NBC News
updated 12/8/2003 2:36:48 PM ET 2003-12-08T19:36:48

Half and Susanne Zantop didn’t have an enemy in the world. They were two professors who loved their work, their students, and each other. But then they were killed two years ago in a crime so vicious, police thought it must be personal. Who but an enemy filled with rage could do what was done to them? But this headline-making case would uncover something very different and unexpected. Read an excerpt of “Judgment Ridge,” the story of the Dartmouth murders that shocked a community and a country, below.

CHAPTER ONE: A STRANGER AT THE DOOR

At just past ten on a cool summer night, Andrew Patti nestled with his eleven-year-old son on a worn blue sofa in the living room of their Vermont vacation home. Burning logs hissed and popped in the redbrick fireplace as Patti read aloud to Andy Jr. from an adventure story about a hunter pursuing a wise and elusive buck.

Bam-bam-bam-bam-bam. A staccato burst of pounding on the front door interrupted him in mid-sentence.

Startled, Patti rose to his feet, silently motioning to Andy to stay put. It was too late for visitors, and the knocks were too sharp, too insistent to come from the hand of a friend. Someone must be in trouble or looking for trouble.

As Patti stood, he reached under the untucked hem of his work shirt for the nine-millimeter Glock pistol he always wore on his right hip. With a quick flip of his thumb, he unsnapped the safety latch and slid the matte black gun from its leather holster. Patti walked slowly to the door, holding the Glock out of sight, tucked close against the right rear pocket of his faded jeans.

With his empty left hand he pushed aside the blind covering the nine small windows on the upper half of the door. On his front porch stood a young man Patti had never seen before. He was about six feet tall, lanky, dressed in a white T-shirt, black cargo pants, and black military boots. The young man-maybe in his late teens, Patti thought-leaned in close, his hot breath leaving vapor clouds on the glass. His hands were half-clenched like bear claws, his eyes wide and intense. The weak rays of a bug-yellow porch light cast a sickly glare on his pale skin.

“What’s up?” Patti asked roughly.

“I have car trouble. Can you help me out?” the stranger answered just as roughly.

They stood for a moment face to face, inches apart, separated by only a pane of glass, each waiting to see what the other would do.

Andrew Patti was forty-seven, a trim, good-looking man of medium height, with thick, dark hair flecked with gray. He was a lifelong New Yorker with the accent and toothpick-chewing habit to prove it. Though raised in a cookie-cutter suburb of tract houses and strip malls, as a teenager Patti had grown enchanted by the mountains and forests of Vermont. As his only child and namesake approached manhood, Patti wanted Andy to know the embrace of untamed woods, the snap of a fish latching onto a hook, the smell of fresh-cut trees, the ping of a tin can pierced by a well-aimed bullet.

Patti and his wife, Diane, also forty-seven and a native New Yorker, lived and worked on Long Island, running an agency that provided services for infants and toddlers with special needs. It was successful enough to allow them to purchase their getaway home in the town of Vershire, on the eastern side of Vermont, halfway between Massachusetts and Canada. Vershire’s name was an amalgam of Vermont and New Hampshire, owing to the abundance of hills offering views from the former to the latter, some fifteen miles away across the Connecticut River.

One of the hills was called Judgment Ridge, named for a defunct ski area once located there. Judgment Ridge was less than a mile from the Pattis’ house, just off the main road that connected the neighboring town of Chelsea to Interstate 91. Once on the interstate, it was a short drive south to Hanover, New Hampshire, home of Dartmouth College, and from there to the world beyond.

Vershire was best known to outsiders as home to The Mountain School, a private school that doubled as a working farm, allowing high school students to combine traditional studies with lessons on sustainable rural living. Vershire also was a magnet for second-home owners like the Pattis, many of them New Yorkers searching for solitude, serenity, and bargain property. Locals called them “flatlanders” during civil, if occasionally dismissive, conversations. Some natives called the outsiders much worse in private.

