A vigil held Saturday for a transgender Hinesburg resident stabbed to death last Tuesday drew hundreds of people to Oxbow Riverfront Park in Morrisville to reflect on the multitudinous life of Fern Feather.
Feather, 29, was killed April 12 in the Cadys Falls area of Morristown. Seth Brunell, 43, no known address, is currently in jail after pleading not guilty April 14 to second-degree murder.
While Feather’s last known address was Hinesburg, they grew up in the Northeast Kingdom, and people who knew them said Saturday that Feather was just as likely to pop up on State Street in Montpelier, at a festival in Brattleboro, or at a party in some rural northern town.
(Note: while Feather identified throughout life by various pronouns, this newspaper is using the gender-neutral they/them. It is also providing anonymity for those who spoke at the vigil, due to concerns of retaliation against people in the LGBTQ community.)
One Morristown resident shyly noted he doesn’t like speaking in front of people but said Fern brought out the best in a lot of people, and “taught me a lot about being more open, more free.”
Another person, who referred to Feather as a partner, talked about a two-month cross-country adventure the two took last fall, driving to Montana, Oregon and California, collecting tropical plants for a nursery Feather planned to create in Vermont.
One person told a story of Feather seeing a sad-looking, skinny stray dog on the side of the road that no one else would consider adopting, “and Fern simply opened the passenger door, looked at the dog, and said, ‘Come on, get in.’”
Many who knew Feather spoke of their love for animals and plants and humans and were aghast at the suggestion that Feather attacked Brunell first, as Brunell told police. Several others, including Feather’s obituary author, went straight cosmic.
One speaker, theatrically and without a microphone, addressed the crowd ala something out of Bread and Puppet Theatre, and declared that the heavens had aligned just an hour after Feather’s killing — just 10 days before Feather’s birthday on April 22 — in a rare astrological phenomenon.
“For those who don’t know what that means, it happens every 1,500 years,” the person said. “It’s an enormous sky to escape into.”
But, for all the sharing of love and peace and nature, others shared the terror wrought by the killing.
One person said they came out with their pronouns to their father on the same day Feather was killed. Although the father was “supporting, fumbling, but doing his best,” he was also concerned.
“He said, ‘You know I love you. But I’m scared for you.’”
Another person who drove in from out of town said the GPS wasn’t showing the correct route to Oxbow Riverfront Park, where the vigil was held.
“I couldn’t find it, and I was afraid to ask somebody,” the speaker said, voice raising with emotion. “I was afraid to ask somebody in Morrisville where we go to celebrate Fern’s life.”
Justin Marsh is a Cambridge resident and an organizer with the Pride Center of Vermont, which organized Saturday’s vigil. They said they were thrilled so many people showed up from all over the state to celebrate Feather, but the fear factor among the trans community is understandable.
Marsh is also known by their drag queen alter ego Emoji Nightmare. Marsh said there have been times when they were driving home in drag from a gig and would pass up a gas station in an unlit rural area in favor of one better lit and with more people.
Marsh said violence against trans people is on the rise, and Feather was the 12th trans person murdered in the U.S. so far this year.
Killing by the river
On April 12 around 10:15 a.m., a person driving in the Cadys Falls area of Morristown called 911 to report seeing a body in the middle of Duhamel Road and a person standing next to the body, on his cellphone — later identified by police as Brunell.
Morristown police were the first to arrive on the scene, a few minutes after the 911 call. According to the affidavit, Feather was lying in the road with two dogs lying next to them.
When police later interviewed the person Brunell was talking to, she said Brunell told her he had killed Feather after Feather had come on to him in a sexual manner “and was going crazy.”
According to the affidavit, the Morristown officer who was first on the scene said Brunell told him a similar story, but the officer, as well as a trooper who interviewed Brunell at the police station, did not see any injuries on Brunell, whose clothes were clean and undamaged.
Investigators cordoned off the area as a Vermont State Police Crime Scene Search Team spent much of the day at the scene. There, they found a bloody 12-inch fixed blade knife.
An autopsy report ruled the death a homicide by a stab wound to the chest.
Piecing together information from earlier events, police reported that earlier that morning, around 7:30 a.m., deputies from Lamoille County Sheriff’s Department responded to the parking lot opposite the Lamoille North Supervisory Union, where Feather and Brunell — identified when they proffered their licenses — told deputies they were looking for a place to walk their dogs and thought they were in a public lot.
According to the affidavit, Brunell told deputies he had recently been released from the Vermont State Hospital in Berlin and Vermont State Police had cited him for stealing a car to drive himself there.
The woman who had been on the phone with Brunell right before the 911 call later told police she had spoken to Feather earlier that morning and asked if they wanted to have coffee or tea, but Feather declined. She said there was nothing out of the ordinary about the earlier conversation.
