Before she became a murder victim, Hartford native loved horses

Andrew and Marilyn Chatlos, sitting in their White River Junction, Vt., home on Friday, March 22, 2024, are mourning their daughter Christina Chatlos who died in a shooting in St. Johnsbury last January. Chatlos, who was 38, the mother of two, and an avid equestrian, struggled with addiction for years and they said she had recently been released from prison when the shooting happened. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Andrew and Marilyn Chatlos, sitting in their White River Junction, Vt., home on Friday, March 22, 2024, are mourning their daughter Christina Chatlos who died in a shooting in St. Johnsbury last January. Chatlos, who was 38, the mother of two, and an avid equestrian, struggled with addiction for years and they said she had recently been released from prison when the shooting happened. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Pictures of Christina Chatlos with her miniature horse Whiskey, at left, and her first horse Taz, right, which she got as a yearling and trained, hang on the refrigerator of her parents Andrew and Marilyn Chatlos, in White River Junction, Vt., on Friday, March 22, 2024. Christina Chatlos struggled with addiction and died of a gunshot wound in St. Johnsbury on January 26. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Pictures of Christina Chatlos with her miniature horse Whiskey, at left, and her first horse Taz, right, which she got as a yearling and trained, hang on the refrigerator of her parents Andrew and Marilyn Chatlos, in White River Junction, Vt., on Friday, March 22, 2024. Christina Chatlos struggled with addiction and died of a gunshot wound in St. Johnsbury on January 26. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Marilyn Chatlos wears a necklace charm , on Friday, March 22, 2024, of the fingerprint of her daughter, Christina Chatlos, who died in a shooting in January. Her husband Andrew wears a matching dog tag. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Marilyn Chatlos wears a necklace charm , on Friday, March 22, 2024, of the fingerprint of her daughter, Christina Chatlos, who died in a shooting in January. Her husband Andrew wears a matching dog tag. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

"I come over here every other day and it's peaceful over here," said Andrew Chatlos, while visiting the grave of his daughter, Christina Chatlos, at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in White River Junction, Vt., on Friday, March 22, 2024. Christina Chatlos died after being shot in her vehicle in a St. Johnsbury, Vt., parking lot last January. "I've seen a lot in the service, but this is the worst," said Andrew Chatlos, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam in 1968. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

Christina Chatlos lifts her daughter Hailey, 3, to put the star on their Christmas tree in Williamstown, Vt., around 2016.  Photo courtesy of Thomas Ferranti

Christina Chatlos lifts her daughter Hailey, 3, to put the star on their Christmas tree in Williamstown, Vt., around 2016. Photo courtesy of Thomas Ferranti

Christina Chatlos poses for a self portrait with a snowmobile. Her parents, Andrew and Marilyn Chatlos said she used to ride the VAST trail from her home in Williamstown to have dinner at a restaurant in Berlin, Vt. Photo courtesy of Thomas Ferranti

Christina Chatlos poses for a self portrait with a snowmobile. Her parents, Andrew and Marilyn Chatlos said she used to ride the VAST trail from her home in Williamstown to have dinner at a restaurant in Berlin, Vt. Photo courtesy of Thomas Ferranti

Christina Chatlos, left, poses with her daughter Hailey, 4, and miniature horse My Lemon with Whiskey at the Tunbridge World's Fair in Tunbridge, Vt., around 2017. Photo courtesy of Thomas Ferranti

Christina Chatlos, left, poses with her daughter Hailey, 4, and miniature horse My Lemon with Whiskey at the Tunbridge World's Fair in Tunbridge, Vt., around 2017. Photo courtesy of Thomas Ferranti Photos courtesy of Thomas Ferranti

Andrew and Marilyn Chatlos, sitting in their White River Junction, Vt., home on Friday, March 22, 2024, are mourning their daughter Christina Chatlos who died in a shooting in St. Johnsbury last January. Chatlos, who was 38, the mother of two, and an avid equestrian, struggled with addiction for years and they said she had recently been released from prison when the shooting happened. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Andrew and Marilyn Chatlos, sitting in their White River Junction, Vt., home on Friday, March 22, 2024, are mourning their daughter Christina Chatlos who died in a shooting in St. Johnsbury last January. Chatlos, who was 38, the mother of two, and an avid equestrian, struggled with addiction for years and they said she had recently been released from prison when the shooting happened. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news photographs — James M. Patterson

By JOHN LIPPMAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 03-29-2024 7:31 PM

HARTFORD — The last time Amber Dow saw Christina Chatlos she pleaded with her friend to “fight for your life.”

“I told her ‘I sure hope you’re not the next friend I see buried from overdosing’,” Dow recalled telling Christina as the two went for a drive together along Route 12 toward Windsor last summer.

The two had been best friends for 28 years, since fifth grade in Hartford. Dow was overjoyed at unexpectedly running into Christina at a mutual friend’s place in West Lebanon that day. But when she found her friend in the bathroom smoking crack, Dow used the pretext of showing her new car to coax Christina out for a ride, seeking to intervene in her friend’s drug addiction.

