School was out, ski conditions were good, and Winter Carnival, the biggest social event of the year at Middlebury College, was just under way.
It had all the makings of what Middlebury senior John Zaccaro Jr. might have called a "killer" weekend. He planned to kick off the festivities Feb. 21 with a cocktail party at his house.
Instead, Zaccaro, the 22-year-old son of Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 1984, spent Friday afternoon at the district courthouse, pleading innocent to a charge of possession of a regulated drug with intent to sell.
Zaccaro had been arrested outside Mister Ups, a popular restaurant where he sometimes tended bar, three hours after he allegedly sold a quarter gram of cocaine for $25 to an undercover policewoman. At his house -- a five-minute walk across the town square from the courthouse -- police reported finding five grams of a marijuana-like substance, electronic scales and "drug paraphernalia." Police also searched the car Zaccaro was driving, and, according to court documents, turned up eight grams of cocaine, $1,475 in cash, $160 in checks and what the arresting officer called "various miscellaneous papers with drug transactions."
Winter Carnival was over for John Zaccaro before it even began.
A drug arrest in itself would be a jarring intrusion onto this campus, where concerns right now include senior theses, skiing and South Africa.
But when it's one of Middlebury's most famous students, the intrusion turns into a small-scale crisis.
As the news hit, parents called their children, trustees called the college president, alumni called "angry that their college is being besmirched," says Erica Wonnacott, dean of students.
Students have rallied to show their support for John Zaccaro. Indignantly they wonder out loud if the police were just after "a name." "It's such a small amount," says one student.
In the community, there is also sorrow over yet another public problem for the Zaccaro family.
"His mother has taken a raft of grief," says Marty Schuppert, owner of Mister Ups. "I don't know if anyone could survive the microscopic scrutiny she's been put under without finding some skeletons."
But most of all, the arrest and the glare of national attention has shattered any sense that this idyllic college campus is a community unto itself, a snug berth sealed off from reality.
"In a lot of ways," says January graduate Alan Macdonald, now assistant director of student activities, "John's bust has been a cold slap in the face -- 'Wake up, guys, this is the real world.' "
And despite support for Zaccaro, there is some quiet resentment.
"It makes you a little bit mad at him," says Parker Gilbert, a longtime friend of Zaccaro. "You feel sorry for him, you want to help him, but he's also dragging people through some difficulties they didn't need."
There's no denying that there was gossip about John Zaccaro and drug dealing. A school newspaper editor heard it, Zaccaro's friends heard it, students who didn't know him heard it, and in the wake of Zaccaro's arrest, bewildered deans heard it from students.
The most blatant bellwether of gossip about Zaccaro was a gag advertisement in the spring 1985 issue of The Compost -- the annual parody of the weekly student newspaper, The Campus. Three columns wide, on a lower left-hand corner page, was a photograph of Zaccaro with this pronouncement: "Occasional Middlebury student John Zaccaro says, 'My mom may drink Pepsi, but I like COKE.' Changing in line with the times."
The Pepsi, of course, was a reference to his mother's Pepsi commercial.
"I just saw it and thought, 'Oh, my God, can we print this?' " says junior Heather McConnell, then The Campus' managing editor and now coeditor. She remembers that the spoof was written by two seniors who graduated last spring.
Zaccaro's friends describe the first-semester senior as outgoing, gregarious, athletic -- he plays soccer and intramural softball. A great cook of Italian food, he enjoys giving small dinner parties in the small white frame house with blue shutters that he shares with 22-year-old senior Matt Pifer. "That's what he spent his money on," says one student. "His friends."
Furnishings in the house are Spartan but cheery. There is a stereo, and for parties, Zaccaro, known as "Zac," made a dance tape.
"I think he has a tremendous respect for women -- and that's from his mother," says Bettina Thompson, a friend of Zaccaro's all through college. She has a couple of friends who have dated him. "When he has girlfriends, it is not uncommon for him to give flowers," she adds. "He's a nice boyfriend."
According to his friends, Zaccaro is bright and talkative -- "a smoother in a way," says Gilbert.
He could work hard when it was necessary, but an 8:15 class, freshman year, often went unattended by him.
Gilbert remembers that the freshman Zaccaro was "loud" and "liked to party. I don't know if he worked very hard, but he was nice . . . All this I'm saying about John is no different from 70 percent of the male freshman class. At least the ones I knew."
