In the weeks since Kayla Noonan and a friend were gunned down in the friend’s Burlington home by Noonan’s ex-boyfriend, those close to the University of Vermont student have remembered her as a generous, ambitious woman and grappled with what has come to light about her experiences with domestic violence.
On July 25, Mikal Dixon broke into a first floor apartment where Noonan was staying, murdered her and critically injured her friend before turning the AR-15 rifle on himself.
Noonan, 22, was about to start her senior year at UVM. She was majoring in community entrepreneurship and minoring in sociology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
“Kayla Noonan was going places in this world. And she has been robbed of her future by a boy who never learned to be human,” Dr. Trisha Shrum, an assistant professor in the college, wrote in a Facebook post. Noonan was Shrum’s teaching assistant in the spring of 2022, primarily helping to grade student business models.
Within a day of Noonan’s death, people began leaving bouquets of flowers on the porch steps of the Old North End apartment where she was killed.
Noonan was heavily involved in her campus community, as well as the broader Burlington community, according to people who knew her. She was an avid member of the Women of Color Coalition at UVM and worked various customer service jobs around Burlington during her five years in the city, including a teller position at Chase Bank.
“Kayla was hard working, intelligent, career driven, and was not afraid to be herself,” branch manager Steven Wald said. “She had a sense of humor that left the team smiling even on those tough days. We lost a truly special person who touched the hearts of everyone she encountered.”
The news of her death was “devastating and heartbreaking,” he said.
“Kayla was the kind of woman that was not afraid to be herself,” he continued. “She was proud, goal oriented, and on her way to accomplishing great things in life.”
“I would be in my office hearing laughter and joking amongst my team, and without surprise, it would be Kayla in the center with a big smile and even greater sense of humor,” Wald recalled. “She formed friendships with her co-workers that would have lasted a lifetime.”
According to Shrum, Noonan’s teller job was more than just a way to make money. She saw it as an opportunity to begin developing her business skills and was planning on taking advantage of Chase’s mentorship program. Noonan reached out to Shrum early on in the fall semester to network and seek her advice on the business world, according to Shrum, who described Noonan as a student with “a ton of potential.”
Raised in northern New Jersey, Noonan moved to Burlington in 2018 to study biology at UVM. After switching majors a few times, she became interested in business and transferred to the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She aspired to follow a business path with a community approach, according to Shrum.
Erica Caloiero, vice provost of student affairs at UVM, said she was shocked to hear of Noonan’s death. The university is doing its best to support Noonan’s family, she said.
“Kayla’s mother wants it to be clear that this was an instance of domestic violence,” Caloiero said. “Kayla was murdered by her ex-boyfriend.” (VTDigger attempted to reach Noonan’s mother but did not hear back.)
Caloiero is also working with other UVM staff to plan a vigil that “honors and brings light to Kayla’s life, that is consistent with what her family might be hoping for and wanting at this time, and in a way that really honors the struggle that our community is having in the aftermath of her death.”
A vigil was initially planned for Aug. 5, but university officials decided to wait until classes resume, so that more students and faculty can attend. They haven’t yet announced a date.
In the meantime, Caloiero is encouraging students struggling after Noonan’s death to reach out to UVM staff, who she said would connect them with resources.
“We’re a large community but we don’t have edges,” Caloiero said. “We’re situated right within the Burlington community; even so, it is absolutely unthinkable what occurred and holding space for that and helping our community find resources has taken every waking moment since it occurred.”
Dr. Linden Higgins, Noonan’s biology professor, recalled that “she just knew she wanted to help people.” During her first year at UVM, Noonan was under a lot of stress and made multiple trips to New Jersey to be with her family during a hard time, Higgins recalled. The two developed a close relationship when Noonan’s grades began to drop. In asking for help, Noonan began sharing details about her personal life.
In the summer of 2019, Noonan began pet-sitting for Higgins. Noonan and Dixon had started dating toward the end of Noonan’s first year, Higgins said, and Dixon was a rising senior in the Grossman College of Business at the time. Occasionally the roles would reverse, with Noonan leaving her cat in Higgins’ care.
