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Jim Kenyon: After 20 Years, Same Questions About Rob Briggs’ Death

  • Leann Briggs, of West Lebanon, N.H., lost her son Rob Briggs 20 years ago a few days after he was found unconscious on the side of Route 5 in Hartford, Vt. with injuries from being hit with a blunt object. His death is still the subject of an open police investigation and Leann Briggs has been unable to get any information from them on what may have happened the night he was struck. Monday, July 18, 2016. "I just want peole to understand that 20 years is a long time to spend waiting for answers, and I think the police know what happened," said Briggs. "I just want people to remember." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Leann Briggs, of West Lebanon, N.H., lost her son Rob Briggs 20 years ago a few days after he was found unconscious on the side of Route 5 in Hartford, Vt. with injuries from being hit with a blunt object. His death is still the subject of an open police investigation and Leann Briggs has been unable to get any information from them on what may have happened the night he was struck. Monday, July 18, 2016. "I just want peole to understand that 20 years is a long time to spend waiting for answers, and I think the police know what happened," said Briggs. "I just want people to remember." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Leann Briggs, of West Lebanon, N.H., lost her son Rob Briggs 20 years ago a few days after he was found unconscious on the side of Route 5 in Hartford, Vt. with injuries from being hit with a blunt object. His death is still the subject of an open police investigation and Leann Briggs has been unable to get any information from them on what may have happened the night he was struck. Monday, July 18, 2016. "I just want peole to understand that 20 years is a long time to spend waiting for answers, and I think the police know what happened," said Briggs. "I just want people to remember." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Leann Briggs, of West Lebanon, N.H., lost her son Rob Briggs 20 years ago a few days after he was found unconscious on the side of Route 5 in Hartford, Vt. with injuries from being hit with a blunt object. His death is still the subject of an open police investigation and Leann Briggs has been unable to get any information from them on what may have happened the night he was struck. Monday, July 18, 2016. "I just want peole to understand that 20 years is a long time to spend waiting for answers, and I think the police know what happened," said Briggs. "I just want people to remember." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Rob Briggs' friends speak with a reporter at an informal memorial along Route 5 in Hartford, Vt., on November 7, 1996, where he was found unconscious on July 30, 1996. He died two days later. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Rob Briggs photographed at Christmas time in 1995 at home in West Lebanon. (Courtesy Leann Briggs)

Published: 7/23/2016 11:58:38 PM
Modified: 7/27/2016 9:24:09 AM

Having kissed his girlfriend goodnight, 15-year-old Rob Briggs turned to her mother and stepfather before heading out their front door.

“Sleep well,” he said.

And so with a knapsack slung over his shoulder and a flashlight in hand, Briggs set out under a full moon for home.

He picked his way down Blanchard Drive’s steep incline to Route 5, where the asphalt flattens and the speed limit near the Hartford-Hartland town line climbs to 45 mph.

Already a few minutes after 11 o’clock, Briggs had walked the 4 miles between his girlfriend’s home and his house in West Lebanon enough times to know that he could make it by midnight — just ahead of the curfew set by his mother.

Rob Briggs never made it home.

That was July 30, 1996.

Shortly after starting along Route 5, Briggs was struck from behind by a blunt object that fractured his skull and caused bleeding of the brain. The blow rendered him unconscious.

Briggs died two days later at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center without ever regaining consciousness.

In a state report, police classified his death as a homicide. Twenty years later, the case remains unsolved.

I wasn’t involved in the Valley News’ initial coverage of the incident, but picked up the story a year later with staff writer Josh White, who is now an editor at the Washington Post.

From the outset of the investigation, Hartford Police and Vermont State Police zeroed in on the three teens who called 911 that night to report finding a young male lying unconscious along Route 5 with blood on his face.

Police said they believed the three teens knew more than they were telling. Investigators were also aware that Richard McEwan, Zachary White and Jacob Reed were no strangers to trouble.

In December 1995, White and Reed beat up a fellow Hartford High student outside the school cafeteria. The student suffered a concussion and a broken nose. White and Reed pleaded no contest to simple assault and were placed on probation.

At the time of Briggs’ death, McEwan, was out of Hartford High and living in Windsor. Eight months earlier, he had been convicted of simple assault for beating a Dartmouth College student in Hanover.

Briggs was a student at Hartford High the same time as Reed and White. (His father lived in Sharon, making him eligible to attend the school.) It’s possible he might have witnessed the Hartford High fight, or spoken out against what they had done.

Was that enough to give Reed and White, along with their friend, McEwan, a motive?

Although investigators never went public with their theory, it wasn’t a well-kept secret.

