By Tris Wykes
WHITE RIVER JUNCTION – Paul Farnsworth was driving near the Windsor County Courthouse with his 14-year old nephew, Aidan, during the early evening of Aug. 1. The pair were searching for the boy’s older brother, 21-year old Gavin Farnsworth, who hadn’t been seen or heard from since that morning.
Paul Farnsworth spotted a police vehicle heading towards the river and his stomach turned tight. He followed the SUV across the Hartford Avenue bridge and when it turned left on Maple Street, he sensed its destination.
The officers parked at his sister’s house near the intersection of Maple and Cascadnac Streets, down the hill from Hartford High and the neighboring Middle School. They met Danielle Farnsworth at her door and confirmed she was Gavin’s mother, then expressed their condolences on his death at 1:52 p.m.
“He was found today with a bullet hole in his head,” one officer said.
Danielle Farnsworth cried the word “No” repeatedly. She remembers a horrible numbness spreading throughout her body. Recalling the moment while sitting at a park picnic table last month, her voice broke and tears crept onto her cheeks. The medical examiner had recently ruled her son’s death a suicide.
“My whole world is shattered,” Danielle Farnsworth said.
Not quite three years prior, Gavin Farnsworth’s life reached an apparent peak. For a boy obsessed with sports and football in particular, quarterbacking the Hartford High Hurricanes to the 2016 Vermont Division I title was about as good as it got.
Farnsworth suffered torn knee cartilage in the playoffs but returned for the championship clash with St. Johnsbury. He led a 17-play, six-minute drive late in the first half, hurling a touchdown pass 12 seconds before intermission.
A team featuring 16 seniors captured Hartford’s first football crown since 2012 and a photo of Gavin and two teammates hoisting the championship plaque hung in his room at his uncle’s house.
“Growing up, he was the most athletic and the most skilled,” said Dylan Spencer, a University of Vermont civil engineering student and a classmate of Farnsworth beginning in preschool. “It wasn’t until middle school that he realized he had to put work in. But he always had that confidence that he was the best.”
Gavin Farnsworth also played basketball and once hit a winning shot as time expired, his Hurricanes teammates swarming him on the court. His swagger was muted in that sport, however, and he gave up baseball after his freshman year despite having been part of a dynamic Hartford youth baseball group that reached the New England finals as 12-year olds.
Farnsworth’s life after high school was sometimes emotionally uncomfortable, but it seemed he was grinding through a stage that’s often difficult for young men.
“He never thought he’d be living at his mom’s house and sharing a bedroom with his brother when he was 21,” Danielle Farnsworth said. “He didn’t know where he belonged in the world and I’d be like ‘Baby, it’s ok. I know it’s not ideal, but this too, shall pass.’”
Some of the turbulence in Gavin Farnsworth’s life seemed linked to generational struggle. Danielle said she and her two siblings witnessed her mother, Deb, struggle while they grew up.
“We dealt with her going through a lot of abuse when we were little kids,” Danielle Farnsworth said. “Not being able to protect the one who nurtures and loves and takes care of you, it took a toll on us.”
By 15, Danielle was in regular trouble and was sent to a youth offenders’ home in Bennington after she stole a car.
“I was wild,” she said. “I got put into foster care. My life was shit.”
It took a turn for the dramatic when she and a friend walked away from the Bennington facility in the middle of a winter night. They hitchhiked to Yonkers, N.Y., a city of roughly 200,000 only two miles north of Manhattan, where the other girl got into a hollering match with some men on the street.
“I was petrified with my head down and was hoping that we didn’t die,” Danielle Farnsworth said. Nonetheless, the girls rode in the hecklers’ car to a local park.
Not long after, a man nicknamed “Gotti” tapped her on the shoulder and asked if she wanted to ride in his car while he went to buy cigarettes. Farnsworth accepted, telling him she was 18. She thought he appeared about 20, although he was a 23-year old Egyptian named Ahmed who had dropped out of college and overstayed his student visa.
Danielle stayed with Gotti for about a month. Halfway through, she called home for the first time, telling her great grandmother she was unharmed and that she’d ring back later. When she didn’t, a search began and word reached Gotti, who confronted his new girlfriend in a warehouse where he worked sorting clothes.
“He frantically woke me up from a nap and said I’d better tell him how old I really was and where I was from,” Danielle Farnsworth said. “He hid me out for a couple of days after that by dressing me as a guy.”
Danielle soon overhead Gotti talking on the phone to a friend who warned him he was headed for jail if caught with a 15-year old girl. She decided to head home.
“I didn’t want him to get in trouble for being a decent, sweet guy,” she said, recalling how Gotti once took her picnicking atop a giant rock in a park. “He could have raped and killed me, but he fed and sheltered me. If I’d told him the truth, he wouldn’t have been with me.”
