THE CHATTY LITTLE GIRL WITH THE BIG SMILE
Tara Lynn Destrampe, growing up in the little town of Perkins in the southwest corner of Michigan’s sparsely populated Upper Peninsula was the last person anyone would have pictured running operations in the San Juan office of a worldwide construction and engineering giant.
The Destrampes were better off than most, in a place where hardscrabble is a very useful adjective. The UP has the highest unemployment year in and year out of any region in the state. Good jobs are scarce. Those lucky enough to mine or log or work for the county road department try to pass the jobs off to their kids if they can. Gerald Destrampe—no one knew him as Gerald, it was Dusty, friend, chatty Dusty, well liked by everybody who knew him—had by UP standards a great job, with security and full benefits as a wastewater-treatment operator at the Sawyer Air Force Base in nearby Gwinn.
When Tara was two and her sister Alicia one, the Destrampes bought a twenty-eight-acre hobby farm. Well, more than a hobby, but not something you’d support a family on. Mary Destrampe stayed home with the girls, grew vegetables in the garden, minded the chicken coop, and raised a wide variety of animals to supplement Dusty’s paycheck. Late in the winter, they’d tap the big, old sugar maples and sell off some of the syrup, too.
The girls had kittens and dogs and rabbits to play with. As they got a little older, bit by bit their parents assigned them various chores that were necessary to tend properly to the animals. It didn’t seem like chores, or work.
Tara, twenty-one months older, was the more ebullient, chatty like her dad from the start. Still an infant, she’d say hi to everyone who came near. In elementary school, she couldn’t keep quiet. From first bell to last, she yakked away. Her teachers would scribble on her report cards: “Talks too much.” But she was so smart, and so cute, big smile, Shirley Temple head of curly hair, they couldn’t get mad at her about it, just a bit frustrated.
In the fourth grade, realizing that telling Tara to stop talking was an unproductive way to string words together, her teacher had an epiphany: she told Tara that at the end of every day she didn’t get in trouble for talking, she’d get rewarded with a piece of gum. Tara was soon a gum collector.
Winters are long and hard in the UP. It’s not unusual to find snow in the woods in mid-May. It’s far enough north that days are gloriously long in the summer, depressingly short in the winter. Laying in a supply of firewood to heat the house was a summer-long chore. Stacking it in the house to be tossed into the wood burner was the girls’ work. Tara would throw the wood into the basement through a window, Alicia would stack it up neatly.
Not yet teens, the girls began raising sheep for the UP state fair. Tara was soon raising cows, pigs, rabbits, and chickens, as well. The girls joined the 4-H club, where her parents were group leaders. Her parents got her her own Appaloosa and she’d spend hours brushing him, before and after rides. Her career as farmhand had its peak in 1990 when she won the award for Grand Champion market hog.
Summers were a time for backpacking with her parents and the 4-H club, making trips to the spectacular Porcupine Mountains at the far northeast corner of the UP, along Lake Superior. Its hiking trails were some of the most arduous in the state, and some of the most spectacular. If you got out early enough, and were lucky enough, you might spot one of the shy black bears out looking for thimbleberries or blueberries or raspberries. Or a bobcat lying on a rock in a patch of sunlight across a stream, sensing you weren’t a hunter and posed no danger, so he didn’t need to move.
Or to the equally spectacular Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, also along Superior, just east of Munising, miles of easy trails along the lip of steep cliffs turned all colors of the rainbow over the eons by minerals leaching through the surface.
The 4-H club got Tara into shooting, too, and she took right to it. Soon after taking up the sport, she was competing in tournaments around the state, and bringing home what the shooters referred to as hardware—trophies and awards—with regularity. The club’s four-member BB team took the state title one year, with Tara leading the way.
Every Christmas Eve, a family tradition, Dusty took the girls out with a group of his friends and a bunch of dogs to rabbit-hunt in the snow. Tara hunted ducks in duck season, deer in deer season. She and Alicia both made their father proud with their clean deer kills, not woozing out like little girls, but taking aim, calm, relaxed, breathing controlled, squeezing the trigger gently and bringing their bucks down with a single shot. No having to track a wounded beast through the woods and snow as it bled out.
Alicia and Tara got adept at tapping the sugar maples each March. The work in the snow was all the more fun knowing that the running sap meant spring was near at last. They started with a few trees at the back edge of the farm, but when Dusty bought more acreage down the road, the maple operation moved. The girls would come home, put on boots and strap on the snowshoes, and head out to collect what sap had drained into the aluminum pails affixed to the trees.
