BRATTLEBORO—At first he couldn’t pull the trigger. And then he could.
It was a Tuesday morning, Aug. 9, 2011, when the Brattleboro Food Co-op’s beer and wine manager, Richard Gagnon, wearing a green cap, a black t-shirt, a black zip-up sweatshirt, a pair of Levi’s 560 jeans, plain white socks, and a pair of black sneakers, walked into an office and shot his boss in the back of the head with a Smith & Wesson .380 semi-automatic handgun.
Then he walked to the back of the co-op and waited for the police.
Gagnon is serving a 17-year sentence for second-degree murder. To this day, he says he does not understand why he did it.
The man he shot, store manager Michael Martin, 59, was left slumped over his computer. The co-op’s general manager, Alex Gyori, and two other employees rushed in. Thinking Martin might still be alive, they lifted him up.
“I thought that maybe he was suffocating,” Gyori told The Commons in a wide-ranging interview that addressed the constellation of issues around the shooting.
“I tried to get his head up, and I could see nothing was happening,” Gyori said. “He let out a large sigh at that point. I don’t know if he was still alive or if he had just died. It was pretty terrible. I didn’t realize it, but I had blood all over my shirt. When my staff saw that, it scared the hell out of them.”
Gagnon and Martin had been butting heads for years, but no one believed Gagnon could commit murder.
“I had known Richard for maybe 25 years, and never once had I suspected he was capable of that kind of a response,” Gyori said. “It was terrible.”
The murder stunned the co-op’s staff, the greater community, and ultimately the entire state. Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, a long-time co-op member, called it “a senseless crime.”
And by any standard — even, ultimately, the killer’s — the death of Michael Martin was senseless.
But did it truly come out of the blue?
For almost two years, people like former co-op employee Neil Harley have been wrestling with these issues.
“For God’s sake, how did this happen?” said Harley. “Surely there were signs all along the route that something was going down.”
Through depositions, other legal documents, police investigation reports, and on- and off-the-record interviews with current and former staff, including lengthy written correspondence with Gagnon, The Commons has been able to reconstruct a snapshot of some of the workplace tensions that preceded a killing in broad daylight in downtown Brattleboro.
This story looks anew and in depth at the events that led to that tragic day through the eyes of the man who pulled the trigger.
This story is one of a business that overtly and proudly defied structure for years until it buckled under the weight of its success.
It’s the story of a business that became in so many ways the very opposite of the place that started out of the whole foods movement as a bulk buying club in 1975, when its first home was in a cramped, dark, wooden-floored space on Flat Street.
Screaming in the freezer: Gyori’s co-op
Gyori, 66, was born and raised in Dayton, Ohio, moved to Brattleboro in the early 1980s, and joined the co-op as a member in 1981.
The general manager of the multi-million dollar business has an unexpected background for managing a food store: a master’s degree in French literature from Middlebury College.
“I’m trained as a teacher,” he said. “Before I came to Brattleboro, I was living outside the country for about 10 years. While I was living in Australia, in Sydney, I got interested in organic foods and natural foods and the health of the planet in general. I started to be attracted in that direction philosophically.”
Gyori first worked at Basketville for a year; in 1982 he took a coordinator’s job at the co-op.
“I’m a product of the Vietnam generation, and I developed some values in relation to social justice,” Gyori said. “I was a teacher, so I enjoy being a teacher. And when I was hired at the co-op, the job was largely teaching people how to do the jobs.”
All the members of the co-op at that time had to put in working hours. Three full-time coordinators showed them what to do and how to do it.
“That was more important at that time than product knowledge,” Gyori said. “I remember one time, a year or so after I was there, the board — which did the hiring for all the staff because we didn’t have a general manager, of course — interviewed somebody who was very, very professional. He had been in the natural foods field for at least five years. And they didn’t hire that person.”
The co-op, he said, wanted to hire “someone who [was] more a teacher and [was] more anti-establishment about systems.”
A democratic cooperative made for stressful decision-making. There were fights over selling meat, selling white flour, selling white sugar, selling alcohol.
“It was craziness every day,” Gyori remembered. “We had a freezer downstairs, a storage freezer, and sometimes we would go downstairs, close the door, and scream. It was just so stressful.”
Gyori named stress as one of the reasons why staff asked the board “to change to a more traditional management structure, which we did in January of 1986.
“People were interested in maybe having me as general manager. I never aspired to be a boss. I had never been a boss. I was always a teacher. People often asked me if I would apply for a position as a director or principal, and I always said no. I didn’t want that. I just wanted to be a teacher.”
But Gyori applied anyway, and he was hired for the job that he has held ever since.
As the public face of the co-op for decades, Gyori is an iconic figure in both the community and the national co-op movement. His image is inextricably entwined with the store’s.
