Yet last year, when two Dartmouth professors were found slashed to death in their home, people were stunned when police arrested two popular kids from a picturesque town in rural Vermont. They were accused not only of murder, but also of spending months planning the murders of complete strangers.
Vermont, an inspiration for Norman Rockwell's American ideal, is a place that features prominently in the escape fantasies of harried city dwellers, where children are safe to play on their own, where the air is fresh, and the dangers of urban life seem far away. Laird Stanard's parents bought into the Vermont dream 18 years ago, moving here to start a farm and provide a cleaner life for their son.
The Stanards' life seemed like a storybook as well – Bill Stanard was a teacher, while his wife Paula took care of the farm. Laird attended exclusive private schools. But one night in December 1999, when 17 year-old Laird Stanard left home without permission and returned to find his mother angry and yelling, he pulled out a shotgun and killed her.
"It was no, it was no rational decision," Laird says.
What happened? "You're walking in, you're stressed. You're worrying about other things. And someone jumps out of nowhere in the— in a dark room and starts yelling. And you turn and there was no bestial rage in this. There was no first-degree wanting to go after anybody. Because if I wanted to go after someone, there was ample opportunity to— beforehand, which would've made more criminal sense."
"So, you're saying it was a spur of the moment thing? Your mother yelled at you in the dark?" Mabrey asks him. "And I turned," Laird says.
"And you just turned and fired?" Mabrey asks. Laird says, "Yes.
But according to the prosecution, Laird Stanard had planned a double murder. He also tried to shoot his father that night, but missed. Prosecutors say he'd even told a friend three weeks earlier that he was thinking about killing both his parents. Laird says he'd only planned to commit suicide. He says the restrictive life of boarding school had sent him over the edge.
"I was at the point in my life I was 17. And I was looking at it like I don't have a license. I don't have a car. I only have a learner's permit. All my friends are growing up and being teen-agers. I am still told, I've got these extreme conditions where I can't walk off campus to get a doughnut if I want to. I can't go get coffee. I can't go rent a movie unless I ask permission," Laird says.
Many would say Laird was lucky. He didn't feel that way. "To be sent away from home and have your parents give you to, 40 other parents to deal with and not deal with you themselves?"
Rather than face trial, Laird pled no contest and is now in prison in northern Vermont. But people were left wondering why such petty teen-age concerns would lead to murder. By itself Laird's crime might not seem like cause for alarm, but there is some concern because the number of young men in Vermont prisons is on the rise. It's still a small number, up to 260 from 105, but it's more than doubled in the last five years.
Theo Padnos, who used to teach literature in the jailhouse school, has a lot of experience with Vermont's youngest criminals. 60 Minutes II brought him back to meet with some of his former students. Laird Stanard was one of them.
"I think (Laird) was a typically unsuccessful teen-ager, just as I was. I mean he was probably a little chubbier than the average kid, he was probably slightly less talented at sports, slightly more spastic in English, slightly more goofy with the girls."
What led him to kill his mother? "That's a hard question," says Padnos. "My sense is that he was planning to do away with his parents, go on the road with the gun, the ammunition, the credit car and the car. And afterwards, I think he was prepared to sort of live on the lam."
As shocking as Laird Stanard's crime was, just over a year later came the Dartmouth murders. Two other kids from a small Vermont town, who appeared to be well-adjusted, were arrested for killing professors Half and Susanne Zantop. Sixteen-year-old Jimmy Parker and 17-year-old Robert Tulloch were popular and accomplished kids – one had been student council president, the other played school soccer. Like Laird Stanard, their parents had moved to Vermont seeking a safe and secure place to raise their children.
According to the indictment, Tulloch and Parker drove across state lines and knocked on the door of a house in a secluded neighborhood. No one was home, so they went next door and tried this house. Prosecutors say they claimed to be conducting an environmental study. It was a ploy that apparently appealed to Half Zantop because he let them in. Tulloch asked questions, the indictment says, while Parker took notes. Then, using foot-long commando knives they'd bought over the Internet, Tulloch reportedly stabbed Mr. Zantop to death and Parker slit Mrs. Zantop's throat.
Parker has pled guilty while Tulloch awaits trial. According to Parker's plea, before reaching the Zantops home, they had staked out four other houses over eight months, including one where they cut the phone line and pretended to have car trouble but were not let in. It was part of an elaborate plan to kill and get bank cards to fund a trip to Australia, prosecutors say. That they would make such elaborate plans did not surprise Theo Padnos.
Padnos says this kind of planning fits what he saw with his students: "The other kids are out there preparing for their athletic events, they're preparing for scholarships, they're preparing for their exams. And these kids have their own little extracurricular projects that they're working on just as diligently."
