Everything is averages and odds. What are the odds of a person known to neighbors as “murder boy” being the last person known to have seen the victims of two murders, set years and miles apart, alive, yet to have played no role? What do the averages say about a claim of innocence made by a person known to neighbors as “murder boy” based on the following sentiment: Who kills the mother and grandfather they are supposed to love?
The Last Trip of the Chicken Pox
Those fixated on death are often drawn to the ocean. It’s the enormity of the water, the sea swell and hermit crab, the washed-up equipment of shipwrecked sailors. It’s the current, which carries away evidence and feeds bodies back to the eco-system. It’s the jurisdiction, which belongs to no known agency. It’s the blank page that appears with each new tide.
Nathan Carman was 22 years old on September 16, 2016, when he took his mother, Linda Chakalos Carman, on his 31-foot fishing boat, the Chicken Pox, for what was to be an overnight trip off Block Island—188 miles off the coast of New York City—surrounded by waters known to team with fluke, sea bass, and mahi-mahi.
People remember seeing the Chicken Pox leaving Ram Point Marina, in South Kingstown, Rhode Island, after 11 p.m. They remember the boat’s red and green side lights. They remember dead-eyed, emotionless Nathan in the pilothouse. People who know Nathan describe him as strange and sad, the sadness of those who have no way of getting or even knowing what they want.
To Linda, the trip was a chance to mend fences with her angry, wayward, unpredictable son. He’d been diagnosed with Asperger’s, but what he’d been suffering from and medicated for was closer to psychosis. There is no good name for it, but the doctors see it again and again in young patients. An eerie remove from others. It’s as if, after years of pharmaceuticals and screens, a fractional segment of the population has matured without empathy, or recognition of the reality of anyone other than themselves.
It had been warm in the afternoon, but the temperature had dropped to the low 50s after sundown, the first hint of autumn, the chill of fallen leaves, bonfires, the pain of the coming winter. A harbormaster remembers watching Nathan move the Chicken Pox through the shipping channel toward the ocean. When next seen, eight days later, Nathan was alone on a raft 100 miles off Martha’s Vineyard. What happened between exit and discovery is a question that will be contested in a federal court in Rutland, Vermont, this fall, when Nathan Carman stands trial for murder. He pleaded not guilty.
If Linda Chakalos Carman was rich, it was due to the work of one man, her father.
John Chakalos, who had four children including Linda, made his fortune as a contractor, a builder most lucratively of nursing homes. In other words, from the start, the story of this family, which is a story of trust accounts and inheritance, was wrapped up with the end times, decline and death.
He’d been diagnosed with Asperger’s, but what he’d been suffering from and medicated for was closer to psychosis.
John Chakalos was bald on top with white hair on the sides, his sunburned neck scored by lines, his eyes murky and brown, his nose spread out like the root of an old beech tree. He lived his entire life in East Windsor, Connecticut. Short and tough, he was the sort of man not averse to sharing his thoughts on the value of hard work and the mechanics of the American Dream. If you want it, work for it. If you don’t earn it, you’ll never appreciate it. That was John Chakalos.
East Windsor, a mill town built around the tumbling falls of the Connecticut River, boomed then faded. Antique shops and nursing homes predominate in such places, detritus of a lost golden age, old people and old things. John Chakalos graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in nearby Middletown in 1944, then went to the war. He fought in the Philippines in 1945, then returned to Connecticut, flags and parades, the economic burst that followed the victory. He married his high-school sweetheart, Rita Baranowski, in a Greek Orthodox ceremony, then settled into a lifelong routine of toil, marriage, and accumulation; his estate was valued at $40 million when he died, in 2013. He said he worked hard for a single reason: his family. He even had a motto: “Without family, you’ve got nothing.” Little-known fact: with family, you can have nothing, too.
Like Tevye the Dairyman, John Chakalos was blessed with daughters—all girls, no boys. First came John and Rita’s oldest child, Elaine. Then came Linda, Charlene, Valerie. The family lived in a plain little house in East Windsor. Because they loved it, John and Rita stayed in that house long after they’d become millionaires. Other than the occasional indulgence, such as the vacation home John purchased in West Chesterfield, New Hampshire, the old man was tightfisted with his fortune, socking most of it in accounts and trusts where it could be used in the way of marionette strings to control his daughters, sons-in-law, grandchildren. Perhaps that’s why most of his kids settled close to East Windsor, close to the house, the hive with its honeybee.
