BRATTLEBORO — Just after Richard Gagnon shot and killed Michael Martin, shocked and stunned workers at the Brattleboro Food Co-op expressed their grief - for their coworkers, for their families, for the invasion of the unthinkable into their workplace. Many stood in groups in the parking lot and cried. Others sang to comfort one another.
The next day, hundreds of people - staff, co-op members, people from the community - gathered in the co-op parking lot for a candlelight vigil in tribute to Michael Martin. They sang “Love Take Me Home” and “This Little Light of Mine” to honor him. They dropped flowers into the Whetstone Brook.
Food co-ops around the world sent their condolences.
Martin left six children, three grandchildren, multiple stepchildren, and several brothers and sisters. His younger sister, JoAnn Bemo, told the Brattleboro Reformer, “He wasn't a fighter. He was a compassionate man who loved his family.”
“She described her brother as the 'golden child' in their family's eyes,” the Reformer reported on April 18, 2012. “The only son of an only son, he was beloved by all, she said.”
News accounts at the time distilled the killing as simply a senseless conflict over a problem over a bad performance evaluation. No one from the co-op spoke openly about the complexities, tensions, and pressures of his workplace. PTSD was never mentioned.
In a deposition, one co-op employee later said, “It can generally be seen as a failing of the co-op that we allowed one of our employees to act this way. I feel that any employee should be supported enough and treated fairly enough that they would never feel the need to act radically to resolve any situation.”
Gyori denies any responsibility. Gagnon had many other options, he said.
“Richard lost perspective in his mind and could only go in one direction. Look at couples where one, instead of asking for a divorce or just leaving, kills the other. Why did they need to do that? Couldn't they just get in a car or walk down the street?” he pointed out.
“We weren't holding Richard here. But there were structures in place. If he was being bullied, he could have 'grieved.' He didn't.”
Every organizations has “rough spots,” Gyori said.
“We always resolve them,” Gyori said. “Maybe not always to everybody's liking. Sometimes people get what they want and sometimes they don't. But our commitment is to try to do what is humanly possible. Sometimes you do things from a good place and it doesn't come out right. Or people don't agree.
“Every time you make a decision, especially in a business, you're going to piss someone off. The great strength of the Brattleboro Food Co-op - forever - is we have our debates, we get them settled, and by and large people say let's move on. They don't factionalize.”
Some co-op workers, their families, and people close to the inner workings of the business, however, were unhappy with the way the murder was being portrayed - especially those who agreed with Gagnon about Martin's management style.
“The community is still hurting,” said Chai Wallah owner Neil Harley, who worked at the co-op from 1998 to 2004. A friend of Gyori's until the shooting, Harley remains a friend of Gagnon and McCarthy.
“Why do people still get angry and emotional about the whole thing?” Harley said. “The community is still looking for healing. It's still incomplete. It's like there's been a violation of trust.”
“The murder itself was shocking enough,” said Jen Morier, Harley's wife, whose job then was to sell shares in the co-op - literally, a small ownership stake in the business. “It wasn't a surprise that something happened. There was so much tension something had to blow.
“But it was the way the co-op reacted to the incident, eulogizing Michael and demonizing Richard. It was another crime. I could not stand by.”
Morier worked at the co-op for only a little while longer.
“I certainly couldn't ask people to buy a share,” she said.
“I could have stood by them if they had made any attempt to take a look at what went so terribly wrong - and their upper management's part in it,” she said.
“But their refusal to take any responsibility or to even acknowledge that mistakes were made was unbearable. There was an elephant in the living room so large that it made my job selling memberships or shares impossible.
“Seven weeks after the incident, I took a leave of absence to save my sanity,” Morier said. “While on my leave of absence, I heard of another incident at the co-op involving threats between two staff members and decided then to leave for good. The co-op no longer felt like a safe place to work.”
Kate Bailey had been the marketing department's education and outreach coordinator. She left the co-op before the shooting, but said she was not surprised by it.
“Richard took one for the team,” Bailey wrote in an email. “I'm not condoning what Richard did. But it was management (Alex [Gyori], Phil [Brodeur], the board) who refused to deal with a situation/person who was for many untenable. Those are the ones in my mind who are responsible and need to be held accountable. Calling it 'senseless' just lets everyone off the hook.”
Kerry DeWolfe was assigned to represent Gagnon. For a while, his defense considered mounting a “diminished capacity defense,” where they would claim that Gagnon was not in his right mind when he shot Martin.
They devoted a lot of time to considering this defense strategy for a jury trial.
In the end, they decided to accept a plea bargain.
“At a trial, lots of evidence would have been disallowed,” Gagnon said. “Michael Martin would not be on trial. I would be on trial. Life without parole for first-degree murder was a possibility. It was too high a risk to take.”
In the end, he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 17 years to life, avoiding a trial. As things stand now, he will leave prison in 2028.
Gagnon apologized in court to Martin's family.
Some of Martin's family, unhappy with the sentence, told the Brattleboro Reformer that Gagnon should spend the rest of his life in prison.
“It hurt to listen to his children speak to me, knowing they had no clue that there was a hellish side to his personality and that he was capable of running me out of my job along with the help and collusion of Alex Gyori and Philip Brodeur,” Gagnon said recently. “It was all so one-sided.”
Back in 2003, co-op employees had tried and failed to start a union.
“Back then it was difficult to get a lot of people engaged with the idea of getting unionized,” said Greg Howe, who has worked in the deli for 14 years; he was on that first organizing committee. “I wanted it because we had just been through a situation in our department with a manager who chased a whole lot of people - five or six people, supervisors mostly - out of employment. It was a very unsafe workplace. But getting the entire staff engaged to show up to meetings after a long workday was not easy. It takes a lot of energy to create that change.”
