Police Chief Frank KossPhoto Credit : Corey Hendrickson
It’s been nearly nine months. the flowers and beer cans and scrolled farewells (“Smoke a bong for Joey”) are long gone from the roadside now, as is the ghostly white racing bike—white-painted tires, white seat and handlebars, hung with white wreaths—that stood somehow upright, for weeks after all the rest was gone, in the field just off the turn, on Route 116 in Hinesburg Vermont, where the Honda Civic left the road. But the hand-carved, block-printed wood sign, nailed to the tree, is still there: “As you come here to grieve the sad loss of Joseph and to pay your respects please remember that a man named Richard who also was loved by family and friends went out for a bike ride on a beautiful Sunday morning and never came back.”
It’s a sunless afternoon in mid-January, though there has been no snow for days, and the ground is as gray as the sky. As we make our way south on 116 half an hour southeast of Burlington in the black police cruiser, to our right the flatness of the Champlain Valley unrolls itself like a carpet across a succession of fields; to the west, the land rises slowly, through a ridge of low trees, toward the foothills of the Green Mountains.
The police chief, Frank Koss, drives on without looking sideways. (“I pass here,” he says, “probably three or four times a day.”) Half a mile or so past the spot, he turns the SUV left onto a rutted side road, then left again, as the road turns briefly to dirt, up a hill that curves past a derelict barn, then through a thinly settled neighborhood of homes that have seen better days. There are woods on both sides now—scrub pines, a scattering of birches—and every few hundred feet a driveway cuts in from left or right. One of these is the Triple L mobile-home park, a scrum of single- and double-wide trailers packed in around narrow dirt alleyways, where Joey Marshall’s family still lives. “Most of those people there, I have a lot of respect for them,” the chief says. “They go to work, they take care of their homes, they’re good people.”
Another mile farther on, and with the woods now opening up to fields, we pass a large brick church fronted by a white cross; across the road from it, in the middle distance, is the rear of Champlain Valley Union High School, where Joey was a student until two days before he died. Just past here is Annette’s Preschool, where the chief likes to come some mornings, he says, to check in with the crossing guards and “just say hi to the kids.”
He drives on, taking his time, glancing up this side road, turning down that one, both hands always on the wheel. A car passes going the other way; both drivers raise fingers in greeting. “This is the best part of the job,” he says now. “You’re out on the road, you’re seeing people, they’re getting to see their tax dollars at work. After a while, you get to know the faces; you get a sense of who’s who. The day comes there’s a report of a domestic [problem], of some man andwoman fighting, it helps that you’ve met them, that you have a sense of the history there.”
The history with Joey Marshall wasn’t so different from that of a lot of 17-year-olds—just a degree or so more extreme. He liked speed. (“Speed [for him] was a way of life,” a high-school friend would tell the police later.) He defied limits. He chafed at authority. He smoked weed. He was young.
Hinesburg police officer Anthony Cambridge, a former high-school social-studies teacher with the gentlest manner you’re likely ever to encounter in a cop, recalls an early run-in with Joey: “I was in my own car, on my way home. He came up behind me and passed me, then passed five other cars in front of me, at what I’d say was 80 miles an hour. It was the most dangerous thing I’ve ever seen done in a car.”
Cambridge went to the Marshall home, where he met with Joey and his grandfather, then brought them back to the station. Joey cried and promised to slow down. Not long after came a phoned-in complaint: He was still at it, driving his grandfather’s black Ford Fiesta way too fast on North Road—the site of the mobile-home park—“in a backward baseball cap, knocking down pylons.” Cambridge brought him into the station a second time, this time with his mother. His grandfather took away the car. “Someday you’re going to thank him,” Cambridge told the boy. Within weeks he was driving another, this time a teal-blue Honda Civic.
There were several more incidents, one involving a defective front license plate, another a noisy exhaust. Then, on the morning of April 26 last year, a Sunday, reportedly following an argument with his parents about his summer work prospects, he set off, driving south on Route 116, from somewhere near the center of Hinesburg—it isn’t clear just where. In his system at the time, it would be determined later, were 36 nanograms of THC—the active ingredient in marijuana—seven times the lawful limit in the only two states where smoking it is legal. By the time he reached the turn near the elementary school at the southern edge of town, he was traveling at more than 80 miles an hour, according to later police estimates. Two motorists coming the other way would say it was closer to 100.