Being a daughter of Old John Chakalos, which meant nothing in the rest of America, made you kind of aristocratic in central Connecticut, a member of one of Hartford County’s first families, a Kennedy of the sprawl between New York and Boston. Old John was charitable and beloved in town. He covered his house with Christmas lights every December, a florid display that became a local landmark. Christmas wasn’t Christmas in East Windsor without a visit to the Chakalos lights.
The second child, Linda, was the runaway train of the family. While the other sisters buckled down to the serious business of marriage and children, Linda went off on a spree, drinking and partying away her 20s before washing up in California, where she married Earle Clark Carman.
Nathan was born in 1996. Old John, who’d been estranged from Linda, reached out when he got the news. As the oldest grandson, Nathan was a likely heir to the throne. With use of those invisible strings, Old John then walked Linda, Clark, and Nathan back to Hartford County, where he’d promised—a promise he seemingly never intended to keep—to buy them a Dunkin’ Donuts to run. Old John never really cared about Linda’s financial stability. His aim was old-school biblical: mentor his grandson and successor, Nathan.
Boo Radley, Staring from the Shadows
Nathan Carman was not an easy child. Something in him was off from the start. It was the deadness in the eyes, the lack of emotion or concern for anything and anyone but himself. He was untethered, a sad little boy adrift in a landscape of cracked sidewalks and weed-choked yards. He was diagnosed with Asperger’s, but it was more. Doctors who examined Nathan over the years said he was not psychotic or schizophrenic, but doctors can’t peg what they don’t understand. 2006. 2007. 2008. It was a new age characterized by new tech and new media and a cold new kind of childhood.
The older he got, the worse he behaved. Teachers could not handle him. He had tantrums, overturned tables, screamed at classmates. Outbursts that bothered adults when he was small scared them when he got big. He was a spooky, terrifying figure in his neighborhood. The greasy hair and dead eyes, the wisps of facial hair. He was Boo Radley, staring from the shadows, driven by a music—organ music—only he could hear. He handed out baggies of fish guts at Halloween.
He wore galoshes when the sun shined and bulky winter coats in the summer. His soul did not fit his body. The result was a pain nothing could alleviate. His discomfort made everyone else uncomfortable, too. This is when kids on the street starting calling him “murder boy.” Everyone knew it was just a matter of time. Everyone was waiting to see what form the disaster would take.
Nathan was especially tough on his mother. He spoke little, but when he did, it was often to curse and threaten Linda Chakalos. He called her names, especially after his parents divorced and his father returned to California. Old John blamed Linda for whatever problems she had with his grandson. He was spirited, and she did not know how to handle him. He was smart, and she did not know how to challenge him.
Old John set aside money each month for Linda and Nathan, but Linda usually blew through it before a week was out. She’d developed a fondness for gambling, and followed wherever it led. If the house was empty when Nathan got home, it often meant his mother was at the Mohegan Sun casino. If she was gone for the weekend, she was probably in Atlantic City.
Everyone knew it was just a matter of time. Everyone was waiting to see what form the disaster would take.
Nathan’s behavior deteriorated. He communicated only when absolutely necessary, and then in writing. He ran away again and again. He’d board a bus, vanish, then turn up days or weeks later at a police station in a strange town. He’d been spotted on the street, or sleeping in a stranger’s yard.
Because Nathan refused to live with Linda and because he was a minor and kept running away, a compromise was reached. Linda leased an R.V. and parked it in the driveway. This would be Nathan’s home. Humming beneath the trees, connected to the house by power cable and water line, this R.V. is a perfect symbol of a creature who is alone but still dependent.
Old John was furious. Look what you’re doing to the boy! There were fights. Some became physical. The police were called on several occasions, cop lights flashing in front of the Carman house.
Old John felt a special kinship with his grandson. Though they were decades apart in age, and though their childhoods could not have been more different, there was a commonality between the boy and the man. John could talk to Nathan because he understood Nathan, because he’d suffered the same sort of detachment as a kid, an unease that he cured from himself with military service and hard work. Old John believed it was not medication his grandson needed, nor counseling. It was engagement, contact with the physical, the reality of the world outside his head. That’s probably why John bought Nathan the horse, an Irish sport horse named Cruise. You might deny the reality of a high school clique, but who can deny the reality of an animal that wants to run?
Nathan cared for Cruise with an intensity that was heartening. The boy who cared about nothing suddenly cared too much. He spent hours riding and walking the horse, feeding and brushing and staring into the horse’s black eyes.