“She touched a lot of us because she had no fear of asking for help,” Higgins said. “She was one of those students you get to know because she had no fear.”
Higgins met Dixon one time that summer and recalls that he “seemed fine” but was not, by her assessment, ready to move into a career. Noonan stayed with Dixon for about a week that summer until the dorms reopened, according to Higgins.
Dixon was last enrolled at UVM for fall 2021, according to Caloiero, but he did not complete his degree there.
Higgins recalled that Noonan began to pull away during this period. She worried for her former student but believed Noonan was “finding her own path forward.”
Noonan “walked with power and confidence” and “spoke with intelligence and competence and ambition” in her later days around UVM’s campus, Shrum said in her Facebook post. Calling Noonan “a blazing flame extinguished,” Shrum also noted that Noonan had alluded to “issues with an ex” but never spoke much of Dixon, although there were warning signs hinting at the possibility of abuse.
According to Shrum, Noonan took a couple weeks off from school last fall because she was worried about her safety, though she didn’t explain why to Shrum. During that time, Noonan’s confidence never wavered, Shrum said. Like anyone, Noonan was not perfect but showed “a different kind of strength.”
Acting Chief Jon Murad of the Burlington Police Department said in a press conference shortly after the shooting that Dixon had several restraining orders against him in the past but they didn’t involve Noonan.
Shrum said she was shocked when she learned of the shooting, even before she knew that Noonan was the deceased victim.
“Our culture tends to deprive men of the tools to process sadness and embarrassment,” Shrum said. “The most socially acceptable way for men to express these feelings is through anger. Both men and women are harmed by this failure to allow men to be fully human and feel the full range of human emotion.”
During the Covid-19 pandemic, reports of domestic violence assault, including misdemeanors and felonies, have decreased, Murad said at an unrelated press conference on Monday. However, the number of domestic disturbances, a precursory to domestic assaults, has risen drastically, he said.
Murad also told reporters Monday that the other victim, who has not been publicly identified, remained hospitalized and had not yet been interviewed by police because of her physical and mental health.
Burlington Police Department records requested by VTDigger indicate that there have been 52 incidents of domestic disturbances or assaults involving a firearm in the city since Jan. 1, 2018. The records did not indicate which incidents led to an arrest or court-ordered weapon removal.
In an interview, deputy chief Wade Labrecque said officers have confiscated weapons at the scene of a domestic disturbance only “a couple times” since 2018, when Vermont lawmakers passed legislation to allow for the removal of firearms from individuals suspected of domestic violence.
A 2021 report from Vermont’s Domestic Violence Fatality Review Commission concluded that the state “is not doing enough to limit a defendant’s access to firearms in domestic violence cases.” Firearms in domestic violence situations can increase a woman’s risk for homicide by 500%, according to the report.
The commission references situations in which domestic violence perpetrators can access firearms because they live in a house with gun owners. In a recent interview, state Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden, also pointed to what she called a loophole in the current law that allows defendants to request in court that their confiscated firearms be turned over to a family member rather than police.
The commission is calling on Vermont to make safe state-run firearms storage widely available throughout the state.
In its report, the commission cited eight homicides committed in 2020 that were related to domestic violence, four of which involved firearms. Two were murder-suicides, and all but one death occured in or close to the victim’s home, similar to Noonan’s case.
In 2019, four of eight domestic homicides involved a firearm. Six of the deaths happened inside or close to the home of one of the involved persons and two were murder-suicides. In 2018, five domestic homicides were committed using a firearm. There was one murder-suicide and one attempted murder-suicide. All of the victims died inside their homes.
“It is long past time to convert domestic violence from something that happens to others to something that happens to us, and likewise the gun violence,” Higgins said.
“She knew she was going to forge her own path in life, and that it was going to be something to behold,” Shrum said about Noonan. “This girl was an icon.”
“That is the kind of person that I saw in Kayla,” said Higgins in response to Shrum’s characterization. “She wasn’t there yet,” Higgins went on, “but she was growing into herself.”
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