The violent death of Leah Rosin-Pritchard, 36, on April 3 has stunned a community that is no stranger to grief in recent months. Pritchard, the coordinator of Morningside House, shown here in a photo submitted to Tulane University School of Social Work for a website honoring her and other graduates of her master’s degree program there.
The violent death of Leah Rosin-Pritchard, 36, on April 3 has stunned a community that is no stranger to grief in recent months. Pritchard, the coordinator of Morningside House, shown here in a photo submitted to Tulane University School of Social Work for a website honoring her and other graduates of her master’s degree program there.

Shelter manager’s violent death leaves a community stunned

Peers in shock and grief describe Leah Rosin-Pritchard, coordinator of Morningside House, as ‘irreplaceable,’ as her assailant, a client, is held without bail on a charge of first degree murder

BRATTLEBORO — A resident of Morningside House shelter was held without bail after pleading not guilty to a first-degree murder charge in the gruesome April 3 death of the facility's coordinator, Leah Rosin-Pritchard.

Zaaina Asra Zakirrah Mahvish-Jammeh, 38, was ordered Tuesday to receive a mental health evaluation.

Prosecutors allege that she bought a hunting hatchet during the weekend and used it to take the life of Rosin-Pritchard, 36.

“She is a danger to others and potentially to herself,” Judge Katherine Hayes said of the defendant at a Windham District Court arraignment.

Authorities initially deemed the homicide case as second-degree - intentional but unplanned - but upped the severity of the charge just before the hearing.

“Police investigated throughout the day and into the night,” said Windham County State's Attorney Tracy Shriver. “As more facts were developed, I made the decision that first-degree murder was a more appropriate charge.”

The penalty for the charge is described in Tuesday's court filing as “imprisoned for life and for a presumptive minimum term of 35 years or life without the possibility of parole.”

According to an affidavit by Brattleboro Police Detective Sergeant Greg Eaton, the department received a call Monday morning about an assault in progress at the 30-bed Royal Road shelter, a short walk from downtown.

Staffers said they had heard screaming before seeing Mahvish-Jammeh attack Rosin-Pritchard.

Authorities said they found Rosin-Pritchard dead on the kitchen floor from injuries to her face, neck, and torso. They discovered Mahvish-Jammeh in the nearby living room, “wiping blood off of her hands with a paper towel,” according to the affidavit.

Reviewing surveillance video, police said they saw Mahvish-Jammeh addressing the social worker while swinging a small ax that authorities learned had been purchased from a local hardware store on April 1.

“The short conversation they had was very muffled and hard to hear,” Eaton wrote in the affidavit, “but it was clear there was no argument before I could hear thudding and the screaming.”

Emergency medical responders pronounced the social worker dead at the scene.

Local authorities and Vermont State Police's Crime Scene Search Team worked earlier Monday alongside Peter Elwell, a former Brattleboro town manager turned interim deputy executive director of the shelter's operator, Groundworks Collaborative.

Social work 'a second career'

Rosin-Pritchard lived most recently in Westminster West, where she and Alexander Margolies purchased a home in 2022, the town's property records show.

According to Rosin-Pritchard's public-facing LinkedIn profile, she has worked for Groundworks for one year, seven months. For the first year, she worked as the agency's sole housing case manager, and she has coordinated the Morningside shelter since October 2022.

Social work was a second career for Rosin-Pritchard, who described herself as a “former baker, coach, and entrepreneur.”

With a bachelor's degree in social work from Rhode Island College, she was a graduate of Tulane University School of Social Work's Master of Social Work program, earning a degree in 2020 with a focus on disaster and collective trauma.

While there she worked with youth in a training program in culinary arts, connecting young clients with “food benefits, health insurance, primary care, child care, and transportation, as well as involvement and support in day to day classroom setting.”

“Leah Rosin-Pritchard is irreplaceable,” Groundworks Communication Director Libby Bennett said in a news release.

Bennett described Rosin-Pritchard as “a wonderfully strong, positive, beautiful, and compassionate person who gave generously of her spirit and skills in support of all Morningside House residents and her professional colleagues.”

“There are no words to express the depth of loss felt by her Groundworks teammates and our hearts go out to her family and friends,” she said.

Bennett added that “we can unequivocally say that Groundworks will not be the same without Leah. Our staff and our program participants are grieving. We are, at the same time, personally and organizationally impacted, and we are focused on supporting each other while continuing to provide food, shelter, and supportive services to people who need us.”

A difficult balance

“There's a wish we have when the unthinkable and tragic happens like this, to find a simple answer,” said Kurt White, the Brattleboro Retreat's vice-president of outpatient programs. “But this is not really that kind of thing. These are complicated and complex problems, and there are not simple answers.”

White said that he and Groundworks Executive Director Josh Davis began talking as far back as 2014 about how to address the mental health needs of people using the shelter system in Brattleboro.

