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Jim Kenyon: 42 years later, a fatal Norwich hit-and-run remains a mystery

  • Forty-two years after Eric Lahar was struck and killed on Route 5 in Norwich, Vt., his death remains an unsolved mystery. (Images courtesy Phil Lahar, 1996 background map by U.S. Dept. of the Interior Geological Survey)



Valley News Columnist
Saturday, July 13, 2019

Two hours after sunrise, the deep grass along Route 5 in Norwich was still heavy with dew when two men hired to mow the roadside in the summer of 1977 made a gruesome discovery.

Beneath a small sumac tree at the bottom of an overgrown embankment, the decomposing body of an adult white male was lying curled on its side.

On July 14, 1977 — before cellphones — Jack Darling and Everett Straw couldn’t just call 911. With no houses in sight, Darling hitchhiked 3 miles south to Norwich’s Main Street, where he flagged down police officer Michael Buerger, who was on patrol shortly before 8 a.m.

With Darling in the cruiser’s back seat, Buerger stopped long enough only to pick up Norwich Police Chief Herbert Fellows. (The town’s primary cruiser was down for repairs that Thursday.)

Three miles north of Ledyard Bridge, Buerger pulled into the parking lot at the Log Cabin Restaurant, which wouldn’t open until later in the day.

Darling and Straw pointed across the road to the area where their mowing had come to an abrupt halt. The two officers scrambled down the 10-foot embankment toward the railroad tracks that run between Route 5 and the Connecticut River.

Flies swarmed the body, which was clad in black trousers and a brown shirt. A “strong odor of decay was evident,” Buerger typed in his police report.

The man had “longish gray hair” that was balding on top. He was barefoot. A brown leather coat was partially visible under the man’s stomach.

Buerger radioed a public safety dispatcher. Police needed Regional Medical Examiner Ronald Gadway, of South Royalton, right away.

While the Norwich officers waited for Gadway, Straw and Darling showed them a disassembled green fishing rod and canvas knapsack they had found earlier in the morning. The items weren’t far from where they had discovered the body.

Hoping to find a wallet bearing some form of identification, Fellows opened the knapsack. He pulled out a small portable radio, a folding umbrella, bait boxes, a pair of moccasins and an unopened quart of Schlitz beer.

But no wallet.

At 8:45 a.m., Gadway arrived. At the bottom of the embankment, he crouched close to the body. From the right hip pocket of the man’s slacks, Gadway lifted a worn black leather wallet. The contents included a $1 bill, a Vermont hunting license and a Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital ID card.

Authorities now had the man’s name and other pertinent information: Eric Lahar, 5-foot-11, 195 pounds, of South Strafford. He was 28.

Authorities at the scene didn’t know it at the time, but the previous day a Hartford couple had reported their adult son missing. Art and Charlotte Lahar lived near the VA Medical Center, where she was a secretary and he worked in the finance department.

Their son’s co-workers at Mary Hitchcock had called his parents after he failed to show up for work earlier in the week.

Police now knew — later confirmed by dental records — who they had found. But just how did Lahar die?

At the state lab in Burlington, where Lahar’s body had been transported, Vermont Chief Medical Examiner Lawrence Harris immediately went to work. An autopsy hopefully would provide valuable clues into the circumstances around Lahar’s death.

But before starting the postmortem examination, Harris called the Norwich police station. Just by looking at the body, Harris could tell that Lahar had suffered multiple compound facial and skull fractures due to “blunt impact to the face.”

Harris’ early determination confirmed the overriding suspicion of Gadway, the regional medical examiner, and police at the scene: Lahar hadn’t died of natural causes.

During the course of the autopsy, Harris observed that both of Lahar’s thighs were broken. Lahar had also suffered multiple contusions to his legs, right thigh and hip.

Beyond a doubt, Lahar was the victim of a hit-and-run. But Harris went a step further in his autopsy report when he wrote, “the victim appears to have been struck from the front by a vehicle.”

How did Harris draw that conclusion?

The injuries to Lahar’s forehead and face: They indicated it was likely that Lahar “would have struck his head against the windshield of a striking vehicle,” Harris wrote.

After hearing from Harris, investigators were fairly certain that Lahar had been walking or standing on the roadside opposite the Log Cabin Restaurant when he was struck. It was possible — but highly unlikely — that the hit-and-run had occurred somewhere else and his body had been dumped there.

It was much more likely that a speeding vehicle had hit Lahar with such force that it flipped him headfirst into the windshield and he was hurled down the embankment.

Forty-two years later — to the day his body was discovered — Lahar’s death remains an unsolved mystery.

Who hit him? Why didn’t they stop? Was it an accident? Or was it something more sinister?

Even with all the time that’s passed, it’s conceivable the person responsible for Lahar’s death is still alive. A driver who was in his 20s at the time would now be around retirement age. And he — or she — could still be living in the Upper Valley.

The late 1970s was a good time to be a young adult. With the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973, the military draft was over. The economy, while by no means booming, had come out of recession. (Unfortunately, the disco era with the release of John Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever in 1977 was still going strong.)

