Sap to syrup at Sunset Farms

This story appeared April 3, 2014 in The Gardner News. 


At 6:30 a.m., the first rays of sunlight have lit up Sunset View Farm, and the birds have just begun their early morning song.

This is when Chuck Tarleton starts his workday during sugaring season. Trudging from his house to the sugaring shack at 159 Gardner Road, he starts a small fire in the evaporator that transforms sap into maple syrup.

“It has to run all day,”  he said.

By one in the afternoon, there will be a completed batch of syrup sitting on the counter and plenty more simmering. While the steam and most of the heat escape through a hole in the roof, the air in the one-room workshop stays thick with the syrup’s woodsy, sweet smell.

Mr. Tarleton is still feeding the fire, listening to talk news to pass the time.

“You can load it, and give it 10 minutes while you do something inside,” said Mr. Tarleton’s wife Livvy.  “He’s been out here all day though.”

The Tarletons have run Sunset View Farms for 34 years, but only started making syrup five years ago when a family friend suggested they give it a try, hoping to get a chance to make a batch himself.

The operation started with a pan in the driveway and a few taps, according to Ms. Tarleton.

That season they were experimenting, figuring out how to do it, and deciding if they enjoyed it.

From there, it grew to the 200 tap production people get a glimpse of as they drive by the old-fashioned buckets tacked to the farm’s prominent maple trees.

“We never make any money … It’s just kind of for fun,” said Ms. Tarleton.

Last year, the Tarletons packaged 32 gallons of syrup — a small operation by New England standards.

“It was just enough for us, gifts and to keep the stand stocked all summer,” Ms. Tarleton noted.

This season, she said they are hoping for just 15 gallons because of an unusually late start.

“It’s been a horrible year,”  she added.  “It’s been too cold for the sap to run.”

In a typical year, the sap starts running from the maple trees in mid to late March.

The season begins when the nights are still just below freezing, and the days are a sunny, 40 to 50 degrees.

According to the Tarletons, the trees have to reset every night before sap runs in the morning.

Each year the sap starts clear, but by season’s end it turns to a rusty amber color. It takes nearly 40 gallons of sap to create one gallon of syrup.

The Tarleton’s will have to collect 600 gallons of sap to produce the syrup they hope to stock. So far, they are about two thirds of the way there — with an estimated one week to go.

Monday was a perfect day for collecting at the farm. Without visiting all of their taps, the trees produced 110 gallons.

“Our arms got tired,”  she said.

Unlike larger operations, at Sunset View Farm all the sap is collected by hand by the Tarletons and a neighbor who allows them to tap her property as well. Deep in the woods, sap is collected by plastic tubing that looks like an IV draining the tree. At the end of the tubes is a white, five gallon bucket.

Each day, at around 4 p.m.,  the selected sites and dumps the buckets are emptied into a 65-gallon tank carted around on a tractor. It can take up to an hour to fill the tank up by hand.

Once this is done, the sap is brought back to the shack and poured into an even larger tank perched on a shelf behind the sugar shack and that’s where it sits until Mr. Tarleton releases a valve and pours it into the evaporator to be boiled.

The sap – which starts out as a slightly sweet liquid – is then boiled at 212 degrees and sinks to the bottom of the vat. It is then drained into a second heating area where it is brought up to 219 degrees, seven degrees warmer than the boiling point of water.

In that pan, the sap officially becomes syrup. From there, it is strained and packaged to be sold at the farmstand throughout the spring.

“It’s good, fresh syrup,”  said Ms. Tarleton


Family dog found hung from tree

The article appeared April 17, 2014 in The Gardner News. 


Allyson Clark knew something was wrong when she heard her daughters’ screams.

“As a mother, you know your children’s screams,” she said. “A scream like that meant urgency now.”

Without stopping to put on shoes, she ran outside where she said she found, Snoopy, the family’s pet beagle, hanging four feet off the ground from a tree in their backyard. The 14-week old puppy was dead.

“I want to see justice,” she said. “That’s all I care about.”

Police, as well as the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the local animal control officer, are investigating the dog’s death. Lieutenant David Walsh said police responded to the call at 6:51 p.m. on Monday.

He declined to comment further.

Snoopy had only been a part of the Clark’s family for four weeks before the tragic incident. Ms. Clark said the dog was a birthday present for her 20-year-old daughter Brittany.

Monday was the first time the family had left the pup alone in their backyard at 22 Western Avenue, a small, swampy road with four houses.

Ms. Clark was inside the house making a dinner of green beans, mashed potatoes and chicken when it happened. After mashing the potatoes, she said she noticed that Snoopy was unusually quiet and sent her 10-year-old daughter Katelyn to check on him.

When Katelyn when outside, she started screaming for her sister, Brittany, to help her untangle the the dog. When Brittany came out, she started screaming “he’s dead,” according to their mother.

This all happened at approximately 3:40 p.m., according to police reports.

“It happened in broad daylight,” Ms. Clark said.

Ms. Clark said the dog was hanged using the rope from a birdfeeder in their yard. So many knots were tied around the dog’s collar that she said they had to cut it to take him down.