Deb Farnsworth and her boyfriend picked Danielle up at the Yonkers Raceway harness racing track. She was only home a few days before Vermont authorities shipped her to the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Essex. It was during a 10-day stay there that Danielle was given a pregnancy test that came back positive.
Back in the Upper Valley, Danielle continued her Hartford High studies with a tutor, worked off community service hours at the Listen Center and endured stress regarding her pregnancy. The situation wasn’t eased when Gotti at first denied paternity, then lobbied for a test to prove it.
Deb Farnsworth pleaded for her daughter to get an abortion, arguing that Danielle was too young to raise a child. Her brother pointed out that her promising basketball career would likely end. Once the teenager saw her child’s ultrasound image, however, she knew she would give birth.
“Everybody was disappointed in me,” Danielle Farnsworth said. “But I saw him and he wasn’t a little sprout or a peanut. He had arms and legs and I wasn’t killing my baby.”
Gavin Farnsworth was born on Oct. 4, 1998.
Danielle was living in a White River Junction apartment with her mother and Gavin was about three months old when Gotti saw his son for the first and only time. It was January, 1999, and the parents got into a phone argument about the father’s absence. When the phone rang a few nights later and Danielle saw the caller ID reflected the name of an upstairs neighbor, she answered.
It was Gotti, surprising her with a visit. He stayed for less than a week and there was no talk of paternity tests. The new dad was happy and smiling and teased Danielle about the American ring to their baby’s name. The trio went to Kmart for a professional photo portrait. It’s one of only a handful of pictures Danielle has of them together.
Gotti called again late in 1999. He was being deported to Egypt for lack of a green card. He begged Danielle and Gavin to come with him, but she refused.
“I said ‘I’m 16. I have a baby. I can’t move to the other side of the world with you,’” Danielle said. “He was really heartbroken.”
Danielle Farnsworth moved to Northfield, Vt., when her son was about 5 and she gave birth to Aidan three years later. She felt she needed to grow up and manage bills and other responsibilities and that allowing Gavin to stay with his grandmother would be best. He visited his mother on weekends.
“He had two different worlds and it was perfect, because he had sports and the town pool (in White River Junction), and up in Northfield we had country living with hiking and fishing and canoeing and shooting guns,” Danielle said.
“But there are a lot of things I missed and that I regret. I’m embarrassed and ashamed I wasn’t around.”
Gavin grew up with a pack of friends formed at White River Elementary School, many of whom lived in neighborhoods between the McDonald’s on Route 5 and Fairview Terrace. Whether during video games or pickup basketball, you knew you’d hear trash talk and jokes from the class clown with distinctive eyes.
A photo on a friend’s social media page shows Gavin wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a panda bear vomiting a rainbow. His hairstyles sometimes drew sideways glances and he liked to wear cool sunglasses and unique socks.
“No moment was too serious for him, but his teachers loved him,” said Spencer, a more reserved character who credits his friend for helping him develop socially. “They knew he was a showman who might act up, but that it came from a good place.”
Despite his desire for attention, Farnsworth could be hard to truly know, said Hartford classmate Lyndsie Rice. A soccer standout whose parents required Gavin to earn good grades if he was to date their daughter, she’s now a student at Virginia Tech.
“He was an extremely free-spirited, adventurous guy who had so much love to give, but didn’t always know how to express it,” Rice wrote in an email. “I don’t think it was easy for him to let people into his heart and his mind. Because of that, a lot of people didn’t truly understand him.”
Hartford High athletic director Jeff Moreno recalled kayaking on the White River in West Hartford a year or two ago and coming upon Farnsworth sitting alone on a rock formation in the middle of the current. He was struck by the young man’s obvious enjoyment of nature and his ease in its midst.
“He was just a beautiful soul,” Moreno said. “It wasn’t like he was there regarding the river, but more like the river was regarding him.”
Gavin Farnsworth spent part of his childhood living with his uncle, who helped coach him in football, basketball and baseball through middle school. They hiked and fished and swam together and Paul got him a job washing dishes and busing tables at the Hanover restaurant where he was a bartender. They moved frequently, however, and Danielle said that if not for his friends and sports, he might have gone down the same path she once followed.
The youngster was tight with classmates and football teammates Brett MacLaren, Bailey Nott and Bryan Moran. However, his uncle said the sport also indirectly introduced him to marijuana use during their freshman year.
“He said the seniors would smoke it after practice and they got him into it,” Paul Farnsworth said, adding that he also uses the drug and discussed the activity with Gavin in recent years. “He told me it helps your muscles relax and heal so you don’t have to take Advil.”