The theory was simple: The three teens happened by circumstance to be driving Route 5 at the same time that Briggs was walking home, and they took action after noticing him. After passing Briggs in a pickup, in which White was behind the wheel, they turned around. They slowed to a crawl, driving up to Briggs from behind. Someone in the vehicle then struck Briggs with a blunt object — a baseball bat, metal pipe, or shovel, perhaps.

“Clearly, they stood out for potentially knowing more than they had revealed,” said then-Hartford Police Chief Joe Estey when I called him last week at his home in suburban Atlanta. “But the right circumstances never came up for us to find out more.”

Over the years, I haven’t talked to anyone who thinks that Briggs was killed intentionally.

“I don’t think they meant to kill him,” his mother, Leann, told me again last week. “They were just stupid kids, and it turned out much differently than they anticipated.”

Twenty years later, the theory remains just that — unproven. And the likelihood that the facts will ever be ascertained diminishes as time goes by — although some still hold out hope.

Doug Robinson is among them. As a Hartford police detective in the summer of Briggs’ death, he interviewed dozens of teens and young adults.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that some of them had knowledge of what had happened,” Robinson told me last week. “As people get older and become more mature, there’s this hope that they will come around and decide the (Briggs) family needs to know what happened so they can have some closure.”

Robinson, now the police chief in Norwich, drives past the spot where Briggs was found about once a week on his way to the Hartford Recycling Center. “It will be solved, hopefully,” he said. “Someday.”

It had been an “up and down” summer, Leann Briggs recalled. She and her husband, Bob, had split up in 1995. Along with Rob, the couple had a younger son, Steven, who was still in elementary school.

Leann moved to West Lebanon, not far from the bridge leading to downtown White River Junction, and Bob remained in Sharon. I recently stopped by Bob Briggs’ workplace and he politely declined to talk about his son’s case.

Rob was growing up fast. He had met Erika Trottier, a 17-year-old senior-to-be at Hartford High, and the two had become nearly inseparable that summer. They wrote poems to each other and read books together.

“They were soul mates,” said Erika’s mother, Pam Quimby.

“He was not the typical 15-year-old,” Erika said in a 1997 interview. “He had a very intelligent mind; he thought about things deeply.”

He was also a free spirit. “He was definitely a hippie,” Quimby told me recently. “He marched to his own drummer.”

A friend of Leann Briggs once asked why she allowed her son to wear shorts to school during the winter. “I’m just happy that he’s finally wearing wool socks with his sandals,” she replied.

His straight dark hair fell to his shoulders. He listened to reggae and was experimenting with a Rastafarian lifestyle, right down to smoking marijuana.

That summer, Leann was getting up at 3:30 a.m. to open the Four Aces, the West Lebanon diner that she ran with her brother. When she peeked into Rob’s bedroom one morning before leaving for work, he wasn’t there. Soon afterward, she gave him a stern reminder about not staying out past midnight.

In the hours before Rob was found, Leann and Steven, 8, met her sister for dinner in downtown White River Junction.

Leann invited Rob to join them.

“Can Erika come?” he asked.

“Sure,” his mother said.

Rob had a mushroom burger. After dinner, they went back to West Lebanon. After playing in the yard with his younger brother for a while, Rob informed his mother that he was walking Erika home.

“All right,” she said. “Be home by midnight.”

Rob, who was not yet old enough to drive, didn’t ask his mother to drive them, or pick him up. Walking was his thing.

Erika, who didn’t have her driver’s license, seemed to enjoy walking almost as much as her boyfriend. “It was her way to be with Rob,” said Pam Quimby.

Pam and her husband, Skip, would have gladly driven him home that night. “We asked him all the time if he wanted a ride,” Pam said. “Of course, he always said no.”

At 12:30 a.m., Leann was asleep when she heard a knock. A flashlight shined through the sliding glass door. The Lebanon police officer on the other side had come to notify her that Rob had been taken by ambulance to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. The officer had no other information.

Shortly after Rob’s arrival at the emergency center, a nurse scribbled in his medical report: “No obvious trauma.”

The nurse’s report also mentioned that Hartford police had relayed a message to the ambulance crew about Briggs having a history of drug use. A year after her son’s death, Leann shared with me the DHMC medical records that suggest police might have incorrectly assumed at first that Briggs had a drug-related problem and had injured himself in a fall. An autopsy, however, found no measurable amounts of illegal drugs or alcohol in his system.

That night at DHMC, the medical staff realized soon after their initial assessment that they were dealing with a serious head injury. Briggs was rushed into surgery to relieve pressure from the bleeding on the right side of his brain.