“We had buried him,” she said. “We didn’t want to leave him  hanging there.”

However, later in the evening, she said she became concerned about whether the person would attack another family’s pet or a person. At 6:51, she called the police to report Snoopy’s death.

The dog was exhumed Wednesday morning as part of the investigation, she said.

The family is now on a quest to find out what happened to their beloved dog.

“I can’t think of anyone who would be vindictive to us,” she said. “We’ve never done anything to harm anyone.”

Ms. Clark created a flyer about the incident that she planned to distribute to all of her neighbors, offering a $100 reward for information.

Before that could happen, her husband, Peter, posted it to Facebook where it went viral.

“I never expected that would happen,” she said. “I can’t believe it.”

People in the community, outraged by Snoopy’s death, started to contribute to the reward fund. As of yesterday afternoon the reward has reached $500.

“The mailman stopped and gave me $50 in cash,” she said. “A man I just wave hello to everyday,”

Another person left a small stuffed animal in her mailbox.

While the family is touched by the support from the greater Winchendon community, they are still feeling the loss of their pet—and security—acutely.

“We are afraid in our own home,” Ms. Clark said.

According to Ms. Clark, following news of the Snoopy’s death, one of her neighbors approached her and said she had seen a man in the woods around their home several times, sometimes at night.

Ms. Clark has taken several security measures to try to keep her family of three daughters and one son safer, including removing the outside handle of their screen door, not letting her daughters go outside alone, and using their security system.

The family is also considering installing security cameras around the house.

“We’re not sleeping well,” she said. “I keep waking up to check the windows and locks.”

She added that her 10-year-old is having nightmares and has asked her parents about moving.

People with information about the alleged attack should call Det. Kevin Wolski at 978-297-1212.

People can also email information to the family at if they are not comfortable talking to police.

Ms. Clark said she still plans to post the flyer throughout town and will be talking to her neighbors about the incident.

“I’m not going to stop until I know what happened to him,” she said.

Gardner Rare Coin Shop robbed

This story appeared on January 21, 2014 in The Gardner News. 


A worker at Gardner Rare Coin Shop, 25 Pleasant St., was left with a bloodied face after two armed robbers reportedly fled the scene with an undetermined amount of cash.

A little before 2 p.m., two males wearing ski masks entered the store and pointed handguns at two on duty workers, demanding that they hand over money, according to a press release from the Gardner Police Department.

According to officials, the suspects fled the scene after taking an undetermined amount of cash and a Canadian 1 once gold coin valued at $1,200.

During the exchange, one worker was allegedly assaulted. He was treated on scene by Wood’s ambulance.

According to officials, the first male suspect is about 6 foot 1 inch with a slender build. He was observed wearing black pants, a black hoodie and dark colored shoes. The second suspect was described as 5 foot 11 inches with a slender build, wearing blue jeans, a black hoodie and dark shoes.

A “thorough and intense” investigation was initiated by the Gardner Police Department’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation with the support of the Massachusetts State Police Crime Scene Services. The investigation will include a review of available surveillance footage from the time of the incident.

Six $100 bills were found outside of the storefront at approximately 2:15 p.m. by two bystanders who chose not to be identified. Officers were informed of the money and collected it. It is unknown at this time whether or not the money is connected to the robbery.

Police are currently asking for the public’s help in finding a smaller model, blue, four-door sedan the suspects were seen leaving the scene in. According to an official statement, the vehicle was parked on Pleasant Street “in close proximity to where the crime occurred” before the robbery was reported.

Anyone with additional information should call the Gardner Police Station at 978-632-5600.

Frigid temperatures an added hardship for homeless

This article appeared January 9, 2014 in The Gardner News. 

Nyoka Norine Blanchard, 27, told officials she was freezing to death when she called Our Father’s House at about 6 p.m. on Tuesday night asking for help.

The temperature had dropped to a mere 7 degrees, and the wind made it feel even colder inside of the abandoned factory she and two other homeless individuals — Paul Henry Flagg, 35, and Donald Ketola, 38 — had holed up in on Mill Street.

Labeled with a no trespassing sign, the building was so decrepit, so unstable Gardner police would not even walk inside when they arrived at 6:15 p.m., according to Police Chief Neil Erickson. Instead, they called from the door for anyone inside the building to come out.
At first, no one came.

Officers then called Our Father’s House, a homeless shelter in Fitchburg, that works with communities as far west as Orange. Outreach coordinator Kevin MacLean, who had talked to the three individuals earlier that night, gave the officers Flagg’s cell phone number, according to police reports.

After 45 minutes of negotiations, officers coaxed the three out.

Flagg kept telling officers “he did not want to get in trouble,” Officer Joseph Wolski later indicated. Mr. Flagg asked that he and Ms. Blanchard be placed into protective custody.

If the three were sober, they would have been brought straight to Our Father’s House at 199 Summer St. in Fitchburg to spend the night, however, they were “highly intoxicated,” Chief Erickson said. Instead, the three were arrested for trespassing, and brought to the police station to be booked.

“They spent the night with us,” said the chief, “where they stayed warm and were fed.”

