Murder in Killington: The Case of Ronald Rodgers, Part 2

In a homicide investigation, determining the identity of the victim is an obvious and crucial step in the pursuit of justice. Without knowing whose murder they’re investigating, authorities can’t really bring anyone to trial or even fully investigate. 

In the case of 34-year Vermont Veteran Ronald Rodgers, a family member positively ID’d his body, found shot and on fire on July night on Killington Mountain… But the accused killer’s defense team aimed to convince the jury that the identity of the deceased wasn’t an indisputable fact.

If you haven’t yet, listen to part 1 of Ronald Rodgers story on Dark Downeast. In the conclusion of his story, you’ll hear the wild court proceedings, the shocking evidence, and the alternate theory about what happened as the defense attempted to convince the jury, and the public, that maybe Ronald Rodgers was actually the killer himself. 

The Case So Far

It was 10:30 p.m. the night before the 4th of July in 1971 when a father and son discovered the badly burned body of a man down over an embankment off Roaring Brook Road in Killington, Vermont.

A family member later identified the man as 34-year old Veteran Ronald Rodgers. Further investigation and an autopsy revealed that he had been killed by several shotgun blasts and the fire was set after his death. His death was ruled a homicide from the very beginning and the search for potential suspects started in earnest. 

Detectives released limited information about the evidence, including the stomach contents of the victim, in hopes of tracking Ronald Rodgers’s last movements on the night of his death.

The case stalled for several years until new information brought to light in 1974 led to an arrest warrant for a man named Robert Goshea, a former taxi driver in the Rutland, Vermont area. Although the arrest warrant was a promising development in the homicide investigation, authorities had to locate Robert Goshea first. It took three more years to track him down in Texas and get him back to Vermont to stand trial. 

The victim, Ronald Rodgers, was supposed to stand trial on armed robbery charges for the second time just days after he was killed. Rumor said that Ronald may have been intending to out a possible accomplice in the robbery of Ames Foodland of 1969, and many wondered if his killing was a way to silence him forever.

These rumors, and other theories about what happened, would be put on full display at Robert Goshea’s trial in the winter of 1977.

Goshea’s First Trial – State’s Case

The trial date was set for November 1, 1977 in Middlebury, Vermont but it wouldn’t begin until December of that year. The defense had already asked for and had been granted a change of venue but still with the extensive media coverage surrounding the case and the trial, the jury was sequestered to protect Goshea’s right to a fair trial. 

Two public defenders, Barry Griffith and Donald Graham, represented Goshea while the state of Vermont was represented by Rutland County State’s Attorney John S. Liccardi. Justice Edwin Amidon presided over the proceedings.

In their opening arguments, Liccardi explained that their witnesses would show that the defendant had motive and opportunity to kill Ronald Rodgers. Witnesses would place the two together on the night of Ronald’s death. Liccardi also stated that Goshea even confessed to the crime, and they’d call that witness to the stand to share her story. 

Goshea Helped Rob Ames, State Argued

The prosecution aimed to establish a motive for Robert Goshea to kill Ronald Rodgers, showing that Robert could have been involved with the Ames Foodland robbery in 1969. Although no second suspect had ever been publicly disclosed, and Goshea was never charged or indicted on crimes relating to the robbery, a witness testified that on the evening of the robbery, Goshea was within the vicinity of the supermarket. 

Marilyn Perkins operated the taxi service that Goshea worked for at the time, and she said that on June 9, 1969, Goshea was at her house, just two blocks away from the store. Kevin Duffy reported for the Times Argus that Mrs. Perkins didn’t know how long or exactly when he was at her house, but it was at the general time of the robbery. 

It was previously reported that Ronald had allegedly fled the scene with the help of a getaway driver. With Goshea in the area around the time of the robbery, it was possible he was the getaway driver and after helping Ronald flee the scene, he himself fled to Mrs. Perkins house. It was also possible that Goshea was the accomplice that Ronald was preparing to implicate at his impending trial days after he was killed. 

But the witness didn’t appear to add much weight to either side’s case. Afterall, Mrs. Perkins couldn’t remember the precise time that Goshea was at her residence, so it wasn’t necessarily an alibi for the accused killer, and it wasn’t anything but a circumstantial detail that placed Goshea in the area of the robbery at roughly the same time it happened. 