Coming out of the operating room, doctors couldn’t offer much hope. The damage to his brain was irreparable. He wasn’t going to wake up.

For two days, Rob’s family and friends set up camp outside his room. The Four Aces sent over sandwiches. Erika sat next to his bed, reading aloud from the works of Shel Siverstein, one of his favorite writers.

His friends entered the room in pairs. Leann and the rest of his family followed. “They kept him on the machines long enough for everyone to say goodbye,” Leann said. “Then they turned off the machines.”

The police investigation got off to a sluggish start.

After receiving the 911 call at 11:20 p.m., Hartford cops went to the scene to assist the paramedics. “We thought we were dealing with a person who had a physical condition,” said Capt. David Rich, now retired, in the story that I helped write a year after Briggs’ death.

Because of that assumption, police didn’t return to the scene that night to look for evidence or witnesses.

Rather than be treated as evidence at the scene, Briggs’ knapsack was taken to DHMC and Erika ended up taking it home. A few days went by before police came upon the knapsack at the Quimbys’ home.

It was too late. “If there were any fibers or hair on that bag, it’s gone,” then-State’s Attorney Patricia Zimmerman, now a retired state judge, said later.

After learning that Briggs’ death had been caused by a blow to the head, investigators had more questions for McEwan, Reed and White.

McEwan talked to them early on, but when police went back to him a month later, he took the advice of his attorney, Michael Kainen, now a state judge, and declined to say anything more.

All three teens were asked to take a polygraph test, which can’t be admitted as evidence in a trial, but police use as an investigative tool.

Acting on their lawyers’ advice, McEwan and Reed declined. White initially agreed, and went with his parents to the state police barracks in Rockingham to have it administered. But his parents became upset with the line of questioning and called off the test before it could be completed.

In October 1996, Reed’s parents spent $1,200 for him to take a private polygraph test. His attorney, George Ostler, of Norwich, said the test showed he wasn’t involved.

The state’s attorney put little stock in it, noting that Reed hadn’t been asked whether he had any knowledge of what had happened to Briggs.

The New Hampshire Medical Examiner’s office spent more than six months on the case, but couldn’t determine whether Briggs’ death was a homicide or accidental trauma.

Police continued to investigate the case as a homicide. “It’s probably going to take a confession to solve this,” Rich said in 1997.

As time has passed, a cold case has become even colder.

On July 23, 1997 — 51 weeks after Briggs was found — White was killed in a car crash on Interstate 91 in Hartland. He was 17.

McEwan and Reed moved in and out of the Upper Valley, but trouble seemed to follow wherever they went.

In April 2008, McEwan, who had worked for a time in the building trades in Nantucket, Mass., began serving a 2½- to 7-year sentence in the New Hampshire State Prison for theft. After being paroled in June 2012, he returned on a “technical parole violation” in January 2014, according to the state’s Department of Corrections records.

He was released again in June 2014.

On July 2, 2014, a week after getting out of prison, McEwan died from a heroin overdose in Manchester, N.H. He was 37.

Last week, I stopped by his father’s business in Hartford. “This is going to sound kind of strange, but he was a great kid when he wasn’t on that crap,” Richard Nott said.

He hadn’t seen his son much in the last couple of years before his death. “He was 37 years old. He wasn’t going to listen to Dad.”

Reed has had his own demons.

Within a month of Briggs’ death, Reed entered a private drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Dublin, N.H.

Over the years, “he’s had some relapses,” his mother told me. “Drugs and alcohol have been a struggle.”

In the early 2000s, while in Indiana, Reed was involved in a St. Patrick’s Day brawl. He served two years in prison for battery and was released in January 2005, according to the Indiana Department of Correction. Shortly after his troubles began in Indiana, he got a visit from a Hartford police detective, his mother said. (Jane Reed moved to North Carolina after she and her husband divorced. She has since remarried.)

“Hartford police were hoping to make a deal with Jake,” Jane said.

In exchange for telling them all he knew about what had happened to Briggs, Vermont authorities would work with Indiana to get him an early release. The police theorized that Reed wasn’t the one who had delivered the blow that killed Briggs, but had been in the pickup.

“He’d already told them everything,” she said. “There was nothing more that he could give them.”

In 2012, Reed ran afoul of the law in Massachusetts. A Hartford officer and Robinson, who by that time was chief in Norwich, traveled to Massachusetts to meet with Reed.

“It was an opportunity to see if he had any more information, but he didn’t want to talk,” Robinson said last week.

A couple of weeks ago, I found an address for Reed’s mother in Newbury, Vt. She and her husband split their time between their homes in North Carolina and Vermont.