“When you’ve been in a place as long as I have, you get identified with it,” Gyori said. “You understand how that can happen.
“But the reality is, the only reason I’ve stayed is because I love the people I’m with. That’s not to say it hasn’t been hard at times, but the reality is I’m among people who share my general values.”
Building a department: Gagnon’s co-op
For 20 years before coming to the co-op, Gagnon, now 60, worked as a stained-glass artist, creating custom windows for residences and businesses.
“I eventually was, in my humble opinion, as good technically as anyone around,” Gagnon said. “Health reasons put an end to my career. The last serious window I made sold for over $3,000 and put a roof on my house, literally. This was around 1990.”
Gagnon came to work at the co-op on June 6, 1989.
“I was the first male ‘deli-slave,’” he said. “I was working the cash register, making sandwiches and coffee. I enjoyed the work. Most of the people were okay, and I got to know a lot of people who became my neighbors in Marlboro.”
For a time, his wife, Meg McCarthy, now a graphic designer, also worked with him in the deli.
At first Gagnon’s relationship with Gyori was boss and worker, but they slowly became friends, Gagnon said, “as I showed myself to be a mostly reliable employee, a team worker, and a pretty strong cheerleader for the co-op.”
Gagnon said he admired Gyori’s intelligence.
“He could be charming and personal, but there was always an edge of sarcasm and a sense that most people did not cut it in his eyes,” Gagnon said.
He was aware that Gyori had some ambivalence about being the “big boss.”
“He was always saying that he had vowed to never become the store manager,” Gagnon said. “That being the ‘head coordinator’ at the old co-op was as much of a figurehead as he aspired to be.”
“I pretty much felt that he was a slave to the numbers — sales numbers, margins, projections. He was happy to spend money on computers, etc. He was less crazy about raises for people. He felt that cash was not the way to motivate people.”
Yet Gagnon described Gyori as “stingy with praise.”
“I was a very highly motivated employee — a true self-starter — and I could go a year without hearing ‘good job’ from the man. Other people felt the same way.”
Even today, many co-op employees say they have a powerful desire to please Gyori and be recognized by him.
The co-op, which had started out so democratically that Gyori sometimes had to scream in a freezer, was becoming increasingly hierarchical.
“Sadly, I wanted the guy to like me in a way that would make me feel closer to him,” Gagnon said. “I wanted to be more than ‘just an employee.’ I wanted to know that he noticed.”
Eventually, when his hours were threatened by a new, more efficient scanning system, Gagnon was offered management of the beer and wine department.
“I knew nothing about wine and beer, but I needed the money and dove in,” Gagnon said.
Wine is a complicated and complex subject. Gagnon said he gained his expertise by “the seat of [his] pants.”
“I learned through wine tastings sponsored by the distributors,” Gagnon said. “I applied myself to beer and wine with the same level of dedication and zeal I brought to my creative life in stained glass.
“The co-op eventually saw that my ongoing education brought sales results,” Gagnon said.
As a result, Gyori used the co-op resources to sponsor trips for Gagnon to California and France. “It paid off in spades for the co-op sales, and for my mastery of the subject matter,” Gagnon said.
In time, sales in the beer and wine department came close to $1 million a year, Gagnon said.
At the co-op, Gagnon was known as much for his brusque behavior as his wine and beer expertise. Some co-workers used the words “arrogant,” “abrasive,” and “difficult to work with” to describe him. Some said he did not take kindly to criticism.
“I had always known Richard to have a reputation for a terrible temper and verbal abusiveness,” one employee told The Commons. “However, I expect his problems were severely mishandled and [management was] likely tremendously unfair to him.”
Gagnon admits he sometimes had difficulty controlling his temper.
“There were periods when I felt a bit out of control and had some instances of letting my anger at someone’s incompetence — as it affected my department — get away from me,” he said.
“It took me a while to get a handle on it. Almost being fired — maybe three times? — helped rein this in,” he added.
Despite this prickly reputation, only five people — four co-workers and one vendor — registered formal complaints about Gagnon’s behavior during his 22 years at the co-op.
And many others used words like “patient,” “reasonable” and “peaceful” when describing him. Most people who spoke about him after the murder were content to describe him as “quirky” or as “a character.”
“He seemed kind of a relatively private person,” said bulk buyer Daniel Ridgeway in a September 2011 interview with David Yendell, Gagnon’s attorney’s private investigator.
“He had a little of an idiosyncratic personality,” Ridgeway told Yendell. “There were some ways in which he was a little odd, but most of us are [odd] at the co-op, so he seems to fit right in.”
In general, Gagnon got excellent reviews of his work, built a well-regarded and highly profitable department, enjoyed customer contact, and had excellent relationships with his vendors.