Also rounding that same turn at that moment—11:06 a.m.—pedaling south on the shoulder, was a bicyclist, Richard Tom, 47, a quiet, intensely private lover of books and bicycles who, when he wasn’t leading bike tours across the U.S. or Europe for a company in nearby Williston, lived with his dog, Annie, in a one-bedroom apartment half a mile away. When the Civic, by then nearly broadside to the road, struck him from behind, his body continued into a tree, severing his spine, then flew another 41 feet. He may never have known or felt a thing.
The Civic continued down an embankment, where it collided with a tree. Joey died of blunt-impact injuries to the head and neck, including multiple skull fractures. The two bodies came to rest 100 feet apart.
Frank Koss, at 62, is the picture of the career cop: barrel-chested, jowly, balding, white-mustached—the late-years Gene Hackman maybe, or (if you’re old enough to remember) Broderick Crawford in the old Highway Patrol TV series. And his life has been a mirror of the role: airport policeman, crash rescue fireman, 24 years with the California Highway Patrol. Nearly all of his career has been spent answering to disasters, many of them deadly, most of them on the road. Ten years gone from California, and he can still give you chapter and verse of the first fatality he ever worked: October 1982, father and three kids, killed in a Porsche on a Marin County mountain road. Or what he calls his worst: July Fourth weekend, 1997, Boulder Creek in Santa Cruz County, an 18-year-old, DWI, drives broadside into a tree at 1:30 a.m., killing three friends and burning a fourth over half his body. “They left flowers around the tree after that one, too,” he says.
He retired in the summer of 2006 on a California state pension, finishing as a sergeant with the Mount Shasta office at the northern edge of the state. He was 53 years old, married, with 30-odd years of policing behind him.
Some weeks before he left, with his wife, Debbie, he took a road trip east: on I-70 through the middle of the country, with no certain destination in mind, “except that we both liked the idea of living in New England.” The trip took six weeks. By the time they were done driving, Vermont was the clear choice of both: “It’s hard to explain why. We just liked the feel of things there.”
They returned home and began surfing the Web. There was an opening in Williston for a full-time beat cop—accidents, patrol duties, handing out tickets—which he began in the fall of ’06, a month after his last duty day in Mount Shasta. The Williston job led, a year later, to a similar post in Hinesburg. There was a promotion, then another. Since the spring of 2012, he’s been serving as chief, on a salary of $68,000 a year. He’s also trained as an EMT, whose duties—up to 200 calls a year, he says—he performs as a volunteer.
To make sense of what Koss did after Joey Marshall died, it helps to understand some things. He’s carried a gun throughout his career and says he’s prepared to use it if needed, but it’s a point of pride that he never has. (“Maybe I’ve just been lucky, or maybe it’s the way I talk to people.”) He believes that shoveling driveways and responding to lockouts are courtesies that come with the job. Andy Griffith reruns are among his TV favorites; “Welcome to Mayberry” was the greeting I got the first day I visited the station, on whose front porch are a pair of rocking chairs.
There’s a story Koss tells. One day several years ago, a local man, who, he says, may have been “a little off, a little slow,” was out walking when he stopped into the station and asked for help unjamming the zipper on his jacket. The chief, who hadn’t met the man before, helped fix the zipper; the man thanked him and went on his way. Some months later there came a call for an EMT, to which the chief responded: The man had had a heart attack and died.
It’s a simple story, but his telling of it seems to go to the heart of how Frank Koss thinks about his job: “If he hadn’t come in here that day, he would have been just another guy who died. But he wasn’t. I had met him. That made it personal for me.”
Personal. It’s a word he uses a lot. During his time in California, he says, “I worked hundreds of fatals, literally hundreds, but in 25 years I never saw the same person twice. Here, we get to know people; we get to know their families and kids. So when someone in town gets hurt or killed—like early in my time here, I lost a young man on an ATV—it’s personal for me.”