“We weren't sure what it would look like, and the idea evolved over time,” said White, a clinical social worker who has worked at the Retreat for over 17 years.

The idea was to pool the resources of the Retreat, Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, Health Care & Rehabilitative Services (HCRS), and Groundworks to to provide easy access to services for a variety of reasons - homelessness, lack of primary medical care, mental health issues, substance use problems - and acknowledged the fact that many people would be dealing with several of these issues at the same time.

“Things are actually getting more serious,” White said. “With mental health, physical health problems, substance abuse, domestic violence, and other factors, there are always a variety of complex issues.'

The program evolved into Healthworks, an active partnership of all four agencies.

“Healthworks is about a year old, and it's a community partnership meant to support people with unstable housing, serious mental illness, and perhaps physical issues as well,” said Dr. Karl Jeffries, Chief Medical Officer at the Retreat. “It is a program to coordinate our work with people who use a lot of our resources. It's a form of assertive community therapy, that is, going out and working with people in the community who need these services instead of waiting for them to come to us.

White said the four agencies wanted to coordinate their efforts to a greater degree, “so we formed an LLC to formally work together. That enabled us to apply for and get grants and other funding.”

“That all has fallen together in just the last few months,” he continued. “This is a very intensive level of services, All the agencies are involved with this at a very high level.”

That includes regular meetings with staff at all levels, including administrative, White said. “We want to meet the unmet needs of people in our community with high needs, including homelessness.”

Regarding the urge to blame this event on mental health problems, White had some interesting thoughts.

“We can't make sense of actions like this, especially at first. Yet we rarely find any kind of simple answer,” he said. “There are multiple and complicated causes of homelessness in our community.”

Jeffries agreed.

“The largest majority of those with mental illness are not violent. Research has shown that the largest percentage of violence is from people who are not dealing with mental health issues,” he said. “It's certainly a misconception in the community that the two are linked. That contributes to the stigma that people faced with mental health issues have to deal with every day.”

Selectboard chair thanks multiple agencies

Rosin-Pritchard's death is the fourth killing in Brattleboro in the past year, following a July 2022 shooting on Elliot Street, an August 2022 killing on Putney Road, and a March 30 homicide on Birge Street [story, this issue] remains under investigation.

Brattleboro Selectboard Chair Ian Goodnow devoted his chair's remarks at the April 4 meeting to the two recent deaths.

He called the aftermath of those killings “a very traumatic experience for many people in our community, your neighbors, staff at local nonprofits, town staff - including our police and fire officers - and specifically truly tragic for those people and families directly involved.”

He expressed his hope “that we can keep working together with resilience and continuing in continuous improvement for a future where these types of deaths no longer happening in our community.”

The chair acknowledged the Vermont State Police and Major Crimes Unit and the Vermont State Police Police Crime Scene Search Team, calling their assistance on both crimes “invaluable.”

He thanked the town police officers and detectives, evidence technician, and a social worker who “responded to a difficult incident yesterday, helping both the staff and residents of this facility as they worked through this immense tragedy.”

“I just want to thank them for their compassion and support that they have shown for all the individuals involved in both of these traumatic events that have occurred in the last week,” Goodnow said.

A neighbor's view

For approximately 35 years, Carol Aydelotte has lived in Morningside Commons, a condominium complex, also on Royal Road.

“Everyone up here is shocked,” she said.

Aydelotte said that over the years, though not much recently, she has interacted with the shelter as a neighbor, an ally, and a donor of goods and services.

As a restaurant owner in town, she has hired residents of the shelter - like one young man who “turned out to be one of the best workers,” she said. And as the executive chef at Landmark College in Putney, she has connected the college with the nonprofit and helped organize meals to benefit the shelter. She's donated furniture.

“Everybody over there has always been kind and respectful, and I've never had an issue as long as I've been here,” she said.

From the moment that Brattleboro Police burst from their headquarters onto Putney Road, Facebook was lighting up with questions, conjectures, rumors, and opinions - lots of opinions.

“I knew because I read stuff on social media and as soon as something happens, people start hatemongering and bashing,” Aydelotte said.

“Everything's drugs,” she said of the online theories.

“And, you know, it just makes me mad, because I feel like everybody deserves a second chance, and that's what they're trying to do [at Morningside House],” she continued.

She fears that a tragic incident like this one could cause irreparable harm to Groundworks.

“And then, what do these people have?” she asked.

“There's not one perfect person in this world, and it's one thing I hate about social media. I mean, you connect to a lot of people and find old friends,” she said. “But there's a really, really ugly side to it.”

Shelter residents were relocated as neighbors from the 166-unit Morningside Commons condominium community looked on.

In the meantime, Groundworks is working closely with Brattleboro Police and Vermont State Police on the ongoing investigation.

“When tragedy strikes, it often takes time to learn and evaluate the facts,” Bennett said in the agency's news release.

“We ask that during this process, we all refrain from making assumptions about these events and this tragic and heartbreaking loss of life.”

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