January 27, 2017

Abby Vandiver's Murder by Richard Gellner

Dunwoody, Georgia in 1987 was the very essence of a bedroom community.  Roughly twenty miles as the crow flies from downtown Atlanta, it seemed a world away from the violence, crime and traffic that had clogged up the state's capital city, earning it the dubious title in the early 80s as the murder capital of the U.S.  Upscale subdivisions with names like Brooke Ridge, Hidden Branches, Redfield, Wynterhall, Village Mill and Dunwoody Station skirted the homey Dunwoody Village, where you would pop into the local Hallmark store or Versatile Video to rent a game or VHS movie.  You played tennis at Dunwoody Country Club, you shopped, to shop or be seen - - usually wearing your tennis outfit - - , at Perimeter Mall and your kids went to Vanderlyn or Austin Elementary and then Dunwoody High.  Friday nights were devoted to Dunwoody's football games, weekends were devoted to one of the handful of churches in the area, shopping and possibly driving into the city to watch the Braves (America's Team) play baseball at the old Atlanta Fulton County Stadium.  Journeying into the city, be it for work or sport, was the closest residents of Dunwoody got to the grittier, less insulated, aspects of life.  Until July 18, 1987.

Dunwoody had been established in the early 1830s, named for Major Charles Dunwody. (The misspelling occurred due to an extra "o" being added to a bank note.)  The area's first church, the Ebenezer Primitive Baptist Church, dates back to 1829 and still stands, and is active, today.  It's also home to one of the area's oldest cemeteries, where many of Dunwoody's founding fathers were laid to rest.  Thanks to the Roswell Railroad running north along the Chattahoochee (the 'Hooch to locals) and what is now Chamblee-Dunwoody Road in 1881, the town of Dunwoody became a crossroads of sorts.  President Theodore Roosevelt made a campaign whistle stop in Dunwoody in 1905 on his way to Roswell.  While the railroad shut down in 1921, the little community of Dunwoody flourished.  It remained relatively rural until the 1960s, when suburban residential development was initiated.   The Spruill family, who owned a great deal of the land in Dunwoody, sold a large portion of it in 1971 in what would become Perimeter Mall.  In the years following Perimeter Center would sprout up around the Mall, complete with major office, commercial and residential developments, leading it to become one of the Metro Atlanta area's largest job centers. Also in 1971, Dunwoody Village, with its distinctive Colonial Williamsburg architecture, was completed and became what residents would consider the center of Dunwoody.

By 1987, Dunwoody had become one of "the" places to live outside the Metro area.  Good schools, nice homes and an involved (perhaps too involved by some) community.  Dunwoody residents prided themselves on their nice homes, cars and clothes; their children were expected to go to college and do just as well as, if not preferably better than, their parents. If the pressure was too much, either for the adults or their children, it wasn't discussed.

Abby Vandiver was twenty years old that summer of 1987.  She had been a competitive figure skater in upstate New York but had come to Dunwoody to stay with her older sister, Hope Taratoot, and Hope's family.  The pretty young lady had gotten a job working part-time at an Italian restaurant in Dunwoody Village.  She was happy; she would be turning twenty-one in September; her whole life was ahead of her.

Richard Gellner was fifteen years old that summer, also a resident of Dunwoody.  He lived with his parents and younger sister not far from Abby's sister Hope.  He was an Honor student at Dunwoody High School and a former Boy Scout who was seven merit badges away from becoming an Eagle Scout.  His sub-freshman yearbook photo from 1986 shows a slight boy, almost more innocent and teddy bear in appearance.  His slight frame and intelligence made him an easy target for the larger (and meaner) boys at his school.  Back in the 80s bullying wasn't looked at seriously; it was simply how some kids were.  You just had to deal with it.  Later on, after Abby's murder, there were rumors that there was physical abuse in the Gellner household. Regardless, no one seemed to recognize or appreciate the violent anger that was festering inside Richard.

As many boys did before they were able to drive or get a "cool" job, Richard mowed lawns around the neighborhood. He would occasionally mow the Taratoots' lawn, as he was friends with Abby's nephew.  It's unknown if he first saw Abby there at the house or at the Italian restaurant, where he also had a job washing dishes.

In June of 1987, Motley Crue released their album Girls, Girls, Girls. That album, along with Nikki Sixx's song "You're All I Need," became an obsession for Richard.   Sixx had written the song after learning his girlfriend was cheating on him.  The wording is raw and angry and the narrator of the song proceeds to get his revenge by stabbing his girlfriend to death.  A frightening portent of things to come.

Richard began listening to the song on his earphones every night before he went to bed. Parental advisories on music labels had just become a "thing" but the artists being singled out were more along the lines of 2LiveCrew, not the more mainstream Motley Crue.  With the glam metal sounds of the popular title track, along with Wild Side, the album hardly seemed destined to trigger something unhealthy, even violent, in a teen listener.

He had also begun to prowl his neighborhood, armed with a butcher knife, looking for some place to break into and cause some form of trouble.  He would later claim the only thing keeping him from following through with these dark fantasies was the fear of getting caught.  Sadly, that fear would not last long enough to save Abby Vandiver.

July 18, 1987 was a Saturday.  In six days' time, Atlanta would have its hottest day of the year with temps scorching to a blistering 98 degrees. On this day, the temperature would peak around 91.  Richard, at the Taratoot home, mowing the lawn had already decided that he was going to do "something" when he knocked on the front door.  He had taken off his wristwatch in preparation, so that it would not get bloody by his own later recounting.

It is unclear if he knew that the Taratoot family was out that day, save Abby, but given that he was friends with Abby's nephew and that he had already planned a vicious attack, it's likely he did.