“I loved my job,” Gagnon said. “It was the best job I ever had. I was able to work with professionals who were masters in their field, and learn directly from winemakers of all stripes, as well as sales pros who knew the business cold and shared a vast amount of knowledge with me.
“I gained confidence over the years and applied my creative talent to promotions, signage, and wine-and-beer events, including in-the-store tastings. I read voraciously on the subject and kept up with all the latest developments in the field.
“It was a dream job in many ways, and I miss it.”
Desk and numbers: Martin’s co-op
The co-op had needed a store manager for several years before it started an aggressive search that led to the hiring of Michael Martin in June of 2008. The co-op was planning to expand by building a new store, and the new project was taking most of Gyori’s time.
“It was getting too complicated for me to do it all myself,” Gyori said. “I needed someone to run the store, because we had property to manage, we had a project in the offing, and I managed directly five departments. It’s more than a 40-hour job in itself. And we’ve got a dozen retail managers.”
Gyori needed “somebody to focus on the retail aspects of the store with merchandizing and to help us plan for the new store,” he said.
For more than a year, the co-op had the new retail manager job posting on its website.
“We got candidates, but they weren’t at the level we needed them until we got Michael,” Gyori said.
Martin had experience opening stores — three corporate natural-food stores in Indiana and Ohio, to be exact. He proved adept in a complicated business that involves moving thousands of product lines.
Gyori had been at the co-op when experience and process were black marks against potential employees. In Martin he found, and embraced, exactly those qualities.
“My first impression was that he was a very nice person,” Gyori said. The two became friends.
Gyori and the leadership team at the co-op found in Martin a complicated individual. According to his obituary, “Moving to Albuquerque, N.M., Michael started a journey that led him to study alternative medicine at the Ayurvedic Institute, from which he graduated with a degree in Ayurvedic Medicine. The pursuit of well-being, natural health and foods led Michael to not only start his own Ayurvedic medicine practice but also to work for various natural food companies[...].”
Indeed, one employee told The Commons during the union drive last year that Martin had a close and positive relationship with workers in the co-op’s wellness department, many of whom were hit especially hard by his murder.
But several former employees paint a portrait of Martin as a cultural mismatch in the position of store manager in a values-driven cooperative: a manager from the corporate world — natural food notwithstanding — who publicly bragged about his drinking and his sexual activities in a gruff, macho way that offended many of them and their colleagues.
More disturbing to them, it later emerged that in 2003, Martin had been arrested for spousal abuse in Flagstaff, Ariz.
It also became clear that Martin had been married five times. (Law enforcement recently issued an arrest warrant for his last partner, whom Martin ostensibly married in 2010. She is alleged to have convinced a justice of the peace to falsify a marriage license retroactively in order to collect about $70,000 in survivor benefits.)
Gyori admittedly brushed off staff concerns about Martin.
“That’s his private life,” he said. “If you went into anybody’s private life, you might find things that you can say about them. That’s not the kind of thing you could see in terms of his behavior at the store and his professional understanding of the store.”
Any new manager was bound to make a few waves, Gyori said. And it was Martin’s right as top store manager to set the tone and hire the people he felt he could work with.
“All these managers I’d been directly supervising for eons?” Gyori said. “And then you put somebody between me and them? There are people I get on with, personality-wise. Put someone in with a different personality, you don’t always get harmony.
“Most of the people were fine with Michael. A couple of people had problems with his approach. But it was a professional problem, not a personal problem. He was not a mean person.”
Martin and Gyori had different management styles. Co-op workers said that Gyori was often seen on the front lines, in the aisles of the store. He knew everyone on the staff by name. He wasn’t above stopping and helping stock the shelves if there was a need for it.
Martin, on the other hand, was described as a desk-and-numbers guy. One former worker said most co-op employees could pass Martin on the street and not know who he was.
Gyori clearly cared deeply for Martin; by some accounts, he lavished on him the kind of approval that other co-op workers craved.
“He actually had a very similar set of values to the rest of us,” Gyori said. “And having gotten to know him somewhat on a personal level, I could see that.”
Gyori said that Martin reminded him of the cave in the medieval Arabic story “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.”
“On the outside [the cave is] all craggy and ugly. Then you say ‘Open sesame!’ and on the inside it’s this amazing place. Once he opened up to you, you saw an amazing person,” Gyori said.
Some other words used by Martin’s co-workers to describe him were “abrasive, intimidating, cutting” or “like a marine or a police officer — sharp.”
Behind the scenes, many disaffected co-op employees — current and past — whispered in secret about a climate of bullying that began when Martin arrived at the store.
Vermont, like most states, is an employment-at-will state. People hold their jobs at the discretion of their employers and can be fired without cause at any time. There is no need to intimidate people into quitting.