She immediately let me know that she was less than thrilled with the way the Valley News, and my writings, in particular, had portrayed her son in the Briggs case and the fight at Hartford High.

But she was kind enough to let me in. With her two young grandsons playing on the porch, where she could keep an eye on them, we talked for a half hour.

“I wish the Briggs family could have some peace,” she said. “But these kids didn’t do it. It didn’t happen the way police wanted to think it had.”

Someone would have talked, she pointed out, particularly with the drugs and alcohol that they sometimes consumed. “You couldn’t keep a secret like that for 20 years,” she said. “You just can’t.”

Her son currently has a job in another state for a siding company, she said. She wouldn’t say where he’s living, but told me that he has a girlfriend and is helping raise her child. “He’s doing well,” she said.

I asked her to pass along my phone number and email to her son. “I don’t think you’ll hear from him,” she said.

I haven’t.

She still wonders why police focused so much attention on her son and his two friends instead of exploring other possibilities.

One theory I’ve heard involves a large truck and trailer carrying a piece of heavy equipment dangling over the edge that could have clipped Briggs from behind without the driver ever realizing it.

“It’s not the mostly likely scenario, but unfortunately we don’t have enough information to rule it out,” Estey said in 1997.

Last week, Estey told me that police also considered the possibility of someone randomly targeting hitchhikers or walkers late at night. But police couldn’t find any similar cases.

Without Estey having to say it, police always circled back to the three teens. “I always thought we would figure out what had happened,” he said. “More often than not, someone gets drunk or high, and starts talking or bragging about it.

“We had enough specifics that I thought sooner or later that someone would talk.”

Estey, the chief in Hartford for 19 years before retiring in 2006, now works in Georgia for a private company that develops 911 emergency systems. It was a “very frustrating” case, said Estey, a past president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, because “you want to make it right for (Briggs’) family.”

The fact it’s never been cracked “leads you to believe that someone had a secret,” he said. “With cold cases like these you never know when someone is going to walk through the (police station) door and say, ‘I can’t live with this any more.’ ”

On a recent sunny afternoon, I sat with Leann Briggs at a picnic table outside the Four Aces, which she still owns with her brother.

After her son’s death, Leann heard about a woman who had passed him while he was walking in the opposite direction. The woman recalled seeing another vehicle in the vicinity, but she didn’t have any details.

Hoping to jog the woman’s memory, Leann paid for her to see a hypnotist. The woman was still unable to describe the vehicle that she’d seen.

Leann’s last contact with Hartford police came about 10 years ago when she asked to look at her son’s case file. That wasn’t possible, she was told. It was still an open case.

Still, she says, a phone call every once in a while from police would be nice. “I’d just like to know they haven’t forgotten my son.”

Phil Kasten, who previously worked in Maryland, took over as Hartford’s chief last year. I emailed him about the Briggs case.

“Since Robert Briggs’ untimely death, some of Vermont’s top investigators have led or assisted with the investigation, including troopers and Hartford police,” he wrote back. “The department has amassed countless interviews and pieces of physical evidence. Although the case is unresolved, efforts have stalled with all leads currently exhausted.”

Steven Briggs was 8 when his brother was killed. “I don’t remember much about it,” he told me. “I just remember that he was really good to me. He’d walk me to the playground and to the store.”

Steven knew his mother keeps a box of newspaper clippings and other pieces of information, including the autopsy report, about his brother’s case.

“I wouldn’t mind looking at it,” he said to her a while back.

But before he’d had a chance, Steven, 27, and I met at the Valley News. He came in after finishing work one day at BJ’s Wholesale Club, where he manages the meat department.

He wore his hair long — just like his brother.

His parents had tried hard for him to not become “angry and bitter” about his brother’s death, or the lack of answers in the police investigation, he said.

That helped him over the years cope with his brother’s death, he said.

After we talked for a while, I asked if he’d like to read about the case. I brought out a bound edition of the papers from the summer of 1996 and the lengthy story that was published a year later.

Alone in the paper’s upstairs conference room, Steven sifted through the stories. Before he left, we talked some more.

“I was so young, resolution has never been a necessity for me,” he said. “But any type of closure would probably help the rest of the family.”

For several years, Pam and Skip Quimby tended a small shrine set up in the field next to the spot where Briggs was found. They cut the grass and kept the area around the makeshift memorial clear of trash. Skip put up wooden cross that he built out of scrap lumber.

But the spot is no longer marked. The grass has grown up, and the wooden cross has disintegrated and disappeared.

Rotted away by time.

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




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