by Tena Starr
NEWPORT — Carlton Bickford, 76, a retired electrician and well-liked longtime Glover resident, shambled into court in shackles Monday and pled innocent to first-degree murder in the shooting death on Friday of 72-year-old Rachel Coburn of Barton, who Mr. Bickford told police was his “girlfriend.”
Mr. Bickford, who has health and hearing problems, could not initially hear the court proceedings, and arrangements were made for a hearing device before the arraignment continued.
He will be held without bail, although public defender Jill Jourdan argued that he has a wife at home, children in the community, no prior criminal record and should be released on strict conditions and a $100,000 bond with $10,000 down.
The evidence of guilt is great, Judge Howard VanBenthuysen said as he ordered Mr. Bickford to return to prison in St. Johnsbury, where he will be held pending resolution of a case that has flatly shocked all those who know the accused and the victim.
What Mr. Bickford told police about what happened on Friday, the day of the shooting, is sometimes confused. More than once he allegedly said he was worried that Ms. Coburn wanted to end their relationship, and if he couldn’t have her no one would. He also said he feared Ms. Coburn would turn him in to police for threatening her, or for attempted murder, although he did not explain why she would accuse him of the latter.
He said there had never been violence between the two until that day.
Ms. Coburn, 72, worked in the cafeteria at Lake Region Union High School for about ten years. Before that, she and her late husband, Lewis, owned Barton Cleaners until 2002 when it closed. She’s described as a happy, hard-working, young-at-heart person.
“She was a really warm and friendly woman,” said Nicole Libby, Lake Region’s food service manager. “She always had that smile on her face. She was looking to try to make people happy. She was a very thorough worker, and she had a wonderful, close relationship with a lot of the students. A lot of the kids are really devastated by this. She had a way of connecting with kids.
“Everybody is just floored,” Ms. Libby said. “I had a great time working with her. It just isn’t real. She was one of those happy people; she just wanted to live life.”
Mr. Bickford turned himself in to the Lyndonville Police Department Friday afternoon, allegedly saying he had just killed his girlfriend with a shotgun following an argument. He said he had then tried to kill himself, but only managed to graze his shoulder. He allegedly told police they would find Ms. Coburn’s body in her house, along with two bullet holes in the ceiling from his unsuccessful attempt to shoot himself.
Both the accused and the victim have an extensive network of friends and family that is intertwined, and that has contributed to the grief and bafflement that follows the tragedy.
“It’s totally unbelievable,” said Butch Currier of Glover, who has been friends with Mr. Bickford since the 1960s. “I’m just dumfounded. I don’t know why, and everybody else is wracking their brain trying to think of some reason why. I even woke up the next morning and wondered if I’d had a bad dream. I didn’t believe it.”
Mr. Currier said he has sugared with Mr. Bickford for 20 years. “He did all my boiling for me. We’ve done a lot together, fished, rabbit hunted, owned property together. I just can’t say anything bad about him. He was always funny, always doing something to make you laugh.”
The killing was doubly painful for Mr. Currier. Rachel Coburn was his aunt.
“Again, you can’t get anybody to say anything bad about Rachel,” Mr. Currier said. “She was happy go lucky. She had four kids, loved her kids, her grandkids.”
State Police Detective Sergeant David Petersen’s affidavit describes a confused and distraught man who had been crying when he showed up at the Lyndonville Police Department Friday afternoon. It also describes an extramarital relationship that started about four years ago when Mr. Bickford was doing some electrical work for Ms. Coburn.
The relationship, which Mr. Bickford said was nonsexual and “the least of what he wanted” when it started, was apparently on the rocks and went very wrong earlier on Friday.
Shortly after Mr. Bickford showed up at the Lyndonville Police Department, Officer Brandon Thrailkill notified State Police. Mr. Bickford allegedly told Detective Petersen that he would find Ms. Coburn’s body in her West Street home in the hallway near the cellar stairs.
“…he started to tear up and said it was the dumbest thing he had ever done in his life,” the detective’s affidavit says.
Mr. Bickford said he’d had an argument Friday morning with Ms. Coburn, with whom he’d had a romantic relationship that his wife and son were aware of. He said the two mostly drank coffee and played cribbage. His wife had talked to Ms. Coburn about the trouble the relationship was causing.
He’d gone to Ms. Coburn’s about 8:30 Friday morning with his usual coffee and newspaper. An argument had ensued, but he said he thought he could work things out. A couple of hours later he left, thinking he could “think it over and keep things clear in his mind,” court records say.
When police asked if the argument was about ending the relationship, Mr. Bickford was initially vague, saying he did not think so, but perhaps Ms. Coburn had. Later, he indicated that his distress was due, in part, to her wish to stop seeing him, the affidavit says.
