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« : September 25, 2005, 07:44:36 AM »

Sheldon killing left shattered lives

Published: Sunday, September 25, 2005 in The Burlington Free Press

By Erica Jacobson
Free Press Staff Writer

Jennifer Miller pauses as she remembers her boyfriend, Kenneth Jerome, during an interview at her home in Sheldon last month. Jerome was killed by a gunshot July 7 on the Sheldon farm where he worked. No one has been charged in the killing.
(Photo by PETER HUOPPI, Free Press)

SHELDON -- The day her boyfriend was shot and killed began like many others for Jennifer Miller.

She and 33-year-old Kenneth "Kenny" Jerome awoke in the Sheldon farmhouse they shared. The couple dressed and fed 4-year-old Makayla Harrness, Miller's daughter from a previous marriage, and their 7-month-old daughter, Kaitlin Jerome. Then, according to Miller, Jerome began his day as a farmhand on the Diamond Hill Custom Heifers farm on East Sheldon Road where the couple lived and worked.

"He said that he loved us and that he'd see us in a little while," the 29-year-old woman said.

Miller did see Jerome not long after. Their work on the farm brought them together around 10:30 that same morning, but the meeting was brief. As Miller drove away, she glimpsed Jerome in her rear-view mirror. He was filling a wagon with feed for the farm's heifers.

About an hour later, two Vermont State Police troopers were at Miller's door.

It was not yet noon on July 7 and police had come to tell Miller that Jerome was dead, felled by a single gunshot to his chest as he drove a tractor on the Diamond Hill farm. In the days after Jerome's shooting, Miller's grief would be joined by an unsettling thought: Did she play a role, however unwitting, in Jerome's slaying?

"You have no idea how many times I've run through in my mind that this is my fault," Miller said during an interview at the farmhouse she and Jerome shared. "I didn't pull the trigger, but if I had kept my mouth shut ..."

Past, tense

Miller's story, reported here, was assembled by The Burlington Free Press through the interview with Miller and reviews of public court records. Many of the key players in the story declined to share their versions.

Miller turned to police in June 2003 after a fire in a barn at Diamond Hill farm, according to documents on file at Vermont District Court in St. Albans. Investigators concluded the barn owned by Terry and Joanne Magnan had been set ablaze intentionally.

Miller had personal experience with structure fires on East Sheldon Road, including one she set herself, and she was ready to share what she knew.

"I would have taken all of that information I had to the grave," Miller said.

Police pursued Miller's 2003 tips and eventually charged her ex-husband, 36-year-old Dennis Harrness, with one count of arson for a 1999 house fire and two counts of arson for a 2001 mobile home fire. In exchange for Miller's assistance, a Franklin County deputy states' attorney promised Miller immunity against prosecution for her role in the fire that destroyed the mobile home she had then shared with Harrness.

Soon after Dennis Harrness' arrest in November 2003, Miller endured a series of run-ins with the Harrness family.

Miller's former brother-in-law, 32-year-old Thomas Harrness, began threatening her not long after her cooperation with police came to light, according to court documents. Thomas Harrness was charged with stalking Jennifer Miller in April 2004 and pleaded guilty that September.

'Shouldn't have happened'

Miller spent almost 10 years as part of the Harrness family.

She met Dennis Harrness while she was a teenager living in South Royalton. Miller said she dropped out of high school a month before graduation and the two ferried cargo between Vermont and Florida in Dennis Harrness' tractor trailer. Their first child, Perry Harrness, was born in March 1995, and Miller said the couple moved to Franklin County not long after.

The couple lived near a dairy farm run by Dennis Harrness' parents, Stephen and Shirley Harrness. Miller and Dennis Harrness married in 1999. Their second child, a daughter, was born in January 2001.

In the months after Makayla's birth, Miller told investigators as recorded in court documents, the couple talked about buying a new house trailer. Miller said Dennis Harrness persuaded her to set fire to the mobile home the couple shared with their two children and use the insurance settlement to buy a new unit. On Sept. 7, 2001, Miller said, she put an ashtray with a burning cigarette into a bathroom wastebasket and left the house. By the time she reached the bottom of the driveway, Miller said, she could see smoke coming from her home. Dennis Harrness and his brother, Thomas Harrness, were two of the Sheldon volunteer firefighters who responded to the blaze that charred the unoccupied mobile home.

