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Grad excels despite brother's murder

May 30, 2004 Sunday

The Deseret News Publishing Co.
Deseret Morning News (Salt Lake City)

BYLINE: Stephen Speckman Deseret Morning News

The day was Dec. 6, 2000, a time when Noel VanMaren was only thinking about one thing -- final exams.

She had a final in a science class at Westminster College that day. She would first get a phone call that threatened to throw her entire college career into a tailspin.

The call to her dorm came from her father. Because of the time of year, VanMaren figured he wanted to talk about Christmas plans. But he asked her to meet at a relative's house to talk about something he couldn't bring himself to say over the phone.

A determined Noel VanMaren forced the bad news out of her dad -- her brother Keith had been murdered in his bed at his Arkansas apartment.

"At that point I just had no response at all," she said.

VanMaren struggled to understand what she had just been told. Her reaction was to tell herself she needed to take the science final later that day. Then reality quickly closed in.

"I hung up, ran down the hall just bawling," she said. "Apparently, I let out this earth-shattering scream, but I don't remember."

VanMaren, now 22, collapsed in a chair in the lounge of her dorm. Friends came to her side and offered a voice of reason, that she shouldn't attempt a final, at least not that day.

Instead, she had embarked on another test that would last well into her sophomore year.

Her brother, she would later learn, died of asphyxiation at the hands of two roommates who are now in jail for life without chance of parole. Their motivation for murder, though some theories exist, remains unknown.

The dean of students helped clear VanMaren of any obligation to participate in finals for the first semester of her freshman year.

Her brother's funeral came one week before her Dec. 23 birthday. VanMaren remembers him as a "bit different" but "very caring and very giving."

By January, she was ready for school again. But the coping was far from over.

VanMaren took a class in which she studied a poem about a man who used a woman's long hair to strangle her.

"I started having a panic attack," she recalls.

Sweaty, heart racing, she wanted to run out of the classroom. The professor, who knew a little about VanMaren's situation, said to her after class, "I noticed you were kind of upset."

Throughout college, certain things would trigger memories of Keith's murder.

"My stomach would start rolling," she said.

The two separate trials for each of the accused came during VanMaren's sophomore year, the first during fall semester finals. Some of the family was in Arkansas.

"I kind of had to stay with my school work," Noel VanMaren said.

VanMaren, one of nine siblings, credits the family's Catholic background for not pushing the prosecutor to seek death penalties. E-mails kept her informed of progress in the court. The life sentences brought her relief.

Finals weeks came and went. And thanks to Westminster offering plenty of stress-relieving activities around that time, VanMaren has mostly fond memories of final exams.

Yesterday, VanMaren graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor's degree in elementary education and a minor in history. Her plan is to move to Arkansas where a sister lives to "see new places" and move on with her life.

On one visit to her sister's, VanMaren saw the apartment where her brother was killed.

"At that point I couldn't feel any emotion," she said. "But it still creeps up occasionally."

Like recently, when VanMaren was driving down 1300 East in Salt Lake City. She spotted a store that reminded her of a place where her brother once worked. Her instinct was still to call him and let her brother know she was thinking of him. E-mail: