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.
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.
Episode Source Material
- Accusation of holdup heard here, Rutland Daily Herald, 19 Jun 1969
- Theft suspect ruled sane by the state, Rutland Daily Herald, 11 Jul 1969
- Jury trial, Rutland Daily Herald, 13 May 1970
- Armed robber’s victim points finger at Rogers by Merle F. Jackson, Rutland Daily Herald, 14 May 1970
- No verdict is reached in armed robbery trial by Merle F. Jackson, Rutland Daily Herald, 15 May 1970
- Local man is Slain by Jack Crowther, Rutland Daily Herald, 05 Jul 1971, page 2
- Slaying victim called ‘loner’ by his friends by Jack Crowther, Rutland Daily Herald, 05 Jul 1971
- Small clue held in Rutland death, Time Argus, 06 Jul 1971
- Little progress reported in murder investigation, Burlington Free Press, 06 Jul 1971
- Ronald A. Rodgers Rites, Rutland Daily Herald, 07 Jul 1971
- Murder Investigation: No motive or suspects by Jon Storm, Rutland Daily Herald, 07 Jul 1971
- Rutland murder victim found shot many times, Bennington Banner, 08 Jul 1971
- Murder probe continues, Rutland Daily Herald, 08 Jul 1971
- No leads in murder probe, Rutland Daily Herald, 09 Jul 1971
- Murder probe continues, Rutland Daily Herald, 12 Jul 1971
- Jeffords, Corcoran, Tepper huddle on Rodger murder, Rutland Daily Herald, 21 Jul 1971
- Rutland court issues warrant in 4-year death, Burlington Free Press, 30 May 1974
- Police issue warrant in Rodger murder by Nick Marro, Rutland Daily Herald, 30 May 1974
- Federal Grand Jury will not indict suspect in Ronnie Rodgers murder by Jane A. Smith, Rutland Daily Herald, 27 Jun 1974
- Suspect held in Texas for 1971 murder here, Times Argus, 12 Feb 1977
- FBI nabs suspect in ’71 Vt. murder, Bennington Banner, 14 Feb 1977
- Man nabbed in Texas for 1971 murder by Mike Donoghue, Burlington Free Press, 15 Feb 1977
- Extradition is waived; Goshea returning soon, Rutland Daily Herald, 17 Feb 1977
- Goshea in St. Albans, bail set at $50,000, Rutland Daily Herald, 01 Mar 1977
- Grand jury meeting today in Rutland death case, Times Argus, 14 Mar 1977
- Man indicted in Sherburne killing, Burlington Free Press, 18 Mar 1977
- Goshea pleads innocent of murder by Aldo Merusi, Burlington Free Press, 31 Mar 1977
- Goshea lawyers conduct public poll by John Van Hoesen, Rutland Daily Herald, 28 Apr 1977
- Change of venue granted in Sherburne murder case by Bob Kingsley, Times Argus, 08 June 1977
- Goshea claims police failed to inform him of his rights by Bob Kingsley, Rutland Daily Herald, 22 Jul 1977
- Goshea trial date set, Rutland Daily Herald, 27 Aug 1977
- ‘Murdered’ man may be the killer, lawyer says by Jane Smith, Burlington Free Press, 01 Dec 1977
- Identification of murder victim by relative called ‘positive’, Times Argus, 02 Dec 1977
- Jilted lover says Goshea confessed to Rodgers murder by Jane Smith, Burlington Free Press, 03 Dec 1977, Jilted lover, page 2
- Identity of murder victim clouded by surprise medical examiner testimony, Rutland Daily Herald, 04 Dec 1977
- Pathologist in court verifies tale of Rodgers’ missing spleen, Bennington Banner, 05 Dec 1977
- Relative recalls Goshea detailing ‘perfect crime’ by Jane Smith, Burlington Free Press, 06 Dec 1977
- Final arguments are scheduled in Goshea trial in Middlebury by Kevin Duffy, Times Argus, 07 Dec 1977
- Rodgers’ last meal adds to confusion in trial by Jane Smith, Burlington Free Press, 07 Dec 1977
- Jury finds Goshea guilty in murder case, Brattleboro Reformer, 08 Dec 1977
- Goshea convicted of Rodgers murder, despite question of victims identity by Kevin Duffy, Rutland Daily Herald, 08 Dec 1977
- New trial for Goshea? Bennington Banner, 09 Dec 1977
- Goshea seeks new murder trial, Burlington Free Press, 13 Jan 1978
- Goshea’s lawyers ask for acquittal by Deborah Graham, Rutland Daily Herald, 14 Jan 1978
- Identity of victim key to Goshea case by Kevin Duffy, Rutland Daily Herald, 07 Nov 1978
- Body exhumed, Brattleboro Reformer, 19 Dec 1978
- Corpse exhumed in murder case by Kevin Duffy, Rutland Daily Herald, 24 Dec 1978
- Rutland man casts doubt on murder of Rodgers, Burlington Free Press, 16 Mar 1978
- Court told Liccardi neglected information about Rodgers by Kevin Duffy, Rutland Daily Herald, 22 Mar 1978
- Liccardi says evidence was unimportant by Kevin Duffy, Rutland Daily Herald, 19 Apr 1978
- Superior court denies retrial in murder case, Burlington Free Press, 19 May 1978
- Goshea given life term, Burlington Free Press, 16 Jun 1978
- Strange murder case results in life term for Rutland man by Kevin Duffy, Times Argus, 16 Jun 1978
- Clandestine exhumation of Rodgers’ body provides evidence he was murder victim by David Mott, Rutland Daily Herald, 19 Dec 1978
- Court overturns Goshea conviction for 1971 murder by Tom Slayton, Times Argus, 06 Feb 1979
- Goshea murder conviction overturned by Jane Smith, Burlington Free Press, 07 Feb 1979
- Second murder trial scheduled to begin April 30 for Goshea, Times Argus, 20 Apr 1979
- Goshea pleads guilty but won’t admit crime, Bennington Banner, 24 Apr 1979
- Yet another wrinkle in Goshea case by Margo Howland, Rutland Daily Herald, 25 Apr 1979
- Ironic twist hits Goshea case by Margo Howland, Times Argus, 25 Apr 1979
- Goshea accepts plea bargain, Rutland Daily Herald, 29 Apr 1979
- Killers’ violent pasts remain hidden, Brattleboro Reformer, 25 Sep 1982
- Killington Gondola ad, Rutland Daily Herald, 02 Sep 1976