Son of slain Orange man hikes with dad’s boots to keep memory alive

By DOMENIC POLI

Staff Writer

Published: 07-14-2023 7:21 PM

Donald Harty was hiking the Panorama Trail in Yosemite National Park last year when his cellphone rang despite spotty reception.

The voice on the other end was that of Jeremy Bucci, then the chief trial counsel for the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office.

“He says, ‘We got the boots,’” Harty recalled.

Bucci was referring to the brown Hi-Tec hiking boots, size 11, that Donald’s father Tom Harty was wearing when his life ended three weeks short of his 96th birthday.

The elder Harty was killed in an Oct. 5, 2016, home invasion at 581 East River St. in Orange that left his second wife, 77-year-old Joanna Fisher, critically wounded. Fisher died from her injuries the following month.

Joshua Hart and Brittany Smith were convicted of first-degree murder a year and a half later. Each was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, following a jury trial in which Bucci led the prosecution. The trial’s end marked the beginning of the younger Harty’s four-year pursuit to retrieve his father’s boots — which had been taken as evidence by the DA’s office — with a plan to hike in his father’s memory.

“It just feels like ... being with him a little bit,” he said this week. “I enjoy knowing the fact that I’m wearing his shoes, and I’m not a spiritual person or a religious person but ... maybe he’s watching me go up the hill.

“It’s just a feeling of togetherness with him, I guess,” he continued. “We hiked so much for so many years, so many places [that there’s] a little feeling he’s still hiking with me, even though he’s not.”

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The boots’ next adventure will be the 5,267-foot Mount Katahdin at Baxter State Park in Maine, which Harty, his niece Karen Herk and a group of other people plan to hike on Thursday, July 20.

“I look forward to getting to the top,” Herk said. “I’ve done it once before. [My grandfather] roped me into it once before and it was kind of at the beginning of my big hiking push, so I wasn’t really familiar with the mountain, and I’m afraid of heights. So it was not a good, fun trip. So I’m going back … to do it again on a different trail and with 10 other people, and we’re going to have a great trip.”

Herk, 53, lives in Orange but Harty, 68, and his wife moved from Epsom, New Hampshire, to Kennebunk, Maine, after retiring about three years ago.

“I wanted to go up Katahdin with [the boots] because that was kind of one of my father’s favorite mountains. That’s where we first kind of got the bug to hike the Appalachian Trail, because that’s the northern terminus of it,” Harty said. “His goal was always to get back to the top of Mount Katahdin. And we tried two or three times to get him up there. Each time we couldn’t make it just because it’s a very, very different climb on a certain side of it.”

Donald said he and his father climbed the other side when Tom Harty was 89.

A son’s mission

Donald Harty first asked for his father’s boots right after the trial, which ended in April 2018, but was told they were sealed away as evidence due to the possibility of future appeals by the convicts. A couple years later he reached out to Bucci, who said he would try his best, but advised there were significant hurdles to clear because Hart and Smith’s respective defense attorneys had to agree to release the footwear.

“While we understand and are sympathetic to the desire of crime victims to obtain items belonging to their loved ones, this can be complicated in criminal cases,” Laurie Loisel, spokesperson with the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office, said in a statement. “During criminal investigations, police routinely gather any and all evidence that may prove relevant to the case. The District Attorney’s Office must then preserve that evidence for as long as it might be needed in the criminal prosecution.

“If we return or release items too early, a defendant could file a motion to dismiss, or a motion for other sanctions, which could jeopardize our ability to successfully prosecute the case,” she added. “But once the case is over, we have more leeway to release items that were not needed, and to which the defense does not object releasing.”

Bucci (who has since become a Hampshire County Superior Court judge) called Harty with the good news six to eight months later, which was a little over a year ago, and Harty and his brother picked up the boots a couple weeks later. Harty praised the “Herculean effort” by Bucci to get them released.

“They sat in the evidence bag for probably two, three months, because I really didn’t dare open them, because I didn’t know what we were going to see,” Harty recalled. “Then, finally, my son came by, we opened them up, they looked great. I had to change out the shoelaces.

“I didn’t tie them at first because … the last time they were tied was when he tied them the night he got killed, looking forward to his [next] trip,” he continued.

Harty said his father was thrifty and chose to tie together shoelaces when they broke. The younger Harty eventually removed the shoelaces and his brother’s granddaughter made a necklace out of them. He replaced the shoelaces and the inserts to better fit his own feet and started hiking with the boots in Hanover, New Hampshire, where the Appalachian Trail begins, alongside his son and daughter-in-law. His goal was to hike 67 miles to commemorate his 67th birthday and he exceeded that, having now worn them on 15 to 20 treks.

“The reason I’m doing this is, you know, when you lose people like that through tragic circumstances, a lot of grief, you try to get over it — you can’t, but you try to keep their memory going,” he said. “So, until the day I die I’m going to try to keep my father’s memory going and then pass the torch to Karen.”

Harty said he attempted to climb Mount Katahdin in July 2022, but one of the soles detached from the boot about two-thirds of the way up the mountain, forcing him to stop the trip short. He brought the boots to a shoe repair shop in Scarborough, Maine, where he was told to dispose of the low-budget footwear and buy a new pair. But Harty shared the boots’ story with the cobbler, who agreed to see what he could do and fixed them in about two weeks.

Harty’s ultimate goal is to wear the boots to hike the Grand Canyon in October 2024. Tom Harty had led yearly excursions — known as “The Harty Party” — and in 2013 received a symbolic key to Phantom Ranch, a lodge within Grand Canyon National Park.

The lives lived

Tom Harty’s hiking career began with his first climb up Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire, some seven years after he was born in Barre on Oct. 27, 1920. He climbed that mountain hundreds of times and eventually bested all the 4,000-foot peaks in New England, walked the Long Trail from the Canadian border to North Adams and completed the Appalachian Trail at 75, using the trail name T.O.M. (The Old Man).

In 1942, Tom Harty married Winifred Flagg, who was the mother of his children and died in 1981. He eventually met Fisher and the two wed in 1998. Tom Harty spent much of his career at Rodney Hunt Co. and was still working part-time as a salesman for Donbeck Sales, a company founded by Donald and his wife Becky, when he died.

Fisher was born in New Haven, Connecticut, on April 22, 1939, and graduated from East Haven High School in 1957. She was involved in founding Valuing Our Children, an organization dedicated to addressing the needs of youngsters, as well as the Pioneer Junior Women’s Club and The Oracle, a now-defunct volunteer weekly newspaper. She also was named the sixth recipient of the Barbara Corey Award by the North Quabbin Community Coalition at its annual luncheon in 2003. The coalition’s most prestigious award honors someone who has made a significant impact on the quality of life in the North Quabbin region.

Reach Domenic Poli at:
dpoli@recorder.com or
413-930-4120.

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