But why would such seemingly ordinary kids commit such brutal crimes? Will Emerson, 24, can answer that better than any expert – he's serving a 3- to 5-year sentence for armed robbery and started shoplifting when he was only 10.
He says he got a thrill from committing crimes. To keep getting that rush, Emerson says he escalated to burglary and then, armed robbery. He intentionally chose a gas station where he knew the cashier had a gun. "There was kind of the thrill of like, you know, what if he pulls the gun out. You know? Am I going to have to use mine?" He says he was "probably" prepared to use the gun.
But Emerson's mother turned him in before he could find out how far he'd go for that thrill. He's not surprised that accused Dartmouth murderers Parker and Tulloch were also risk takers, rock climbers who once scaled the state capitol at night and who broke into friends' houses when they weren't at home.
Why would two seemingly normal kids from Vermont do such a crime? "It's hard to say what everybody's motives would be. Mine would be just for the thrill of carrying it out. It's the ultimate taboo. It's like you're not supposed to kill."
"It confirms our worst fears in a way. That while we sleep, go about our business, leave our doors unlocked, children are prowling the landscape with knives," says author Ron Powers, himself an urban refugee. He moved his family to Vermont 14 years ago in search of the rural dream. He's written a book on youth violence and an article in the March issue of the Atlantic Monthly examining the Dartmouth murders. Powers was shocked to find that rural areas like Vermont are the new danger zone for America's children.
Says Powers: "Here is Vermont, which is supposed to be Eden, here is Dartmouth, a citadel of learning and civility. Here are the Zantops who are wonderful gregarious people whose doors are open to all of their colleagues. And somehow the two meet and there's blood on the floor."
"That doesn't get us anywhere, to think of it as scary. We've got to think of it as a reason, as a motivation to start paying attention in a way that we haven't paid attention now for quite a while."
Since Powers started paying attention, he's been alarmed by what he's learned. It's not only that there are more young men in prison; high school drop out rates are up from a decade ago and a brief influx of youth gangs in the 90's left behind a thriving heroin market. Powers thinks these are signs that kids today lack meaningful connections to the community – while rural life was once filled with chores and responsibilities, now kids are left alone with TV and video games – an unsupervised emptiness that can have dangerous results.
"They live in a place that means a lot to adults, especially adults who come from somewhere else and found Vermont bucolic and beautiful," says Powers. "To a child, bucolic may mean sterile, it may mean boring…no relationships, nothing-- I'm not being listened to."
There's nothing new about teen-agers complaining they're being ignored. What's shocking now, as Padnos found, is that some are trying to make their mark on the world through violence.
"Certain kids are passionate about committing crimes that are deliberate and methodical and careful," says Padnos. "Those are normal kids, except for the fact that their ambition, rather than making it into college is to commit a crime that is so horrific that it will get a decent amount of air play."
Nothing got more airplay than school shootings like Columbine. Will Emerson was paying attention. He says the Columbine shooters were making a statement that struck a chord with him and other kids who feel like outsiders.
"It was inevitable that it was gonna happen," he says. "It's a tragedy, you know. A lot of people, a lot of people, died, a lot of people got hurt. But it was gonna happen. These kids were smart, the Trenchcoat Mafia. They could look at it and they could say, 'This is happening in other places. This is happening all through society. The people who are different are always gonna get kind of stepped on by the norm.'"
Does the statement always have to be made through violence? "I don't think it has to be, but I think it always is," says Emerson.
But should a few high-profile murders in an unexpected place really be considered a crisis? According to Justice Department statistics, in the year 2000, crime rates in Vermont were some of the lowest in the country. Only one teen-ager under 18 was arrested for murder, and 33 for violent crimes. Powers has been accused of overreacting to a few isolated incidents.
"The crime rate in Vermont is low, thank goodness," he says. "We're not talking about an exploding rate of crime in Vermont; we're talking about acting out that is more violent and more apocalyptic at its edges, at its extreme edges, than it has ever been before."
He agrees that violent kids are a small minority. "Most kids do make it through adolescence and reattach to a meaningful and productive adult life. If you see teen-age killings of this kind, where there's no motive that you can understand, if you see that not as a crime wave, but as a kind of message, then I think you're starting to think in the right way."
The message: "We don't belong. Your world doesn't make sense to us," says Powers.
Laird Stanard now says that he lost "everything" when he killed his mother. "(I lost the only person) that actually understood me. The only person that would listen to not my side, not if I'm in trouble, I've got my side of the story. It's, 'What's your opinion on this? What do you think of this issue?'"
In the prison in northern Vermont, Laird Stanard is now serving 25 years to life, but he's trying to get his conviction overturned.
"Why do I have to be in prison, to prove I'm sorry? That's what I'm saying," he says.
Is he taking responsibility for his crime? "I have no responsibility to society. None whatsoever. None. I have responsibility to my mother and my father. That is it."