Five area schools have new principals

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by Richard Creaser

Five area schools will have new principals to start the 2013-2014 school year.  Brighton Elementary has perhaps the most radical change in store as Denise Russell not only takes over as principal but is joined by ten other new hires.

In interviews over the past few weeks, the newly hired principals each touched on part of a recurring theme — community.  The small size of the towns creates not only the school’s biggest weakness but also its greatest strength.  Small towns sometimes have fewer resources, but they also often have a greater sense of community and often enjoy more involvement by parents and townspeople than larger towns and cities do.

Two of these administrators will be familiar to some of the students.  Robert Midi returns to Newport City Elementary to serve as interim principal for the coming school year.  Mr. Midi had previously spent 18 years as the school’s chief administrator.  In Albany Todd Rivver, a former teacher there, returns to provide leadership following the retirement of Jill Chaffee.

In Brighton, Deborah Ahrens returns after a one-year absence to teach grades one and two, Chris Lawson arrives to teach middle school math, Tammy Wise to teach middle school language arts, Beth Rodondi to teach middle school science, Carolyn Mader will teach music, and Kevin Smith joins the team as a special educator.  Linda Beaumier, Brittany Gonyaw and Dana Jacobs arrive as paraeducators and O. Ray Willey is the school’s newest bus driver.

Eric Erwin, former assistant principal at Newport City Elementary, takes the helm at Lakeview Union School in Greensboro.  Kelli Dean, former assistant principal at Barton Academy and Graded School, takes leadership of Holland Elementary.

Despite the many changes in store for the coming school year, what remains the same is that all five principals are fully committed to the task of providing a quality education for the region’s children.

“Creating the best possible learning environment is always the bottom line,” Mr. Midi said.  “That’s always the goal.”

Creating that perfect environment starts with a school’s administration, Mr. Erwin said.  Not only must the principal oversee the educational needs of his students but also address the development of his staff and serve to educate the public as well, he said.

“To a large extent the principal is a public servant,” Mr. Erwin said.  “I need to be able to educate the public about the operation of the school, the needs of the school and explain how gaining the resources necessary to meet those needs will affect the education we can provide.  I feel that if I give people the information they need to make well-informed decisions they are better positioned to make the best choices for their children.”

Determining what is best for a community’s children is not an easy task.  Opening lines of communication is the first step to assessing and understanding the kind of school a community wants to have.  In many rural communities, the school occupies a critical place in the fabric of that town.

“It’s about creating an environment that invites involvement,” Ms. Russell said.  “I want people to be able to come to me and let me know what they think is important.”

Getting people involved in their school involves demonstrating an understanding of the nature of a community.  To that end, Ms. Dean feels she can relate to the people of Holland, having grown up in the Northeast Kingdom and lived in many similar communities.

“I can understand the role the school has in small communities because I’ve lived in it, I’ve worked in it myself,” Ms. Dean said.  “I’m sensitive to the needs of our small schools.”

That basic understanding will be important as Ms. Dean leads Holland Elementary in the next year.  Voters defeated the school budget at Town Meeting primarily out of a frustration over a lack of connection to the school.  Ms. Dean has vowed to build and repair those bridges that divide the school community from the rest of the town.

“I can’t do it alone,” she said.  “Luckily I have a school board that is also working to make those connections.  Holland School is the center of this community, and people certainly want to know that their tax dollars are being used well.”

Making those connections is part of the joy of being the administrator in a small school.  Those connections inevitably begin with the students in your care, Mr. Midi said.

“Even in a community the size of Newport you can make connections to the wider community through the students,” he said.  “The children have aunts, uncles, grandparents, a whole host of people they are related to.  You can reach those people providing the kind of educational environment that gets the kids excited and talking about what happened in school today.  The word gets out pretty quickly.”

Mr. Erwin is particularly grateful for the amount of support he has already received from the community.  Greensboro and Stannard, the two communities served by Lakeview Union, have proven particularly interested in their school community, he said.

“But I can’t take their interest for granted.  If I want to maintain that relationship, I need to get out there, meet people and keep them interested in what’s happening here.”

The close knit nature of small towns is conducive to building relationships, Mr. Rivver agreed.  Daily interactions both at and outside of the school provide an opportunity to keep community members engaged.

“Part of it is enthusiasm,” Mr. Rivver said.  “People can tell when you are passionate about something and they respond to that.  We’re not building iPods or engines, we’re educating children, and what can be more important than that?”

While a small community can facilitate engagement, small communities also have a small tax base which creates a challenge for administrators.  The budgeting process is one area where community involvement is particularly important.

