Duo didn’t rush to ‘Judgement’

Dartmouth Murders’ authors patiently pursued teens’motives in Zantop slayings

Unraveling the mystery behind the vicious killings of two Dartmouth professors appealed to the investigative reporter in Dick Lehr and Mitchell Zuckoff.

But when the murderers turned out to be two popular teenagers from the tiny hamlet of Chelsea, Vt., the reporters’ instincts as parents took over.

“The randomness, the scariness of this, it upped the ante to find out why,” Mr. Lehr said. “We’re both parents. It’s one of the reasons it had the legs it did. I remember parents talking about this: `How could it happen?’ ”

The two reporters, who were on staff at The Boston Globe, agreed to write a book three months after the bodies of Half and Susanne Zantop were found in the study of their Etna, N. H., home on Jan. 27, 2001.

The killers, Robert Tulloch, 17, and James Parker, 16, had been captured in Indiana while hitchhiking west in an attempt to flee.

When Mr. Lehr and Mr. Zuckoff began their search for answers, the case had yet to play itself out. It had gradually become clear that the Zantops had been random victims, but the motivation of their killers remained murky; the teens were expected to go to trial.

Then Tulloch and Parker each pleaded guilty, raising the real possibility that the forces that had made these boys so violent would never be known. Fortunately, Mr. Lehr and Mr. Zuckoff have made certain that didn’t happen.

They stuck with their task for more than two years in order to uncover what led to the tragedy, and they have shared their revelations in their book “Judgment Ridge: The True Story Behind the Dartmouth Murders,” which was published by HarperCollins last month.

The gripping narrative reveals Tulloch’s developing psychopathic tendencies and how he was able to get Parker in his thrall. It covers the drama that unfolded as investigators traced the purchase of the murder weapons, two SOG SEAL 2000 knives, to Parker.

Mr. Lehr and Mr. Zuckoff paint a detailed picture of the victims — two intelligent, kind and giving people whose lives had been dedicated to education and life-affirming causes.

And in a tour de force of reporting, the authors offer a profile of Chelsea, with its mix of natives and hippie types, refugees from the 1970s. At first, many residents could not believe that two of their children could possibly do such a thing; later, they questioned whether the town was somehow to blame.

The book covers the pain that friends and townspeople felt when Parker confessed in exchange for a 25-years-to-life sentence. With good behavior, he could serve just 16 years.

Tulloch dropped plans for an insanity defense and pleaded guilty. He is serving a life sentence without possibility of parole.

As the facts were revealed, a lifelong friend of the boys broke down in the locker room after a basketball game. A friend tried to reassure him. “It won’t be all right,” he cried in response. “My friends are murderers.”

“It was such a stunned disbelief,” Mr. Zuckoff, 41, said. “They were still waking from this horrible nightmare. It wasn’t until the details of James Parker’s confession that they could do it.”

“Judgment Ridge” does not hedge its bets: It proffers an analysis of Tulloch and Parker, and why it was that Tulloch stabbed Half Zantop over and over again.

In a recent interview, Mr. Lehr and Mr. Zuckoff said they knew they had to keep an open mind during the 10 months they anticipated a trial. They took detailed notes on every conversation, every comment. They made an elaborate, 80-page timeline. Gradually, Tulloch’s egomanical, antisocial behavior came into focus.

Still, the authors resisted drawing any conclusions.

“We had to hold off,” Mr. Lehr, 49, said. “We had to let the thing happen. When things did come out, we were in the best position to make sense of it.”

The boys had gained entry to the Zantop home by claiming they were students conducting an environmental survey. Their real purpose was to steal money to go to Australia. They would kill in order to leave no witnesses behind.

The authors knew they had hit pay dirt when Parker described Tulloch killing Half Zantop in a rage after the professor gently criticized the way he was taking the survey.

“He told Robert, `You’re not prepared.’ ” Mr. Zuckoff said.

For the reporters, it was their “eureka moment.” They said they understood that the killing was an act of a psychopath who could not bear to be criticized.

It was a conclusion that escaped investigators and the district attorney. They continued to describe the crime as a murder motivated by robbery.

Yet, it was Parker who killed Susanne Zantop, at Tulloch’s command.

Did Parker get off too easily?

“Clearly, he was being led by Robert Tulloch,” Mr. Zuckoff said. “It’s difficult to accept that James Parker was such an empty shell. He, without Robert, almost certainly would never have been in that room.”

Parker had a dramatic side not rooted in reality, Mr. Lehr said. He would have been just as happy to have left the Zantop home with the knowledge that the teens could have killed the couple if they had wanted to.

“We have no sympathy for him, but we do have pity,” Mr. Zuckoff said.

The authors pointed out that the Zantops’ two daughters agreed to the deal the prosecutors made. In court, Tulloch sneered, while Parker wept and apologized.

“They heard his apology,” Mr. Lehr said of Veronika and Mariana Zantop. “They saw the possibility there’s something there, some humanity there.”

The authors attributed their ability to report and write with such synchronicity to their training while members of the Globe’s Spotlight team.

Now, they have left their newspaper careers behind. Both are teaching journalism at Boston University and will pursue separate book projects. If the opportunity presents itself, they said, they will gladly work together again.