Goshea and Rodgers Together on July 3

While the motive wasn’t the strongest piece of the puzzle, establishing Robert Goshea’s opportunity to carry out the crime was a bit more convincing.

According to reporting by Jane Smith for the Burlington Free Press, State’s Attorney John Liccardi introduced evidence that Goshea had picked Ronald up from his apartment on Cottage Street in Rutland around 5:30 p.m. on the night of the murder. They spent two hours together at the Amber Clown bar. A bartender there testified that Ronald appeared nervous – so nervous that his hands shook as he tried to fill out and sign a check for their tab.

It was previously reported that the two were very close friends, and two friends having a drink together at a bar on a Saturday night wasn’t unusual. However, a cousin of Ronald’s said that their relationship in more recent days was rocky. That, paired with Ronald’s supposedly nervous demeanor at the bar that night, led prosecutors to believe that something was up between the two of them. They hoped the jury would see it that way, too.

Star Witness

The crux of the prosecution’s case though was their star witness, Goshea’s former girlfriend and mother of his children. She was reluctant to give her testimony and was tentative as she answered questions on the stand about the night of July 3, 1971. 

The woman recalled Goshea showing up to see her that night with something that looked like a spot of blood on his boot. She testified that Goshea told her, “I hope no one saw this when I was walking over here.”

Later that night, she testified that they went to a restaurant in downtown Rutland and Goshea’s mood was nervous and upset. When she asked Goshea what was going on, he allegedly said to her, “I killed him.” When she asked him to clarify, he responded saying, “Rodgers. He wouldn’t listen to me. I tried to talk to him, but he wouldn’t listen.” The woman then told the court that Goshea brought Ronald to the mountain to look for something and then shot him, but his body would not be identifiable because he started a fire.

In her sworn testimony, she told the court that Goshea had asked her to cover for him, which she agreed to do at the time because she loved him. However, their relationship ended in 1974 when Goshea left her. 

According to the Burlington Free Press, police had questioned her multiple times about Goshea’s whereabouts on the night of the murder and she stuck to an agreed upon story – that she and Goshea were “parking”. Though she did not expand on what this term meant, media coverage used the term in quotes. 

A month later though, she couldn’t carry the weight of the lie she’d told any longer. She decided to testify against Goshea at the grand jury proceedings and then again during the trial. 

A supposed confession was a big deal for the case against Robert Goshea, but the defense dismissed her testimony, arguing that the woman was simply sour that Goshea walked out on her and she was fabricating a story against him for revenge. 

On cross examination, the defense attorney asked her, “Don’t you regard this trial as your chance to get back at him?” She seemed irritated by the question, sighing deeply before responding, simply, “No.”

Defense: Victim Identity Dispute

In a trial, nothing is considered a known fact until it is entered into the record, and so the state had to establish the identity of the victim that the defendant was charged with killing through witness testimony. 

The prosecution called Ronald Rodgers’ uncle to the stand, who was also a Rutland police officer. Corporal Edwin Hall had been the one to identify Ronald after his death, primarily based on identifying scars, a tattoo, and facial features, including a condition called hematoma auris, colloquially referred to as “cauliflower ears”. The body was also clothed in a shirt with the name “Ron A. Rodgers” printed on it, though Hall testified that he did not base his identification on the t-shirt. 

Hall had been part of Ronald’s life since he was a child and helped raise him, so he was assumed to have enough memory of Ronald’s appearance to make a positive identification. He told the court, “I have no doubt at all that the body was Ronnie.”

But public defenders Graham and Griffith were about to raise all the doubt they could around this basic fact with the help of witness testimony.

Rutland County Sheriff Lee Jones testified that no formal methods of identification, no systematic identification of the victim was made. That is, no dental records or blood tests or even fingerprints were used to confirm the positive identification made by Ronald’s family member. 

This detail would give the defense their foothold for a bizarre theory – that the victim in this case was not actually Ronald Rodgers and therefore, their client Robert Goshea, could not be convicted of killing him.

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