If it seems like an idealized pastoral childhood, in some ways it was. But there was a dark side, too. Dusty was known for his temper, and could be verbally abusive to their mother. Tara hated that in her dad, hated that her mother took it passively. Many years later, Tara would write about that aspect of her childhood and how painful it had been as part of an exercise during a training session at work. As a girl, she vowed it would never happen to her. She’d never have a husband who talked to her that way, and if she did, she’d put a stop to it.
Tara played on the varsity basketball team and ran track at Mid-Peninsula High School, which taught 275 kids from the towns of Perkins and Rock. Somehow, she found time to be a cheerleader for the boys’ teams, too. By then, Alicia had caught up to her older sister in size and the two could pass for twins in their matching cheerleader outfits, same smile, same big hair teased high in front and worn long in back.
“Those were the days. The higher your hair was, the better,” high school friend Melissa Hanson would tell the Detroit Free Press
. A photo from the high school yearbook shows Tara and seven of her fellow cheerleaders all sporting the same look, achieved by lacquering their long bangs to a frozen frenzy with hair spray so they stood upright, aiming skyward. “We called it the wall,” said Hanson.
Tara was first clarinet in the school band, too, and an excellent pianist, having taken lessons for years.
And just in case there was any worry about her being an underachiever, Tara had a part-time job, selling shoes at the local shoe store. She loved selling, started thinking of herself as a natural businesswoman. She wrote in her senior yearbook—there were forty-four in her class of 1990—that one of her goals was to “make enough money to buy everything I want. Live in a big house with a Jaguar parked in the garage.”
Before graduating fourth in her class, Tara had her heart set on attending Michigan State University, the biggest school in the state, a long way away by distance in East Lansing, and a long way culturally from Perkins. Its forty-five thousand students would have made it a metropolis in the UP.
But Dusty and Mary weren’t ready for such a move, yet. They convinced Tara to stay at home a while longer, to spend two years attending Bay de Noc Community College, named for the deep, narrow bay on Lake Michigan they lived near, before giving the big world a try at MSU.
She studied marketing, fell in love with it, and, after she transferred to MSU in 1992, pursued a degree in business administration.
The next year, a handsome, tall, athletic former MSU student named Stephen Grant, a friend of one of her roommates, began pursuing her. Grant was a notorious partier, notorious womanizer, happily cheating on his current girlfriend if he had a chance to score with some drunken coed he’d just met. He’d tell friends he was an atheist, was going to go to hell anyway, might as well enjoy the ride there.
He and Tara met at a party, found out that by happenstance they both had apartments in a complex known as Cedar Village Apartments, which were wedged in between the Cedar River that ran along the northeast edge of campus and busy Grand River Avenue. For decades, Cedar Village had been considered MSU’s party central. If the school wins or loses any big games or championships, East Lansing and campus police brace for the inevitable drunken riots and old couches set aflame in front of buildings and in front yards, a recurring theme.
He told her that having graduated from college, he was taking aim at a career in politics, that his temporary job as an aide in the Lansing office of state Senator Jack Faxon, a powerful Democrat from the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills, was just the right foot in the door. Lansing is Michigan’s capital; the job was to last through the fall elections of 1994. If Grant played his cards right, there’d be something better, permanent, once Faxon got reelected, which was considered a shoo-in.
Grant partied hard. He no longer had grades to worry about. Tara, always an achiever, was known as a hard partier, too, but unlike many of her peers at Cedar Village, fun never got in the way of school. Grant and Tara dated a couple of times. Tara was struck by his good looks and strong, confident manner, but for one reason or another, the relationship didn’t take off. They remained platonic.
In August 1994, Tara’s grandmother died, and the family united in the Upper Peninsula city of Escanaba for the funeral. Grant spent an entire day making the drive up from Lansing, surprising Tara, to say the least, when he called her to say he was in Escanaba, would be coming to the funeral home, if that was all right.
To his surprise, Tara was there with a boyfriend. To the boyfriend’s surprise, something seemed to be clicking between Tara and Stephen. Tara was impressed that Grant had driven up. Maybe she’d underestimated him, after all. Or maybe he was just lucky, getting her when she was vulnerable, and impressionable.
Grant was invited out that night to a dinner with the family. They didn’t take to him. Alicia, for one, was appalled her sister seemed so taken by him. There was something that struck her about him as entirely too worldly. He could sense their coolness. Feeling out of place, after dinner he got back in his car and started the long drive home.
Soon, they were boyfriend and girlfriend. Later, he’d tell friends that the day he’d got back to his apartment in Okemos, a suburb of Lansing that is something of a bedroom community for MSU professors and students, Tara had called him and told him she loved him. Grant tended to embellish things, though, so friends took it with a grain of salt.
After a couple of months, she moved in with him.
