No more secrecy

This community protected an alleged sexual abuser — a longtime high school teacher — for decades. As the country grapples with the revelations of #MeToo and searches for answers and accountability in the stories of Larry Nassar, Jeffrey Epstein, and others, it’s time for my hometown to have its own reckoning.

When I was a student at Brattleboro Union High School in the 1980s, Robert (Zeke) Hecker did not sexually abuse me. I have come to feel fortunate.

On several occasions between 1985 and 2018, local agencies and organizations investigated complaints that Hecker engaged in sexual contact with his underage students. None of the investigations were publicized, and I was unaware of the extent of the accusations until the fall of 2018.

I have reviewed the police records, and will share pieces of them here. Some of the claims against Hecker are confirmed in a letter he himself wrote, signed, and mailed.

The evidence seems damning, yet Hecker was protected by supervisors, colleagues, and community members for decades, allowing him ongoing access to minors.

Recently, I learned of people in the community who are still suffering due to the acts of this man and those who enabled him. He is older now, and some of us are getting there, too. But the time has come to wrestle with the culture that permitted this to happen.

It's a culture that blamed Hecker's accusers, rather than holding him accountable. It's a culture that elevated his status and viewed his worth as greater than those with less power or support.

As the country grapples with the revelations of #MeToo and searches for answers and accountability in the stories of Larry Nassar, Jeffrey Epstein, and others, it's time for my hometown to have its own reckoning.

I know many of the people named in this article and in the police account. They were people I looked to as authorities; people I answered to when I was late to class or forgot my homework.

For me, this story is personal, and I couldn't write it any other way.

* * *

When I first encountered Hecker in the fall of 1984, I was 15 and a student at BUHS, but he was not yet my teacher. He invited me to become involved in the production of the school's radio program, Harmony High, for which he was the advisor. A budding writer and activist, I took an interest.

The school's studio above the auditorium was no longer in use; by then, students completed most technical aspects of production off-site, at the local radio station. I count this as my first bit of luck. One survivor claims he abused her in that room.

Due to my involvement in Harmony High, I started hanging around Hecker's classroom after school. Another student about my age was often present. She wasn't part of Harmony High, but she seemed to be a friend of his. I will call her Sally; that is not her real name.

Hecker enjoyed the audience. He raved about literature, with a particular bent: Nabokov's Lolita, Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, and John Donne's sexual themes were of special interest to him.

He was notorious around the school for his presentation of one of Donne's poems. Each time he would teach the piece, which metaphorically navigates a woman's body, he would select a girl from the class to stand. Then he would read the poem aloud, tracing a path along the girl's body with his hand a few inches away.

* * *

That fall, Hecker invited me to go to Boston with him to visit museums. I was a small-town kid from a working-class family, and I begged my mother to let me go. She relented, on one condition: that his wife and his child would go, too.

The day of the trip, his wife and child drove with us, then left us when we reached Boston and went on to other activities. Hecker and I spent the day alone together.

That night, we drove back with his wife and child, but instead of bringing me to my house, they brought me to their own, out in the country.

I sat in their living room with Hecker while his wife put their child to bed. I remember exhaustion at the end of a long day, and uneasiness at being in their home so late.

Perched on the edge of a chair, I chattered about the Egyptian artifacts we had seen. Then Hecker's wife walked into the room, naked. She crossed the room and climbed into a loft in front of us. I do not remember how or when I got home - only my anxiety in that moment.

I stopped hanging around Hecker's classroom when other incidents added to my growing discomfort with him. In moments alone, Sally told me she felt jealous of how Hecker looked at me.

Finally, he gave me a cloying hug I hadn't asked for, and I was done.

* * *

In the spring of 1985, I attended Hecker's English class. The day he presented the Donne poem I slouched in my seat, hoping he would pass over me.

When he chose another girl, a pang of guilt hit me. Her face reddened, and she giggled nervously as dozens of eyes watched him indicate her breasts, her abdomen, and more.

The following summer Sally came to find me where I worked at a store in town. She was tormented, talking wildly about a “taboo” relationship she had entered, one so “taboo” that telling anybody could ruin the other person's life, career, and family.

What should she do? What would I do?

I was 16, embroiled in my own troubles, and I had no answer for her. I watched her walk away, her back to me as she crossed the street, and I was struck with the same guilty feeling I had in the classroom when Hecker chose the other girl to demonstrate Donne's poem.

According to Brattleboro Police Department records, on Aug. 28, 1985, the department received a report about a 16-year-old student who said she “had an affair with one of her teachers at Brattleboro Union High School, by the name of Zeke Hecker.”

When questioned, the student recanted and claimed the story was “just one of her fantasies.” The record states, “This report also lists other students of Hecker's that may have had a sexual relationship with him.”

Hecker continued to teach at BUHS until 2004. After his retirement, he participated in special programs with the school until 2009, including overnight field trips with students.