Mr. MacLean praised the police department’s actions the next day.

“It kept them alive,” he said. “Last night was cold and three people drinking in an abandoned building wouldn’t have woken up this morning.”

Ms. Blanchard was right to be afraid of the cold. Since the deep-freeze started on Sunday, the Associate Press has reported 21 deaths related to the cold. Several of the deaths were homeless people who either refused shelter or didn’t make it in time.

What to do with the homeless when the mercury drops to potentially fatal temperatures is a problem that plagues cities throughout the United States.

Springfield reported that many of their shelters were full Tuesday night, with some facilities offering to let people sleep on the floor. In Chicago, authorities opened up emergency shelters this past week to give people somewhere to stay warm.

In Gardner, police estimate there are about 10 homeless individuals and Mr. MacLean believes the number could be double. Officials in nearby Winchendon estimate there are 22 to 25 homeless people in town. Neither Gardner nor Winchendon have a shelter available within their limits.

In the city, it would take the mayor declaring a state of emergency to open one up for a night, according to Gardner Emergency Management Director Paul Topolski.

“The shelter would have to benefit the community at large, not a few individuals,” Mr. Topolski said.

In extreme weather, the Gardner CAC has a partnership with the United Way of North Central Massachusetts, which allows homeless individuals to come in, and fill out brief paperwork in order to obtain a hotel room for the night.

It’s a great program, according to CAC Program Director Karen Sharpe, but Tuesday night’s freeze was not quite cold enough.

“We didn’t get a fax letting us know we could use the program,” said Sharpe. There was no email either.

That leaves Gardner’s homeless population – as well as the surrounding communities – with three choices: find a place on the streets to spend the night, get arrested or find a way to get to Our Father’s House.

Of those three choices connecting people to Our Father’s – a 28-bed facility that helped 950 individuals last winter – is the best option, according to Chief Erickson.

“These arrests are not a preferred way to get the homeless off the street,” he said. “The preferred option is getting them to the shelter.”

Homeless individuals can get to Our Father’s via the Montachusett Regional Transit Authority bus, which costs $1.50 or police and Mr. MacLean have been known to give people a ride.

Mr. MacLean knows the areas homeless population well. He spends at least two days a week in Gardner going to “homeless hotspots” to see if there is anyway he can do to help, he said. He leaves a business card at almost every place he goes.

With many of the individuals he helps, including the three people arrested on Tuesday, Mr. MacLean often has a history that goes back years.

“It’s so sad,” Mr. MacLean added.  “Two of them are very able-bodied, hard workers. I got them an apartment and a job a couple years ago.”

Three weeks ago, when making his rounds, Mr. MacLean found the trio in an abandoned building. He said they were near death. Police and ambulance were called, and they were taken to Heywood hospital for treatment, according to Mr. MacLean. They then refused shelter, and returned to the streets.

Following Tuesday’s arrests, Ms. Blanchard, Mr. Flagg and Mr. Ketola were arraigned in Gardner District Court. All three were released on two months of administrative probation.

As long as it stays cold, incidents like Tuesdays will continue to happen, according to Mr. MacLean.

These incidents “are more common when it is cold,” he said.

Councillor partial owner of abandoned building, back taxes owed on property

This article appeared on October 3, 2014 in The Gardner News. 


A private company of which City Councillor Scott Graves is listed as a manager currently owes the city approximately $5,500 in unpaid taxes, according to city records.

Bushwood LLC failed to pay their 2014 taxes, valued at $5,492.35, on their property at 158 Rear Main St. in Gardner, according to the tax collector’s office.

They are also late on their first payment, valued at more than $3,000,  for 2015.

The private company is jointly managed by  Dean LaPrade of Westminster, James P. Lampert of Wayland and Councillor Graves.

When reached via phone, Mr. LaPrade said he was “not really sure” how the company fell behind on their taxes. He also said they were “in the process of selling it.”

Mr. LaPrade hung up before further questions could be asked.

Despite multiple attempts Councillor Graves could not be reached for comment prior to press time, and a phone number for Mr. Lampert was not listed.

Officials at the tax collectors office said the amount owed isn’t “unusual” and that it is not uncommon for people to be three to four months overdue.

Gardner has a “99 percent” collection rate and residents are required to pay interest on overdue taxes, according to Director Charline Daigle. She said the back taxes would have to be more than two years old before the city would consider taking the tax title.

The building in question is located behind the Main Street storefronts on the 100 block.

The old factory building has recently fallen into disrepair.

A few years ago, a construction company and boxing gym rented space in the property, according to Massachusetts Land Records. It’s assessed to be in “very poor” condition.

When the businesses moved out, the heat was turned down and the pipes broke leaving the structure without sprinkler systems, according to Fire Chief Richard Ares.

“We were having all kinds of problems with it for awhile (when it was vacant),” said Chief Ares.

During that period, officials reported mattresses in the building and other signs that homeless individuals had found shelter there. Deputy Chief John Bernard said there were people caught back there during that period.

In June 2013, Bushwood LLC was ordered to secure the building, which they did, according to Chief Ares. The security measures appear to be maintained, and officials said the complaints have died down.

