A Safe Haven Turns into a Death Trap When a Loser Goes Gunning for Coyotes and Russian Spies
09/10/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT
At 6:50 a.m. last Oct. 24, a misty morning around Pittsfield, Vt., a green pickup truck screeched to a halt in front of a general store and gas station on Route 100. Billy Harvey, the driver, jumped out and ran into the store. Tania Zelensky, who had just opened the shop, was behind the counter.
At that moment, according to medical reports, Tania was shot twice with a pistol—allegedly by Harvey. He then drove to the home of his boss, Steve Martin, an owner of the Central Vermont Oil Company. There, it was reported, Harvey said he had just shot a "Russian spy." When the Rutland County deputy sheriff arrived, Harvey put up no resistance.
To this day no one in tiny Pittsfield (pop. 396)—nor even in Moscow, where Izvestia gave the murder prominent treatment—has managed to get a realistic handle on the tragedy. Green-eyed, effervescent Tania, 31 when she died, seemed incapable of having a deadly enemy. Born in the U.S. of Russian immigrant parents, she laughed easily with customers and friends, sometimes joking in a put-on Russian accent. Surely she was no Green Mountain Red; her father, Eugene, a free-lance journalist, has a modest reputation for anti-Communist articles.
Tania had moved to Pittsfield with her Iranian-born husband, Said Hassan Zadeh, 41, in November 1982, motivated in part by a robbery at their Severna Park, Md. filling station. They wanted to live somewhere safe. Only a month before the shooting they moved into a house with a picture-postcard view. Earlier Tania had written her mother in Sea Cliff, N.Y.: "The people here are wonderful."
In nearby Rochester, Vt., however, things were going terribly wrong for one of those people. Billy Harvey, 30, grew up the son of a respected farming family, but things never seemed to work out for him. He failed in his dream to become a forest ranger. He sank into debt trying to build a cabin; when the spring ran dry on the land, he gave up the project. He also lost his girlfriend.
As the losing score mounted, Harvey started boozing and talking compulsively on two topics: coyote attacks on the local deer, and spies whom he suspected of infiltrating Vermont as part of a Soviet plot to invade America. Billy had begun trapping coyotes. Then, on the afternoon of Oct. 23, Billy saw TV news bulletins about the bomb-blast killing of more than 200 marines near Beirut International Airport. According to a court-appointed psychiatrist, Harvey apparently convinced himself that the Soviets were connected with the bombing, and that "poor little Vermont was going to be invaded by the Great Bear." Thereupon, claims the prosecution, he went to get the "Russian spy," Tania Zelensky.
When Said arrived at the scene, minutes after the shooting, he dropped to the floor. Jack Power, who had dashed over from his own general store, says, "He just lay down beside her, kissed her and cried." Izvestia blamed the killing on the Reagan Administration, calling Harvey a "pitiful marionette" driven to murder "against his own will by Washington propagandists." Harvey's lawyers, preparing for a fall trial, possibly in Rutland where Billy is being held, also claim he is not responsible—on grounds of temporary insanity. The court psychiatrist says Billy was in a paranoid state at the time but adds that he is "healing."
Tania's distraught parents launched an intense letter-writing campaign—to President Reagan, to national news media, even to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, now living in Vermont, asking for help in preventing future tragedies by making people understand the difference between ethnic Russians and Soviet Communists. Solzhenitsyn replied passionately, with the hope that Tania's name would "mark the final limit to which human brutality can reach." The White House, too, sent an acknowledgment, with sympathies. But there the little crusade ended.
Harvey's family has kept its distance from the tragedy; they let a public defender take the case. And a brother-in-law says that Billy is "just an ordinary Joe who had one bad minute in the sun.... There are no Archie Bunker-type attitudes in the White River Valley."
It would be hard to convince Said Hassan Zadeh of that. He has sold the store and is sometimes found sitting alone in the house. Jack Power tried to carve out one hopeful chapter in the sad story. He got up a petition addressed to Said Hassan Zadeh with over 400 signatures. It says, in part, "If you decide to remain with us in Pitts-field you will do so with our understanding, prayers, love and knowledge that we feel better with you among us." But it has become too much for Said. He has indicated he would leave the town to which he had come for safety and peace, and last week was dividing his time between Pittsfield and the Rosendale, N.Y. home of Tania's sister. "There's nothing for me here anymore, " he says. "My life is shattered to pieces as if you threw a stone through a windshield."