The owner of the Subaru Feather was driving said Feather was borrowing her car because Feather’s was at the mechanic’s shop. She said that she and Feather have been friends for 15 years and Feather told her two days earlier they had picked up a hitchhiker named Seth who “seemed like he was a good guy.”
Trying the case
Brunell pleaded not guilty to second degree murder in Lamoille County Superior Court Thursday, but there is pressure on prosecutors to charge him with a hate crime. A petition on change.org requesting the state to do so garnered over 9,000 signatures this week.
Aliena Gerhard, the deputy state’s attorney in Lamoille County leading the case against Brunell, said Friday she was aware of the petition, and appreciates the sentiments behind it, but said pursuing a hate crime is a “very high bar to meet.”
If convicted of second-degree murder, Brunell faces a sentence of life in prison, with a “presumptive minimum” sentence of 20 years. Brunell is represented by defense attorney David Sleigh, a formidable lawyer known for taking on tough cases.
“The legal process is very slow and methodical, and I’m going to cross my t’s and dot my i’s and make sure that we’ve got everything that we need to successfully prosecute him,” Gerhard said. “Whether that means a murder two charge, or it means a hate crime charge, whatever it is, we’re going to give it everything we have.”
Gerhard said that shouldn’t stop people from writing letters on Feather’s behalf, which can be used at sentencing should the prosecution prevail. She said when she was in court Thursday for the arraignment, she felt “so much support” from Feather’s friends in the courtroom.
“That was really uplifting and made me feel really confident,” she said.
State’s attorney Todd Shove said Brunell has a couple of felony convictions on his criminal record, including a 2004 conviction for aggravated assault with a weapon. The Times Argus in 2003 reported Brunell stabbed another man after the two of them got into a fight over a woman police say was involved with both men.
Brunell was also convicted of grand larceny in 2010 for his part in a robbery at a Waterbury gas station where $2,200 in cash was taken.
Brunell’s next court appearance is a status conference on April 28, and Gerhard said he will remain in jail throughout the duration of the case, pending the outcome of an evidentiary hearing in the coming weeks or months.
Gerhard said part of the reason for her confidence in being able to successfully convict Brunell is the strength of the evidence and the thorough police work that went into gathering it.
“They work as a team, there are no battles for jurisdiction or town lines, just all working together for the same goal of protecting the community and making sure that the criminals are brought to justice so that we can prosecute them effectively and successfully,” she said.
News travels fast
Last Tuesday’s investigation illustrated just how quickly things can change when it comes to identifying a victim of a crime.
Media across the state were pilloried by the public for “misgendering” Feather — using the wrong nouns and pronouns for a person — and for “deadnaming” them — using a person’s previous name. Television, radio and digital-only media that had initially reported on the killing were able to update their stories in real time.
This newspaper, as a printed weekly, has a Wednesday morning deadline, and Vermont State Police had just publicly identified the victim and the alleged killer a little after 9 p.m. the previous night, using Feather’s original name and referring to the victim as a man. The newspaper did not learn about Feather’s identity as a trans woman until several hours after the paper went to the press, although it was able to update the online version before people in Lamoille County got their papers.
Adam Silverman, communications director for Vermont State Police, said it is department policy to have its victims’ services unit work with a victim’s family before releasing information about the victim to the public.
“We do this to give them a choice in the process, both to keep them informed as to what we are doing and to give them a voice,” Silverman said.
While this report does not use Feather’s previous name, the obituary, written by the family, does.
What’s in a name?
When it comes to pronouns, the obituary noted Feather’s tendency to identify by different genders.
“An active and important member of Vermont’s queer community, Fern was fluid in his gender identity and used all pronouns (he, she and they),” the obituary reads. “In his heart he identified as a star-being, beyond gender. Fern was made of light, truly an angel on earth.”
Marsh, from the Pride Center, said the initial outcry about the misgendering of Feather in initial news reports stemmed from “the queer community at large” being extremely protective of Feather, who had posted on Facebook just a few weeks earlier that she was now identifying as a trans woman.
Marsh said Saturday’s vigil “gave clarity into the fluidity” about how Feather felt about gender.
“You’re always trying to put things in boxes, like, what color is this? What size is this? What gender is this?” Marsh said. “I think this is Fern’s immediate legacy, in unpacking these things. This is a really great conversation to be having.”
However, Marsh noted that not everyone in the LGBTQ community is as willfully fluid as Feather was. For some people, being fluid is a matter of survival.
“As a queer person in Vermont, code switching is something that you have to do, for your own safety,” Marsh said.
Gerhard said during the arraignment, judge Michael Harris asked the state what pronouns it planned to use, and Gerhard said she asked Feather’s friends in the room if it would be OK to refer to Feather as both Fern and Zachary and they agreed that either is OK.
“I think the comment I made in the courtroom is that what we need to focus on is Fern was a human being and he was brutally murdered. She was brutally murdered. They/them were brutally murdered,” Gerhard said.