The property is part of the city’s 20 year urban renewal plan.

Officials hope to build a road that will snake around the new police station and then continue to the Levi Heywood Memorial Library. The area would then be able to be redeveloped as a new section of the downtown.

Director of Community Planning and Development Trevor Beauregard confirmed the city would like to see something done with the property.

However, “we don’t have any current plan,” he said.

He added that the city would not be able to pursue anything unless they had site control,  “which we don’t have.”

Sen. Warren talks about substance abuse, mental health at local hospital

This article appeared on August 22, 2015 in The Gardner News. 

Mass. Senator Elizabeth Warren vowed to fight for improved mental health and substance abuse care during a visit to Heywood Hospital on Thursday afternoon.

“I’m here to learn as much as I can,” she told a small crowd of health care providers, media and officials, “so I can go back to Washington and be a more effective advocate on your behalf.”

As part of her “Fighting for Massachusetts” trip around the state, Sen. Warren visited Heywood Hospital at the request of Sen. Jen Flanagan, D–Leominster, who told her “you need to see what’s happening here.” The pair, along with Heywood officials and Rep. Jon Zlotnik, D–Gardner, toured the facility before a public meeting at 1 p.m.

Sen. Warren said the work at Heywood — which she called a “terrific facility” with “terrific people”  — gives her hope for the future of healthcare, if properly funded.

“I want to see people have access to high quality healthcare,” said Sen. Warren.

Both Sen. Warrand and Sen. Flanagan praised steps the new substance abuse recovery law Sen. Flanagan wrote as well as the new behavioral and mental health facility Heywood plans to open in Petersham.

However, they both said there’s more work to do, pointing to the distance people travel to facilities, lack of beds and treatment affordability as key issues.

They also agreed something needs to be done at the federal level, noting state borders mean very little to someone in a health crisis.

“We need to look to the federal delegation to make a very fragmented and broken system whole,” said Sen. Flanagan, adding later that Sen. Warren is up for the challenge.

“She’s a true honest voice for our families, the working people,” she said.

As for Sen. Warren, she plans to be a “good partner” in the fight. She opened up her speech on Thursday with an example of her persistence, referencing her fight with congressional leadership to be able to sit on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. As a freshmen on capitol hill she was initially told that she could sit on more than one A-list committee.

She was clear there will be a cost to addressing mental health and substance abuse issues, saying more money will be required to fund research and create programs. Some funds, she said, could be reallocated through prison reform and tax revenue.

“We need to walk straight up to (the issue) and say we are not putting in enough money,” Sen. Warren said. “Shame on all of us if we are not willing to step up.”

After her visit, Sen. Warren visited the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. Today, she will visit the Newburyport non-profit Opportunity Works which provides employment services and other support for people with disabilities on the North Shore and in the Merrimack Valley. She will also make a stop in Gloucester.

Principal placed of administrative leave, parents ask why

This article appeared on December 3, 2014 in The Gardner News. 

The principal, a guidance counselor and a teacher at Helen Mae Sauter Elementary School have been placed on paid administrative leave affective Nov. 21.

“There is an investigation underway,” said Superintendent Denise Clemons, who could not comment further on the matter as it is a personnel issue.

Officials said it may be related to an incident of a student being videotaped without consent.

At this time, the police department is not involved in the investigation, according to Chief Neil Erickson. Media outlets were told the incident is not criminal in nature but related to a school policy that was allegedly broken.

The information became public when the “Hms Pto” Facebook group posted to the Helen Mae Sauter PTO Facebook page at 8 p.m. on Monday saying that Principal Janet Smith, guidance counselor Deb Leone and second grade teacher Denise Ulrich have all been put on administrative leave.

The post said it was “in response to questions we have been receiving about the three faculty members.”

The post was removed before midnight, as the comments section spiraled out of control. However, eliminating the post did little to calm concerned parents.

“That tells me they are hiding something,” said parent Kimberley Fagan.

Ms. Fagan is hoping for a swift investigation, as she feels the absence of the faulty members has created a disruption in the education of her daughter, who is a special education student.

As one parent phrased it, “we get a call for every other little thing to not be informed that our school’s principal has been gone for almost two weeks and no one will say anything?”

While much of what happens at the schools is public information, personnel issues are confidential, according to the city’s Director of Human Resources Debra Pond.

“It’s for the protection of the employee and the employer,” she said. “People take a small amount of information and make it into something it’s not. That’s why it’s confidential.”

The School Committee has a meeting schedule for Monday where it is feasible the situation could come up for discussion. However, as of this time, there has not been an executive session for the administration to inform the school committee on the matter.

“We are not commenting on it as it is a  personnel issue,” said Committee member Carol Bailey when contacted Tuesday evening.

Ms. Smith has held the principal position at the Helen Mae Sauter School since 2012, according to city records. Although, she has worked for the School Department for significantly longer.Many parents are hoping the administrator and two faculty members will be reinstated soon.

“The integrity and character they display to the children is second to none, and the dedication they have to HMS and our students is more than any parent could ask for,” the HMS PTO wrote in their press release yesterday.