* * *

In the spring of 2008, Hecker, who is also a composer, worked with Vermont Theatre Company to present a musical play he had written, The Lift. During its debut weekend at the Dummerston Grange, an audience member made an anonymous complaint to director Robert Kramsky, who was teaching at BUHS at the time and had been Hecker's colleague there for decades.

The complainant was disturbed because the play depicted a sex scene in which an older woman seduced a teenage character. In the Rutland Herald on May 8, 2008, Kramsky is quoted as saying, “The age of Felix is unclear, but he could be as young as 15.” The character was played by an 18-year-old high school student from BUHS.

In response to the complaint, Kramsky decided to scrap the play. In an article in the Brattleboro Reformer on May 7, 2008, he called the incident “a big disappointment” and suggested they should have chosen an older actor for the role of the teenager.

In 2009, after community-wide outcry about “censorship” from arts organizations, artists, and others, Hecker and Kramsky reprised The Lift, with an older actor who looked young enough to play the part.

Local newspapers covered the drama.

In an article published in The Commons in the March 2009 issue, Hecker railed against the anonymous complainant, calling them “a coward” and the complaint “idiotic.” A Reformer article on March 11, 2009 stated, “Hecker particularly bristles when he recalls being told that the scene was characterized as a rape. 'That set me off, that idea,' he said. 'That was purely sexual politics.'”

* * *

Police records list the reprise of the play, the Reformer article, and Hecker's comments, taken together, as the reason another complainant gave for coming forward in March 2009.

She claimed Hecker sexually abused her when she was a student at BUHS, starting in 1978 at age 16.

She said some of the abuse occurred at the high school. She presented the BPD with a letter Hecker mailed to her, dated Feb. 7, 1982. It is signed, “love, Zeke.” The BPD logged the letter and its envelope as evidence.

The report quotes the letter:

“If you wish to avenge your injustice and save your younger sisters from my imminent threat a word to the right person would take care of it nicely. According to the law I committed statutory rape, and the statute of limitations hasn't expired on my crime. I also, as [you] point out, violated professional ethics. Within 24 hours I would be suspended, and shortly I would be not only an ex-teacher but a convicted felon as well. The social consequences would be more far reaching than the criminal. People really [hate] us child molesters[...].”

The report continues with more quotes from the letter.“Then there's the subject of my next student lover, and the next and the next,” and “I still have abstract fantasies about women, including schoolgirls (most of the women I see are, after all, schoolgirls)[...].”

* * *

In April 2009, officers met with Windham County State's Attorney Tracy Shriver to review the case. She advised them to “request a subpoena and determine if there were any current victims.” The BPD obtained a subpoena in early May.

They proceeded to interview Hecker's colleagues and and six students he had accompanied on recent field trips.

An officer interviewed Robert Kramsky, describing the witness as “reluctant.”

“Kramsky stated he has known Hecker for approximately 33 years, and during that time heard rumors about possible inappropriate behaviors with younger individuals,” the officer reported.

As a high school teacher in Vermont, Kramsky was a mandated reporter - meaning that he was obligated by law to report suspected abuse. The officer “explained to Kramsky that anything he heard regardless of the validity is [sic] he needs to report it to us and let us [sort] out if it is indeed the truth or not.”

In the interview Kramsky confirmed he also received a copy of Hecker's letter, sent to him anonymously. He said he threw it away. The officer wrote, “Kramsky reiterated he did not know the validity of this letter and was not about to let someone tell him whom he could work with.”

Additionally, Kramsky stated that George Lewis, an English teacher and head of the department at BUHS from 1968 to 1992, “had told him about Hecker and possible inappropriate relationships he (Hecker) had,” the police report says.

An officer also spoke with Bertie Sprague, who taught at BUHS beginning in 1969, became dean of students and assistant principal from 1981 to 1994, and served as principal from 1994 until his retirement in 2002.Most of his statement was vague, though he said he was aware of the 1985 investigation and sat in on the interviews.

He referred to his daughter, a former BUHS student, calling Hecker “a dirty old man.” His daughter told him Hecker “put sexual interpretation into certain passages he taught his students,” yet Sprague never intervened.

The officer then asked Sprague if he was surprised he was being questioned about Hecker.

Sprague answered, “No.”

According to the record, other colleagues “heard rumors,” too, though they claimed never to have witnessed inappropriate contact between Hecker and students. None reported those rumors.

Debra Heller, an English teacher who co-chaperoned a trip to London with Hecker in 1993, said Hecker accompanied a 16-or-17-year-old girl alone on a shopping excursion, during which the girl tried on and modeled clothes for him.

Of the six students they interviewed who attended field trips with Hecker between 2007 and 2009, a few said he was a nice guy, but a few mentioned “weird vibes” and sexual conversations.