Also, it was Martin’s right as top store manager to set the tone and hire the people he felt he could work with. No one disputes this.
But many told The Commons privately that they could see some kind of trouble coming. They charged that the co-op management was indifferent to problems that, in hindsight, might have contributed to the tragedy.
Some, in fact, accused him of being a bully.
One former staffer went so far as to say, “Richard took one for the team.”
In the past few years, our culture has started paying serious attention to various kinds of bullying. Beginning with sandbox and public school confrontations, attention has moved on to homophobia and harassment made via the Internet. Americans have begun to recognize the damage that bullying can cause in the home, at school, and in the workplace.
The Workplace Bullying Institute defines workplace bullying as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons [the targets] by one or more perpetrators...”
Workplace bullying, according to the WBI, can consist of false accusations, yelling, shouting and screaming, exclusion, “the silent treatment,” put-downs, insults, excessively harsh criticism, withholding the resources necessary to do the job, behind-the-back sabotage, defamation, and unreasonably heavy work demands.
“It is a problem that has invaded the life of 37 percent of adult Americans without invitation,” says the WBI. “In its more severe forms, it triggers a host of stress-related health complications — hypertension, auto-immune disorders, depression, anxiety, [post-traumatic stress disorder]. The person’s immediate job and often career are disrupted.”
Since 2003, 24 states have introduced “healthy workplace bills” — legislation intended to stop workplace bullying. In 2007, Vermont was the 13th state to do so.
While the bill hasn’t passed yet, it hasn’t gone away. On Jan. 16, 2013, S.034 was introduced in the Vermont Senate and passed on to the committee of Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs, where it remains.
In his narrative of events, Gagnon maintains that he felt continually bullied and harassed by Martin. But Gyori denies the possibility that bullying of this sort ever took place at the co-op.
“One of the things I always used to say to new staff — I have what I call a 15-minute little spiel — is this,” Gyori told The Commons. “Look, this is a human organization. From time to time there’s friction and things don’t work just right. But our commitment is always to make them right. We will eventually straighten them out.
“Because no matter how many rules you have or how much good will you have, things happen. You knock heads with people from time to time. But we understand this is a human organization and we’ll make it good because we believe in this.
“If someone feels they’re being bullied or harassed, the first thing they do is report it. And then an investigation is held.”
According to the WBI, people who are bullied and harassed are often too frightened to report it, especially when the people who are harassing them are their direct bosses or upper management. And especially when they love their jobs and want to keep them.
According to Gagnon, that’s the position he found himself in — and without a vocabulary to understand it clearly at the time.
“First of all, bullying is a new thing,” Gagnon said. “Remember, sexual harassment didn’t exist for 20 or 30 years, and then it did. Now it’s workplace bullying. But when you’re being bullied, generally speaking, you’re scared. You think if you report it, you’ll get fired. They’ll stage a little monkey trial and then dismiss you for something else.
“Plenty of people at the co-op were being bullied by Michael Martin. They were too scared to report it. And if there ain’t no paperwork, there ain’t no problem.”
Gyori insists that Martin was not a bully.
“Some people just took offense because he looked different or whatever, and he was quiet,” Gyori told The Commons.
“My experience was this: If you approach him and talk to him, he’s 100 percent right there with you,” Gyori continued. “And as soon as you’re done, he’s 100 percent not with you. Maybe there were some social formulas that he didn’t follow that you’re used to. When he finished, Michael would just say, ‘We’re done.’
“Listen, the people he hired loved him. It’s really a matter of personality. So when people say he was mean or abusive, then give me some examples. If it’s because he didn’t say good morning, I’m not feeling so good about that.”
A new management style
Once Martin arrived, Gyori was able to relinquish most of the day-to-day store operations to his new manager.
Court documents and interviews with former staff show that many at first welcomed and respected Martin; they thought he was a good businessman and by being less “warm and fuzzy” (as one former employee put it), he would professionalize the co-op and bring it into the “real world.” Martin had some early success in changing pricing policy and boosting sales.
But his arrival threw some departments into upheaval.
Almost two years after the murder, Jen Morier still cries when she describes Martin’s tenure.
Morier was then a 14-year veteran of the co-op, working in the marketing department selling shares. Her ties to the co-op run deep, and she remains friends with Gagnon and McCarthy.
“In the beginning I thought Michael was charming,” she said. “He loved to tell jokes. He was a storyteller. He was loud and gregarious.”
But, she said, it did not take long before the jokes became lewd, inappropriate, tasteless.
“I would avoid him. I was not comfortable in his company. The way he looked at you and at other people — it was a leering look. He made me very unsettled.
