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- November 16, 1987
- Vol. 28
- No. 20
Primed to Kill, An Angry Young Man Shoots His Dead Sister's Boyfriend, Leaving Two Families in Ruins
—Francis Bacon, Of Revenge
He was like a lot of other country boys growing up in the Pocono mountain hamlets of eastern Pennsylvania. Travis Umstadter, 21, listened to country-and-western music, drank Genesee beer and wanted little more out of life than a family, a steady job and the freedom to spend autumn weekends hunting deer in the pristine pine forests around Wayne County. Now all those things will have to wait. Last September Travis Umstadter began a 10-to 20-year sentence for murder at Graterford State Correctional Institution outside Philadelphia. In a sense he is both killer and victim, the last casualty in a frightening cycle of crime and revenge.
It began on the night of Aug. 15, 1986, when a car driven by Glenn Evans, 20, collided with another car on a winding, rural road, killing Kristen Umstadter, 17, Glenn's girlfriend and Travis' sister. There the tragedy might have ended. But one night last January, as Evans was awaiting sentencing on a vehicular homicide charge related to the accident, Travis came to his apartment and blew him away with four shots to the head and neck from a.22 revolver.
In court, Umstadter offered a half-cocked claim of self-defense, swearing that Evans had attacked him with a pair of scissors. But nobody believed him—not the jury, not the district attorney, not the spectators who came to the trial. All of them saw the murder of Glenn Evans as an act of bloody retribution, a savage invocation of the Old Testament law of an eye for an eye.
What had driven Umstadter to reject the justice of the courts, to appoint himself both judge and executioner? Trial testimony hinted at a tense relationship with his parents, an embittered couple whose pent-up anger may have fed his own. And there may have been another force at work: the ennui and fatalism of young men growing up in an isolated country setting with a macho code of guns, cars and liquor.
Honesdale, Pa. (pop. 5,000), is a quiet little place nestled among evergreen forests and rolling farmland west of the Delaware River, about 150 miles north of Philadelphia. It is a close-knit community of Victorian clapboard homes where the main street is called Main Street and the waitresses at Steve's Diner near the courthouse square know their customers by name. The people of Honesdale are mostly dairy farmers and factory workers—family people who devote themselves to their children and take particular pride in the gifted students who make it to colleges in Philadelphia or beyond.
Kristen Umstadter was typical of the town's brightest and best. Blondish, blue-eyed and strikingly pretty, she was Honesdale High's senior class president and homecoming queen, as well as a member of Students Against Drunk Driving. Her high school yearbook portrayed her as a bubbly girl with typical teenage passions: "Kristen's favorite color is lavender and she loves to eat ice cream while listening to Alabama or Summer of '69." She was planning to attend Temple University in the fall of 1986 to study horticulture, and she was, as one friend put it, "the light of her family's life."
She was also a conflicted young woman. She recorded SADD commercials for the local radio station, yet once in a while she would party on the highways as enthusiastically as a lot of her classmates. At night many Honesdale teenagers drift into the kind of restless social rituals that prevail in small towns all over America: buying six-packs of beer or drinking at rural bars that pay scant attention to the drinking age, then tempting fate with joyrides over the twisty country roads. A turbulent home life left Kristen vulnerable to such temptations. Travis had what he described as a "drinking problem" and a reputation for driving too fast. And neighbors say he and his father once wound up in the hospital emergency room after attacking each other with baseball bats.
Sometimes the disharmony in Kristen's life became too much to bear. Some say it was brought on by a breakup with her then-boyfriend, others that it was because her parents temporarily separated, but in 1986 Kristen swallowed a mouthful of sleeping pills at a classmate's party. Friends rushed her to Wayne County Memorial Hospital, where her stomach was pumped. "Kristen was two people," says close friend Donna Wood. "She had terrible moments of unhappiness. She was under so much pressure from her parents to be the perfect one."