A second union drive was undertaken a year after Martin's murder. Once again, Howe was one of the organizers.
“After Michael's murder, we did have meetings with management and staff,” Howe said. “We discussed how to go forward, how we could make improvements in the store. It never went much further than the meetings themselves.”
One employee tells the story that, in 2012, amid the chaos of moving into the new building and preparing the now-vacant old supermarket for demolition, a new supervisor was jealous of the loyalty that an employee enjoyed in the department. Thinking that loyalty to this employee would undermine her managerial authority, she proposed that the co-op offer him a severance package to leave the job that he had performed for a number of years.
The worker ignored the co-op's severance offer, and he just kept coming to work as usual.
The employee who described the issue to The Commons said that it “chilled” her and her colleagues that management would so readily eliminate someone's job under such circumstances. She described that incident as the precipitating event that led to the effort to unionize.
Howe saw “an unfortunate pattern at the co-op.”
“I wanted to see more follow-through on improvements we had been promised, and I wanted to ensure that we had a safe working environment for everyone, both physically safe and emotionally safe, that people were treated with respect they deserved for the hard work they do,” he said of the union effort.
On Sept. 12, 2012, The Commons published a letter that the union organizers had presented to the Brattleboro Food Co-op Board of Directors in seeking recognition for representation by the United Food and Commercial Workers.
The letter outlined a series of rights. Included was the right to work in an environment where employees routinely review managers (and the general manager); the right to work in a place where employees cannot be fired or mistreated merely because of personal disputes or disagreements; where managers are accountable and take responsibility for their actions and decisions; in which employees are not discouraged by their managers from speaking up regarding grievances; where employees have a voice in a democratic decision-making process; and where they have the right to work without threat of termination without cause.
Traditional union drives are generally about pay and benefits.
Although Martin's murder was never mentioned during the drive, pro-union employees never presented pay issues as central to their argument. Instead, the organizers appeared interested in securing a layer of voice in, or protection from, management.
Richard M. Brown, the secretary-treasurer of the union, UFCW Local 1459, said that made the co-op drive “atypical.”
“They were more concerned with having a real grievance procedure,” Brown said. “They were concerned with communication with management, transparency of process, and they wanted to get the co-op back to being more cooperative. There were people who filled out proposal surveys who never even mentioned wages and benefits. It was never about wages and benefits.”
The Brattleboro drive was different from other area union drives, Brown said. It took a National Labor Relations Board election process to establish the union in Brattleboro.
“Draw whatever conclusions you wish,” Brown said. “We had a co-op in Northampton that voluntarily recognized us. The one in Greenfield and Shelburne Falls voluntarily recognized us. Two electric co-ops in Vermont recognized the union voluntarily.”
The union drive became contentious, and one employee told The Commons that Gyori “implored us to vote no.”
But Gyori said he did not oppose the union's formation.
“I have formed two teachers' unions when I was a teacher,” he said. “One was in Sydney, Australia and the other in Pittsburgh. I'm not anti-union. I come from a union family. My issue is process.”
The union is now negotiating a contract with the co-op.
“We're hoping through this bargaining to develop a very positive relationship to go forward,” Brown said. “We want to see this co-op grow and thrive. Going into the new building and having this campaign might have turned some folks off. We want to turn them on again.”
Howe said the union is in the best interests of the co-op.
“I believe in co-ops,” Howe said. “I value this one greatly as an entity in my community. All the people working on the organizing committee would say they have the best interest of the co-op at heart. This is needed change.”
“What I like most about my job is the people I work with,” he said. “I've made a lot of meaningful connections with many of our customers and shareholders. My family depends on it. We believe in it and we support it.”
As the union drive became contentious, Gyori wrote a letter to the staff warning them about some of the downsides of unionizing. He concluded, “Bottom line... the flexibility that we have been able to use to accommodate and help employees may no longer exist. Think about it.”
“Finally, and most importantly,” Gyori wrote, “when the Union Committee says that we need to 'redeem the principles upon which it [the co-op] was founded,' they are just simply wrong. We have never lost them.”
The store remains a vital part of the Brattleboro economy. Under Gyori's guidance, last year the co-op opened a new, multi-million-dollar, award-winning “green” store, married to affordable apartment housing for low-income tenants created by the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust.
One of downtown's major employers, about 95 full-timers and another 65 part-timers work at the store, bringing the total to about 160. Last year, it made $17 million in sales; Gyori expects to see that gross figure reach $18 million this year, though recently a drop in sales forced management to let 11 employees go. Senior management took a 3-percent pay cut.
But the co-op is at break-even now, and Gyori foresees that it won't be long until the store hits $20 million and starts turning a healthy profit.
And life goes on, at times almost as if a murder had not happened.
Yet two families' lives have been destroyed.
When The Commons asked what, in hindsight, he might have done differently, Gyori was reflective.
“It's a difficult question,” he said. “I don't know. I think, generally, we followed our procedures pretty well. It was tough. I think Michael was pushing Richard to try and improve in certain areas. But that's normal.”
Gyori said he still believes in the fundamental values of the co-op.
“My life value is social justice and doing the right thing for people,” he said. “People can look at me and say, 'Oh, he's an asshole.' Or, 'He doesn't mean that.' But I do mean it.”
Gagnon spends his time in prison reading, writing, replaying the events of 2011 over and over again in his head, and trying to understand what happened to him. And especially to his victim.
“There is no denying the pain I have caused,” Gagnon said.
“For the children and friends of Michael Martin, the pain goes on. It doesn't take a vacation and disappear when the lights go out at night. It's constant, as the knowledge of his loss, the hole left in their lives.
“I wish I could stop time and take it all back and keep everyone safe and free from harm.
“I keep saying it, 'I'm sorry,' over and over again, every day, and still he is dead. It doesn't bring him back. It's too late.”