(Michael Ross is the worse nightmare for the anti-death penalty advocates in Connecticut, as he's pretty much the poster child for the pro-death penalty forces. One of his victims was found in the field I used to go target shooting; another victim was the daughter of current neighbors of mine)


Helen Ubiņas

Breaking The Hold Of Michael Ross
March 30, 2005

She held the knife to his chest. One push and Michael Ross would be dead.

Go ahead, he taunted her, realizing at exactly the same moment she did that she couldn't.

She wasn't a killer; he was.

For years, Vivian Dobson has been haunted by the thought that she could have killed Ross the night he attacked her in 1983, that she could have saved four girls' lives and spared their families years of torment.

Now she wants to save him.

That's why she has emerged from hiding on the day the House of Representatives is planning to debate the death penalty, why she is chancing the wrath of her family and the families of other victims to talk about her tortured life of the past 22 years - and how it led her to oppose capital punishment.

Today's debate is not expected to go much beyond talk, but before legislators defend death row in the name of the victims, or victims' families, Dobson wants them to hear from her.

They probably don't know she exists; few people do. It is the women Ross killed who remain vivid in our collective consciousness, not the one woman in the state who escaped with her life.

But escaped isn't the right word. Vivian Dobson may have gotten away from Michael Ross that May evening, but she has remained in his clutches since.

The night she was walking home from a friend's house and noticed a man sneaking from one telephone pole to another, she knew something was wrong. But she was just yards from her parents' house. She was safe, she thought.

"Bad night to be walking in the rain," she remembers Ross saying. She lifted her arm to point to her house just down the road, but then he was on her, choking her and dragging her into the bushes.

When they fell to the ground, a knife she carried with her when she walked alone fell from her shirt. She grabbed it and prepared to do what she and her sisters had always said they would if they ever got into trouble.

"I put the knife right to his chest and I looked at him and he said, `Go 'head.' I looked down, I looked at where the knife was and I'm like, `Oh my God,' and as soon as I thought it, knowing that there's no way possible that I could stab him and kill him, he knew it. He just smiled at me and grabbed me right by the throat again."

The guilt settles across her face. "All I had to do was just shove it right into his chest. That's all I had to do. And I didn't do it. I didn't do it and those other girls died."

After Ross attacked Dobson, he killed Robin Stavinsky, April Brunais, Leslie Shelley and Wendy Baribeault. Her anguish pours out in a flood of words:

"Those were babies. My daughters are their ages, and to picture my daughters going through that and knowing what these girls went through because I knew their fear, I knew what they felt ..."

She cries out: "I have to live with that, and in order for me to be forgiven, I have to forgive him for what he did to me."

Ross beat and raped her before Dobson, who asked me to use her full name, managed to run to her house and to a life of guilt, exile and silence. She was 21.

For four years, Dobson didn't leave her parents' home; she barely left her bedroom. Even the night her 2-year-old daughter wandered off, she was paralyzed inside the house, listening to her father call out to the little girl.

"The fear was so strong of him getting me that I couldn't even go out to save my own daughter," she says.

When they found the toddler hiding behind a tree and brought her back inside, Dobson quickly shuffled the girl into her bedroom with the other children.

Do it for our daughters, the parents of the victims told her when she hesitated to testify against Ross in 1987. Do it for them. And she did, because she owed them, she says. And because back then, she thought that if Ross got the death penalty, he'd be dead in a week and her nightmares might end.

"Nobody told me any different," she said.

But death row became a stage for Ross. As a lifer in the general population, he would have been invisible; as the star of his own long-running death penalty drama, he was a constant presence in her life, a constant reminder of the terrors of that night.

The few times she expressed her ambivalence about the death penalty, family and friends hastened to quell her doubts. Without a death penalty, Michael Ross wins, they would say.

"But it's all of us who are losing," Dobson says now. "The parents are dwindling away, waiting. People who wanted this so bad are dead. And Ross sits there."

She had no idea that while Ross would be showered with attention, she would fade into the background. She couldn't imagine that while squads of lawyers and doctors and psychiatrists would line up to probe the mind of a serial killer, she would be left to cobble together an existence, paying for medications and stints in and out of psychiatric wards with her husband's insurance. They filed bankruptcy when they couldn't afford the $100,000 in medical bills that never stop coming. Two years ago, doctors discovered that the pain in her neck and arms that she figured were panic attacks was really damage to her neck done by Ross when he throttled her.

Back in 1983, there wasn't an office to help crime victims. The state offered some services, but she says she wasn't told about them at the time.

The Office of the Victim Advocate is now working to get her some help. But for two decades she was alone, her family near collapse under the weight of her pain.

Her oldest son was 4 when she was attacked, a little boy who didn't know exactly what happened to his mother the night she came into the house screaming, but knew that something bad happened to her in the dark.

"Mommy, go to sleep," he'd tell her, holding a two-by-four she kept close by. "I'll watch for the bogeyman."

A grown man now, he is still afraid of the dark.

And her husband has tried desperately for years to give her back the life Ross took in one night. He coaxed her out of the house, driving behind her while she walked to the store. He took her canoeing and didn't get mad when she panicked and said she wanted to go home.

He tells her he loves her when nothing else seems to help.

Sometimes, his efforts work. But more often, the memories of that night come for her, sending her into panic attacks and back into psychiatric care.

"I shouldn't have doubted the fact that he still had a hold on me," she said.

And as much as her memories of that night torment her, it is the hold Michael Ross has on her and the other victims' families that drives her now.

"This really has nothing to do with death," she says. "It has to do with control, with holding people's lives in his hands. And as long as he stays on death row, he holds our lives in his hands.

"And this is the part that they can't see. I see it because I've been living it for 22 years. I'm at the point now where I'm ready to take control of my own life."

That is why she has emerged from hiding, why today she plans to do something she thought she'd never do: leave the protective bubble she has created out of necessity and stand before a room full of people to tell her story.

She is afraid people will be angry, that they will think she has betrayed them.

But she is more afraid of continuing to let others speak for her, of the state choosing death in her name.