“I was, like, ‘What the hell’s going on Christina? This isn’t like you,’ ” said Dow.

She remembered her friend explaining — through slurred words and dozing off — that she was “sick of everything” and bereft over losing custody of her children and the loss of her beloved horses, which had been re-homed after she, in the devastation of substance abuse, had stopped caring for them.

“This wasn’t the Christina I knew and loved. She loved her kids and horses more than anything. She would never have done this,” Dow explained

Her friend’s drug addiction had led her to abandon all she held dear: her children, her loving partner, the little farm in Williamstown, Vt., that was home to her horses, dogs, goats and a flock of chickens.

“Something in her had changed,” Dow noticed.

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“I kept telling her, ‘You can do this. We’ve all been kicked down when we’re doing good,’ ” said Dow, who has been in recovery from addiction herself for 13 years. ” ‘This is just a test. You need to keep doing good.’ ”

When they returned to their friend’s place in West Lebanon, Dow said she hugged and kissed Christina.

“I told her I loved her and I’m always here for her, and if it’s 3 o’clock in the morning, you need me, you call me,” Dow recalled.

Except for a few text messages, Christina never called and Dow did not know how her friend was doing, until Christina’s niece called Dow late at night on Jan. 23.

A few hours earlier that same evening, Christna Chatlos had been shot and killed in St. Johnsbury, her niece reported. She was just 38.

15-year-old suspect arrested

The circumstances around Christina Chatlos’ murder are sketchy, based upon the information released so far, but one fact stands out: a 15-year-old boy from Massachusetts has been charged with second degree murder for allegedly shooting Christina. Police had found her body slumped to the side at the wheel of a Cadillac SUV behind am elementary school in downtown St. Johnsbury, a bullet hole cracking a spider web pattern on the driver’s side window.

Christina’s family and friends believe, based upon the police investigation, that her murder sounds like a drug purchase gone awry. The affidavit recounts how Christina had driven with a male companion to St. Johnsbury for the alleged purpose of purchasing crack cocaine. During the encounter with the dealers — another youth accompanied the alleged shooter — an argument erupted over money and a cellphone.

The dispute led to the 15-year-old firing a single shot through the driver’s side window of the SUV that penetrated Christina’s torso, according to the affidavit.

The 15-year-old alleged shooter, who was found at an apartment near the school where the shooting took place and who has been charged as an adult. He has pleaded not guilty and is currently being held at a Massachusetts juvenile detention facility because Vermont does not have one.

Christina was the only homicide committed in Vermont during the month of January, according to Vermont State Police (the cause of a suspicious death in Bridport is awaiting a determination from the Medical Examiner’s Office) but it comes amid a rising incidence of murders in the state. There were a record 27 homicides in Vermont in 2023, nearly 73% higher than the annual average of the preceding nine years.

Moreover, in the latest example of gun violence among youths, Christina’s death followed only three months after the fatal shooting of a juvenile in Bristol, Vt., by a 14-year-old boy.

Growing up in Wilder

Christina was born in 1985 in Hanover, the daughter of Andrew Chatlos, a Vietnam veteran and now retired 36-year cook with Dartmouth Dining Services, and Marilyn Chatlos, a registered nurse. Christina’s parents still live in the Wilder house where she grew up as one of three siblings. She attended elementary and high school in Hartford, although never graduated from the latter, Dow said, explaining “school was never her priority.”

Instead, family and friends say, Christina’s main interests at the time were her boyfriend from Grafton County with whom she eventually had a son, and horses.

Christina became enamored with horses at an early age. Her father traces his daughter’s interest back to when he took Christina to her first riding lesson during junior high school.

“I thought it would keep her interested in something, and it did,” he said. “I just didn’t know it would expand into becoming an equestrian and (owning) four horses.”

Although Christina took riding lessons with an instructor at the Dartmouth Equestrian Center, her father said his daughter “taught herself, mainly.” She mastered both Western-style and English-style riding, eventually excelling in “Gymkhana,” a form of equestrian sports that involves demonstrating speed and agility through barrel racing, flag racing, pole bending — called “games” — and navigating obstacles inside a show ring.

“She was awesome with horses,” said Dow, herself a horseback rider. “I saw her around wild horses that were just unruly and not rideable and within a few weeks she was riding them. They listened to her and they loved her. She was like a horse whisperer.”

Christina was compelled to working around horses. She’d grab a horse-related job wherever she could find it, even though it never paid much, as long as she could be among the animals she loved.

“She showed up and worked hard,” remembered Mark Horne, who with his wife, Sandy, owned Rivers Edge Stables in Plainfield and got to know Christina’s initially when she came to board her horse at their stables. She later came to work for them as a “farm hand” mucking stables, grooming and exercising horses.

The work day would began at 7:30 a.m. and Christina worked flat out until knock-off time at 3 p.m.

“Her horse knowledge was very good,” Horne said.