Zaccaro's friends recall endearing quirks. He apparently has a vocal manner all his own, often calling out a drawled, melodic greeting of 'Yoooooo!' upon seeing a friend.
"One of the first times I saw him this fall," says senior Christopher Stern, "he was leaning over the engine of a car in the Fletcher House parking lot, and the car was completely on fire. I said, 'Zac, what's going on?' He said, 'Oh, it's okay, dude, it's under control.' "
"He always seemed very busy," says senior Jeff Steiger, a friend. "He always seemed in a rush to go somewhere. He was one of those people always in transit."
As Geraldine Ferraro's political star was ascending in early 1984, friends remember then-sophomore Zaccaro as excited and eager.
Zaccaro took off the fall of 1984, what would have been the beginning of his junior year, to campaign for his mother. He came back to Middlebury at least once, the picture of an enthusiastic, well-briefed campaigner. And he made sure he looked like a straight arrow through the campaign and into a spring semester of study in Italy, tackling the Italian language, which had given him a rough time earlier at Middlebury.
One friend who had seen Zaccaro occasionally smoke marijuana with friends at social gatherings says that by the end of his sophomore year he had begun declining the communal joint passed around. "He said, 'No, I'm not doing that now,' " remembers the friend. "And he was serious about it."
Politically, he held his own even in the face of skeptical student friends whose politics were more conservative.
"I voted for Ron," chuckles Gilbert, who got together with Zaccaro and some of their friends one night when Zaccaro stopped at Middlebury during the campaign. "He's stubborn," says Gilbert. "And he was good at arguing the Democratic line."
But some friends say he revealed a more conservative side once the campaign was over.
"Privately when you heard his views," says Steiger, "I think he was a little more to the right. On domestic politics, he'd be pretty critical of Reagan, but on defense he'd be a little more hawkish."
Friends say Zaccaro came back to school last September determined to make the most of the academic year. He wanted to play soccer seriously. He was going to write a senior thesis. To show off his new language prowess, he stopped by the office of a favorite Italian professor, Anthony Tamburri, and chatted away in Italian.
"I just saw John mature," Bettina Thompson says. "I think the will to learn Italian was a maturing experience. I think the campaign was a real maturing experience."
John, a history major, was doing his senior thesis on Watergate. Technically, he was a first semester senior only since the beginning of the spring term. He is scheduled to graduate next January.
The backdrop for this drama is Middlebury, a seductive small town of colonial lineage, sitting between the Adirondacks and the Green Mountains -- so hazy blue in the distance they seem to melt into the blue sky.
With its colonial architecture and postcard appearance, Middlebury is the kind of town that always looks like it's waiting for Christmas. A spanking white clapboard Congregational Church presides over the town square, the church bell pealing out the hour.
Middlebury College revels in these environs -- Middlebury even owns and operates its own ski area, The Snow Bowl, 12 miles from the campus. While students on cold urban campuses trudge through February, Middlebury declares a Winter Carnival, builds mammoth snow sculptures and frolics on the snow-blanketed campus with ski races, a dance and concert -- this year, The Band. Academically elite, the school is renowned for its nearby Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and its language programs.
The student population is small (1,900). There is a self-perception of affluence here that Dean of the College Steven Rockefeller tries to dispel.
"The majority come from middle-class backgrounds," says Rockefeller, a religion professor and son of Nelson Rockefeller.
The college, itself, seems tightly knit. "Things on this campus spread really fast," says Steiger. "Something that happens between a girl and a guy Friday night is going to be almost common knowledge by Saturday lunch."
That may be a factor in his life that Zaccaro underestimated. Friends say he keeps a low profile. "He doesn't milk the fact that his mother is a big political person," says one friend. But Zaccaro may not have realized that he is an object of attention on campus whether he wants it that way or not.
Cocaine, Middlebury students say, is infrequently used, not often available, and far less prevalent than the social use of alcohol. The use of marijuana, says one senior, is "casual. It's like drinking a beer."
"People who do coke do it sporadically -- at parties," says another student. "At a party where there's coke, there are maybe 10 people upstairs doing coke and 100 downstairs drinking beer."
Somewhere every weekend, someone's doing it," says Gilbert. "But there aren't drug parties. It's no worse than any other place."
Administration officials make their abhorrence of drugs clear. College President Olin C. Robison also made clear, in an open memo to the community, that Middlebury would not create "an environment in which individuals feel that they are under surveillance or under constant suspicion. We almost always err on the side of individual freedom."