Faxon got reelected in the fall elections, but to Grant’s dismay, the temporary aide job he had didn’t materialize into an offer of regular employment with the senator or any of his political acquaintances.
So he gave up his apartment and moved back to Detroit, to work in his father’s machine shop in Mt. Clemens. Tara made the move, too.
In September 1996, they were married in a little country church near her childhood home, a year after Grant had proposed on a bench in front of Detroit’s world-renowned Institute of Arts, just yards away from one of the original casts of The Thinker
At the time of the proposal, Grant had embarked on a self-improvement campaign, soaking in culture, learning about fine wines, and becoming a talented amateur chef. His growing skills were well suited to Tara’s existing talents, and their friends thought of them as the perfect couple.
* * *
Tara had trouble finding a job and Grant supported them, an irony considering the role reversal that was to come later. She finally landed a job at Kelly Services, a Detroit-based company that provided workers on a temporary basis to a wide variety of businesses and industries. One of Tara’s placements was with the local office of Morrison-Knudsen, a legendary engineering firm that had built both the Hoover Dam and the Trans-Alaska pipeline. No longer thriving, Morrison-Knudsen was about to be bought by the Washington Group, a huge engineering and construction company with worldwide operations and more than twenty thousand employees.
Tara was determined to make the temp job permanent, which didn’t take long, given her drive, work habits, gregarious personality, and, no small thing, big smile. And it didn’t take her long to start working her way up the chain of command, either, despite taking short breaks to give birth to Lindsey in November 2000 and to Ian two years later.
In 2003, Tara was named a systems manager. In 2006, came the offer of a full-time posting in Puerto Rico at a salary of $168,000 a year. Soon, she got even more good news. She’d been accepted into a prestigious program with the company, geared at those with a real shot at upper management. It was called the LEAP program and was offered each year to just fifteen to twenty of the company’s army of employees.
If there’d been any doubts in her mind or in that of her coworkers, there was none now: she was on the fast track.
* * *
Despite the demands of the job, Tara was a devoted mother, determined her kids should be as well rounded as she had been back in the UP. It upset her that Lindsey’s elementary school didn’t offer Spanish to first and second graders. She wanted her to get an early start on becoming bilingual. She was pleased when one of the au pairs was Spanish, so she could tutor the kids as part of her duties. Tara would check in from San Juan to make sure Stephen had, as requested, taken the kids to some performance at the ballet she thought would be culturally rewarding.
She wanted Lindsey to take dance lessons, and though Ian was just five it was time for him to start taking hockey lessons. As for Tara, she started taking golf lessons. A lot of business got done on the golf course, and with her about to begin the LEAP program, it wouldn’t hurt to know a sand iron from a seven iron.
Tara would meticulously plan upcoming family events in a notebook, and compile lengthy lists of gifts both frivolous and practical to give her children at birthdays and Christmases, perhaps compensating for her long hours away from them. She was generous with Stephen, too. In 2007, although it was just February, she was already deep into the details of a special surprise for him, a combination birthday and Christmas present for him in December, a no-expenses-barred trip to the Napa Valley, where Stephen could indulge his taste for expensive wines, and they both could indulge their taste for luxury hotels.
Considering their expensive tastes—Stephen’s mountain bike had cost $2,500, a marvel of light weight, incredible gear ratios, and ruggedness that could stand up to anything short of a roadside bomb—it was good that they had her salary to count on. In 2006, Grant made $18,900 at his dad’s machine shop, less than Tara’s year-end bonus of $28,000.
Perhaps thinking of that trip to the Napa Valley, eager perhaps for the renewal it might bring to a marriage that had been strained by her travel and her work, she wrote a long letter to Stephen. She apologized for always making him feel wrong, for not loving him as well as she should, for sometimes pushing him away when he was “the one person who has fully committed to me to love me unconditionally.”
Tara wrote that she wanted them to renew their wedding vows so “she could have a clear mind and an open heart to fully love you for the incredible human being that you are.”
It would have been a good letter to send with Valentine’s Day coming up. Maybe she wanted to give it another read or two, polish it up in another draft. It was still in her notebook when she flew to San Juan on February 5, still there when she arrived back in Detroit on February 9.
Copyright © 2011 by Tom Henderson
Tom Henderson, a native of Michigan, has worked as a news reporter for many years. He has been a sportswriter for Detroit Free Press, a freelance writer for Detroit News, and a senior editor for a monthly business publication called Corporate Detroit. He currently covers finance and technology for a weekly business publication, Crain’s Detroit Business. Henderson is the author of Afraid of the Dark, A Deadly Affair, Blood Justice, and Darker Than Night—all available from St. Martin’s True Crime Library.