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Fear Settles on the Farm After Two Brothers Survive a Violent Robbery

January 29, 1989|NANCY SHULINS | Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Vt. — Mike and Harry Dutchburn shared a life as predictable as January's blizzards and July's blackberries.

Awake by 4 and asleep by 9. Off to the barn at 4, 2 and 5. Errands once a week: St. Albans for parts, Newport for fertilizer, John Deuso's store at the crossroads for potatoes, hot dogs and bread.

In a weather-beaten farmhouse on a lonely stretch of highway 10 miles from Canada, the brothers passed their evenings in unmatched armchairs in a kitchen papered with sailing ships and maps of the world.

The wallpaper was hung by a sister years ago. Mike, 77, and Harry, 79, likely would have chosen pictures of cows over maps of a world they have had precious little to do with, until it burst in on them one January night.

Anyone in town can point out the Dutchburn place, with its blistered white paint and drawn shades. Surrounded by open fields, house and barn sit near the road on a curve that's unexpectedly tricky. Mike and Harry have lost track of the cars they've pulled from the mud over the years, a habit of helpfulness that was to cost them.

From their kitchen window, they can see their hillside birthplace, the only other home they have ever known. They still remember moving day, June 15, 1915, just as they do every journey away from home ever since: their brother's funeral in Massachusetts in 1944; Mike's trip to their sister's in Michigan in 1960; the 65-mile drive with their niece, Sandra Lyon, to Burlington a year and a half ago. Harry hadn't been there for 40 years.

Except for pies and cookies from Grandma's Bakery in Richford, the Dutchburns' list of indulgences is shorter than the list of their trips: an aborted attempt at cigar-smoking in 1940 (Harry), and two chug-a-lugged bottles of gin in 1939 (Mike).

"We don't owe anybody," says Mike. "We pay cash, or we do without. We go right along. That's our way."

The Dutchburns' ways--modesty, hard work and thrift--were common knowledge on the frugal little farms of Franklin County. So was their habit of carrying large sums of cash.

On the last day of January, 1986, the ways of the world--violence, cruelty and greed--were brought home to the Dutchburns by two strangers who called them by name.

They pretended to be out of gas. The Dutchburns didn't have any, but Mike climbed out of his narrow iron bed in the middle of the night. By the time he'd walked the few steps to the kitchen, the two men had kicked in the door.

"You shouldn't be here," Mike told them. He got hit in the face.

Harry, who had $7,000 in his shirt pocket, walked in right behind him and got hit in the head with the thick maple cane he used to prod cows.

Mike put up a fight, but it was over in less than five minutes. Afterward, Mike says, "the kitchen looked like you'd cut a bunch of hens' heads off and let 'em fly."

Five minutes was all it took to teach two old men about fear. The fear never left them, not even after the robbers went to jail.

"I don't sleep anymore. I hear the cars all night. You don't forget it," says Mike. He only has to look at his brother to remember. Harry's right eye hangs like a crooked picture in his face. It swells and weeps in the cold; since the beating, he no longer goes out to do chores.

The cane hanging on its peg is another reminder. So are the dents it left in the old Kelvinator in the kitchen. "They could have taken the money," Mike says. "There's no sense beating a person up."

He rubs the dents gently. "It's the people in the world that's changed," he says. "They don't care who they take from."

Detective Sgt. Bill Northrup, an 18-year veteran of the Vermont State Police, calls it "as brutal as any homicide I've ever investigated."

Except that it wasn't a homicide. The Dutchburns survived.

They just didn't recover.

Mike Dutchburn lay for 3 1/2 hours on the kitchen floor after the beating, afraid to move. Harry was unconscious. When Mike saw a light go on next door at dawn, he crawled out to his Chevy pickup and drove half a mile to the neighbor's.

When their niece got word at 5:30 that morning, she drove straight to Montgomery. At the farmhouse where she had spent childhood vacations petting calves and eating ice cream, Sandy Lyon found two state police troopers in a kitchen spattered with blood. In her uncles' hospital room, she says, "I didn't recognize either one of them."

Lyon, a bank teller with three grown children, has the manners of a Sunday school teacher--until she talks about the beating. Then she starts saying "hell" a lot.

She remembers two strong, handsome men who teased and spoiled her.

"They were easygoing. They took you for who you were. Mike pulled my pigtails. Harry was the perfect image of my dad, who died when I was 17."

Since the beating, she says, "Harry has been to the barn once. Mostly, he sits there and broods. They're withdrawn now. They have that constant fear. Any little noise on the porch and they're petrified."

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