Perhaps it was another self-destructive impulse that drew Kristen to Glenn Evans, who had graduated from Honesdale High School with Travis in 1985 and was studying at a trade school to be an auto mechanic. He was a wispy young man from a broken family that had been dogged by bad fortune. In 1984 his mother, Eva Furk, had shattered four vertebrae in a plunge from a fire that killed her boyfriend and his two children; two years later she wrecked her car on an icy road and was left a quadriplegic. Glenn and his elder brother, Mark, who had had several car accidents themselves, shared an apartment in nearby Seelyville. Glenn fiddled with hot rods, chased girls and talked about joining the Air Force, but he had told his high school yearbook that his ambition was "just to survive."
On that August night Kristen and two girlfriends, Lorraine Cush and Heidi Stacer, bought two six-packs of beer and drove to Glenn's apartment, where they found him sprawled on his couch amid a litter of empty beer bottles. Lacking anything better to do, the four of them piled into Glenn's red 1971 Plymouth Duster and took off for Beach Lake, a few miles away. Driving down Route 652 close to midnight with an open beer wedged between his thighs, Glenn shot past another car at 80 miles an hour in a no-passing zone and leaned over to kiss Kristen's cheek.
"[Then] I saw two lights coming over a ridge, and I remember hearing Kris-ten scream," Lorraine later testified. "Next thing I knew, we jerked to the right, to the left, and we started to spin.... I ducked my head, hitting it on [Glenn's] seat.... I don't remember anything after that."
"[Kristen] yelled my name, and she said, 'Glenn, watch it!' " Evans recounted in court, where he tried to put some of the blame for the crash on his girlfriend. "She grabbed the wheel, jerked it in a downward motion to bring the car over.... I tried to get it under control, but it started to skid, and I knew there was no way."
The Duster fishtailed across the road, and an oncoming station wagon smashed into the passenger's side. The thunderous impact shattered Glenn's leg in five places and instantly ruptured Kristen's aorta. She bled to death on the spot. "I was in so much pain I just passed out," Glenn recalled later, "and the next thing I knew I was in an ambulance and they were giving me oxygen.... Then I asked Pennsylvania trooper [Mike] O'Day how Kristen was doing, and he wouldn't tell me, and I remember Mr. Umstadter walking into my [hospital] room, and I wanted to talk to him, but Mr. O'Day wouldn't let me."
Kristen Umstadter looked delicately beautiful as her senior class filed past her casket that Sunday, but it was small consolation to David Umstadter, 46, his wife, Laraine, 45, and their two surviving children. At the funeral home, and later at the cemetery, they stared numbly at the ground. Over the next few weeks, those who know them say, the Umstadters' grief hardened into an implacable anger with Glenn Evans. It festered as they mourned in their Honesdale home. Each night the family gathered for dinner in view of a life-size painting of Kristen that loomed like a religious icon over the room. "More nights than not, we talked about unanswered questions involving Kristen's death," Laraine Umstadter would testify. "Was she coaxed into the car, or did she go of her own free will? We felt she was coaxed. We all talked about it—constantly. I expressed my animosity towards Glenn Evans."
Witness to these endless recriminations was Travis Umstadter. He and Glenn had been on good terms at Honesdale High, but like his parents, Travis idealized his younger sister. And like his parents', his grief focused obsessively on Evans' presumed role in luring Kristen into the car. "I had so many questions," he said.
Travis sought solace by drinking as much as a case of Genesee a night, often washing it down with several shots of schnapps. He sat with his buddies in bars, listening to songs such as Hank Williams Jr.'s A Country Boy Can Survive, brooding about Kristen. Doug Smith, 19, testified that Travis vowed "to kill the sonovabitch, that [Glenn] was gonna pay.... He said that Glenn wouldn't live till spring."
