Murder in Killington: The Case of Ronald Rodgers, Part 1

It was 10:30 p.m. the night before the 4th of July in 1971 and a family was just returning to their cottage near Killington Ski Resort in Vermont when an unusual sight caught their attention on the dark and winding mountain road – down over an embankment, flames. When the father and son got close enough to douse the fire with water they made a grim discovery — The body of a man, badly burned.

A family member would identify the man as 34-year old Veteran Ronald Rodgers, but as the case developed over the course of an entire decade, that basic fact would be challenged again and again.

But this case begins two years before his body was discovered, with an armed robbery in Rutland, Vermont. This is a story of true motive, of possible mistaken identity, of investigative missteps, and maybe, the story of a so-called perfect crime.

This is the case of Ronald Rodgers, part 1.

Ames Foodland Robbery, 1969

Now the third largest city in Vermont, Rutland had an even greater population in the 60s and 70s, around 20,000 residents, making it a bustling community for a state otherwise known for mountain peaks and rural wilderness further north towards Canada. 

Not far from what is now Rutland’s trendy Downtown Historic District is Cleveland Avenue. The street doesn’t connect to any of the main roads and these days it’s a mix of residential and commercial use, with a dead end lined by warehouse and factory buildings that have more broken windows than not. But in the early 1960s, Cleveland Avenue would be the home of the latest and greatest innovation in supermarketing, according to the Rutland Daily Herald. 

An October 1, 1962 article announced the forthcoming opening of Ames Discount Foodland, a 20,000 square foot store boasting a bakery department that baked all goods on site, a meat department open for the public to watch their cuts being prepared, and a deli offering domestic and imported foods. It was an evolution of the grocery shopping experience, and residents were thrilled to have Foodland come to town. Mayor John Daley cut the red ribbon for the grand opening on Wednesday, November 7, 1962.

Unfortunately, as celebrated as the new modern concept of grocery shopping was, Ames Foodland also became the target of criminals trying to make a buck. At first it was several instances of forgery – people singing false names on checks and attempting to cash them at the store. Then petty theft when a local woman shoplifted a few items and got caught with the goods. 

In 1969, a man walked into the store just before closing time, waving a revolver.

It was June 9th, 1969. The man had been lingering outside the store for about 15 minutes before he made his way inside and beelined straight for the manager, Arthur Estabrook. The Rutland Daily Herald reported that the man told the store manager, “I want money,” and handed over a crumpled paper bag, demanding that Arthur fill it up. Arthur hesitated, but the robber barked at him with the gun in his hand, “Man, you want to die?” Arthur frantically handed over all the cash in his drawer. 

The robber told him not to make any moves for five minutes and then took off, possibly in a getaway car driven by an accomplice.

The store manager estimated that the robber was in his mid-40s, five-foot, six-inches tall with dark hair and a dark complexion, possibly of Syrian or Italian descent. He wore a trench coat, green trousers, and brown loafers. After totaling the receipts for the day, Ames Foodland reported that the robber made off with just $27. 

About a week later, police arrested a 32-year old Rutland man named Ronald Rodgers on charges of armed robbery at Ames Discount Foodland. 

About Ronald Rodgers

According to Jack Crowther’s reporting for the Rutland Daily Herald, Ronald Rodgers came from what was described as a broken home. After his father left when he was a toddler and his mother died when he was 6-years old, Ronald was raised by his maternal grandmother and uncles. He went to live with his step-dad in New York for a short stint, but ultimately moved back to Rutland to be with his mother’s family. 

His uncle Edwin Hall, who was a patrolman with Rutland Police Department, said that Ronald always felt like no one wanted him and he became a loner with, “a lot of time on his hands – too much time.”

Ronald was known for his intelligence, though he never finished high school. He poured over history books and read up on esoteric and controversial political theories.

According to friends, Ronald liked to drink and was “miserable” when he did. He would spark up deep, spirited, and sometimes argumentative conversations that could lead to bar room brawls. People didn’t like when Ronald threw his intellect and knowledge around. They couldn’t keep up.

Ronald was married twice and had children. He’d previously served in both the Marine Corps and Navy, but his service ended in medical discharges. His uncle Edwin said that he took medication, “for his nerves”.

In June of 1969, when police brought him in as part of a line-up and the store manager Arthur Estabrook singled him out as the robber of Ames Foodland, Ronald was apparently in a state of shock.

Ronald on Trial

Ronald Rodgers entered pleas of innocent and innocent by reason of insanity for the armed robbery charges against him. With the insanity plea, he was ordered committed to the state hospital for observation and evaluation. About a month later, the state found Ronald Rodgers “not insane”. He kept his plea of innocent as he went to trial the following spring in May of 1970.

Ames Foodland store manager Arther Estabrook testified that Ronald Rodgers was the man that robbed him at gunpoint that June day in 1969. Several other prosecution witnesses testified that they saw Ronald at the store that evening, too. However, on cross examination, they admitted that they did not see the actual robbery occur. 

The defense introduced witnesses and testimony that showed the physical description of the robber didn’t precisely match Ronald’s appearance. Ronald was 6-feet tall – about a half a foot taller than the description of the robber – and according to Merle Jackson’s reporting for the Rutland Daily Herald, the description made no mention of the perpetrator’s eyes or nose, arguably the most identifiable and memorable features on Ronald’s face, they said. 

Ronald himself took the stand in his own defense. He testified that he was at the store that night, but denied robbing the supermarket. 

The defense lawyer suggested to the jury that Arthur Estabrook, who had been robbed at the supermarket before, wanted vengeance, regardless of if the right man was on trial for the crime. 

Judge Edward McClallen later called it a rough trial. Testimony on both sides of the case was confusing and inconsistencies in witness statements made it a challenging one for the jury. Deliberations lasted over four hours before the jury returned to announce that they were at a point of indecision. No verdict could be reached. It was a hung jury and the judge ruled a mistrial. 

Upon hearing the news, Ronald Rodgers turned to his attorney and shook his hand. He’d have to wait to hear what the prosecution planned to do next with the charges against him. Until then, Ronald was released. It would be a year before he would be ordered back to the courtroom to face a new trial for the armed robbery charges. 

Days Before Ronald’s Death

In the summer of 1971, a year after his first trial for allegedly robbing the Ames Discount Foodland store in Rutland, a new trial date was announced. A jury would once again hear evidence on July 6, 1971.

Ronald Rodgers’ life was unsettled at the time. Ronald had previously worked at the nearby Killington Resort operating the gondola lift in the winter, but in summer of 1971, he was unemployed and collecting unemployment checks.

Ronald’s uncle Edwin had previously alluded to Ronald’s challenges with his mental health. In the year after his first trial, he sought help, checking himself into veterans’ hospitals in White River Junction and Northampton, Massachusetts in an effort, “to straighten himself out,” his uncle told the Rutland Daily Herald.

He was also in housing limbo. Ronald had been staying at the Hotel Berwick, which once stood at the corner of Wales and Center Streets in Rutland, but quietly checked out of his room one day, leaving the key behind with no notice to the front desk. He moved into an apartment on Cottage Street after leaving the hotel, but on Saturday, July 3, 1971, he moved out of that apartment. If he had a plan for where he’d be living next, he didn’t inform anyone of that plan. 

On the 4th of July, 1971, the day after moving out of that Cottage Street apartment and two days before his second trial was scheduled to begin, Ronald was supposed to have lunch with his grandmother. But Ronald never showed up.

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