Linda had to know there’d be a price. It came circa 2010, when Cruise, disease stricken, died. Because no one had told Nathan about death, it came as a sudden, terrible revelation. He went mad with this new information, screamed, smashed things, wept. Seeking guidance, Linda logged into an online support group. She told the members that Nathan’s final break came at school where he called the principal “Satan” and the principal’s secretary “an agent of the devil.” In other words, wrote Linda, he began “exhibiting behavior he’d previously reserved for me.”
Linda signed the papers that had Nathan involuntarily committed to the Mount Sinai Rehabilitation Hospital in Hartford in 2011. He already blamed her for Cruise’s death. Now he blamed her for this, too. He refused to see her at the hospital during visiting hours; he’d meet only his grandparents. Old John spent hours with Nathan during his confinement. He brought him magazines, books, candy, a radio. He took possession of him as he’d take possession of a distressed property.
“His grandfather has insisted for 17 years that my son belongs to HIM and all his problems are the result of me, his mother,” Linda wrote on the support group’s website “This man [his grandfather] is allowed to sit with him in his room, behind closed doors, unmonitored for 5 hours at a time.”
The extended family gathered in a waiting room at the hospital. What began as an attempt to air grievances and work out problems turned into a kind of free for all. Linda went wild when her father tried to leave. She ran at him screaming, pinched his face, pulled his hair, then, according to the report John Chakalos later gave police, “squeezed my testicles.”
“My father is worth $300 million, and I want my share,” Linda told the cops who arrested her for elder abuse. “He is not going to cut me off. I need the money.”
There is text and subtext.
The text is money, which John had and Linda wanted. The subtext is Nathan, who Linda had and John wanted. John agreed to drop charges. Linda agreed to send Nathan to his grandparents’ house in Connecticut or New Hampshire every weekend. John taught Nathan how to fish and hunt on those weekends. He’d take him on walks that ended in downtown New Brunswick, where he’d introduced Nathan proudly, saying, “This is my grandson.”
Nathan refused to talk to Linda even after he’d been sent home. He’d moved back into the R.V., but his life there was even more mysterious, more troubling. He refused to let anyone visit or even look inside the camper. There were strange noises inside at night. If the door swung open as a person walked by, that person was afforded a glimpse of chaos, decadence and decay – dirty dishes, old food, piles of trash. Social services were called. Nathan refused to let them in. Sizing up the situation—house versus R.V., order versus chaos—Linda’s boyfriend said, “He’s going to slit your throat while you’re sleeping.”
When Nathan turned 18, Linda had to let Nathan leave. Having graduated from high school, he demanded freedom. Old John rented him an apartment not far from East Windsor in Bloomfield, Connecticut, then paid for him to take classes at a local college. He gave him spending money, bought him a pickup truck, and otherwise seemingly prepared him to take over the business when the time came.
Linda’s boyfriend said, “He’s going to slit your throat while you’re sleeping.”
Nathan had, in these precious months, attained an equilibrium that came from knowing his place in the family and world. It was a fragile equilibrium because it depended on Old John’s mood and frame of mind, all of which changed on November 21, 2013, the day John’s wife, Rita—in nearly 60 years of marriage, they’d become as entangled as neurons—died. At 87, John Chakalos, who’d always been active and energetic, young for his age, suddenly seemed like the oldest person in the world. He got so low he had to reach up to touch bottom. He said he’d lost his reason for living. He said he wanted to die.
In doing what he did, maybe Nathan believed he was doing what the old man wanted.
Or maybe the prosecutors are right. Maybe it was all about money. Nathan did not want to take over the business, nor live anywhere near East Windsor. Maybe he wanted what he’d had in an R.V. for real and forever. Freedom. Independence. A place he could close the door and be alone and no one could bother him ever again.
A Murder in East Windsor
At 8:30 a.m., on Friday, December 20, 2013, Elaine Chakalos, John’s oldest child, knocked on the door in East Windsor. No answer. She used her key, stuck her head in, called out. Nothing. As she went down the hall toward the master bedroom, time and space probably seemed to distend, the bedroom getting further away the further she walked. She found her father in bed hours after sunrise. This man was usually awake by dawn. She pulled back the covers. And there he was, wide-eyed, bloody. He’d been shot three times in the back of the head. The police roped off the scene and called the detectives. It did not look like a robbery, they said. There was no sign of forced entry, and whoever killed the old man took nothing away but the shell casings.