“They really are amazing at their jobs, and we cannot wait for their return.”

Addiction in the Region: ‘I couldn’t save my son’

This story appeared on October 18, 2014 in The Gardner News. It was part of a three part series talking to parents of addicts. 

On Feb. 10, Joyce Fletcher woke up to a pounding on the door. It was still dark out, too early for good news.
“I came down the stairs, and I saw a police car, and I just lost it because I knew. I knew,” she said.

Her son, her baby, had died of a heroin overdose.


Six years earlier, Ms. Fletcher and her husband James learned their son Kevin was an addict the hard way. They had spent the day in New Hampshire watching their son play college football, and when they returned home their daughter’s then fiance was waiting in the kitchen.

“I thought ‘uh oh, something happened. Why is he here?’” said Ms. Fletcher. “And he said ‘something really bad happened, but it’s okay.’ And, of course, then you start shaking. He said ‘Kevin had an overdose.’”

Earlier that day — September 6, 2008 — Kevin, then 25, had been driving around with an old friend. When he went to get out of the car, he collapsed unconscious on the driveway. The friend started rescue breathing and called 911. When they arrived, EMTs revived Kevin with Narcan, a nasal spray that can reverse an opioid overdose. At first he didn’t want to go the hospital, but later relented.

“I think it scared him when they finally told him what happened,” his father said. “He couldn’t hide it anymore. “

Panicked, his parents spent the night on the phone trying to figure out what to do next. They called hotlines that didn’t work, asked bewildered doctors they knew for advice and researched detox centers on the internet.

By morning, they had settled on sending him to a clinic in California that charged $30,000 a stay.

“We thought 30, 60 days maybe, and he’d come back good as new, and life was going to go on like it used to,” Ms. Fletcher said.

“There was a small thought this might not work, but we thought for sure, he would be better,” she continued.

“I wish I knew people aren’t always looking out for the best interest of your child,” Ms. Fletcher said. “They just want your cash ahead of time.”


Later that day, the Fletchers put a resentful Kevin on a flight to the West Coast.

“Then we find out it’s all scientology, they give him high doses of meds and made him sweat. There was no treatment there,” Ms. Fletcher said. “I can’t believe I did that to my son.”

While it was happening, the Fletchers didn’t know how bad the center was. So Kevin went through the treatment, and his parents continued to believe he had come home  fixed.

Until, his father caught him using the next day.

As time went on and Kevin went to more and more rehabs, his parents got smarter.

“Whether people know it or not, rehab is big business,” Ms. Fletcher said. “And it’s mostly unregulated.”

They learned to ask treatment centers if they were accredited by the Joint Commission of Hospital Accreditation.

They stopped feeling so pressured when centers said “there’s only one bed left” knowing that it probably wasn’t true.

They discovered the insurance wouldn’t cover their son’s treatment until he overdosed several times. And they traded their initial anger and frustration over the situation in for compassion towards their son.

“It’s an awful disease,” Ms. Fletcher said. “He struggled way, way more than we knew. He tried so hard to get better, and he just couldn’t … I would have traded places with him in a second. I would have done anything, but there wasn’t anything I can do.”

In total, they said they sent Kevin to at least 12 treatment facilities, including two stays at Hazelden treatment center.

Mr. Fletcher said they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on treatment or “enough to send him to several privates schools and do a fifth year.”

“We’ve never added it up, but yeah we spent a lot of money,” he said.


In retrospect, Ms. Fletcher said, there were warning signs.

Growing up, Kevin had all the benefits of being part of an upper middle class home, Ms. Fletcher said. She stayed home with all three of her children, and both her and her husband volunteered in all their activities, not missing any events.

She always encouraged Kevin to invite his friends over, so she could make sure everything was okay. And when he was 16, they bought him a car, so he could always leave if things got out of hand while hanging out with friends.

“I guess what I am trying to say is that his life was normal, he had a great family, he had everything he needed and wanted.  He lived in a nice house and he still suffered,” Ms. Fletcher said.

At Gardner High School, Kevin was on the football team and made captain of the baseball team.

He was happy, Ms. Fletcher recalled. It wasn’t until the end of his senior year that she started to notice changes, like a different group of friends.

“When you see them totally change friends, that’s a clue we didn’t know,” Mr. Fletcher said.

Kevin admitted to smoking pot, but his parents believed during college his drug use escalated. He went through periods of anxiety and depression. His grades slipped and he didn’t graduate after four years.

“I was in denial,” Ms. Fletcher said. “My gut was saying something was wrong and I didn’t listen to that because I didn’t want it to be that.”

He returned to Gardner and started working for his father. He lost weight, there were days he couldn’t get out of bed until mid afternoon and his mom noticed his pupils were often tiny.

Overall, he seemed depressed.

“I wish I had known to confront earlier … I don’t know if it would have changed anything. The hardest thing in the world is seeing your child dying and you’ve done everything and there’s nothing else you can do,” Ms. Fletcher said. “I think early intervention is important. The heavier the drug use gets, the worse it is going to turn out. A lot of them die. They’re either in prison or they die.”