Abby had just taken a shower when Gellner knocked at the door.  She answered in her bathrobe and when he asked to use the phone, she let him in without hesitation.  He was, after all,her nephew's friend and a co-worker.

Prosecutors later theorized that when Abby headed back upstairs to finish dressing, Gellner followed her.  It's unknown exactly how the attack started or what, if anything, precipitated it.  It's possible that he made advances to her that she rebuffed.  It's also possible she did nothing at all.  He attacked her with a phone cord, wrapping it around her neck.  He didn't count on her fighting back, and she did.  She bit off the tip of his right hand little finger before he managed to strangle her into unconsciousness.  At that point, Richard Gellner exploded.

He stabbed Abby 57 times with three different knives; bludgeoned her with a drinking glass to the head; and attempted to decapitate her with hedge trimmers.  Spent, he took a shower and returned home in his bloody clothing.

Quite amazingly, Gellner told his parents that he had an accident with the lawn mower in which he had lost part of his finger, in order to account for the blood. Equally amazingly, they appeared to believe him.  They drove him to the ER where they were told that the tip of his finger could be reattached if it could be located.

The Gellners, including the newly murderous Richard, returned to the Taratoot residence to search for the finger.  Instead, they were met by the police.

In the interim, Hope Taratoot had returned home to find her younger sister dead and had called the local police.  When the Gellner clan rolled up, they were naturally curious as to who they were and why they were at the property.  Richard Gellner informed them he was looking for his finger, saying he had lost it in the garage where - - not surprisingly - - there was not a drop of blood.

The police were happy to tell him they had found his finger . . . not six feet from Abby's savaged body.  Gellner was taken into custody immediately in what surely was one of the most quickly solved homicides in Georgia's books.

While the PD was able to consider the case "solved," the rumor mill was just getting fired up.  Classmates of Gellner's began telling tales of the unsuspecting looking teen being teased so badly that it took four, five, maybe even six, big teen boys to hold him down, he was so irate.  Whispers were that a friend of a friend said that Gellner had made sexual advances to Abby that she rejected.  Or that she had been teasing him and then laughed at him, sparking his murderous attack.  Some reported that she had been stabbed more than 100 times.  Some said that Gellner had rolled up his bloody socks and attempted to flush them down the toilet.  No one tried to understand why Richard Gellner had done what he did.

The arrest of Richard Gellner was a mixed bag for Dunwoody.  On the one hand, residents didn't need to worry about some bushy hair stranger (because aren't they always bushy haired strangers?) lurking around the community, waiting to commit unspeakable acts on them; on the other, it was one of their own members who had done such a thing.

Richard Gellner around 2013
The murder trial was scheduled to begin in late winter/early spring of 1988, with Gellner being tried as an adult.  In February of that year, seven months after the murder, Gellner plead guilty to first degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison.   His plea saved the state a boatload of money on the trial, as well as the special kind of agony Abby's loved ones would have to endure, reliving her brutal death.  It also left a lot of questions open.

The biggest question is why.  Why did Richard Gellner kill Abby Vandiver?  Why did he have such dark urges?

Despite the suggestive lyrics of Motley Crue's song, music cannot be held responsible.  If it wasn't their music, it would have been another band's or something else that Gellner would have grabbed ahold of, to obsess over.

If physical abuse was indeed present in the Gellner household, it could have affected Richard's emotional growth as well as his capacity for empathy.  I have not found a definite answer anywhere on whether there was abuse.  Regardless, there had to be have been something missing, something deficient in Richard Gellner with or without abuse.

The court appointed psychiatrists that examined Richard in preparation for the trial that would not happen could only guess at what went wrong. They stated he might have Borderline Personality Disorder.  BPD is characterized by emotional instability, feelings of worthlessness, insecurity, impulsivity and impaired social relationships. (These things, at least to me, also characterize being a teenager.)  There is no cure for BPD, only treatment which can include therapy, medication or even hospitalization.

The psychiatrists said his possible BPD was coupled with "low self-esteem and difficulties with his sexual identity."  I find this the most interesting part of their theory and the most realistic.  Most teenagers suffer with low self-esteem at some point.  Certainly Richard Gellner did, physical abuse in his home notwithstanding.  Being rejected by an attractive girl like Abby would be crushing but especially so to someone like Richard, who may have been sensitive about his slight size and who was being overtaken by dark fantasies telling him to act out violently.  If he was questioning his sexual orientation - - especially at a time when being gay was not as acceptable as it is now; when being questioned "What are you? Gay?" was the single biggest insult that a teen could hurl - - along with these dark desires to harm someone, his emotions and his identity itself could very easily have been fracturing.

In the end, it's likely no one will know exactly why Richard Gellner chose to murder Abby Vandiver on July 18, 1987.  Neither he nor his family have spoken publicly about it.  Abby's sisters have spoken at Gellner's parole hearings - - one would like to talk to him to know why; the other wants nothing to do with him and wants him to remain locked up for the rest of his life.

Abby was buried at the Westminster Memorial Gardens in Peachtree City, Georgia, never to see her twenty-first birthday.

Abby's final resting place


  1. Abigail was always in my heart for all these years when I once got to know her in ice figure skating that I was involved in. I dated her in the summer of 1981 and was the sweetest girl that I was thankful to get to know her. In sadness, she deserved a life ahead of her. May skate be with you. God bless her and will always remember her.

    Joe Rochester, NY

    1. Thank you for posting and sharing your memories of Abby, Joe. I'm sorry for your loss.

  2. Richard Gellner sat behind me in English class...… he always had his head down on the desk..... I talked to him a little bit, but he wasn't really interested in talking..... now I know the pain he was feeling, I wish I could have helped him!