“I did not trust the man. I put as much distance between this guy and myself as possible. I heard a whole lot of things from people who dealt with him — people would come to me crying.”
In the marketing department, conflict with Martin became routine, Morier said.
“We had a fantastic graphic arts department, the best in town,” Morier said. “Michael just chipped away at it. We had highly professional people in charge of signage. Michael wanted to take it over. He replaced their signs with his own, which were often misspelled. He completely deflated the morale in our department.
“Human Resources didn’t want to hear the complaints. Upper management just said, ‘Oh, you know Michael, he’s just a little rough around the edges.’”
Gyori confirms that there was a struggle between Martin and the marketing department.
“Michael wanted something more folksy,” Gyori said. “[The marketing department manager] wanted something more artsy. They were trying to figure out how to make that work together.”
It was not bullying, Gyori said. “It was a professional disagreement about an aesthetic.”
Ultimately, the long-time manager of the marketing department walked away.
“When she left, she basically took her department with her,” Gyori said.
One of those colleagues who left with her was Walter Fogg, a nine-year veteran graphic designer and assistant marketing manager. After the murder, he told Gagnon’s attorney, Kerry DeWolfe, that Martin was difficult to work for and changed the “feel of working at the co-op.”
According to DeWolfe’s notes, Fogg described Martin as a person who “seemed to like to create instability.”
“You never knew when [he] would go after a department. He seemed to like to demean people in front of an audience,” the notes say. “[He] was a bully; there was a culture of bullying at the co-op.”
There was a general feeling that “personalities were driving decisions,” DeWolfe’s notes continue. “And that [Martin] was pushing out people with whom he had a personal conflict or who he thought wouldn’t fit into the new store.”
Although Fogg told DeWolfe that he never expected the level of violence which resulted from Martin’s management, he was not surprised “on some level” that this would happen.
To Fogg, “it felt like there was nowhere to go with frustrations,” the attorney’s notes reveal.
Susi Neustadt was the juice bar coordinator for many years. She said she loved her job.
“When Michael Martin came on the scene, everything changed,” Neustadt told The Commons. “It was like everything good you thought about the co-op disappeared. There was a certain tension in the air. A lot of people quit.”
Neustadt described Michael Martin as “an intimidating figure.”
“I just tried to stay away from him,” she said. “The deli manager quit, and she had been gung ho. She felt she was being pressured by him. It just seemed like everybody got tense, and it was very un-co-op.”
Gagnon’s narrative describes a similar story.
Martin, he said, “was coarse, abusive, tactless, and seemed to delight in putting us on the spot and making light of our abilities and our sales philosophies, despite the fact that we were a very successful store.
“We just weren’t his kind of store,” he said.
“He was going to get us to see the light,” Gagnon said. “Heads were going to roll, and he wasn’t afraid to say so.”
About four to six weeks after Martin was hired, Gagnon said, he met with Gyori to convey his reservations about the new manager.
Gyori “tried to palm off my fears as insubstantial,” Gagnon alleged. “He said that he would get Michael to work on his ‘bedside manner.’”
In depositions taken by DeWolfe in preparation for Gagnon’s trial, past and present co-op workers described Martin with similarly gruff terms.
But other managers said they liked working for Martin.
For example, produce manager John Truncale told DeWolfe’s investigator, David Yendell, in October 2011, “Overall, working with Martin was good.”
The investigator’s notes say that Truncale “never felt unfairly singled out or treated badly or unfairly,” that he “never witnessed unfair treatment or disrespectful behavior,” that he thought Martin had “reasonable expectations for his department.”
Yendell’s notes indicate that Truncale thought Gagnon resisted change and couldn’t take criticism, “especially from someone new, when he had been here for 20 years.”
The Martin/Gagnon conflict
According to Gagnon’s narrative, Martin did not understand the co-op’s culture.
“He had no previous co-op experience,” Gagnon said. “It was clear from the get-go that he had little or no appreciation for the co-op’s history, culture, and membership. To him, the hippie history was history. He wanted to transform the place into a clone of Whole Foods, or the Sunflower store he had managed.
“It was also clear, in his own words, that I would not recognize my department after he was done with it. He said that with a cat-that-ate-the-canary grin.
“It was obvious he relished the notion of upending the place, stamping his signature onto it and watching the fur fly. His MO was management by fiat. The notion of cooperation was a joke.
“Right up front, he said he had all the answers and all we had to do was follow orders.”
One of the first disagreements between Gagnon and Martin came over wine brands.
“I was not happy with Michael’s conclusion that only the cheapest, most-world-known brands would ‘turn around’ my wine department,” Gagnon said. “The department was fine. It just wasn’t the way he wanted it. He assumed Gallo was essential to us because it was seemingly essential everywhere else in the U.S.”