A hair test, she said, would have been the best way to check.


In some ways, Kevin’s disease was the entire family’s. Ms. Fletcher, typically a very social person, retreated into herself.

She couldn’t handle being around a lot of people anymore.

“I was just so worn out from the fight,” she said. “Just as the addict isolates him or herself, so did I.”

She cried all the time and stopped smiling. This, in turn, strained her relationship with her husband, and her new distance hurt her other two kids.

“I was so sad all the time. I know it was hard for my other kids to see that,” Ms. Fletcher said.  “They say you should release (your child with an addiction), not have any contact. I couldn’t do that to my baby. I know I maybe did things wrong. I couldn’t detach that much.”

She was waiting in dread, for a phone call saying her son was would never come home.


Kevin was struggling. He wanted to get better, his parents said, but he couldn’t.

At one point, his father recalled, he intentionally got himself kicked out of a rehab facility. The management decided to transfer him.

“They moved him to another facility in Desert Spring. They dropped him off outside with his suitcase, and he never bothered going in,” Mr. Fletcher said. “In 45 minutes he was high. That’s all it took, in a place he didn’t know, at 10 o’clock at night.”

The absolute worst period was the three months right before his last stay in Hazelden, when he was homeless living on the streets of Denver.

“It was horrible,” Ms. Fletcher said. She felt anxious and afraid all the time. “We didn’t know where he was. Sometimes he didn’t have a cell phone.”

When he did borrow someone’s phone to call home, he sounded awful, Ms. Fletcher said. He would beg to come home.

“We said ‘Yes Kevin, you can always come home, but you need help first,’” she said. “Finally, in order to save his life he called and asked for help.”

Mr. Fletcher flew to Denver the next day, and then drove him to Minneapolis and admitted him to Hazelden again.


There, Kevin began to get better. He had always wanted to be well, but his second stay was where things began to click. He worked through some of the shame and guilt he felt, and started to find joy without heroin for the first time in years.

“He called and told us ‘I never thought I could ever get better, and I do now. This place has given me hope,’” she said.

He moved into a halfway house. After four months of sobriety, he came home for Christmas. He had put on weight, was smiling, met his nephew for the first time.  By all accounts, he seemed better, and Ms. Fletcher stopped waiting for the call telling her her son was dead.

“Seriously when he came home for Christmas I thought we had it licked,” Ms. Fletcher said. “We had hope. We had a lot of hope then. We really did.”


Two months later, he died of an overdose. He was in the bathroom at his sober living facility. Officials don’t know how long he had been using for, but suspect it was the first time since he had sobered up.


“What I wish I knew too is that I couldn’t save my son,” Ms. Fletcher said. “I wish I knew that. You spend so many years in anguish. Anytime Kevin said I want help we never turned our back on him. We were there. We never hid it from anybody we were always open about it. We don’t want Kevin’s life to be for nothing. He went to world class places … and we still couldn’t save him. He had to save himself.”


The Fletchers are now planning on starting a foundation to honor Kevin’s life and help other people going through what they did.

They also want people to know many detox centers, including Hazelden, offer scholarships to people who otherwise might not be able to afford treatment.

Parents looking for more resources can attend the Learn to Cope meetings Tuesday evening at Heywood Hospital. The group meets at 7 p.m.

Hospital trains reporter in preventing suicides like her cousin’s

This story appeared on March 3, 2015 in The Gardner News 

I remember every detail of the night my 16-year-old cousin shot himself.

It was raining, and I was doing trigonometry homework next to the computer when the phone rang. The voice on the other end of the line was choked, desperate and barely recognizable.

It was my uncle calling for my mom.

My mom took the phone, gasped, and then left the room, closing the door behind her.I was left to wait, guessing what was wrong, with my younger siblings. Our guesses weren’t even close.

“Jeffrey shot himself,” my mom said when she came back out.

At first, I thought it was an accident, that he was alive in the hospital, a fluke. Then I learned it was on purpose. And then I grasped he was dead.

That was when I started crying.


In 2008, a total of 36,035 people committed suicide in the United States.

Since then, despite funding poured into awareness campaigns and increased mental health awareness, that number has risen to more than 44,000 deaths a year, which is one suicide every 12.9 minutes.

These statistics, according to Heywood Hospital Suicide Prevention Coordinator Michael Ellis, only include deaths where a note is left behind. Overdoses, suspicious car accidents and other odd deaths are not factored into these statistics.The number of attempted suicides is astronomically higher.

Based on available data, officials can prove that someone attempts suicide every 31 seconds. However, the many unreported attempts would drive that number even higher.

“It’s a major public health issue,” Mr. Ellis said. “It’s also generally preventable.”

Through Heywood Hospital, Mr. Ellis has been working to fight the stigma surrounding suicide and connecting people to help. It’s a tough job, especially in Gardner, which has one of the highest suicide rates in the state at 13.6 deaths a year for every 100,000 people, compared to the state rate of 8.17 deaths.

Every month, Mr. Ellis — who works primarily with men — works with about 20 cases in a crisis situation.