The roadside memorials began appearing the same afternoon. Crosses, candles, balloons, beer cans, bong pipes, handwritten messages, nearly all of it—at least at first—in tribute to Joey Marshall. The account that ran online the next day in the Burlington Free Press described the two victims in the words of those who’d known them: a “joyous person” with a surpassing love of bicycles and “a fantastic and caring young man” who had “lived life more fully than most.” Joey’s high-school principal noted the Marshall family’s “deep roots” in the community and reported that “counselors [were] working with students, staff and faculty to provide the support needed to deal with the loss.” Joey’s Facebook page, the story said, was “inundated Sunday night and Monday with messages of remembrance and mourning.”
No one had known at first who the biker’s body might belong to; there was no ID in the pockets and no one at the scene knew the face. When at last he was identified and the chief went to his address, a condo unit just off Route 116 a half-mile from the accident site, what he found (in addition to the dog, Annie) was a collection of bikes, bike parts, and bike paraphernalia he would later describe as a testament to “a love of bicycles beyond comprehension, like nothing I have ever known.”
Richard Tom, by those who cared for him, was known for many things, none of them more telling than this lifelong love affair: “He knew everything you could know about bikes—it was absolutely uncanny. He’d see some bike somewhere and tell me some trivial little fact about it that no one could possibly have known, and I’d ask him, ‘How could you know that?’ And he’d just kinda look at me and smile.”
Diana Nelson spoke with me by phone from California, where she’s lived since not long after she and Richard Tom split up seven years ago, after 15 years together. For nearly an hour she talked about his love of dogs and books and bicycles, his “wonderful ability” to make friends out of strangers at the side of the road, balanced by a closely guarded privacy that finally, she said, caused their rift. She had learned of his death from a mutual friend’s phone call, then come East for his memorial in late May.
When it became clear that his parents, who live in Alabama—where Richard was born and raised—were too frail to make the trip, she agreed to stay on long enough to close down his condo and settle his affairs: “All the stuff involved with that, the emails, the phone calls, the sorting through things—it was like being in a relationship with him again. I miss him a lot. Every time I get on a bike, I think of him. He was the most selfless person I’ve ever known.”
Nearly a month passed. The ghostly white bicycle appeared by the roadside, then was joined by a second, which just as quickly disappeared. On the Sunday after the deaths, a convoy of 400 bicyclists, escorted by police, shared a “remembrance ride” honoring both victims, through the village and past the crash site. The grief counselors came and went from the high school. The funerals took place quietly. The balloons and bong pipes dwindled, then were gone.
Then, on May 21, in the “Chief’s Corner” column on page 3 of that month’s 3,000-circulation Hinesburg Record, next to a story on the success of the annual spring Green-Up Day, Chief Koss shared his thoughts with the town. By 8:00 p.m. the same evening, the news of his words had been picked up online by the Burlington Free Press; within an hour, USA Today was tweeting it nationally (“Police Chief Writes with Raw Candor About Fatal Crash”). Within 48 hours, the story had gone viral.
Koss’s column, 800 words from start to finish, began by offering perspective: “I have been investigating accidents since August 5, 1982. My first fatal crash came two months later …” It went on to note that in all the years since, in dealing with these many deaths, he had never departed from protocol, always remained “politically correct and sensitive, just presenting the facts …”
From that point on, Koss’s message crackled with anger. Richard Tom, he wrote, had been “killed while riding his bicycle down the shoulder of the road on one of the first decent days after a long winter, minding his own business …” Joey’s car had rounded the corner at “what seemed like a hundred miles an hour,” hitting Tom, “hurling him into the air.” The event had “crossed an unimaginable line.” More needed to come from it than just “some candles and flowers by the side of the road.”
But by that point in the column, the chief had already crossed a line of his own: “To be blunt, if Joseph Marshall had not lost his life, he would have been charged with second-degree murder.”
He grew up in Colorado, just outside Denver, where his father was a service manager for Honeywell. Two months out of high school, he joined the Air Force, where he was trained in electronic communications. From there, at 22, he joined the Alaska Air National Guard, in which he served for three years—while also working part-time as an airport security guard—until his release, with the rank of staff sergeant, in the summer of 1978.
