At a farmstead perched on a frozen hill outside Gallatin, MO, a young farmer hiding behind a brown ski mask unleashed his fury and pumped bullets into anyone standing in his way. Authorities say that George Page emptied his guns for revenge, but in the end all he received was an ambulance ride to a funeral home. It was a ride he did not take alone. By the time the 30-year-old man put a gun to his mouth and killed himself, he had, with amazing speed and ease, devastated three families and robbed 13 children of their mother or father.
Page killed Mary Bergman, the mother of nine children, and seriously injured two of her children in early January, 1982. He murdered John Ed Ramsbottom, an electrician in his mid-30s, who made the mistake of choosing that Tuesday night to work on the Bergman’s outside electrical system. And he left behind a wife and 2-year-old son.
For Kenneth L. Calvin, the sheriff of Daviess County, the case is a tragic one but not hard to figure out. He suspects that George Page thought that the Bergmans owed him $20,000 because he prospected for gold for them in Alaska in the summer of 1980. But the tidy explanations for the tragedy are no help to the families who must patch up broken lives after the business of burying the dead is ended.
For Mr. Ramsbottom’s wife, Sally, who now will raise alone an infant son and daughter not yet in school, the pain is still vivid enough to touch, but impossible to describe. “There is no way I can explain. I can’t explain,” she said in a faint, quivering voice. What will she do now? “I don’t know,” she replied before putting down the telephone receiver.
Mrs. Ramsbottom, a teacher at a special education school in Chillicothe, last saw her husband, a Gallatin native and Vietnam veteran, before leaving for school Tuesday. The last friend to see the electrician was James Barton, who runs the local hardware store with his son. Mr. Ramsbottom picked up more supplies for the Bergman job at 3 p.m. The Bartons said Mr. Ramsbottom was so honest that he was one of the only people in town they would trust with their store.
“He was an extremely honest individual. It’s corny to say, but he was,” said Jack Barton, who attended Gallatin High School with the victim. “He did more work than others could do in three days.”
The Bergman children could not be reached for comment. But Judy Rhyne, a Mormon friend in Gallatin whose home the family stayed in after the tragedy occurred, said simply “They’re doing remarkably well, especially the older sister, Cathy.”
For most of the Bergman family, the tragedy will be remembered in living color. During George Page’s rampage, eight of the nine children ranging in age from 2 to 22 were in the home. The father, Tom, an engineer who developed equipment for the surface mining of precious metals, was in Costa Rica in connection with his job and was expected back soon.
The Bergmans, also Mormon, were pushed into the limelight long ago, thanks to the parents, who were vocal advocates of teaching children in the home rather than in public schools. Mrs. Bergman, the founder and president of the National Association of Home Educators, believed that schools could offer students only meaningless diplomas supported by mediocre teaching in an atmosphere devoid of moral values.
The nightmare apparently was set into motion sometime Tuesday afternoon in Smithton, when George Page, who farmed soybeans and corn and raised cattle, headed to Gallatin in his pickup truck. One of the last places he was seen before his trip was the Central National Bank of Smithton, said one of his uncles, who did not want his name used for fear of retribution. Whether the trip to the bank spurred the trek to the Bergman residence is unknown, and a bank officer refused to discuss George Page.
The uncle said George Page called his wife, Jane, from Gallatin about 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, about a half-hour before the shootings. His steady voice and message apparently disguised his intentions. Interviews with law enforcement officials who investigated the slayings presented this picture of what happened:
Mr. Ramsbottom and Kevin Bergman, 16, were working on the electrical system near the back door when George Page pulled up and shot them. Mrs. Bergman, just inside the door, heard a crackle and assumed that the electrical system had shorted out. But she had little time to think when the assailant walked through the kitchen door. Cathy Bergman managed to escape through the kitchen. She scooped up one of the children and hid the child under some blankets in a horse trailer.
George Page’s next target was Carl Bergman, 12, who is now in critical but stable condition Wednesday after surgery for back and chest wounds. When Carl crumpled onto the second-floor landing, three of the smaller children helped him to a bed and huddled around him until authorities arrived. One managed to reach a phone and call the police. And Kevin, with blood dripping from his shoulder, tried to slide under Mr. Ramsbottom’s van to escape. Kevin was in serious but stable condition Wednesday night.
When Deputy Sheriff Larry Huskey reached the house, he found Carl repeating George Page’s name. “He kept saying, ‘It was Hal (the man’s nickname) Page; it was Hal Page.'” Then Huskey said, “I believe he’s dead.” It seemed to calm him that Page was dead,” Deputy Huskey said.
— written by Lynn O’Shaughness for the Kansas City Times, Thursday, Jan. 7, 1982