“When I took this job, I thought I would see five guys a month, maybe 10 on a bad month,” he said.

When he’s not on call, Mr. Ellis runs a support group and teaches classes, including a class about how to intervene if you think someone is at risk.

Last week, I attended the training, which is called QPR (question, persuade and refer) on behalf of The Gardner News.


Statistically, some people are more at risk than others of committing suicide.

My cousin — white, male, gay, bullied and defeated — fit the bill.

Jeffrey was the definition of the misunderstood high school student.He first started visiting a child psychologist when he was 5, and he was diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety.

We were the same age, and as kids we were close, swimming in my grandparents’ pool and building fairy tales to act out.

But as we got older, and Jeffrey’s problems deepened, we grew apart. I didn’t understand what was happening, and didn’t know what to do.By middle school, we were barely talking. By high school, we didn’t talk at all.

I had no idea things were as bad as they were until it was too late.

Jeffrey was my only cousin.

Contrary to all appearances, I loved him, but I didn’t know how.

At school in upstate New York, he was the target of bullies, mostly because he was gay. His first suicide attempt was in the eighth grade, when he downed a bottle of pills. His second was during his sophomore year, when he swallowed more lethal pills. His third and final attempt was during junior year of high school, when he shot himself with my uncle’s gun under the jaw and through his brain.

Jeffrey’s note was simple: “I can’t live the life decided for me. I’m sorry.”


In the QPR class, I was checking boxes as Mr. Ellis listed the risk factors outside someone’s control that make someone more likely to commit suicide.

Of the 13 listed, Jeffrey hit eight — previous attempts, male, teenager, race, mental health, LGBT, hopelessness and access to lethal means.The other risks are recent attempts by a family or friend, fostered or adopted youth, perfectionism, loss and veterans.

Of course, having one or even eight of these factors, does not necessarily mean a person will try to commit suicide.

That typically happens, Mr. Ellis said, when a person enters a crisis situation that throws everything off kilter.These crises can be caused by losing a job, the death of a loved one, the loss of a major relationship, being diagnosed with a terminal illness, financial problems, an unwanted move, humiliation, assault or bullying.

“It’s a perfect storm,” said Mr. Ellis. When these issues start mounting, most of the time warning signs start to appear, such as acquiring guns and stockpiling pills, a sudden interest in religion, drug abuse, unexplained aggression, or giving away possessions.

But more importantly, people at risk will often start talking about death.

They’ll say little things like, “I wish I was dead,” “I’m just going to end it,” or sometimes “I’ve decided I’m going to kill myself.”

“Ninety percent of people who complete suicide communicated their intent to somebody,” Mr. Ellis said.


So, in that situation, how do you help someone?

Research has shown, according to Mr. Ellis, the first step is simply asking them what they mean. Ask if they are contemplating suicide in a direct, but non-aggressive way and be consistent.

“They’re going to be resistant,” he said.“But you have to keep going.”

If they are exhibiting all the signs, but say they’re not suicidal, he said to keep going by asking them why not.

Chances are they will give you a list of things they love — their pets, their kids, their job — which will become your bartering chips as you try to persuade them to get help.

For example, if they say they can’t die because there will be no one to take care of their dog, use that later when they say they want to give up.

“People will stay alive for their pets,” Mr. Ellis said.

If they do admit to being suicidal, it’s critical to refer them to a medical professional. Convince them to make a short-term promise — not to kill themselves until you’ve found them help — and then find somewhere to bring them as soon as possible. If at all possible, go with them. If not possible, set up the appointment for them.

“You have to take charge,” Mr. Ellis said.


After Jeffrey died, I cried every night for a month.

I was a complete wreck as I tried to process what happened. I lost friends, I gave up on things, I mourned. The irony was that all of the affection was lost on Jeffrey.

When he shot himself, he didn’t know I cared about him. He would have had no idea that I would think about him at every milestone in my life, and on some days, just because.

It’s estimated that for every suicide there are at least six people like me left to deal with the fallout. In Jeffrey’s case, I’m sure there were more, as I was at the very fringes of his life.

Since then, his mother, Joan Spencer, has dedicated her life to suicide prevention, starting a nonprofit called “Jeffrey’s Journey” and talking to high school students across the country.

She believes QPR trainings are as important as learning CPR.


For more information about QPR training and available resources, visit or email Mr. Ellis at If you or someone you know is in an immediate crisis situation, the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-4673 (Talk).

Principal cracks down on cyber bullying

This story appeared on February 28, 2015 in the Gardner News. Eryn Dion contributed to the report.


When Murdock Principal Joshua Romano answered his phone in Barnes & Noble, he didn’t know he was setting in motion a chain of events that would place himself, and Murdock High School, on the national stage.

The caller — the father of a student — was asking what Mr. Romano was going to do about two Twitter accounts attacking Murdock students. Hanging up the phone, Mr. Romano was furious.

His inbox was flooded with messages from parents, teachers, even students, interrupting their February break to report inappropriate tweets implying sexual promiscuity as well as criticizing the athletic ability, appearance and sexual orientation of classmates.

