor was her former sister-in-law. They had two ministers with ties to both of their first spouses.
“Your life is about your relationships. When you lose them, you lose your life in a way,” Andy said. “You either get stuck or you go on and make a new life.”
They both considered whether they might be remarrying too soon.
“There were a few people in this town that were just aghast,” said Carol, a warm, petite brunette, “but when you’ve gone through this kind of loss, you’re just glad the sun is shining every day. Life becomes more precious to you. We didn’t want to waste it.”
They live in Carol’s 10-room, yellow clapboard Colonial on Townsend Common, the center of this picture-book New England town about 45 miles northwest of Boston.
The house is three doors from the church where the Gustafson family’s funeral took place and where Andy and Carol were married, and just a few hundred yards from Hillside Cemetery, where Priscilla and the children are buried.
Andy has resumed practicing law at his office just across the Common.
Starting over has not been easy.
His life was shattered in the late afternoon of Dec. 1, 1987. He had just closed a big real estate deal and phoned Priscilla, 33, to see if she could find a sitter so they could go out to dinner and celebrate.
When no one answered the phone, Andy drove the mile to the rustic house, which is on an isolated knoll in the woods. He saw Priscilla’s car in the driveway, but the house was eerily dark.
He found his wife, who was 33 and several months pregnant, dead in their bedroom. She had been sexually assaulted and shot twice in the head.
He doesn’t remember everything that happened just after that. The trauma was such that he couldn’t sleep through the night for six months.
He remembers going into the kitchen to call the police and his parents. He was too afraid to look for the children because he feared that he would find them dead.
When the police arrived, Andy sat in one of their cruisers. An officer came out and told him that his daughter, Abigail, 7, and son, William, 5, were dead. They had been drowned.
“You lose total track of time,” he said. “The shock gives you the adrenaline to get through it at first, but then it wears off.”
After the murders, Andy moved in with his parents. He rented an apartment in Townsend, but within a few months moved back to his house.
“I had to emotionally reclaim it,” he said. “I had to go back in there and be all right. The house became a source of strength for me, with the memories of my family. The love that occurred there was much stronger than the death there.”
The first months were difficult, although dinner invitations from thoughtful friends helped, Andy said. He joined a support group for survivors of homicide victims.
“It’s a roller coaster with no highs, just different depths,” he said. “It’s a struggle just to get through each day.
“First you sob all the time. Then you set goals. Like, you say, ‘Today, I’m going to go shopping.’ You don’t want to go out and deal with people, but then you go ahead and feel better because you did it.”
Self-pity was not his strong suit.
“You always think, ‘Why me?’ But you realize soon enough, ‘Why not me?’ If you live with your eyes open, you know life isn’t fair.”
He gravitated to Carol, who understood better than most in their circle of friends from church what it meant to lose someone.
From the start, they both said, they have talked out their grief. Andy, in particular, still has bad days.
“My heart grieves for him,” Carol said about those times. “All I can do is hold him and tell him I love him.”
Andy said the hardest part was losing his children. He said he has had dreams about his first wife and each child.
“Each of them came to me in individual dreams and told me they were all right,” he said. “It made me believe in an afterlife. That helped me accept their deaths a lot.”
Carol said Andy has made her dream of having a family again a reality. They hope to adopt a child.
“That would make the circle complete,” Carol said.