“When you have limited resources you want to make sure that you make the best possible use of those resources,” Ms. Russell said.  “We need to make education relevant to the present and future needs of our children and our community.  Sometimes we are trying to teach them skills we don’t even know exist yet.  It’s about preparing them to be effective learners.”

Technology is one of those ways to expand learning opportunities and, if done well, can do so with limited effect on the bottom line.

“Island Pond is somewhat isolated because of its geography, but it doesn’t have to be,” Ms. Russell said.  “If we use technology well, we can provide our students with the same kinds of opportunities afforded students in New York City.”

How to implement that technology is one area where understanding a community’s values is particularly important, Mr. Erwin said.  To some people schools are seen as a protective force against outside influences.

“Technology has exposed our children to a lot of influences, a lot of information that can be both good and bad,” Mr. Erwin said.  “Our job is to help them make the distinction between the two.  It’s the duty of schools to help students use and understand the technology.”

Ms. Dean is in a unique position among all of the new principals.  Her position is defined as 80 percent principal and 20 percent fifth- and sixth-grade social studies teacher.  While that distinction may be reflected in the division of her salary, it becomes less obvious in practice.

“I am going to devote the time necessary to make sure that I accomplish both roles 100 percent,” Ms. Dean said.  “I think it will be a good combination, allowing me to keep fingers in all of the pies.  I love teaching and I think that it will actually be re-energizing to get the opportunity to interact with the kids in the classroom.”

Ms. Dean also hopes that by creating a bond with students outside of the principal’s office, it will help her better understand the needs of students and staff.  Building relationships outside of the office is also something that Ms. Russell hopes to accomplish in Brighton.

“Maybe I’ll be more approachable with a violin in hand,” Ms. Russell, a classically trained violinist, said.  “Sometimes you can’t always be the principal.  Sometimes you need to step outside that role and show a different side.”

Showing that other side can be rewarding on many levels, Mr. Rivver said.  Sometimes building those relationships can be as easy as getting to know the students by name or greeting them as they come off the school bus in the morning.

“Principals are perceived as the disciplinarian,” Mr. Rivver said.  “When you build those relationships, establish those connections early on, discipline becomes less of an issue.”

Addressing disciplinary issues is invariably founded on establishing respect, Mr. Erwin said.  Schools are perfectly positioned to encourage respectful actions and dialogue, he said.

“We’re working very hard to teach rules for acceptable behavior,” Mr. Erwin said.  “But it is a challenge because when you look at adult role models, politicians in particular, you don’t see that.  You don’t see them talking it out in a respectful way.”

Mr. Midi offered some words of wisdom to his new administrative colleagues.  In order to earn the trust and the respect of their community, they must be willing to clearly establish what they stand for and exhibit a willingness to follow it through.

“People trust you for your word and that’s very important in a small community,” Mr. Midi said.  “If people know what to expect, know what you stand for, even if people don’t always agree with it, trust is formed.  Don’t just say it, live it.”

Mr. Midi also encourages members of the community to remain involved and engaged with their local school.  While the principal is there to listen to your concerns, the school board is also able to voice those concerns on your behalf.

“We need to hear those voices, especially during the planning and budgeting process,” Ms. Dean agreed.  “It’s hard to know what everyone values.  It can’t just be my vision, it has to be a vision based on what we all agree is best for the kids.”

Lakeview Union School will have a special meet and greet with Mr. Erwin at the school on August 23 at 3 p.m.  Brighton Elementary will have a back-to-school picnic for students and parents at the school on August 26 at 5:30 p.m.

contact Richard Creaser at nek_scribbler@hotmail.com

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In Barton: Shooting strikes the heart of two communities

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Carlton Bickford of Glover pled innocent to first-degree murder in the shooting death on Friday of Rachel Coburn of Barton.  Photo by Joseph Gresser

Carlton Bickford of Glover pled innocent to first-degree murder in the shooting death on Friday of Rachel Coburn of Barton. Photo by Joseph Gresser

by Tena Starr

NEWPORT — Carlton Bickford, 76, a retired electrician and well-liked longtime Glover resident, shambled into court in shackles Monday and pled innocent to first-degree murder in the shooting death on Friday of 72-year-old Rachel Coburn of Barton, who Mr. Bickford told police was his “girlfriend.”

Mr. Bickford, who has health and hearing problems, could not initially hear the court proceedings, and arrangements were made for a hearing device before the arraignment continued.