During my second visit with Koss, in mid-October of last year—nearly six months since the deaths, five months since he wrote his column—he tells me a story about that early time in his life. Like others of his stories, it seems to serve for him almost as an allegory, as the memory of a morally defining moment.
It was during the year he was in Air Force electronics school, so he would have been about 19. He had a friend at the time, a girl, who invited him to go with her to a local golf course one night and smoke a joint. He was nervous, he remembers; he’d never tasted pot before, and smoking it, for an airman trainee, was a career-ending offense. But he agreed: “I was young. That’s about all you can say.”
And so they went. And they found the most secluded spot they could, and they lit their joint. Not long after, they watched as the beams of two flashlights approached them: the Air Force MPs.
“I was scared, I was terrified—you have no idea.” But the wind was blowing the other way. The MPs smelled nothing and walked on. If the wind that night had been blowing in a different direction, he says, “it would have changed everything. I would have gotten a dishonorable discharge, would have driven back home to Colorado in my ’49 Chevy, and tried to figure out what to do with the rest of my life.”
At this point he swivels in his chair and points behind him to a large vertical frame on the wall. There, arranged in an oval pattern behind glass, against a dark-blue background, are the various insignia and shoulder patches that define the trajectory of his life: U.S. Air Force, Loomis Security, O’Neill Security Services, Alaska Airport Police, California Highway Patrol, Williston Police, Hinesburg Community Police.
“I wouldn’t have had any of that,” he says now, turning slowly back toward me, placing both hands squarely on his desk, as if to steady himself. “None of that would have happened. If the wind had blown the other way that night, I wouldn’t be here today.”
There’s a long pause, which grows longer. He turns back again toward the wall frame, then returns once more to face me before he speaks again.
“Some things are life-altering events,” he says. “That was one for me. Now there’s this: Richard Tom was out riding his bike, enjoying his Sunday morning. Now he’s dead. He’ll never have a life again. What’s that going to be for the other kids? It needs to be more than just ‘Smoke a bong for Joey.’”
In a small town, death is always big news. When the victim is a boy from a family with strong ties and years of history, and he’s charged—publicly and posthumously, within a month of his death—with murder, the news can seem cataclysmic.
Early Friday afternoon, a day after the chief’s column had appeared, Alicia Marshall, Joey’s mother, returned a call from a reporter at the Burlington Free Press. The reporter, staff writer Elizabeth Murray, responded with a visit to the Marshall home the same day. Also there when Murray arrived were Joey’s father Gary, his younger brother, older sister, grandmother, girlfriend, and several friends.
“My son was not the type of person to go out and try to murder somebody,” said his mother, who, along with the grandmother, did nearly all of the talking. “He loved his car. He planned on marrying his girlfriend as soon as they graduated. He was going to turn 18. He had just finished high school that Friday.” She sobbed as she spoke. Several of the others also were in tears.
The story told of how Joey and his father had planned to open a family business together—Marshall & Sons Home Repair & Maintenance—and of how sweatshirts with the company’s name had been delivered the day after his death.
A friend, Lucas Aube, 19, spoke up toward the end. He used to have respect for Chief Koss, he said, but had lost it after reading the column. Alicia Marshall agreed: “[He] made Joe, a 17-year-old who loved life, a murderer,” she told the reporter.
In the wider world—and especially among the law-enforcement community—the chief was drawing broad support. The chief in nearby Colchester, Jen Morrison, praised him for being “unafraid of difficult conversations.” Others felt the same, and continue their support today.
“It took real courage for him to write that,” South Burlington police chief Trevor Whipple said not long ago. “I’m a parent myself; I can understand the grief over losing a child. But at the same time, that young man made some horrible choices, and he took someone else with him. Sometimes you just have to stand up and speak out.”
But in the village and the region around it, things only got worse. Over the two weeks that followed the column, according to the Burlington paper, there was a near-endless “back-and-forth between Koss and the Marshall family,” with community members often taking sides. Alicia Marshall claimed harassment. Reports of Joey’s pit bull, Tank, having mauled several visitors added further heat to the fire. Meanwhile, the chief would say later, “It seemed to me like Richard Tom was just really getting lost.”