Eric Lahar had graduated from Hartford High School in 1966. He played clarinet in the school band, sang in the chorus and enjoyed a lead role in the drama club’s production of Graham Greene’s The Potting Shed.

On Sunday mornings, he sang in the choir at White River United Methodist Church, where his parents were longtime members.

Lahar’s parents were “salt of the earth,” recalled David Briggs, a friend of Eric’s who is now a downtown White River Junction business owner. “His mother probably never said a naughty word in her life.”

The Lahars raised two sons, Eric and Phil, the youngest by two years. Both boys were active in the Boy Scouts. Eric made it all the way to Eagle Scout.

“He was a nice kid, very polite,” said Carol Marcou, who grew up in the same neighborhood and was a high school classmate.

“He was an exceptional student,” added John Severance, another classmate.

In high school, Lahar was no stranger to weekend parties, but he wasn’t a “heavy drinker,” said Don Libbey, a friend who graduated a year later.

On summer nights, Lahar was among the teens who hung out at the drive-in theater on Sykes Mountain Avenue. “We were all just happy-go-lucky kids,” classmate Luna Ricker said.

After high school, some of Lahar’s classmates — like Severance — went off to Vietnam. Lahar was one of the luckier ones who headed to college. At Rutgers University in New Jersey, he traveled the globe with the school’s glee club before graduating in 1970.

At Rutgers, Lahar met his future wife. On June 1, 1974, Lahar and April Lee were married in Hanover. Both landed jobs at Mary Hitchcock, which at the time was still located in Hanover. Lahar became the administrator of the hospital’s coronary care unit, and Lee worked in record keeping.

Lahar’s social life revolved around music. He continued to play the clarinet, joining Briggs’ band called the Hungry Five. He also belonged to a dance band that played at high school dances.

In the 1970s, the Log Cabin on Route 5 was a popular watering hole for young people who had returned to the Upper Valley from war or college. And some who had never left.

The building still stands today, but it no longer resembles a log cabin. Its trademark front windows that looked out onto the Connecticut River have been boarded up, as well.

Over the years, the building served as home to Joseph’s Waterworks, which featured live music in the 1980s; a gospel church; and Nordic Skater, an outdoor sporting goods company.

Currently shuttered, the building is being converted into a small hostel for hikers (the Appalachian Trail runs through Norwich) and a rental outlet for kayaks, bikes and other outdoor equipment.

In the ’70s, the restaurant side of the Log Cabin was known for its steaks and seafood. The adjacent lounge featured a small dance floor and a horseshoe-shaped bar.

Severance couldn’t say for sure if it was on the fateful night or not, but “that’s where I saw Eric last,” he told me.

At the request of the Windsor County State’s Attorney’s Office, Vermont State Police were called in to assist Norwich police with the investigation. Cpl. George Strong, a state police detective, took the lead.

Investigators set about to learn everything they could about the young man discovered at the bottom of the embankment. They found out his marriage had hit a rough patch; the couple separated a few months before his death. Lahar lived in South Strafford with his black Lab, Hannibal, in an A-frame.

A member of the Hartford Rod & Gun Club, Lahar was an avid fisherman. On the evening of July 9, 1977, a Saturday, Lahar met up with a friend, Ken Olsen, a Hanover dentist in his early 30s.

They headed in Olsen’s car to the northern edge of Norwich, where the Ompompanoosuc empties into the Connecticut, to fish for perch and rock bass.

Later that evening, they made their way to the Log Cabin. After spending time at the bar, Olsen said he was heading home to get some rest.

But Lahar wasn’t ready to call it a night. Another man, who is not identified in police reports, offered to drive him home later.

Lahar walked out to the parking lot with Olsen to move his fishing gear into the man’s Mercury Cougar.

Lahar’s ride home, however, must have fallen through. It’s believed Lahar stayed at the bar until around its 1 a.m. closing time before walking across the road with his fishing gear. He stuffed his moccasins into the knapsack. Apparently, he had decided to hitchhike the dozen or so miles home to South Strafford.

The day after Lahar’s body was discovered, William Ford, of South Strafford, heard the news on the radio and called Norwich police.

Ford and his wife were driving north on Route 5 around 1 a.m. on the night that Lahar went missing. When Ford came over a rise in the road, he spotted a hitchhiker in dark pants and a brown leather jacket, standing along the northbound lane at the end of the guardrails.

The man’s “thumb was out, but it was just hanging out at his side,” Ford said. And how unusual, Ford remarked to his wife, that “someone would be hitchhiking at that hour.”

Across the road, the Log Cabin was dark. Ford didn’t recall seeing any other vehicles shortly after passing the hitchhiker in the leather jacket.

Harris’ autopsy report offered the most promising clue: The front grille-work of the vehicle that struck Lahar had left indelible marks on his upper legs. “Such a pattern injury has been seen in other pedestrian impacts and, in the past, has been correlated with certain grille-work patterns in certain vehicles,” Harris explained.