Danielle Farnsworth said she didn’t discourage her son’s smoking, but that she also counseled him to be measured and subtle about it. Her brother said Gavin had mostly ended his marijuana and alcohol use in recent months. However, he’d also bought a 9 millimeter semi-automatic pistol, the change in his consumption habits and the gun purchase tied to thoughts of joining the National Guard.
“He’d had it for a couple of weeks and in (mid-July) I asked him if he’d shot it and he said no,” Paul Farnsworth said. “He would take it apart and put it back together. Not that I wanted him to carry a gun, but I wasn’t concerned.”
Danielle Farnsworth said her son obtained the gun legally, passing a background check to do so.
“As a mom, I didn’t like it at all,” she said, adding that she ordered Gavin not to bring the firearm inside her house, where he’d returned to live in early summer. “But I knew he’d been around guns and he seemed to be smart with it and his state of mind and behavior were fine.”
That’s what puzzles Gavin’s family and friends – that he displayed no overt emotional distress or instability. After his 2017 high school graduation he lived with a friend in California for eight months and worked installing window blinds and as a process server.
Back home the last two years, he labored in landscaping and most recently for Hartland stone mason Randy Shambo, Jr. Farnsworth helped the company build a pair of brick columns as part of an entry arch to the football field on which he once starred.
Shambo requires nonstop toil in a physically-demanding trade. He recalls Gavin Farnsworth as the “first in the shop in the morning and the last to leave at night” and lauded his work ethic.
Gavin had groused to his mother that he wasn’t being paid enough, but Shambo had quietly rewarded him with a $3-per-hour raise. By the time it was reflected in a paycheck, however, his employee was dead.
Danielle and Gavin Farnsworth ate dinner together at her house the night before his death. They lingered for more than two hours, discussing many topics, including his father, with whom Danielle has not had contact since that last phone call in 1999.
“Do you think there’s any way we can find him?” Gavin asked.
“It’s a big country and I don’t know where he’s living but we can try,” his mother replied.
Danielle last saw her son around 7:30 a.m. the next day. He gave her a hug and kiss and said he was going to a massage therapy appointment later in the morning. He’d told Aidan the night before that if the younger boy wasn’t doing anything the next afternoon, they’d go hiking together. Gavin departed wearing flip-flop sandals and with his year-old dog, Omen, in tow.
The 22-pound canine, light brown with a tightly-curled tail, is a miniature Malamute and Alaskan Klee Kai mix. Cute, smart and sassy, he was doted upon by Gavin, who referred to the dog as the best purchase he’d ever made.
Gavin called his mother’s phone at 11:08 a.m. She was in the shower and texted back when she emerged. Around noon, Danielle drove to Ratcliffe Park and other spots where Gavin often exercised Omen. She then texted him that she, Aidan, her boyfriend and her boyfriend’s 10-year old daughter were headed to Mascoma Lake. Let us know you’re ok, she typed around 1 p.m.
When they arrived at the lake with no reply, Danielle’s anxiety rose. They left without leaving the car and returned to drive around White River Junction and Wilder and Hartford with no success. The police arrived at 6 p.m. with terrible news.
Paul Farnsworth said his family was told two homeless people came across Gavin’s body around 11:30 a.m. and noticed the end loop in Omen’s leash was around one of the young man’s ankles.
The passers-by at first thought Farnsworth was sleeping under a large pine tree at the north end of the Mount Olivet Cemetery, adjacent to Route 5 and not far from Hartford High. Upon seeing a pistol at the scene, however, the pair started went for help.
There have been countless questions and few answers ever since.
Deb Farnsworth can’t stop crying. Danielle Farnsworth wonders how a person who seemed so strong could reach a point of such despair. Paul Farnsworth said his nephew once removed the ammunition clip from his pistol without realizing that one bullet remained in the firing chamber.
“We really thought it was some kind of accident like that,” said Danielle Farnsworth, adding that a postmortem blood test showed trace amounts of cannabis and the hallucinogenic drug LSD in her son’s blood. “Come to find out, it was a close-contact wound and he shot himself in the right temple and (the bullet) exited on the left side.”
Spencer said that for all of Gavin’s exuberance, his longtime friend kept “personal demons” inside, among them not knowing his father.
“He had some abandonment issues and felt he missed out,” Spencer said, recalling his friend saying how lucky Spencer was that his parents both watched his sports games.
Gavin was also bothered by the recent dissolution of some friendships, Spencer said. Many of their peers were more than halfway done with college or establishing careers and some had entered into serious romantic relationships. That was something Gavin didn’t have at the moment, but it hadn’t seemed to bother him. His looks and personalty never left him absent female company if desired.
“He was basically my brother for more than 10 years and he never gave me the impression he’d quit on something,” Spencer said. “It’s hard for me to accept that this was the decision he made.”
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