Man Convicted in Rape, Murder of University of Vermont Coed

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A man who raped and killed a University of Vermont student after a chance meeting in which she asked to borrow his cell phone was convicted Thursday, capping a case whose brutality sent a shudder through Vermont.

After more than six hours of deliberations, jurors found Brian Rooney guilty of aggravated murder in the 2006 slaying of Michelle Gardner-Quinn, 21, of Arlington, Va.

He now faces a mandatory sentence of life without parole.

"I think it's unfortunate that Brian Rooney encountered Michelle that night, but I am grateful that she's the last woman that he will ever harm," said Gail Fendley, 56, of Falls Church, Va., a longtime friend of the victim's family.

Gardner-Quinn, an environmental studies major, had just transferred to UVM when she vanished Oct. 7, 2006.

For six days, police chased leads while investigators and volunteers scoured the leafy, lakeside city of Burlington in a hunt for clues.

Finally, a hiker found her half-dressed body under some leaves and stuffed into a crevice at Huntington Gorge, about 20 miles away in Richmond. She had been sexually assaulted, beaten and strangled.

"This was a violent, random crime," said Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan, whose office prosecuted the case. "It scared a lot of people."

Rooney, a 37-year-old construction worker and father, was charged 12 days later after DNA in semen found on her body matched his DNA, authorities said.

When the jury moderator announced the verdict, Gardner-Quinn's father — sitting in the front row of the gallery — put his hand on his wife's leg, clasped her left hand and pulled it up to his mouth, kissing it.

"Justice works once in a while," said Diane Gardner Quinn, the victim's mother, as she hugged former Burlington police chief Thomas Tremblay, who oversaw the investigation. "Twenty months is a long time."

The trial was moved from Burlington to Rutland — about 70 miles away — amid concerns that intense coverage of the killing would make it impossible for a fair trial in Chittenden County.

In it, witnesses testified that Gardner-Quinn was out with friends on a night when her parents were visiting Burlington for homecoming weekend. She got separated from them just before 2 a.m. and was trying to find friend Dorsey Kilbourn when her cell phone died.

She borrowed Rooney's, and called friend Tommy Lang to ask him to call Kilbourn so they could reunite. Lang called the number back moments later, and Rooney answered.

"He said something to the effect of `I guess you want to speak with this beautiful brunette standing next to me' and I said `Yeah,"' said Lang.

At about 2:35 a.m., the two were seen on a jewelry store surveillance camera walking up Main Street, with nothing apparently amiss.

But Gardner-Quinn was never seen alive after that, and police could find no witnesses, no murder weapon and no trace evidence — other than the DNA — on Rooney's clothing, in the red Jeep he allegedly abducted her in, in the camper he slept in outside his mother's Richmond home or at his work sites.

The absence of such evidence, combined with the Vermont Forensic Laboratory's record of making mistakes and the small semen sample they had to work with, added up to reasonable doubt, defense attorney David Sleigh told jurors in his summation.

"Their entire case is predicated upon two-tenths of a nanogram in a suspect source of DNA," he said.

But prosecutors used the DNA evidence, the jewelry store video, inconsistent statements Rooney made to police and to friends and his own words to persuade jurors he had to be the killer.

"If I did it, I deserve to die," he said to a police officer while in a holding cell after his arrest.

Vermont doesn't have a death penalty.

Rooney looked glum as he was led out of the courtroom, glancing briefly at his mother and stepfather, Patricia and Ron Skinner. They declined comment afterward.

"We're going to have one very brief thing to say at this time, and then we'd like to go away," said John-Charles Quinn, her father, standing outside the courtroom doors with his wife and Yasmine Rassam, Gardner-Quinn's older sister.

Diane Gardner Quinn, wearing a green lapel ribbon in honor of her daughter, said: "Michelle has not been with us for 20 months as a living person. But her living spirit has been with us every day. And her living spirit can be seen in all the good works that are being done in her name."

The prosecutors involved in the case — Deputy Chittenden County State's Attorneys Rosemary Gretkowski and Brooks McArthur, and Assistant Attorney General Matt Levine — were still under a gag order imposed by Judge Michael Kupersmith and would not comment after the verdict, nor would Sleigh.

"Justice served," said Tremblay, who is now the state's commissioner of public safety.