“Further, it is notable that the impact sights of the legs, if they are to be correlated with the height of a vehicle’s bumper, strongly suggest that the vehicle involved was not a passenger car but a small truck.”

The grille-work of a Chevy pickup, or maybe a Dodge, he surmised. That narrowed the search, but the investigation still eventually stalled.

In early December 1977 — five months after Lahar’s body was discovered — an advertisement appeared in the Valley News. The ad offered a “substantial reward” for information leading to identification of the person or vehicle responsible for the hit-and-run crash that had killed Lahar. “All responses strictly confidential,” the ad stated.

Police didn’t know who was behind the ad. Neither did Phil Lahar or his parents. A Norwich law firm had placed the ad on behalf of an undisclosed client.

After it ran, Strong told the Valley News that he was still hopeful the case could be solved. A hit-and-run crash where the driver doesn’t come forward is “very unusual” in Vermont, he said.

“After a while people do get to talking,” he told the paper. “We aren’t losing any sleep on the case, but I’m sure whoever was in the accident is.”

If the person responsible for Lahar’s death had reported it immediately, there likely would have been no repercussions, Strong said. Now, the person probably would be charged with manslaughter.

Nothing came out of the ad, and case No. 190 grew colder.

At the time of his brother’s death, Phil Lahar was attending graduate school in upstate New York, but he stayed in touch with investigators. In August 1978, Phil Lahar asked Strong for an update.

“Many hours of work was put into this case which was extremely frustrating,” Strong wrote back.

Strong mentioned a woman had called a police dispatcher to report that her son “may be involved.” However, “no one by that name could ever be located for additional information,” he wrote.

Over the years, police have checked out leads as they periodically turned up:

■In June 1979, a vehicle was recovered from a water-filled pit at the abandoned Strafford copper mines. At first, investigators were hopeful the vehicle might be linked to Lahar’s hit-and-run death.

The vehicle was stolen in Strafford nearly a year before Lahar died, but it turned out to be a different type and make from what the medical examiner had determined was involved in the hit-and-run.

■In 1982, the Norwich police chief at the time, William Luczynski, told the Valley News about a “long-distance tip” he had recently received from the Crime Stoppers program in Denver. In a message left with Norwich police, an anonymous caller claimed Lahar’s death was not accidental.

The call turned up no new information, and the “investigation once again had hit a dead end,” the Valley News reported.

■That same year, in August, Norwich police received another call that could be described as nothing less than bizarre.

A caller named Elizabeth Landers, of Woodstock, told the officer who fielded the call that three days before his death, Lahar had “called her and was drunk. He told her (that) he was in danger and wanted to see her. He advised her the ‘Masons’ were going to get him.”

The information was relayed to state police, but nothing came of it. Forty-two years later, Phil Lahar doesn’t know what to make of the information — other than his father was a member of a Masonic lodge and active in a Shriners choral group.

Phil Lahar, who lives in Vienna, Va., and none of his brother’s friends whom I talked with could recall an Elizabeth Landers.

Now that he’s retired, the 68-year-old Phil Lahar has been poring over investigative reports, including autopsy notes, and a detailed sketch of the crime scene that Norwich police shared with his family.

With the information in hand, Phil Lahar developed a theory on how his brother was killed:

His brother was hitchhiking north on Route 5, but the pickup that struck him head-on was driving south.

How could that happen?

On the lengthy flat stretch of road where the hit-and-run occurred, the pickup was passing another vehicle. That would have placed the pickup in the northbound lane — the wrong side of the road.

At that point, Eric Lahar turned to face the oncoming truck. Blinded by the headlights and with the high speed the pickup was traveling, he never had a chance to jump out of harm’s way.

Why didn’t the driver of the car who was being passed stop?

The two drivers could have been racing on the straightaway. Alcohol also could have been a factor, Phil Lahar posits.

Harris’ autopsy report adds credence to the brother’s theory. Considering the “pattern of injuries observed on the body,” it appears Lahar was “struck by the left-hand side” of a Chevrolet pickup, Harris concluded.

To hit Lahar from the left-hand — or driver’s — side, the pickup must have been in the wrong lane.

I can think of a couple scenarios that involved only one vehicle: the pickup’s driver intentionally swerved into the northbound lane, which would make Lahar’s death more than an accidental hit-and-run. Or the driver could have been so impaired that he or she was in the wrong lane when Lahar was killed.

This September, Eric Lahar would have turned 71.

From a police standpoint, the investigation into his death remains open. But short of a deathbed confession by the driver, who may no longer be alive, the case is likely to remain unsolved.

Every five years, the Hartford High Class of ’66 builds a float for the school’s annual alumni parade. On the float, Lahar’s senior portrait, along with those of other deceased classmates, is displayed for everyone to see.

“For us, his classmates and friends, whenever you have a tragedy like this you want some explanation,” said Gregory Cook, a retired social worker who lives in Wilder. “We never had that with Eric. It was such a mystery.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.