There were suspects—hadn’t Linda Carman punched and bit him and grabbed him by the testicles?—but none as promising as the tantrum-prone, possibly psychotic grandson. Nathan was in fact the last person known to have seen Old John alive. He’d visited at nine p.m. the night before. A search of Nathan’s apartment turned up a Remington shotgun, which, though you might wonder why it was a legal possession of a person who’d been forcibly committed to a psychiatric hospital, did not use the caliber of bullets prized from the old man’s skull.
But another search turned up a receipt in Nathan’s name for a Sig Sauer 716 Patrol assault rifle, a $3,000 military-grade gun that did match the caliber of the murder weapon. Questioned about the gun, Nathan said, “I lost it.” He was asked to take a lie-detector test. His mother and aunts had all agreed to be polygraphed. Nathan refused.
Believing the circumstances (last to see him alive), anger issues (forcibly committed to the psych ward), motive ($$$), and receipt for the possible murder weapon were enough to make a case, the East Windsor Police issued an arrest warrant, but a local judge refused to sign it. The evidence was too circumstantial, spotty. There was no actual murder weapon, and the motive was questionable. John Chakalos was Nathan’s only friend. Why kill your only friend? Money? If Nathan really needed money, he could have asked. John had always been exceedingly generous. What’s more, John was 87 and suffering from a debilitating emotional blow. If Nathan wanted more money than his grandfather would give, he only had to wait.
The murder of John Chakalos was moved to the cold-case file. Given no other option, the detectives bided their time. There’s no telling what sort of debris will come in with the tide.
Meanwhile, Nathan received his inheritance, $550,000 from the old man’s estate to be followed by $7 million when Linda Carman died. Linda was in her early 50s, which makes you wonder how those actuarial tables struck her estranged son, who loaded his clothes into his truck and headed north as soon as the check cleared. He had a bad haircut, a flat countenance, and a thousand-yard stare. He looked at you like a person looks at a screen while playing a game. The eyes, flat; the self, buried in a deep tunnel in the mind.
The road splits across the Massachusetts border in New Hampshire. To the right are the coastal towns of New England with their crowds, main drags, shops, and beaches. This road is jammed on summer afternoons. You sit in traffic for hours. To the left is a highway sign that points the way to the Green Mountains. This road is almost always empty. Being a true 1-percenter, and a mental shut-in, Nathan took the road less traveled by, and followed it until he reached Vernon, Vermont, a country town he’d picked for his new life as if at random. He bought a dilapidated two-story colonial house in Vernon, then retreated into it like a hermit crab.
Most of his inheritance went into that house, which he never stopped renovating. It became an eyesore for locals, an object of fascination and dread. The yard was filled with building material and junk. God only knows what it was like inside. It was the R.V. all over again, only now no one cared enough to call social services. Nathan had stopped taking the drugs he’d been prescribed since childhood. He was that scariest of all small-town creatures: the kid who’s gone off his meds.
In December 2015, Nathan drove his truck to Rhode Island and, using the remainder of his inheritance, purchased the Chicken Pox, a 31-foot fishing boat he outfitted with professional-quality fishing gear. Because it was the most important acquisition of his life, I ask you to imagine this boat: small and weather-beaten, humping a swell, light in the pilothouse, lines trailing in the blue-black water. To Nathan, the Chicken Pox, which currently sits at the bottom of the sea, would become both retreat and weapon, freedom and incarceration.
It was another obsession. He spent many nights alone on deck, staring at the starry sky as he floated above the reefs a few miles off the coast. If he was not on the water, he was tinkering at the dock, stripping and repainting the Chicken Pox, removing and adding. It’s impossible to know what he thought he was doing; whatever his intentions, his work only made the ship less seaworthy.
In his attempts to reconcile, he’d take his mother out on the boat. Fishing side by side, falling into the rhythm of the practice—it was the one activity that unfailingly brought them together. Nathan wanted to take Linda with him to chase the big fish in the Canyons, a fabled fishing ground beyond the continental shelf, but Linda refused. She did not believe Nathan was skilled enough to contend with the brute force of the open sea.
This situation might have continued indefinitely had Nathan not run out of money. He had no job, nor was looking, but the bills kept coming. If this went on, he’d lose his house, his boat, his freedom. Something had to be done.
Rich Cohen is the author of The Adventures of Herbie Cohen: World’s Greatest Negotiator