"To listen to Dennis talk about that, he convinced me that it was a normal thing to do," Miller said. "I believed that it was an OK thing to do.

"It shouldn't have happened. None of it should have ever happened."

The couple collected $23,000 in insurance money and used it to buy a new mobile home. Less than a year after that fire, Miller began working for the Magnans, Dennis Harrness filed for divorce and Miller moved off the Harrness property and into a nearby farmhouse with Jerome, who lived and worked at the neighboring Magnan farm.

A new life

When Miller left the home she shared with Dennis Harrness, she moved less than a mile west on East Sheldon Road, but Miller said the distance made a world of difference.

She was happy with Jerome. He spent his free time tinkering with and driving the late-model Ford Mustangs he so loved. He was well liked around town and embraced like a son by the Magnans.

She continued to care for the newborn calves Diamond Hill took in from other farms and she settled in with Jerome. There were clashes with the Harrnesses, Miller said in an interview, mostly over custody issues regarding Perry and Makayla. To Miller, though, it felt as if she had finally escaped a life she did not want to lead.

"I was washing my hands of the whole family," Miller said.

Shirley Harrness, the mother of Dennis and Thomas Harrness, declined comment for this story on behalf of her family.

As part of helping investigators, Miller volunteered to secretly record conversations between herself and Dennis Harrness to get more information for police.

In summer 2003, Miller and Dennis Harrness met several times in parking lots around Enosburg Falls, and Miller prodded her ex-husband to talk about the fires while police listened.

Miller usually brought cigarettes, and the former spouses smoked and talked for nearly an hour. According to police transcripts, Dennis Harrness provided details about the two fires -- the January 1999 fire at Thomas Harrness' home and the September 2001 fire at the trailer home that Dennis Harrness had shared at the time with Jennifer Miller and their two children.

'Rude remarks'

The calm that Miller found on the Magnan farm with Jerome was shattered soon after Dennis Harrness' November 2003 arrest.

Miller's encounters with her angry former brother-in-law, Thomas Harrness, became commonplace on East Sheldon Road, Diamond Hill farm and elsewhere in the farming community, Miller told police, according to court records.

By March 2004, Miller was scheduled to testify against her ex-husband at his arson trials, and the harassment from Thomas Harrness had become a near-daily affair. Thomas Harrness would shout "very nasty and rude remarks" at her, Miller told investigators, and point his fingers in the shape of a gun and pretend to shoot her. At other times, her former brother-in-law tried to run her off East Sheldon Road while her daughter Makayla was in the car. Miller told police the intimidation included incidents in which Thomas Harrness parked at the end of Miller's driveway, blocked her from driving down the road and repeatedly drove past Miller's home and her workplace, according to court records.

Police in April 2004 charged Thomas Harrness with obstructing justice, stalking and aggravated assault against Miller. The state dismissed all but the stalking charge, to which Thomas Harrness pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to nine to 12 months of probation.

Her rock

After Thomas Harrness' guilty plea, tensions ebbed for a time between Miller and the Harrnesses in Sheldon.

Miller and Jerome became parents in November 2004 when she gave birth to a daughter, Kaitlin Lynn Jerome. Less than two months after the birth of her daughter, Miller appeared on the witness stand in Vermont District Court for Franklin County to testify against Dennis Harrness in the arson trial regarding the fire at the trailer they had shared. A jury convicted Dennis Harrness of one count of first-degree arson and acquitted him of one count of attempted arson.

Miller said Jerome was her rock during the trial.

"He was always there to support me and lift me back up," Miller said.

Kept waiting

According to police, just after 11 a.m. July 7, someone fired a shot from a wooded rock outcropping on the eastern edge of land owned by Stephen and Shirley Harrness along East Sheldon Road.

Jerome was in the shooter's sights. Police said the farmhand was driving a tractor when he was struck in the chest by a single bullet fired from a .22-caliber rifle about 80 yards away. A medical examiner concluded after Jerome's autopsy that he died within minutes.