Gagnon said that wine “was and is the low-end supermarket standard.”
The Gallo brand, Gagnon said, “was supposed to make the department more friendly to the hordes of new shoppers that his storewide reconfiguration was supposed to bring in. He picked a brand called Barefoot, recently purchased by Gallo, to showcase his idea.”
Gagnon complained to Gyori, who — he thought — suggested he try out the brand to see if Martin was right, an option that he thought he was free to decline.
But later, Gyori told Gagnon that it had been a direct order, not a suggestion, that he put the wine on the shelves. Gagnon said he was told, in a sit-down meeting with Gyori and Martin, that he was disobeying a direct order, “[flouting] Martin’s authority,” and that he would “carry the wine or else.”
“They both acted like I had committed a crime of the basest nature imaginable,” Gagnon said.
“It was so melodramatic as to be absurd. I agreed to carry the wine, again registering my disagreement with Michael’s analysis. The wine never did well, no matter where I put it, [how I] priced it, or what signage I used. Even the salesman for the brand told me it was a non-starter.
“But I could not get Alex to accept my analysis over Michael’s,” Gagnon said.
For Gagnon, the Gallo fiasco was “the beginning of an endless stream of bad decisions forced on me by Michael Martin.
“The pressure put on me was ridiculous, and the other departments felt it as well. You did as you were told, and you did not argue — at least not for long,” he said.
“A product had to fail miserably before Michael would admit error, and he always blamed the failure on my efforts, or lack thereof.”
In a deposition with DeWolfe after the shooting, Gyori said Martin was only “trying to evolve the product lines.”
“For example, he wanted Richard to add certain types of products to his panoply of products and Richard didn’t always cooperate,” Gyori told DeWolfe. “Or he’d cooperate, but put them back in a dark corner if he didn’t agree with the product. It was product decisions.”
For Gagnon, his relationship with Martin — and upper management — went into a serious downward spiral in 2010.
Gagnon alleged that he saw an assistant engaging in illegal activity in the beer and wine department. (The Commons has learned nothing that corroborates or disproves this allegation.) But the event was captured on tape, and Gagnon recommended that the assistant be fired.
Top management watched the tape, agreed with Gagnon, and acted on his recommendation.
Then, asserting his innocence, the assistant challenged, or “grieved,” his firing.
According to co-op process, Philip Brodeur, the employee services director, formed a committee to hear the grievance and make a decision about rehiring the assistant. Due to previously scheduled medical appointments, Gagnon did not make either of the two grievance hearings.
Brodeur indicated to Archer Mayor, who was working as an investigator for the Office of the Windham County State’s Attorney, that he had lost patience with Gagnon. This exchange was chronicled by Mayor in a 23-page report for the prosecutors.
“The second time, I sat back and said, ‘You know what? He won’t give testimony to what’s happened here,’” Brodeur told Mayor.
Mayor asked Brodeur if he remembered that both postponements were for medical reasons. Brodeur said they were, but “it was perfectly obvious...he didn’t want to be part of it.”
Mayor asked if Gagnon had specifically said that he wouldn’t testify.
According to Mayor, Brodeur “conceded that he’d reached that conclusion on his own, ‘because I know a coward when a coward looks me in the eye.’”
Brodeur did not schedule a third hearing. The grievance committee did not meet again. The committee never saw the tape that had previously convinced upper management that criminal activity had been conducted on the floor of the co-op. In time, it appeared that the tape was recorded over.
Shortly afterward, Brodeur rehired the assistant and returned him to the beer and wine department — working under Gagnon, the man who tried and failed to fire him.
Tension was inevitable
Gagnon begged Gyori to move the assistant to another department. Gyori refused.
“I said that the issue was settled and you need to move on,” Gyori said. “I remember talking to Richard and saying we’d try to do something along the lines of trying to move [the assistant] out, but it didn’t work out, it was not a way to do it. So we said, ‘You’ve got to make peace with him.’ That’s not an unreasonable demand.”
Gagnon says that at the same time, he again tried to talk to Gyori about his objections to Martin’s behavior.
“It was almost like a friend talking to a friend, a head’s-up to Alex that this guy was essentially out of control,” Gagnon said. “I don’t think I used the word ‘harassment,’ but I talked about Michael giving me a hard time about almost everything. It went beyond the pale.”
And, he said, Gyori “pretty much shrugged it off.”
Prior to this conversation, however — and unbeknownst to Gagnon — Gyori, Brodeur, and Martin had already concluded that Gagnon had to go.
Brodeur told DeWolfe in a deposition that the three agreed “that Alex had a longstanding relationship with Richard and it was our belief in the best interest of the future, that Alex communicate to Richard that his sense was it wasn’t long-term going to work out. And that if he was interested, he should come to me and have a conversation with me regarding the possibility of a severance package.”