Two students who rode in his car to an opera in New York said he talked about bikini waxes, a process by which women remove all or most of their pubic hair, and “his first sexual experience but he was not graphic.”

The investigation didn't reveal anybody who was legally victimized after 1990 - the statute of limitations at the time - so the case was closed.

When I spoke with Steve Perrin, current principal of BUHS and former colleague of Hecker, he refused to tell me whether Hecker is currently allowed to participate in school programs. He said he would not comment on “a private citizen.”

When pressed, Lyle Holiday, then the superintendent of the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union (WSESU), confirmed that after the investigation in 2009, the district “determined we would prefer not to have Mr. Hecker working with any of our students.” He has not been permitted to participate in school programs since that time.

* * *

BUHS is not the only organization that failed to act in a timely manner to protect kids from Hecker.

Despite being aware of the claims against him beginning in 2009, when Hecker was banned from WSESU schools, Brattleboro Music Center continued to include Hecker in Windham Orchestra until 2018.

“Educating local school children” is number three on the orchestra's list of its “four important roles in the musical community.”

BMC also collaborates with regional public schools on a “Music in the Schools” program. Though Hecker did not participate directly in the program (he was not allowed in WSESU schools), his presence in the orchestra gave him access to minors.

Between 2009 and 2018, Windham Orchestra frequently presented collaborative performances with BMC's youth programs, including Music in the Schools, and the winners of the Concerto Competition for young musicians perform with the orchestra every year. The competition is open to students in grades 9-12.

One community member repeatedly sent BMC notification of the allegations against Hecker and requested that they remove him from programming involving minors. BMC refused to do so.

An email sent by Executive Director Mary Greene and dated Feb. 8, 2018 assured the community member that Hecker was not participating in BMC programs at the schools.

But Greene also clarified that “in fact Mr. Hecker has been a member of the orchestra without break over the past several years. Our policies, including our Abuse and Harassment Prevention policy, and our practices prioritize safety not only of children but all employees and participants in BMC programs.”

BMC finally removed Hecker from the orchestra in 2018, after the community member informed the WSESU school board of his ongoing involvement.

That was nine years after BMC was initially notified of the claims against him.

BMC has not been transparent about its choices. I spoke with Greene on Sept. 5, 2019, and asked about Hecker's relationship with BMC.

She said, “he is not affiliated with Brattleboro Music Center.”

When I asked about BMC's past relationship with Hecker, the organization's awareness of the allegations and investigations, or any actions it had taken in response, she threatened to hang up on me.

BMC's lawyer emailed the next day, but he, too, refused to answer any questions. He cited the same Abuse and Harassment Prevention policy. The policy, dated May 23, 2017, prohibits sexual abuse and includes a “Code of Conduct” for staff, faculty, and volunteers to sign. It can be viewed on BMC's website.

The question is whether a signed statement is adequate protection for children in contact with Hecker.

In April of 2020, the Windham Orchestra severed ties with BMC and renamed itself Windham Philharmonic. The organization brought Musical Director Hugh Keelan, with them.

Hecker's wife, Linda, is president of the board. In response to my inquiry, the board informed me that Zeke Hecker is not a member of Windham Philharmonic. Nevertheless, he was seated in the woodwind section for their first in-person rehearsal in July of 2021.

* * *

According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), the average age at which survivors of sexual abuse come forward is 52. For this reason, it has been rare for charges to be brought against perpetrators; most states' statutes of limitations simply did not allow it.

In 2019, two new Vermont laws addressed this problem.

The first law removed the statute of limitations for victims of childhood sexual abuse who wish to bring civil suits against their abusers and/or the organizations that failed to protect them. Organizations can be held accountable if there is “a finding of gross negligence.”

A second law removed the statute of limitations for criminal suits involving sexual exploitation of a minor.

Whether or not anybody brings charges against Hecker, BUHS, BMC, or any others, my hope is that the community will begin a conversation about why these organizations and individuals focused more on protecting an alleged sexual predator than they did on protecting kids.

To examine the feelings I carried for more than 30 years, I've tried to travel back in time to 2018, before I knew all this, when my understanding of the events of 1984 and 1985 was limited by lack of context.

But the watershed of these past few years has tainted everything. Tainted, yet clarified.

It has been a time of disillusionment and disappointment as I realized how many prioritized their loyalty to this man over the safety of the young people in their care, including me. People I viewed as elders and mentors have fallen from grace in my eyes.

But through writing this, I identified one of the emotions I carried: guilt. Somehow, I believed that by taking myself to safety I left Sally vulnerable. Maybe if I had continued spending time in Hecker's classroom, he wouldn't have hurt her.

Of course, in my adult mind I know the harm was caused by one person: Hecker.

The ones who left her vulnerable were the adults who knew or suspected but said nothing.

Writing this is my means to make amends. As a teenager I couldn't keep Sally safe, but now, I am the elder.

And I say: No more.

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