Miller was at home, less than a mile away, when Jerome was shot. Her eldest daughter was watching cartoons, Miller said, and the 7-month-old baby was zooming around in her walker when the two Vermont State Police troopers arrived. The troopers came inside, sat down and just stared at her for a moment, Miller said, before they told her that Jerome had been shot. Miller said she told the troopers they were wrong and ordered them to get out of her house for playing such a sick joke.

"I kind of remember dropping to my knees and that was it," Miller said. "You don't acknowledge it. There's no possible way to absorb something like that.

"I absolutely kept waiting for him to come home."

Police responded in force, with more than 40 officers descending on Sheldon the day of the shooting. They set up a mobile investigation lab on the Magnans' farm and, although they declined that day to speculate on motive, police said Jerome seemed to have been specifically targeted. Since then, police have cautioned residents not to make hasty assumptions and -- above all else -- not to seek justice themselves.

The day after Jerome's death, a Franklin County District Court judge granted police permission to search the East Sheldon Road home where Dennis Harrness lives on property belonging to his parents. As part of the police's petition, Vermont State Police Sgt. Edward Meslin documented numerous clashes between the Harrnesses and Jerome and Miller.

"It is very evident that the Harrness have issues with Jennifer Miller and Kenny Jerome," Meslin wrote. "I feel that the Harrness hate both Miller and Jerome ...."

Staying put

Most Sheldon residents have obeyed police requests to let justice run its course, but frustration with the pace of the investigation has surfaced.

Several days after the shooting, someone sprinkled small slips of paper printed with "Hang Harrness" in several parking lots around Sheldon village. In the early hours of Aug. 19, police said Timothy Callan, a 33-year-old acquaintance of Jerome's, fired at least two gunshots at the house where Dennis Harrness and his wife, Billie Harrness, live. Callan told police he was frustrated and angry over Jerome's death and was later charged with aggravated assault, driving under the influence and attempting to elude an officer.

The Magnan family, for whom Jerome worked, and Jennifer Miller have combined to post a $9,000 reward for information leading to Jerome's killer.

Dennis Harrness was jailed in early August when he violated his probation from his January arson conviction. In September, he pleaded no contest to a first-degree arson charge in the 1999 fire at the house of his brother, Thomas Harrness. Dennis Harrness faces four to 10 years in prison on the charge. He is to be sentenced Oct. 4.

Miller's contact with police is near constant; she checks in with them almost every other day.

"It's frustrating, it's aggravating, it's sickening that they don't have any dots connected yet," Miller said. "Part of me feels like they're trying to do everything in their power and that they're frustrated ... .

"The other part of me feels like they're not doing their job."

Vermont State Police Lt. Brian Miller said the investigation into Jerome's shooting is still a priority. Police still want to speak with anyone who was around the Diamond Hill farm on the day of the shooting, he said, and see how that information fits with what investigators have gathered.

"You can't rule everything out," said Lt. Miller, who is not related to Jennifer Miller. "If we could rule everything out, we'd have one particular person and we'd have an arrest."

Difficult months

Almost three months have passed since Jerome was killed, and they have been the toughest of Miller's life.

She spends time every morning on her porch drinking coffee, smoking a cigarette and crying before she can start her day. She misses all the little things about Jerome, Miller said, like the way he could maneuver a tractor into and out of the tightest spots and the way they each vied for the last word in any argument.

"We'd be chasing each other around the yard trying to get the last word in," Miller said. "You had to love him. You just did."

Then came July 7. A single bullet took it all away.

"He didn't even know it was coming," Miller said. "He didn't even have a chance.

"That's just cowardice."

More than two years have passed since Miller spoke to police, and the fire at the Magnan farm is still under investigation. Police have yet to name suspects or make an arrest in connection with the incident.

Miller said she stopped to think in the summer of 2003 about what might happen if she talked to police. She thought someone might trash the house where she and Jerome lived or the cars they owned, maybe even rough up Jerome, nothing more.

Miller said she can't help but feel that Jerome's killing was meant to be a message to her.

"This was to hurt me," Miller said. "This was to get me just to leave, just to up and run.

"I'm not leaving my home. Nobody's running me out of my home."

Contact Erica Jacobson at 660-1843 or ejacobso@bfp.burlingtonfreepress.com.

Henry Raymond
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