He returned later that morning with a 12 gauge double barreled shotgun, which he told police he’d taken from his son’s house so his wife would not see him taking a gun from their own house. When police interviewed Mr. Bickford’s wife, Mary Jane, she said that the guns at their house were locked up, and she had hidden the key.
Mr. Bickford apparently made no bones about the threat of violence when he returned to Ms. Coburn’s house that morning. He said he loaded the gun in the driveway and put it on the stove while the two continued to talk.
“When asked if he made any threats to use the gun, C. Bickford remarked something to the effect of ‘I don’t know; I probably did to the point of if I couldn’t have her nobody’s ever,’” Detective Petersen’s affidavit says.
Mr. Bickford also told police he believed Ms. Coburn was going to turn him in for attempted murder and suggested he had no alternative but to kill her, Detective Petersen’s affidavit says.
In the midst of the couple’s second conversation that morning, the phone rang. Mr. Bickford told Ms. Coburn not to answer, but when she made a dash for it, “that’s when I shot her,” he allegedly told police.
He did not want Ms. Coburn to answer the phone because “she was going to seek help,” court records say.
“She tried to get by me once to get out the door and I wouldn’t let her and then when the phone rung I just told her don’t answer the phone,” Mr. Bickford allegedly told police. “Visit with me. And she made one wild dash to go to the phone. I guess that was it.”
“No, I didn’t intend to kill her,” he said, according to the affidavit. “But when she started threatening me with having me arrested and all of that, I don’t know, I didn’t have much choice.”
He told police that when he returned with the gun, “I didn’t know just what was going to happen, but I wanted to be in control.”
He allegedly told Detective Petersen that he had “nothing to gain from shooting Coburn and should have walked away from the whole setup.”
Mr. Bickford said he believed he shot Ms. Coburn in the abdomen and chest area from a distance of ten or 15 feet, and he did not check on her after shooting her because he knew she was dead, Detective Petersen’s affidavit says.
A babysitter at a neighbor’s house that day told police she heard two loud bangs, but did not see anything or anyone. She said it sounded like someone was moving furniture.
Mr. Bickford told police that, at first, he had no intention of using the shotgun, but said that Ms. Coburn “ran her mouth about me using her the way I had been using her, and she was probably correct.” He said he believed Ms. Coburn would find a way to “put him away for threatening her.”
“The lady’s dead. I shot her and I’m guilty as hell,” he told Detective Petersen, according to the affidavit.
In a later interview that evening, Mr. Bickford told police Ms. Coburn had told him he could “get out.”
“He further noted, upon returning to Coburn’s house he told Coburn if I couldn’t have her nobody was going to,” Detective Petersen’s affidavit says.
“I was 100 percent wrong,” he told police.
Mr. Bickford frequently expressed remorse as he talked to police. At one point, he said he would do anything to bring Ms. Coburn back, “but it was too late.”
“C. Bickford remarked he had more problems now than he did before,” Detective Petersen’s affidavit says. It goes on to say that Mr. Bickford said he “wished he could go back and change the past.”
After the shooting, Mr. Bickford told police, he drove around Orleans and Caledonia counties for a while then went to the village office in Lyndonville, which he believed was the police station. There he was given directions to the police station, where he turned himself in.
The murder has pretty much consumed the thoughts of many who knew the two.
“When I saw it on Facebook, I thought it was a hoax,” said Sue Squires of Glover. “My mouth started getting wide open. I’ve known Carlton all my life. I don’t understand it. He’d help you out in any way he could.”
“When you think of Carlton, you think of Carlton as a joker and with a smile on his face,” said Sharon Bickford. “It’s such a tragedy. You just sit here in a whirlwind trying to make something of it.
“I’ve known Rachel all my life,” Mrs. Bickford said. “She was a nice lady, very friendly, cordial, always had a smile on her face, very personable. She just loved life. For everybody that knew both of them it’s an awful shock, for the whole community.”
Family and friends are simply trying to process the tragedy, Mrs. Bickford said. “Never in a dog’s age, never, that’s not him,” she said about the charge against Mr. Bickford.
“What to hell happened?” Mr. Currier said. “Chances are I’ll never see Carlton again. Without a doubt I won’t.”
He said he wonders if the multiple medications Mr. Bickford took for a variety of health problems may have affected him.
Conviction on a first-degree murder charge carries a sentence of 35 years to life.
Mr. Bickford was denied the services of a public defender. Judge VanBenthuysen said that because of his assets and income, he would have to retain an attorney himself.
contact Tena Starr at firstname.lastname@example.org