‘Happiest she ever was’

Christina was eventually able to extract herself from what her family and friends said was a toxic relationship with the Grafton County man with whom she shared a son. Then in the summer of 2007 Christina met and fell in love with Tom Ferranti, a Lebanon High School graduate and cargo plane pilot. Their paths crossed because Ferranti was friends with Christina’s neighbor at the Boulders condominiums Lebanon.

In 2008, the couple moved together to Williamstown, Vt., where they bought a small farm and soon populated it with “a goat, ducks and a pile of maybe 40 chickens,” Ferranti said.

And horses, of course.

Four-and-a-half horses to be exact.

Rico, Taz, Fred, Luke — and Whiskey, a white “miniature” horse not much larger than a Newfoundland that Christina got for the purpose of teaching her daughter, Hailey, how to ride and which had a special cart hitched that could pull her kids during Memorial Day parades in Williamstown.

“For Halloween our daughter was a princess and the miniature was a unicorn and they rode into the Rite Aid in Barre,” Ferranti said.

With Rico, Christina won ribbons at horse shows and through the 2010s performed with him at the Tunbridge Worlds Fair and Champlain Valley Fair and other events around the Twin States.

Horsemanship requires not only physical stamina but mental gymnastics as well, explained one equestrian who knew Christina.

“When you go into the arena the clock starts. You have to be precise and control the horse that wants to go fast and will knock over the props,” said Annette Deberville, a board member of the Washington, Vt.-based Dog River Horse Club to which Christina belonged. “Christina was very good at controlling her horse and she had a very fast horse. She was very precise and had good timing.”

And Christina was always willing to volunteer and lend a hand when the less glamorous chores needed to be done.

She cleaned stalls, painted the railings and props and “was always the one picking up stones in the arena” to clear the ground so they wouldn’t get caught in the horses’ hooves, Deberville said.

“I would say the happiest she ever was, was when she was with her horses,” Ferranti said. “We’d have dinner and afterward she’d go up to the barn and wouldn’t come back for three or four hours,” calling Christina’s “passion for horses her happiest place. That’s what brought her peace and kept her grounded.”

There was even a running joke between them that went to her dedication of caring for her horses.

“I told her several times the house would be a mess but the barn was always spotless. She would always laugh and agree with me,” Ferranti said.

One of Ferranti’s favorite memories with Christina is the five-day family vacation they took to Disney World in Florida. For quick getaways closer to home, they’d go to Six Flags or on camping trips to Maine.

Then, around 2017 or 2018 Christina suffered the loss of two of her long-time horses, Taz and Rose, within the space of a single month.

Friends and family believe the back-to-back deaths were emotionally devastating to Christina — the two horses had collectively been at the center of her life for 30 years. The loss thrust her into an irreversible slide into drugs with which she had battled against on-and-off for years.

“Taz died and then Rosie had to be put down a month later and Christina changed,” recalled Dow.

“That’s what pushed her down that path” to renewed use of drugs, Ferranti agreed.

Eventually Christina drug use became so bad that Ferranti, fearing it was endangering their children — a daughter, 11, and her brother,16 — asked her to leave the house and was granted sole parental custody, according to Vermont state court records.

The surviving horses had to be re-homed because Christina had abandoned their care as she was in the full-blown stage of her illness.

A knock on the door

Andrew Chatlos, Christina’s father, said he had picked up his daughter when she was furloughed from Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington on Dec. 26 — 28 days before she was murdered in St. Johnsbury. She had been incarcerated since the summer for violating her conditions of release on a prior drug possession conviction.

It had been the latest in a series of drug offenses going back more than a decade, according to Department of Corrections records.

“She looked good. She had new clothes. She had weight on,” her father remembered, who said his daughter seemed in better spirits and health.

Christina had a Department of Corrections-approved address in Barre where she was allowed to live. The place belonged to the brother of the man who accompanied her in the SUV as they traveled to St. Johnsbury on the evening of Jan. 23, according her father.

“Didn’t like him,” Chatlos said of the impression he got when he had earlier met the man who accompanied his daughter to St. Johnsbury. “Bad news.”

The last time Chatlos saw his daughter was Sunday, Jan. 21, when he drove her down to Wilder and back — her license was suspended — so she could come home to pick up some belongings. Even though she had lost her horses nearly two years earlier, they were still on her mind and she was still talking about them on the ride back, Chatlos said.

On the evening of Tuesday, Jan. 23, Chatlos was in his living room watching TV. His wife, Marilyn, was at work. Chatlos heard a knock on the door. He glanced through the living room window and saw a Hartford police cruiser parked out side.

Christina is buried at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in White River Junction, near the plots where rest her grandparents, Andrew Chatlos Sr. and Avis Chatlos. The grave site is a couple minutes drive from the home she grew up on Gifford Road.

“I told her ‘I don’t want to bury you,’ ” Chatlos said he told his daughter. It was the fate he feared would come to pass if she did come to terms with her drug addiction. As he spoke, he looked at the sheaf of photos of his daughter held in his hand.

“It’s a killer,” he said, haltingly, of the grief reflected in the watery film glazing his eyes.

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.