The Pattis first saw the cedar-shingled house next to a postcard-perfect pond in September 1999, and then spent eight months struggling to get clear title and overcome a maddening series of obstacles to their purchase. It finally became theirs two months before the stranger came to the door. Locals knew the place as The Sugar House, and indeed, the home on Goose Green Road was a symbol of the changing community. It was built in 1993, replacing a landmark wooden shack where generations of Vershire residents had marked each spring by boiling maple sap into sugary syrup.

During their first weeks in the house, Andrew and Diane tried to make it homey without Long Island-izing it. Their signature decorative touch was a mounted head of a six-point buck Diane’s father had shot years earlier, hung high on a living-room wall next to the fireplace. The deer’s limpid eyes stared down at anyone who entered the front door, above which a plaque read: HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS.

Soon after they moved in, the Pattis got a taste of life in a house built close to a country road: twice, just weeks apart, two strangers came to the door late at night seeking help with broken-down cars. The first was a young man who tentatively tapped on the door, then stepped briskly, submissively backward when Andrew Patti answered. The stranger’s solicitous air convinced Patti there was no danger, and in a display of new-neighbor helpfulness he hitched the stalled car to Diane’s SUV and towed it to the man’s home. The second uninvited guest was a young woman who politely asked to use the phone to call Ward’s Garage, a half-mile up the road. Again, Patti felt safe and obliged.

The Pattis didn’t sense any hostility from their neighbors, but they wondered if some locals resented them. Andrew Patti thought his sparkling blue BMW with its New York plates gave some people the misimpression that he was a rich, liberal city boy who came north to smell flowers, hug trees, and call out “Look, it’s Bambi!” at the sight of a deer. Several times during their first visits to their new home, the Pattis noticed a silver Audi whizzing down Goose Green Road, its occupants yelling something hostile but unintelligible out the windows as they sped past. It happened often enough that Andrew took steps to avoid seeing the silver Audi-when he and Andy fished in their pond they’d paddle their raft to its farthest reaches, an area hidden from the road by a stand of trees.

On Monday, July 17, 2000, Diane went to work while Andrew and Andy packed the BMW for the five-hour drive from Long Island to Vershire. They brought along their dog, a champagne-colored standard poodle puppy named Roxie. Their plan was simple: spend a week of Andy’s summer vacation together, father, son, and pup, fishing for bass and pickerel, hiking deep into the woods, and eating whatever struck their fancy. At night they’d play cards and read books before the well-stoked fire.

Sometimes they’d take target practice in the woods, but Andrew Patti wasn’t a hunter. Years earlier he’d come face-to-face with a deer in a stream and realized he couldn’t imagine killing it. Still, he was a serious gun enthusiast who liked firearms the way he liked sharp cars. He respected their coiled power and enjoyed his ability to control and command them. The feel of a well-oiled gun at his side satisfied his own father’s most frequent warning-”Be careful. Strange things happen.” Andrew had passed his love of guns to Andy. One of the boy’s prized possessions was a dime with a small bullet hole he had placed dead center.

Toward the end of their first full day in Vermont, Tuesday, July 18, Andrew, Andy, and Roxie lost their way during a hike in the unfamiliar woods. As they hunted for the path home, the elder Patti checked his pockets for matches and began silently calculating how they could stay warm and safe until daybreak. By the time they found their way home, a light rain was falling, fish were jumping in the pond, and brown bats were swooping and soaring, feasting on mosquitoes in the darkening sky. Around nine o’clock, tired but exhilarated, they called Diane to recount their adventure. Then they settled onto the couch for their nightly ritual of stories read aloud.

At one point, Roxie heard something outside the house and let loose a rumbling bark. Patti was in no mood to walk her again, so he shushed her and returned to reading. But something was bothering him, too. He had the uncomfortable sense that someone was watching him through a window where the shade didn’t fit quite right. He tried to shake it, but the feeling of eyes boring in on the back of his neck continued to gnaw at him. Patti pulled out his gun and his son teased him-”You’re going to shoot a hole through the window, Dad”-so he holstered it, sat back down, and continued reading.

Then came the pounding on the door.

Patti carefully considered the young man and his complaint of car problems. He decided this was no time to be neighborly.

“No,” Patti answered the stranger’s request for help.

“Do you have jumper cables?” the young man persisted.

“No,” Patti repeated.

