Saturday, November 6, 2010

Scars Left on a Small Town

Reliving a brutal crime that left scars on town

Associated Press, October 25, 2010

"We're about to do the most evil thing this town has ever seen."

Murder defendant Steven Spader is said to have uttered those words as he and three other teens allegedly drove to a house in this town of 2,000 that they had targeted to burglarize and kill its occupants for the thrill of it.

Spader's trial was to start today, and jurors were put on notice during selection that they would see graphic photos of the victims and might hear from survivor Jaimie Cates, now 12. They were prepared for attorneys on the other side not to even put on their own witnesses.

Many potential jurors were disqualified after saying they were sure Spader was guilty, or were terrified by the crime and the prospect of viewing the evidence. Some said they would be skeptical if Spader's attorneys did not provide evidence of their own.

In Mont Vernon, the trial is reawakening the crime that longtime resident and state Rep. Linda Foster said "ripped at the heart and soul of a sweet little New England town."

Susan King Ecklund, who was planting bulbs in front of the fire station last week with other volunteers, said: "I don't think you ever get over it, but I think the trial just means everything will get stirred up again. It just rocks everybody."

The intruders cut power to the contemporary ranch-style home before dawn Oct. 4, 2009. Once inside, they used an iPod taken from Jaimie Cates' room to illuminate their path to the master bedroom, where Jaimie and her mother, Kimberly Cates, 42, slept. Jaimie's father, David, was away on a business trip.

Prosecutors say that Spader, then 17, and Christopher Gribble, then 19, hacked mother and daughter with a machete and a knife, killing Kimberly and severely wounding Jaimie. The girl survived by feigning death as her assailants continued to slash and kick her, she told police.

Jaimie, who had achieved a black belt in karate four months earlier, called police from a cell phone and was still conscious when Milford Sgt. Kevin Furlong arrived at the house.

"They killed my mommy," she told him, according to a state police affidavit.

Two other teens in the house at the time, William Marks and Quinn Glover, have reached plea agreements and are expected to testify against Spader. Prosecutors say they witnessed but did not take part in the attacks. Gribble is to go on trial in February.

It was Marks who wrote a friend from prison about Spader's alleged "most evil thing" statement en route to the house, and a prosecutor quoted the letter during Marks' plea hearing.

David and Jaimie Cates still live at the house, but the facade differs from the way it looked a year ago. The front yard is anchored by the low-cut stumps of old growth pines that Cates had leveled. A woman who answered the door at the home last week said no one wanted to speak with a reporter.

Jurors were scheduled to tour the Cates property today. They will not be taken inside the home.

Spader faces life in prison without possibility of parole if convicted of murder. Midway through jury selection, Spader buzz-cut his shaggy black hair, bringing his appearance back to the skinhead look he had when arrested days after the crime.

Spader often smiles and interacts with his attorenys. During a hearing on a defense motion to limit the number of photographs depicting injuries to the victims, Spader stared intently at the pictures, often cocking his head to get a better angle, as defense attorney Andrew Winters shuffled through them.

Defense attorney Jonathan Cohen would not comment on the defense strategy except to say, "He's presumed innocent. They have to prove he's guilty, and we intend to put them to their burden."

Mont Vernon residents are bracing for the trial and gruesome details that are expected come to light.

"The trial is on everybody's mind," said Diane Fredericks, whose property backs up to the Cates'. "It's so heinous. We lock our doors now. We never used to."

Fredericks, who occasionally chats with David Cates when he walks his dog, said it was remarkable the family still lived there.

"He's a strong person," Fredericks said. "I have a lot of respect for him and for everything Jaimie went through."

Local schools expect that counselors might be busy dealing with students' reactions to the graphic details about the attack on their young classmate, said Foster, the state representative.

"In a small town like this, there are just no words to describe how disturbing this is," Foster said.

"It changed the fabric. It made you realize that life is very precarious."

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