To the chief, there seemed only one way past the ugliness—though he must have known it was a risk. On the evening of Thursday, June 4, at his invitation—“to grant the family the opportunity to speak their mind in open forum”—between 80 and 100 area residents filled the second-floor meeting room of Hinesburg Town Hall. The Marshall family—mother, father, sister, brother—were at a table in front. A dozen or so of Joey’s teenage posse, nearly all in black T-shirts sporting a stenciled image of the teal Honda, lined the back wall. The rest were in folding chairs or standing along the side walls: a mixed crowd of parents, neighbors, cyclists, reporters, friends of the Marshalls, and those of Richard Tom. The chief stood at the head of the room, with his officer, Anthony Cambridge, alone in the front row of chairs.
It began as you’d expect. The chief detailed the physics of the crash: time of day, speed, the narrowness of the shoulder, the impossibility of reacting in time: “He was traveling the length of a football field every 2.4 seconds.” Then he outlined the parameters of second-degree murder: unpremeditated, “caused by the offender’s obvious lack of concern for human life.”
Alicia Marshall, defiant at her table, speaking sometimes through clenched teeth, argued that manslaughter was the worst it should have been: “Not murder, not murder at all; he was a kid who loved life.” She charged that the chief’s talk of murder was part of a pattern of harassment, that her husband, Gary (who never spoke, and barely moved, throughout the meeting, hands folded in front of him, sitting alongside his wife), had himself been harassed during a traffic stop by Officer Cambridge. Anthony Cambridge answered the charge, detailing the incident in question.
Then, as others in the room rose to speak, the feeling of things began to change. A woman in back, speaking softly, addressed the family: “Our hearts go out to you, but please understand, this is not about placing blame.” A second woman had words for the chief: “When I read your article, I was moved, because it came through that you want Joseph’s horrible death to try to save the lives of other people.” A mother told of taking her son’s license away after he was stopped for speeding; another said she hadn’t and was sorry.
An older man, a schoolbus driver, visibly shaken, rose and faced the chief: “My nephew was killed, 12 years ago, by a drunk driver. It’s taken me this long to speak up …” At this point he broke down, sobbing. “And it’s because of you. It’s been 12 years, and it still hurts. But thank you.”
Several friends of Richard Tom took their turns. One, a man who gave his name as Jason Reed, spoke, one would assume, for them all: “Ma’am, with all due respect … your son sounds like a magnificent kid, but your son broke the law. Richard Tom was following the law. Your son broke the law, and my friend is dead.”
There were many more: A driver’s-ed teacher spoke on the difficulty of explaining the deaths to his students; cyclists shared the fears they rode with every day; a friend of Richard Tom, standing next to a friend of Joey’s who wept alongside as the older man spoke, told of the two having met at the crash site, days before, when both had come to say goodbye to their friends. At one point Joey’s 19-year-old sister, who had stood quietly till then against the front wall behind her parents, broke her silence with a low cry: “I have to stand here and listen to all this! I’ve been listening to this week after week. I just want my brother to rest in peace!”
Alicia Marshall seemed broken. Her defiance now gone, she sat at the table next to her husband, sobbing heavily, her shoulders quaking. Then suddenly, cutting off someone else who was speaking, she blurted out a string of words, not all of them intelligible through her sobs: “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I don’t know what else to say. I’m sorry my son did this to him! … I say that in front of every town member, in front of every bicyclist here …”
By the end of a little more than an hour (the meeting would last for nearly two), it was plain that most of those present knew that something very rare was taking place. “There’s so much caring in this room,” one woman told the crowd. “I feel I’m just lucky to be here.” A bearded man in glasses, sitting alone in the front row, rose to say that he had been a journalist all his life, had covered many sorts of meetings, “and I’ve never seen anything like this.” He praised the Marshalls for their courage in airing their grievance and sharing their grief; he praised the chief for “caring as much about this community as to say what you said. That took incredible courage.” And then he turned and faced the room: “For everyone here to sit for an hour and 45 minutes, and talk about this and show each other respect—that’s just amazing, I think.”