“Let me in. Can I use your phone?”

“No.”

“C’mon, let me use your phone.”

The stranger kept his face close to the window, his outsized nose almost pressed against the glass. Patti grew convinced that he and Andy were the targets of what New Yorkers call a “push-in” crime: a homeowner opens a door a crack and the criminal forces his way inside to rob, rape, or kill. Patti looked over to his son, who was still curled up on the sofa. Roxie was nowhere in sight; she had responded to the tension by finding a place to hide.

Though Patti sensed danger, it was even worse than he knew. Patti was unaware that the stranger had brought along two deadly weapons. One was an old but sharp hunting knife tucked in his military boot. The other was his best friend. While the stranger knocked on the door, the friend-also a teenager, a year younger than the young man at the door-crouched in a bush around the side of the house. He was dressed all in black, his face covered with a ski mask that revealed only his close-set eyes. The friend also had a hunting knife in his boot, and around his waist he wore a utility belt with pouches filled with duct tape, a jackknife, and plastic ties that could bind a person hand and foot.

Nor did Patti know that before coming to his house, the two young men had spent hours digging a grave, five feet long and three feet deep, in the rocky soil next to an abandoned house up a nearby road. If their plan held true, that grave would soon be filled with earth and the lifeless bodies of Andrew and Andy Patti, and maybe their dog, too.

“Andy, get over there,” Patti said in a soft but firm voice, motioning his son toward a wall away from the front windows, out of harm’s way. When Andy was in place, Patti brought his gun out from behind his back. Still holding the blind with his left hand, he gave the stranger an eyeful of the Glock.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. I just want to use your phone,” the stranger said. But he didn’t seem scared by the sight of the gun. It only seemed to agitate him.

“I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” Patti said. “I’ll call Ward’s Garage for you.”

“OK. Please do that. But please do that now.”

Patti let the blind drop and hustled over to a phone in the kitchen, not twenty feet from the door. Andy fell in step behind him, so close he was almost hugging his father from behind. Patti picked up the phone, the same phone he had used not two hours earlier to call Diane.

Silence.

“Oh shit. The phone’s dead.”

Alarmed, he and Andy ran upstairs to try the phone in the master bedroom. Again, nothing.

“What’s going on, Dad?”

“They’ve cut the wires,” Patti told his son.

He was on full alert, trying to keep Andy calm while assessing the situation. Patti surmised that when he refused to open the door, the stranger changed tactics and wanted him to discover that the phones were dead. Maybe then Patti would go outside to check the wires on the side of the house. Even with his gun, outside in the dark Patti might be vulnerable. “If I check the phone lines,” he thought, “they’ll bushwhack me.” No matter what happened, he’d stay inside.

They ran back downstairs-Patti wanted to be there, Glock ready, if the stranger tried to bust through the door or the windows. Adrenaline pumping-half from fear and half from anger at the thought of someone hurting his son-Patti fought to keep a cool exterior to prevent Andy from panicking. They huddled on the living room floor, feeding the fire and waiting for a rock or a person to come crashing through the window. They had seen only one face at the door, but Patti remembered the queasy feeling of being watched. He was sure the young man at the door wasn’t alone, and he wondered how many others might be out there. All he could do was hope they had been spooked by the gun, and wait.

As minutes passed and nothing happened, Andy’s fear began giving way to exhaustion. Patti lay his son down on the sofa, covered him with a blanket, and told him everything was fine. Soon Andy was asleep. But Patti wouldn’t let down his guard.

He spent the next few hours sitting on the hard floor, gun in hand, blinking to stay awake. He didn’t dare sit on the couch or a chair because the cushiony comfort might lull him to sleep. As the silence stretched into hours, fatigue crept up on him. Patti lay down on his back, his head toward the fireplace and his feet toward the door, so he could watch for intruders just by lifting his head.

Patti spent the rest of the night that way-staring at the door, listening to night noises, hoping for daybreak- his gun on his chest, rising and falling with every breath.

Excerpted from JUDGMENT RIDGE. Copyright (c) 2003 by Dick Lehr and Mitchell Zuckoff. All rights reserved. HarperCollins Publishers. Used by permission.

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