While meeting with Gagnon, however, Gyori said nothing about wanting him to leave, nothing about a severance package.
“[Alex] was uncomfortable,” Brodeur told DeWolfe. “He just didn’t do it.”
When DeWolfe deposed Gyori and Brodeur, each was asked each why upper management would prefer to keep an assistant over an experienced manager who was doing a good job.
Gyori mentioned that Gagnon’s “major weakness was getting along.”
“We’d had a litany of run-ins,” Brodeur told her, but when asked, he cited a 2007 incident and the recent one with the assistant.
“It’s just the whole situation, his approach to people,” Brodeur said, citing the assistant’s letter that after the firing and rehiring, Gagnon had been “passive-aggressive.”
“That was the basis of firing an employee of 22 years?” Gagnon’s attorney asked.
Brodeur indicated that upper management wanted their longtime employee to leave with his head held high.
“We weren’t talking about terminating his employment,” Brodeur said. “We were suggesting... we would give him a get-out-of-jail free card if in fact he wanted to. To be honest with you, it was 20 years of being abusive to people.”
DeWolfe asked who else Gagnon had been abusive to in 2010 and 2011.
“He was impolite to me,” Brodeur said. “He was impolite to Michael.... He just wasn’t pleasant to me.... He was Richard. He was confrontational.”
At this point, Gagnon said that he was beginning to feel the ground being cut out from under him.
“It came by degrees, like the proverbial frog in the pot of water coming to a boil,” Gagnon said. “I didn’t truly realize I was being burned alive. No matter how bad the situation got, I kept believing that somehow a miracle would happen and I would be rescued from this situation.
“The handwriting had been on the wall for probably a good year, but I did not see the plan that had been set in motion,” he said.
Gagnon said he fought to keep the job he loved. His next few months were filled with tension and confusion as he tried to find a way to work with his assistant and keep his bosses happy.
“I still can’t express how deeply and negatively this affected my sense of self and self-esteem,” Gagnon said.
The situation escalated from there.
“I had pretty much fallen apart over the winter,” he said. “I drank too much wine, often drinking secretly before bedtime when Meg was already upstairs. I overate and put on weight, getting up over 200 pounds. I ate sweets at work, when as a hypoglycemic I usually avoided them completely. I drank a lot of coffee, which did nothing to create any sense of calm or collectedness.”
More critically, “I was making errors at work that brought me to Michael’s attention way too often. Did I think, ‘Get out, get out now?’ Of course — but I could not see past that decision. It was a blank. It was like a fog bank that went on forever and ever.”
Nevertheless, by spring, Gagnon said, he and his assistant had more or less buried the hatchet.
“Early spring brought a sense of relief,” Gagnon said. “I was able to see [the assistant] easing up on his attitude. I responded in kind and soon we were on an even keel. We were friendly and cordial and able to work together as before.”
Praise, and an ultimatum
On May 1, 2011, Martin wrote what would end up being Gagnon’s final performance review.
Despite media reports that the killing was precipitated by a bad performance review, much of the review was laudatory and glowingly positive.
Martin praised Gagnon’s skills in purchasing, merchandising, customer service, safety, budgeting, and department maintenance.
He also threatened Gagnon with termination, calling the history of staff turnover in the beer and wine department “appalling.”
“One after another the staff has either quit or repositioned themselves at the store,” Martin wrote. “Your tactics for managing force us to question your ability to lead. […] We expect a turnaround and will not allow for your staff to feel intimidated. You have six months to make a difference.”
They chose not to give him a raise.
“It’s only when we see there’s absolutely no way of working things out we might make a change. But we didn’t feel we were at that point,” Gyori told attorney DeWolfe. “At least I didn’t. I don’t know about the other two.
“Richard was not fired. He was simply told, ‘Look, Richard, cooperate with us. Please.’ By and large, Richard was very successful. But there was room for improvement.”
When DeWolfe pressed Brodeur and several other people who had worked for Gagnon for the names of other people who had “quit or repositioned” themselves, they were unable to provide them.
Gagnon’s assistant, for example, had fought to be reassigned to the department in spite of his boss having accused him of selling drugs, and Brodeur could not name more than three or four people in 22 years who had filed a complaint against Gagnon.
As Gagnon saw it, “inability to get along” would be the excuse upper management would use to push him out the door.
And looking back, in his interview with The Commons, Gyori confirmed that “part of it was that the good will capital that Richard had had was pretty used up.”
“We were just tired of his lack of cooperation — I think that was what it came down to,” he said.
During the summer of 2011, upper management made a routine decision to give Gagnon’s assistant a raise commensurate with his seniority. In response, on Aug. 1, Gagnon sent an email to Gyori, Martin, and Brodeur.