The chief stood quietly through most of this, letting it play out. There was only one point, not long after Alicia Marshall’s tearful apology, that he spoke at any length. Delivering his words carefully, hands folded in front of him, he told the room that he hadn’t known Richard Tom, that he wasn’t a bicyclist himself (“My wife and I, two years ago we bought bikes and they’re still sitting in the garage”) and had no personal stake in the issue. “But when you’re chief of police in a small town, you take things personally. I don’t want to be in L.A., I don’t want to be in South Burlington. I love being the chief of police of this town.”
Then he paused, and raising his voice along with his gaze, he addressed his words to the row of black-shirted teenagers lining the back wall of the room. Would they obey the law now? Would they respect others on the road? If so, probably something had been learned.
The message he closed with, one hopes, struck a chord with at least a few of those boys and girls (mostly boys) in the back. “Go home,” he told them. “Go home safely, make it home every night,” because life “isn’t about 16, 17, and 18,” or about speed or cars or good times. It’s about the years that come after, “when we’re out there doing something in the world … That ’s your time that you need to get to. Get past the speed, get past all of this, and make it to where your life is supposed to be.”
When the meeting adjourned at a little before 9:00, the sky outside was darkening. But of the 40 or 50 people still left in the room, almost no one seemed ready to leave. It was hugs and handholds now that kept them. They went around from one to the other— Richard Tom’s bicyclists, the Marshalls, the parents, the police—until there was no more hugging to be done. By then the sky was dark.
It was on my last visit with Chief Koss, in mid-January of this year, that he took me on that drive around the town’s back roads. “Sometimes when I’m driving these roads,” he told me, “it takes me back to being in Colorado as a kid.” Three weeks earlier, a Cleveland grand jury had declined to indict the officer who had been videotaped fatally shooting a 12-year-old boy; the protests were still ongoing. Six months before, a college student in Cincinnati, also unarmed, had been shot to death by police, just days after a young black woman in Texas had been found hanging in her cell. It hadn’t been a good year for policing.
“It makes me sad where law enforcement is headed,” the chief said to me as we drove past the preschool on our way back toward the station. “The police don’t have the support of the people anymore. It’s a different world today.”
Things with the Marshalls had quieted by now. The town meeting had cooled tempers; there’d been no issues with Alicia in months; Joey’s pit bull, after several more attacks, had been put down.
The biggest news lately had been burglaries—a number of them, nearly all with drugs at their source, most often heroin. A family of three (“including the mom”) he’d told me about at our first meeting in November, known for their thefts of catalytic converters from parked cars, had been apprehended shortly after, and were off the streets now.
More recently, he said, just two days before Christmas, two burglars had broken into a local home and stolen everything under the tree, as well as several pieces of jewelry. This had especially offended him (“You steal someone’s jewelry, that’s not just a piece of gold—you’re stealing a piece of their past”)—and he’d wanted the thieves to know that they’d been seen on camera and that their remaining freedom would be short.
So he took to the town’s Facebook page: “Special holiday greetings to the burglars who robbed the house on Charlotte Rd. Besides ransacking the bedrooms for jewelry, taking all the wrapped presents from underneath the Christmas tree should be a particularly proud moment for you. If you are the two thieves that had also stopped at another residence on Charlotte Rd. and spotted the camera, we have a special message. To the vehicle passenger that looked right into the camera—yes, it was real … The Hinesburg Police will be working extra hard toward giving these two thieves a special new year.”
He’s your grandfather’s police chief: a protector of kids and dogs and public safety, morally outraged at the theft of Christmas gifts. Ten years ago he retired and came East, in search of something he’d know only when he found it in a small Vermont town: “We just liked the feel of things there.” He’s 62 today, and soon will be retiring again. But it’s different this time. He plans to stay on in this town that he and Debbie discovered, to keep the home they bought on the street behind the police station, perhaps one day to die here.
And in the meantime at the station itself, his own “feel of things” will live on in the model he’s imparted to his men, Anthony Cambridge among them.
“He talks to people,” the chief said to me about his officer that day we were driving around. “He relates, he cares. It’s a lot like the way I do policing. It’s a perfect fit for this town.”