Stars pierced the clear, cold predawn sky last January 19 when Dean Pierson, a 59-year-old dairy farmer from the hamlet of Copake, N. Y., headed out of the house to milk the 51 cows on Hi-Low Farm, as he did every morning, and as his father, a Swedish immigrant, had done before him. Neighbors say that Pierson was a taciturn man whose limited leisure time was spent in solitary outdoor pursuits like hunting and fishing. But he was always willing to help a neighbor. Pierson, they said, was “a good farmer,” high praise in rural Columbia County, a region of rolling fields, woodlots, and small towns about 115 miles north of Manhattan. Although he was married with four children, Pierson worked the farm alone, which meant that he had to toil virtually every waking hour. Even so, with milk selling for far below the cost to produce it, no matter how hard he worked, Pierson kept falling further behind. That morning, he intended to end the problem.
After finishing the milking chores and making sure the cows were fed and settled in their stalls, Pierson picked up a small-caliber rifle . . .