“I received no raise, and especially resent the characterization that I am incapable of working with people,” Gagnon wrote. “Please give [the assistant] his raise. But I, too, deserve a raise... I am not perfect, but I try damned hard, believe it or not, to please you and Michael, and do a job I’m proud of.”
Yet Gyori remembers just the opposite. According to his deposition with DeWolfe, he said he believed that Gagnon had opposed the assistant’s raise and they were not “learning how to work together.”
Consequently, upper management made some decisions, Gyori said. The assistant would get the raise and remain in the beer and wine department.
“And, if that was not acceptable to Richard, he could talk to Phil for a severance. And that was the message that Michael was instructed to give to Richard.”
On Friday, Aug. 5 — four days before the shooting — Martin and Gagnon met in the parking lot.
According to Gagnon, Martin told him to figure out a severance package, even though in the evaluation he had given Gagnon six months to “turn things around.”
“It’s one of the few things I can remember,” Gagnon said. “There was so much glee in his voice and his body language. He was so happy to unload me. I never expected the reaction. The unbelievably smug attitude. The cat-that-ate-the-canary smile. It completely devastated me.”
Gagnon realized that he could no longer fight for his job — a job that, he admits, had become his identity after decades there.
“I couldn’t see beyond it to any other kind of real future,” he said. “I was being cut off at the knees and there was nothing left. I felt like my life was over. Finished.
“I couldn’t get past the firing, the complete total de-validation of myself as a human being. I was gutted and had no idea what to do.”
Gagnon certainly had the option of leaving the co-op — with a severance package — and finding another job, but he said he was hardly in a state of mind to think of that as a possibility.
“I just refused to accept it,” he said. “Leaving was equivalent to death in my mind.”
In his deposition, Brodeur said he saw Martin right after his conversation with Gagnon.
“I said, ‘How did it go?,’” Brodeur told DeWolfe. “And Michael said, ‘Not too well. Richard’s response to me was, ‘You’re no fucking help.’ It was a Friday afternoon. I was heading out.”
As he was driving down to Cape Cod, Brodeur called Gyori.
“I said, ‘Alex, I don’t feel good about this,’” Brodeur said he told Gyori. “I just had a premonition.”
A lost weekend
According to Gagnon, he spent the weekend trying and failing to kill himself with a gun he had bought a few weeks earlier.
“Suddenly, the gun looked like my deliverance,” he said. “All I had to do was walk away and fire one shot, and it would all be over. My mind balked at the creepy finality of it, but my twisted mind was incapable of reason. It stuck in one gear, playing one song over and over, suicide.
“It was the only thing left, and how would I ever be able to do it, to actually pull the trigger? I had no idea, no clue, and no way of knowing if I could actually go through with it. But I had to. My sense of shame was so thorough, so all-encompassing.”
McCarthy had left for the weekend to visit her ailing mother.
“I kissed her good-bye, assuming I would never see her again,” Gagnon said. “I don’t know how I managed to say good-bye without breaking down.”
Gagnon said that he was unable to sleep and spent the weekend learning how to use the gun and trying to kill himself.
“I knew nothing about the gun and had to read the manual to see how it all worked,” he said. “I read it at least a half dozen times and finally loaded the thing and walked to a field next door. I test-fired the gun and managed to cut my index finger on the sliding thing that sits on top.
“I was having trouble holding the gun. It kept slipping, there was so much blood. I might have fired it again. I was too afraid to even put it next to my head but eventually I did.
“But no matter what, I could not pull the trigger. I just couldn’t do it. I cried and cried and tried one last time and kept seeing Meg standing over my dead body and I just couldn’t do that to her. I couldn’t. So I went back to the house and cried some more.”
McCarthy came home on Sunday evening, but Gagnon said he “refused to break down” and talk about his feelings. He called in sick on Monday — despite the confrontation with Martin, he still had a job to go to — and spent the day with McCarthy.
“I sat on the couch, pretending to read, soaking up the feeling of the home we had built from scratch and lived in for 21 years,” he said.
“I couldn’t get beyond the inevitability of my need to die, to simply leave and be gone. What was the point of thinking any more? I was dead, and somehow I had to make that happen.”
The next day, Tuesday, Aug. 9, he tried to kill himself in his car, he said.
“I test-fired the gun, and it worked,” Gagnon said. “Once more, I tried to pull the trigger and just couldn’t do it. How the hell could someone do it? I couldn’t make my hand work. It was impossible.
“I thought being away from the house would make it easier, at least possible, but I kept seeing Meg alone, trying to figure out what had happened and never being able to get an answer. I cried and cried and drove off.”
He drove to the co-op, dusted off the bottles in his department, and killed Michael Martin.