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‘She never let life defeat her’: Retired academic dean slain on Vt. trail remembered by family

Honoree Fleming, a 77-year-old retired scientist and academic, was shot to death while walking on a rail trail in sleepy Castleton, Vt.

Honoree Fleming and her husband, Ron Powers.Ron Powers

CASTLETON, Vt. — Ron Powers remembers the day, some 35 years ago, when he and his wife, Honoree Fleming, moved from New York City to Vermont with their two sons.

“We won’t have to lock the cars anymore,” Honoree Fleming told her husband.

All these years later, Ron Powers, 81, sat at a table in their house where he, his wife, and their son Dean lived a quiet life, reflecting on his wife’s enduring faith in the sense of security small town Vermont afforded. It turns out Vermont is not immune to the guns and madness and random violence that plague other parts of the country.

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“She went for a walk in the meadow and America came out and killed her,” he said.

On the afternoon of Oct. 5, her 45th wedding anniversary, 77-year-old Fleming was on a popular walking rail trail above a sprawling meadow in this tiny college town where she had retired as an academic dean. She was just a couple of miles from her home when someone ambushed her and shot her in the head.

There were no witnesses, police say. Powers said the police told him they suspect the murder was random, but haven’t ruled out she was targeted, and have cautioned residents to stay in groups when outside. Vermont State Police released a sketch of a person of interest, a young white man with short red hair, about 5 feet 10 inches tall, who was seen walking on the rail trail shortly before Fleming’s body was found.

Police are combing through hundreds of tips that have been called in to a hot line. Major Dan Trudeau, chief of the State Police criminal division, said investigators are prepared to spend as long as it takes to identify the suspect.

“This type of case is going to be probably a blend of old-fashioned detective work,” Trudeau said, “along with new age technology-based detective work.”

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Over the last decade, Vermont has averaged just 14 homicides a year. But until someone is charged with Fleming’s murder, many in this town of just over 1,000 will remain feeling uneasy and unsafe. Here, in a small, rural town that hadn’t experienced a homicide since 2014, when a local farmer shot his daughter’s abusive boyfriend, the fear and grief are palpable.

Last week, two members of the Vermont State University ski team, Karleigh Hollister, 18, and Amanda Quiles, 20, worked out in a field adjacent to the rail trail where Fleming was shot.

“It’s definitely scary,” said Hollister, a sophomore. “We walked the trail almost every day of the week. But I can’t go on it again.”

Quiles nodded, saying, “Everybody’s scared. Whoever did this is still out there.”

Tammy Arruda, a hairstylist and close friend of the Powers family, is among the many local residents who have spoken to investigators.

“It had to be random,” Arruda said. “Honoree didn’t have a mean bone in her body. She was so unassuming. You would never have known how brilliant and accomplished she was.”

Arruda said the trail where Fleming was killed, which cuts through the Vermont State University campus, would normally be teeming with students and townspeople on a pleasant autumn afternoon. But the university’s 2,400 students were on fall break, and many residents were attending an event honoring local business people.

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If, as some people here believe, Fleming’s killer has a mental illness that contributed to the crime, it wouldn’t surprise her husband. He literally wrote a book on it, “No One Cares About Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America.”

Powers is a best-selling author who was the first television critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, in 1973 for the Chicago Sun-Times. His book about mental illness was deeply personal, chronicling how he and his wife tried to navigate a confusing and broken mental health system with two sons who struggled with schizophrenia.

“I’ve brooded on this,” Powers said. “Could the person who did this be mentally ill? One of the ways I’m trying to survive this is to drive home the point that we need to change the way we as a society deal with guns and mental illness. Because, right now, we don’t deal with them.”

Powers and Fleming met in 1976, by chance, on a flight from New York to Chicago.

“She was the last person to board,” he recalled. “I looked up from my seat and am pretty sure I was in love with her before she sat down next to me.”

She was working as a research scientist in biochemistry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. He was on a leave from the Sun-Times. He left Chicago for her and married her, spending five years in New York. By 1988, they had been offered positions at Middlebury College and were still mulling it over one day when they came out to find their car had been broken into and ransacked.

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“We looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s move to Vermont,’ ” Powers said.

They settled in Middlebury, and their sons, Dean and Kevin, loved it.

“It was a paradise for kids,” Powers said. “Big meadows. A little pond behind this ‘Alice in Wonderland’ building where we lived. Dean and Kevin had only known urban darkness. In Vermont, they discovered the night.”

Fleming was on a tenure track at Middlebury, while Powers was an adjunct professor of creative writing.

In 1996, after seven years at Middlebury, Fleming’s tenure was rejected. Powers resigned his position at the college in support of his wife. The family survived some threadbare years before Powers got a contract to write “Flags of Our Fathers,” which later became a Clint Eastwood movie.

Fleming landed a job at Castleton, where she caught on as a popular faculty member and quickly became a dean. She made the 30-mile commute from Middlebury until 2005, when tragedy struck.

“Our son Kevin was a week shy of his 21st birthday,” Ron Powers said. “Kevin, a gifted musician, had battled schizophrenia for three years. He hanged himself in our basement.”

They couldn’t stay in that house. So they moved to Castleton, where they found a welcoming, loving community.

Fleming retired from Castleton in 2012 but didn’t stop working. She threw herself back into scientific work on cell growth that she had began some 40 years earlier. She was determined to finish that research because it had potential to help, among others, cancer patients.

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Whenever Powers and his son got up in the morning, they found Fleming in her red bathrobe, a neglected cup of coffee at her side, at work on her computer in the kitchen. In May, she published her paper on that work in Advances in Bioscience and Biotechnology, an open-access journal.

It irked Powers that some headlines about the murder referred to her as “the wife of a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer.”

“She was an accomplished scientist and academic,” he said. “She didn’t live in my shadow.”

Powers believes his wife would have had empathy for the person who killed her.

“She would have tried to help this guy recover from whatever it is that ailed him,” he said. “Honoree didn’t have an ounce of naivete in her. She knew the evil that was out there. But she had this serenity. Despite everything, all the violations, all the losses, I think she kind of believed in the world.”

Powers wants desperately to believe in the world, too. He said police told him a middle-aged couple came upon his wife after the shooting. She was already dead, he said, but the couple stayed at her side, telling her she was not alone. A grief counselor who has been helping Powers and his son through their trauma suggested waiting a while before meeting the couple, but Powers and his son want to meet them and convey their thanks.

Ron Powers and his son miss the light that was Honoree Fleming. They miss her cooking, her laugh. They miss everything about her.

“No one deserves to be shot down like that,” Dean Powers said, petting Maggie, his Australian sheep dog, who meanders the house glumly, looking for someone who’s not there anymore. “My mother didn’t deserve it. She was a good person, with a good heart.”

Ron Powers knows that fate can be kind and cruel. It brought him and his wife together on that flight out of LaGuardia 47 years ago. It brought his wife face to face with her killer on a beautiful fall day in Vermont two weeks ago.

There will be a memorial service for Honoree Fleming at the Fine Arts Center at Castleton on Sunday. Her spirit will fill the place, her husband said.

He is determined to get a documentary based on “No One Cares About Crazy People” made, which would be a tribute to his wife, who fought so long and hard for their sons.

“This is a woman who suffered so many reversals, but she never gave up, she never gave in,” Ron Powers said. “She never let life defeat her until life armed itself.”


Kevin Cullen is a Globe reporter and columnist who roams New England. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.