But within the scope of those commitments lie delicate, difficult boundaries to cross and not cross, a reflection of the quasi-adult world in which on-campus college students live.
"People say, 'If you know students in the community are using drugs, why don't you move in and clean it up?' " says Rockefeller. "It's not that simple. We're not willing to have paid informers. However, where we do have reliable information, we move in and take action. We see the college as neither an arm of nor haven from the law."
The selling of drugs is dealt with rigidly. "Last spring," says Rockefeller, "we were told a student was selling drugs and within 24 hours we confirmed it. And within the next 24 hours, the student was gone with no possibility of return."
Dean of Students Erica Wonnacott went to The Band concert during the Winter Carnival. "If you'd gone to that concert in the '60s, the room would have been blue with smoke," she said. "I saw one faint wisp of smoke coming from a far corner."
On Feb. 20, John Zaccaro breezed into Mister Ups sometime after 8 p.m., bar manager Tom Weiner remembers.
Thursday was the night Zaccaro worked as backup bartender if Weiner needed him. Zaccaro would make the blender drinks and pour the beer.
"It was quiet, I said I might need him later," Weiner says. Zaccaro chatted with Weiner and told him about breaking up with his girlfriend, a senior who teaches skiing at The Snow Bowl. Zaccaro joined friends he saw, until Weiner needed him behind the bar.
"He had just literally gotten behind the bar and someone came in and said, 'Someone hit your car,' " Weiner remembers.
That was how Middlebury Police Sgt. David Wemette, who arrested Zaccaro, came in to look for the owner of the car Zaccaro had been using.
"He went out," Weiner says of Zaccaro, "and I never saw him again."
John Zaccaro left the campus the Saturday after his arrest but returned briefly with his parents the following Monday when they talked with Karl Lindholm, the associate dean of students.
"I think she was being half mom, half lawyer," says Wonnacott of Geraldine Ferraro. "She just wanted to make sure he wasn't going to be eaten alive."
While charges are pending, Zaccaro is still a student in good standing. But he retreated from campus the last week in February, then returned to school on March 2. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
Support for Zaccaro among students was strong from the start. The night after his arrest, during one of the Winter Carnival nightclub acts, a student comedian quipped, "There's a talking Coke machine on campus and his name is John Zaccaro." The joke "went over like lead," according to one audience member.
Press reports that Zaccaro was known as "The Pharmacist" and was a major supplier of cocaine on campus have brought indignant rebuttals.
"I've been in class with him for four years and I never once heard him called The Pharmacist," says senior Leslie Manookian, a friend. "A lot of us feel that this has been blown out of proportion because he's Geraldine Ferraro's son."
Some of the characterization of Zaccaro's alleged drug dealings, and reports that he was called "The Pharmacist," can be traced to comments by Police Sgt. Wemette, who was investigating Zaccaro. According to the Burlington Free Press, Wemette also said, "I was told by numerous people in the past that he was one of the major suppliers up there," in reference to the campus.
Citing that article, Zaccaro's Burlington attorney Charles R. Tetzlaff unsuccessfully filed for a protective order controlling the release of information about the case.
"That's been a source of some controversy," says John T. Quinn, state's attorney for Addison County, about printed statements attributed to Wemette. "There's nothing in my evidence that would indicate he's a major drug dealer or drug supplier."
Wemette now refuses to comment on the case.
Privately, Zaccaro's friends muse: why would he want to sell drugs? At Middlebury -- as in the rest of the country -- the Zaccaro family wealth is no secret. Like other students, Zaccaro had held part-time jobs. None of his friends thought he needed money. And none of his friends saw any evidence of lavish possessions.
He had a car -- as do many students -- a color television set. His friends say that if he did use drugs, it was reflective of drug usage on the Middlebury campus: social and only occasional.
Some come away surprised at the allegations of drug dealing: "Not because no one at college would do it," says Steiger, "but because he has farther to fall. He would have more to lose by being busted than, say, me. I'd get in trouble, but 200 million people wouldn't find out."
A Middlebury senior says police questioned her and showed her names -- including her own -- on the confiscated papers. She did not, she says, deal directly with Zaccaro. She says she owed $25 for a quarter gram of cocaine.
She describes papers police showed her as "a few small pieces of paper with names on them," and estimates she saw about 15 to 20 names.
The student adds, "It was so innocent . . . Now that I've seen how it ruins people's lives, that's probably the last gram I'll ever buy. I feel like I kind of contributed to John's demise."