Monday, November 14, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Old Anger May Have Erupted In Arson At Kubler-Ross' Farm

The Washington Post

ELISABETH KUBLER-ROSS' 1969 book "On Death and Dying" helped launch the hospice movement in this country, transforming the care of the terminally ill. Why would someone burn down her home?

HEAD WATERS, Va. - Farmhand Romania Leach could see the tower of smoke from miles away. When she reached the top of the mountain road, she realized that flames had engulfed the home of her employer, noted psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.

"It was burning. Two walls were on fire, and the whole roof was going," said Leach, who still seems shaken by the Oct. 6 blaze. "It's more than strange. It's scary."

The apparent attack against the 68-year-old doctor who founded the U.S. hospice movement has become a chilling mystery in this beautiful and remote corner of Virginia.

Investigators from the county sheriff's department suspect arson and note that the fire followed the shooting of one of Kubler-Ross' prized llamas, as well as a string of burglaries and break-ins at her home and office. They have speculated that disgruntled former employees are responsible but say the fire may have destroyed any evidence of arson.

Nine years ago, Kubler-Ross set off a wrenching controversy here with plans to open a hospice for children with AIDS. Some townsfolk, remembering that fight, wonder if last month's fire stemmed from continuing hostility toward her. Others worry that whoever was responsible, the case will reflect badly on this conservative community if it remains unsolved.

"I don't imagine teen-agers did this. I think there was just a lot of people around that didn't like what she did," said Henry Sullenberger, a 53-year-old retired federal worker sipping coffee at High's Restaurant in neighboring Monterey. "But nobody deserves to have their home burned or their animal shot."

Kubler-Ross, who was out of town during the fire, has moved to her son's home in Scottsdale, Ariz., and is declining to give interviews.

Investigators have questioned former and current employees of Kubler-Ross' teaching center here, which she has said will remain open.

The loss of her $500,000 home and the $2,000 male breeding llama, which was killed a few hours before the fire, culminated a string of unsolved incidents dating to April.

A teaching seminar at her center was disrupted last spring, although authorities decline to provide details. Last summer she reported burglaries at her home and office and the theft of $3,000. Later she reported another break-in at her office and bullet holes in the teaching center's sign.

The fire is the most sensational calamity ever to strike isolated Highland County.

Two hours west of Charlottesville and perched near the West Virginia border, the county seems a charmed land of extremes. Called "Virginia's Switzerland" because of the surrounding Shenandoah and Allegheny mountains, it is home to only 2,600 residents - with roughly one schoolchild per square mile - making it the highest and least-populated county east of the Mississippi River.

Each spring, tens of thousands of visitors come to the headwaters of the Potomac and James rivers for the Highland maple-syrup festival.

But dwindling farm incomes - as low as $10,000 a year - are pushing sheep and cattle farmers to leave, quit or take second jobs as truck drivers and shopkeepers. And over the last decade, hundreds of city vacationers from Norfolk, Richmond and Washington have set off a land boom, converting 55 percent of private land into vacation property.

"It may look like a quiet, unchanging rural community, but it's not the case," said William Rushby, postmaster at the two-room post office in nearby Blue Grass. "Young people don't stay, because they can't find jobs, and as older people die, newcomers are buying their farms," he said. "There is a basis for resentment there."

Some residents say Kubler-Ross' arrival here in 1983 foreshadowed the culture clash between city and country.

Kubler-Ross' 1969 international bestseller "On Death and Dying" helped transform the care of the dying in this country and is still required reading at many theological and medical schools.

Her description of the five stages of grief, from denial to acceptance, has entered popular culture, and her call for compassion has pushed society away from a stoic, even cold, treatment of the terminally ill.

She came to Highland County from Southern California, saying that the mountains, sheep and cattle reminded her of her native Switzerland.

But when she announced her plans to put a hospice for children with AIDS on her 250-acre farm, she was treated as a threat to the insular, agrarian community.

At an angry hearing at a Methodist church in 1985, frightened residents accused the doctor of "importing disease," setting up a "leprosy colony" or plotting to attract homosexuals. They feared - wrongly, scientists said - that the virus which leads to acquired immune deficiency syndrome might spread through the air or water and infect the schools.

Kubler-Ross abandoned the plan shortly after that meeting, which drew one-fifth of the county's population and a 2,000-signature petition. Instead, she set up a small network to place children with AIDS at other centers across the country and, in 1987, established the teaching center here for therapists of the terminally ill and of grieving survivors.

Things slowly returned to normal over the next nine years, with Kubler-Ross' living full-time on the farm, shopping or dining in town occasionally and leaving frequently for speeches, conferences and tours.

"I think (some people) were afraid Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was going to be the beginning of a wave of far-out, groovy California people," said Thomas "Randy" Richardson, a local real-estate broker. Richardson said Kubler-Ross instead has been accepted under the area's "live-and-let-live" philosophy. "If anything, she's been a nonentity. Until she had this fire, I hadn't heard about her for years," he said.

"We consider her a very valued citizen," said Gail Lowry, director of the county Chamber of Commerce, which sends out promotional material for the Kubler-Ross teaching center.

But the fire has violently awakened the memory of old tensions.

Only two stone chimneys and a twisted pan are visible inside the 15-foot-deep block foundation. According to Kenneth Ross, the doctor's son, smoldering logs reignited three days later.

"She was burned out," said Ross, 34, who was collecting and selling off his mother's remaining farm tools. He said he has been pushing his mother to work less since the fire.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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