After enrolling in five colleges over the past four years, Michelle Gardner-Quinn had finally found in the University of Vermont a school and community that satisfied both the artistic and outdoorsy sides of her personality.
Though she had only been in Burlington since late-August, the 21-year-old had thrown herself into many facets of campus life. She was active in both the outdoors club and a feminist group; she attended meetings to help promote awareness of global warming; on weekends she visited local art galleries and photography shows.
“She found something to do every night with a different organization,” said Adam Briere, who befriended her during an orientation for transfer students. “She was definitely applying herself and finding lots of people with similar interests.”
Her parents say that they had never seen her in better spirits than when they took her out to dinner in Burlington two Friday nights ago.
“She was delighted to come to University of Vermont,” her mother, Diane Gardner-Quinn, said in a press conference in Burlington last week. “She loved her professors and classes… Everything about her life was happy.”
That dinner was to be the last time her parents would see her alive. Later in the evening Gardner-Quinn, a senior who was majoring in Latin American studies and environmental science, went out to bars in downtown Burlington to celebrate a friend’s 21st birthday. Around 2:15 a.m. she left her group of friends to walk back toward campus, police officials said.
Police believe she stopped to use a man’s cell phone because her phone was not working, after which she never returned to her dormitory.
What followed was a six-day search for Gardner-Quinn that gripped both the Washington region and national media. Dozens of University of Vermont students canvassed Burlington and the surrounding countryside, searching for any signs of the Gardner-Quinn, who graduated from H-B Woodlawn in 2003.
Late last Friday afternoon, police, after being alerted by a resident, found Gardner-Quinn’s body off the side of a rural road 15 miles southeast of Burlington, Burlington Police Chief Thomas Tremblay said in a press conference the next day.
Police are investigating the death as a kidnapping and murder, and have identified Brian Rooney, a 36-year-old construction worker in nearby Richmond, Vt., as a suspect, Tremblay said. Rooney has been identified as the man seen in a video taken from a jewelry store camera speaking with Gardner-Quinn at approximately 2:30 a.m. the night she disappeared.
Police had previously interviewed Rooney, and arrested him on an unrelated charge of sexual assault and lewd and lascivious conduct with a child. He has not been formally charged in Gardner-Quinn’s death.
As of the Connection’s press time, police had not yet released autopsy results, but Tremblay added that “our extensive investigation is still being conducted surrounding Michelle’s disappearance.”
AT THE BEGINNING of the press conference police officials held a moment of silence for Gardner-Quinn.
“We would like to acknowledge that there are times when communities, police departments, the media and specific families are drawn together,” said Lt. Kathleen Stubbing, spokeswoman for the Burlington police. “In this instance, unfortunately, we have come together and witnessed the unfolding of a terrible tragedy.”
Quinn-Gardner’s parents were still in Vermont as the Connection went to press, and through police officials declined an interview request.
“This has been very trying and very painful for all of us in the family,” John-Charles Quinn, Michelle’s father, said in a press conference last week before her body was discovered. “We are holding up as best as we can largely because of the help we are getting” from the Burlington police and University of Vermont students and officials.
Friends contacted over the weekend struggled to come to grips with the untimely and violent death of an athletic, artistic and vivacious young woman.
“We are all devastated and very upset about what happened,” said Rev. Bill Hoffman, pastor at the Church of the Covenant in North Arlington, who baptized Gardner-Quinn and presided over her parents’ wedding.
GARDNER-QUINN and her parents were active members of the church, which held a prayer ceremony attended by more than 300 people last Thursday. Her mother is part of a book study group in the church, located in a leafy neighborhood of North Arlington, and Gardner-Quinn was part of the choir.
Hoffman said he will always remember Gardner-Quinn’s mellifluous voice and her smile, “which would light up the room.”
“It was just wonderful to watch her blossom into a beautiful young women,” he added.
Friends from college and high school posted tributes online to their departed friend, noting her enthusiasm for life and warm personality.
“The laughter and energy you brought into every room that you walked into is something that can never be replaced and that will never be forgotten,” Hannah Byrd, who played with Gardner-Quinn on an Arlington soccer team wrote on Facebook.com, a social-networking Web site.
“I remember staying up late at night and talking in the dark while in bed,” wrote Aarti Mahtani, a former roommate of Gardner-Quinn’s. “All the stories. All the dreams. All the laughing. All the tears. You are the most beautiful soul.”
Gardner-Quinn was known as both an artist and stellar athlete. She played on a decorated travel soccer team, dubbed the Arlington Storm, and was a competitive swimmer, said Frank Haltiwanger, her principal at H-B Woodlawn.
Her love of the outdoors, and desire to ski and snowboard, drew her to the University of Vermont. There she continued to explore photography, which she first became interested in at H-B Woodlawn.
In Burlington she went shopping at camera stores with Briere and encouraged him to take his hobby more seriously. “She was a very artistic and honest person,” Briere added.
Her two great passions, though, were traveling and the environment. Gardner-Quinn studied abroad in Brazil, Costa Rica, where she polished her Spanish and Portuguese, and South Africa.
“She was always at ease in front of people,” said Melissa Elstrom, who studied with Gardner-Quinn in Brazil. “I saw her becoming very influential in the world and making a difference in protecting the environment.”
Gardner-Quinn was an astute writer and was interested in having a career in shaping international environmental policy, Elstrom added.
Students and teachers at H-B Woodlawn held a memorial service for their alumnae Monday morning, which was attended by several students who graduated with Gardner-Quinn and were home on fall break. Tears landed on the cheeks of many students in the room, even though most had never met her, Haltiwanger said.
Those who knew the young woman shared stories, and students placed a “memory table,” with notes and pictures for her family, in the schools hallway.
“People talked about how funny and effervescent she was,” Haltiwanger said. “She was a very welcoming person. But wacky in a fun way.”