At least once, Travis drove to the wreck of Glenn Evans' Plymouth at a junkyard, staring at the shattered beer bottles and bloodstains in the front seat. Then he would return to the house, where his parents kept talking about "getting answers." They wanted an explanation exonerating their daughter, and they couldn't get the truth that they sought. "All they had were those same unanswered questions," says an acquaintance, "and they talked about them every day."
Father and son had nourished their hatred of Glenn Evans from the night of the crash. The grudge was exacerbated by Glenn's failure to express his sorrow over Kristen's death directly to her family. Everyone who knew him says he was deeply remorseful over the tragedy, yet the Umstadters persuaded themselves he was not. "I heard stories about [Evans saying] 'The bitch got what she deserved'—about his laughing," David Umstadter would say later.
As he holed up in his apartment with a plaster cast encasing his leg, Evans heard repeatedly about threats from Travis and his father. "Many times I told him to come stay with me," says Evans' mother. "I had such an eerie premonition. But he brushed it off. 'Oh, Mom, don't worry,' he said."
On Jan. 21 Evans was convicted of vehicular homicide and five less serious charges. He was acquitted of drunken driving, since his blood alcohol level was marginally within the legal limit. Glenn, says his brother, expected a short jail term and saw it as a way to atone for Kristen's death; he scribbled a poignant goodbye letter to Mark that was to be opened after he was behind bars. "Good luck in the few months ahead," he wrote. "I know it's gonna be tough.... I know I [was] always mizzerable & bitchy but that's because your my brother & I don't want to see you getting in truble. Because I love ya. Glenn."
Seven nights later, after an evening of beer drinking and miles of aimless driving, Travis Umstadter pulled into a parking space and walked toward Glenn Evans' brightly lit apartment. The prospect of Glenn's quick release from jail had, to say the least, "upset" the Umstadters, said Travis' mother. By now their search for answers had become a quest for some form of rough justice, and Travis had appointed himself to carry it out. "I thought to myself, 'I've been out all night, but I still have no answers for my family,' " Umstadter would eventually testify. "I had to find out some answers, to go on with our lives.... I knocked and Glenn opened the door. 'I knew it was gonna come to this sooner or later,' he said. 'Come in. I'm glad you came here.' "
They sat at the dining room table, Travis said, smoking cigarettes, drinking beers and discussing Kristen's death. "I said 'There's no judge, no jury. The trial is over,' " Travis recalled. " 'Forget I'm her brother, we need to know what happened....' He became smug, cocky. 'If your dumb bitch sister hadn't grabbed the steering wheel, she wouldn't be dead!' "
Suddenly, said Umstadter, Glenn picked up a pair of scissors in his right hand and lunged at Travis' eyes. (An unlikely scenario, says John Evans, who testified that his brother was left-handed.) Umstadter went on to tell the court that he had drawn his 2 revolver, given him one Christmas by his father, and fired "to protect my life." If so, it was an extraordinarily thorough form of protection. Evans fell dead, one bullet above his left eye, one in his neck and two behind his left ear. Last August a jury rejected Umstadter's self-defense plea but may have found that grief and alcoholism had diminished his capacity for premeditation; he was convicted of third-degree murder.
For Glenn's crippled mother, a blond, weary woman with a slight German accent, Travis Umstadter's conviction was "not enough to punish what he did." Sitting in her motorized wheelchair in the living room of her Cochecton, N.Y., home, she despairs over the string of calamities that climaxed with her son's murder. "This family—it's cursed," she says, her voice cracking. "I don't know what's next. I am so scared. I have such a terrible feeling inside. I cry for Glenn all the time, I miss him so. Everything was always going against him his whole life. It's so agonizing."
Stalking out of the Victorian courthouse minutes after his handcuffed son had been led off to jail, David Umstadter turned menacingly to a dozen reporters clustered on the lawn. Right arm thrust high, he raised his middle finger in a ferocious gesture of defiance. But it could not erase the bitter truth: Two young people were dead, another locked away for years to come, and still the anger had not been assuaged.
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