“Fifty kids were following these accounts, retweeting, favoriting it, it was spreading,” he said. “I wanted to snap down on it right away. … What if the kids started thinking these accounts were cool, and then I had a dozen?”

So he went on the offensive, first on Twitter, calling the accounts “largely vile and ignorant,” and then in an email to the student body.

“To the pathetic cowards who chose to start and participate in this, you are warned I am coming for you and I am furious,” he wrote.

A veteran of the Iraq War, Mr. Romano said, “I have more respect for insurgents I fought in Iraq than I do for the people behind this Twitter account.

At least Iraqis had the courage to face their targets and not hide.”

When overseas, Mr. Romano served in a unit that lost a member to an insurgent. After that, he said, every time they went out they wondered if they would be the next one in a body bag. Those Twitter posts provoked the same type of fear, he said.

“Everyone was worried they were going to be the next person,” Mr. Romano said.

While he later said he should have calmed down before sending the email, to him, the accounts — @confessions2k15 and @murdockhigh2k15 — had the potential to be just as deadly as the insurgents.

He remembered the story of Phoebe Prince, the 15-year-old from South Hadley who hanged herself in January 2010 because of bullying.

“That’s what I was thinking about. I don’t want a kid to do something terrible,” Mr. Romano said. “If I have to make a mistake, I would rather be too harsh.”

How to combat cyberbullying is an issue that administrators around the country are battling as it becomes increasingly prevalent.

Both Gardner and Narragansett grappled with similar incidents over February break — although neither as serious as the one sweeping through Murdock. While all the accounts have since been terminated, administrators say it’s only a matter of time before a new, more-determined set crops up.

One of the main drivers behind cyberbullying appears to be the idea of anonymity. Perpetrators hiding behind fake photos or names believe they are shielded from any consequences — that there are no real-life repercussions because these crimes occur in the virtual world.

But as cyber crime has evolved, law enforcement has evolved with it, and where similar cases may have fallen apart in court during the advent of social media, there are now numerous charges the District Attorney’s Office can level at suspects. These charges range from simple harassment to intimidation of a witness, assault and battery, and even the more-serious assault with a dangerous weapon charge.

Deleting the messages or photos also won’t save suspects, as sites like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram save all of the content produced for their sites, even if the source is seemingly erased.

“If you’re caught, we have state police experts who can retrieve that,” said Tim Connolly, director of communications for the Worcester County District Attorney’s Office.

Many of the cyberbullying cases brought to trial deal with juveniles, Mr. Connolly said, which is why the DA’s office reaches out to students through seminars and presentations in middle schools and high schools across the county.

“We’re talking to kids in school virtually every day,” he said. “Thousands of students in Central Massachusetts have seen our presentations.”

The DA office’s cyberbullying courses are the most requested offerings, Mr. Connolly said — a sign that school districts are taking the threat of online harassment very seriously.

Narragansett has taken advantage of the DA’s presentations — and additional staff training — for several years, high school Principal Shawn Rickan said. The programs help his school “strike a balance” between student education, counseling and law enforcement when approaching the issue of cyberbullying.

“I’m hoping that we have a handle on it,” he said.

One of the main ways the DA and schools combat bullying, in both the real world and virtual world, is by building empathy between students, allowing them to see their victims not just as names or faces, but actual people.

“If you wouldn’t want to have someone say things like that to your brother or sister, don’t say it about someone else,” Mr. Connolly said.

Online communications also often lack the same cues as a face-to-face conversation — another key point the DA’s office tries to highlight.

“Many times we hear from students caught in the early stages of bullying who say they thought it was going to be funny,” Mr. Connolly commented.“Oftentimes, it goes beyond funny really quickly.”

In the case of Murdock, the accounts went so far beyond funny the incident was featured Friday morning on “Good Morning America.”

“It shocks me this is a nationwide story: ‘Principal takes strong stance on bullying.’ This shouldn’t be news,” said Mr. Romano, who’s ready for the incident to settle down.

“Everyone should be taking a strong stance on bullying.” Mr. Romano said he’s received an outpouring of support from the community and from victims of bullying across the country, who have emailed him with their stories.

He’s also been supported by Superintendent Salah Khelfaoui, who said softer wording may have been nice but that he understands Mr. Romano’s position.

“He’s a champion of the kids and has no problem fighting for them,” Dr. Khelfaoui said. “He doesn’t tolerate anything that would jeopardize their safety.”

Inside the high school, things are starting to return to normal.

The kids who were victims of the Twitter accounts have said they feel well supported. As for who did it, that’s a question likely to go unanswered.

Law enforcement says Twitter is unlikely to release the names, and with all the publicity, Mr. Romano doubts anyone will confess. About a dozen students have been accused by their peers, but there is no proof to accompany the accusations.

Mr. Romano said he doesn’t want a witch hunt on his hands.

“I don’t want two kids who are angry at the world to be what drives this school,” he said.

Instead, he’s told students who see this sort of behavior online to report it directly to the websites and to him.

From there, he said to continue to focus on the positives.

“They’re better than this,” he said. “This is not what I want for our school.”