THETFORD, Vt.—The last thing she saw was the figure, garbed in black, standing in her daughter’s bedroom holding a baseball bat.
As she screamed for her girls to lock themselves in another room, the man brought the bat crashing down, fracturing her skull. Then he pointed the tip of a squeeze bottle at her. He squirted and squirted, and when he was done, Carmen Tarleton’s body had been doused with lye. Her arms and legs, her neck and back, her ears and eyes. Virtually no part had been spared.
When a police officer arrived, Tarleton crawled toward him as her skin turned brown.
“He poured acid on me,” she cried while the officer handcuffed her assailant, her estranged husband, Herbert Rodgers, who had plotted the June 10, 2007, attack after learning that Tarleton was seeing another man.
Doctors gave Tarleton slim chances of survival. They induced a coma, and for three months, Tarleton lay unconscious in the burn unit of Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Efforts to rouse her failed, until Sept. 23, when she awakened, alert and anxious that she had missed her girls’ birthdays. She was transferred to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. By November 2007, she was given clearance to return to Vermont. There, under the vigilant watch of her mother and sister, she regained the strength to walk and to accept the new landscape of her body—a tangle of wounds whose lone mercy was their progression into welt-like but contained scars.
Still, her eyes, once chestnut-colored and almond-shaped, were deadened, blanched a silvery blue by the lye and sewn shut by doctors because her eyelids had been singed away. Doctors said there was a remote chance of repair, but if anyone could do it, Boston eye surgeon Samir Melki could. Success, however, was far from guaranteed. She was better off, doctors told her, preparing for a life of blindness.
And that, Tarleton told a judge at the February 2009 sentencing hearing of her former husband, was the cruelest part of the attack. Without her eyesight, she could not watch her girls, Liza and Hannah, grow into young women.
In a photograph taken with her brother two weeks before the attack, Tarleton’s head is cocked. She flashes a plucky smile, and wispy bangs dangle above her eyes. Worries seem far from the 39-year-old nurse.
Tarleton says she was always a mellow, if determined, personality. A shy shadow-dweller at Lebanon High School in New Hampshire, she found her calling working at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. She married and had two daughters. When the marriage ended, she moved to California with her girls in 1996. She worked at UCLA Medical Center, and there, met Rodgers, a medical supply salesman.
The two married in 2001 and moved to Vermont in 2006. Rodgers stayed home and cared for Tarleton’s daughters while she resumed work at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, according to police accounts. He grew lonely and felt isolated, and he began surfing pornographic websites, which strained the marriage, he told police. The two separated, and he began hearing voices that told him the split of the assets had not been fair and that “she needed to pay.” He also was troubled by Tarleton’s new relationship, according to the records.
Rodgers said it “just came to me” to use “heavy duty drain cleaner” as a weapon, he told police. He asked God to tell him what to do by his birthday, June 9, according to police reports. When God did not respond, he decided to carry out his plan. At Home Depot, he bought Instant Power Sewer Line Root Destroyer, which he poured into Ajax dish soap bottles “so it would be easy to aim,” he told police
On June 10, at 1 a.m., he parked his GMC Sierra pickup truck a quarter of a mile from Tarleton’s house, walked down the dark road, ascended the back porch, and threw a 25-pound dumbbell through a sliding glass door, according to police reports. “I guess you can say that’s when I tortured her,” he told police. Police arrived at the house and found Tarleton’s daughters—Liza, then 14, and Hannah, then 12—outside, one gripping a kitchen knife and a telephone and both screaming, “He’s killing her.”
Inside, Tarleton’s skin was deteriorating and her face was losing its shape, according to police reports. She was transported to Dartmouth-Hitchcock, and from there, to the Brigham, where doctors described her burns as “so consistent over her entire body that it looks like someone simply `painted’ her body” with lye.
Two years later, Tarleton won’t discuss the attack. She says she needs to move beyond it. But she remembers it, and when she awoke from the coma, memories of the terrible night overwhelmed her. She underwent multiple surgeries—ultimately, more than four dozen. Hearing in her left ear was gone. Her right hand tingled because of nerve damage. Her skin was a patchwork of open wounds, skin grafts, and emerging scar tissue. Her eyes, doctors told her, couldn’t be considered for treatment for months.Continued...