He will be held without bail, although public defender Jill Jourdan argued that he has a wife at home, children in the community, no prior criminal record and should be released on strict conditions and a $100,000 bond with $10,000 down.

The evidence of guilt is great, Judge Howard VanBenthuysen said as he ordered Mr. Bickford to return to prison in St. Johnsbury, where he will be held pending resolution of a case that has flatly shocked all those who know the accused and the victim.

What Mr. Bickford told police about what happened on Friday, the day of the shooting, is sometimes confused.  More than once he allegedly said he was worried that Ms. Coburn wanted to end their relationship, and if he couldn’t have her no one would.  He also said he feared Ms. Coburn would turn him in to police for threatening her, or for attempted murder, although he did not explain why she would accuse him of the latter.

He said there had never been violence between the two until that day.

Ms. Coburn, 72, worked in the cafeteria at Lake Region Union High School for about ten years.  Before that, she and her late husband, Lewis, owned Barton Cleaners until 2002 when it closed.  She’s described as a happy, hard-working, young-at-heart person.

“She was a really warm and friendly woman,” said Nicole Libby, Lake Region’s food service manager.  “She always had that smile on her face.  She was looking to try to make people happy.  She was a very thorough worker, and she had a wonderful, close relationship with a lot of the students.  A lot of the kids are really devastated by this.  She had a way of connecting with kids.

“Everybody is just floored,” Ms. Libby said.  “I had a great time working with her.  It just isn’t real.  She was one of those happy people; she just wanted to live life.”

Mr. Bickford turned himself in to the Lyndonville Police Department Friday afternoon, allegedly saying he had just killed his girlfriend with a shotgun following an argument.  He said he had then tried to kill himself, but only managed to graze his shoulder.  He allegedly told police they would find Ms. Coburn’s body in her house, along with two bullet holes in the ceiling from his unsuccessful attempt to shoot himself.

Both the accused and the victim have an extensive network of friends and family that is intertwined, and that has contributed to the grief and bafflement that follows the tragedy.

“It’s totally unbelievable,” said Butch Currier of Glover, who has been friends with Mr. Bickford since the 1960s.  “I’m just dumfounded.  I don’t know why, and everybody else is wracking their brain trying to think of some reason why.  I even woke up the next morning and wondered if I’d had a bad dream.  I didn’t believe it.”

Mr. Currier said he has sugared with Mr. Bickford for 20 years.  “He did all my boiling for me.  We’ve done a lot together, fished, rabbit hunted, owned property together.  I just can’t say anything bad about him.  He was always funny, always doing something to make you laugh.”

The killing was doubly painful for Mr. Currier.  Rachel Coburn was his aunt.

“Again, you can’t get anybody to say anything bad about Rachel,” Mr. Currier said.  “She was happy go lucky.  She had four kids, loved her kids, her grandkids.”

State Police Detective Sergeant David Petersen’s affidavit describes a confused and distraught man who had been crying when he showed up at the Lyndonville Police Department Friday afternoon.  It also describes an extramarital relationship that started about four years ago when Mr. Bickford was doing some electrical work for Ms. Coburn.

The relationship, which Mr. Bickford said was nonsexual and “the least of what he wanted” when it started, was apparently on the rocks and went very wrong earlier on Friday.

Shortly after Mr. Bickford showed up at the Lyndonville Police Department, Officer Brandon Thrailkill notified State Police.  Mr. Bickford allegedly told Detective Petersen that he would find Ms. Coburn’s body in her West Street home in the hallway near the cellar stairs.

“…he started to tear up and said it was the dumbest thing he had ever done in his life,” the detective’s affidavit says.

Mr. Bickford said he’d had an argument Friday morning with Ms. Coburn, with whom he’d had a romantic relationship that his wife and son were aware of.  He said the two mostly drank coffee and played cribbage.  His wife had talked to Ms. Coburn about the trouble the relationship was causing.

Rachel Coburn.

Rachel Coburn.

He’d gone to Ms. Coburn’s about 8:30 Friday morning with his usual coffee and newspaper.  An argument had ensued, but he said he thought he could work things out.  A couple of hours later he left, thinking he could “think it over and keep things clear in his mind,” court records say.

When police asked if the argument was about ending the relationship, Mr. Bickford was initially vague, saying he did not think so, but perhaps Ms. Coburn had.  Later, he indicated that his distress was due, in part, to her wish to stop seeing him, the affidavit says.

He returned later that morning with a 12 gauge double barreled shotgun, which he told police he’d taken from his son’s house so his wife would not see him taking a gun from their own house.  When police interviewed Mr. Bickford’s wife, Mary Jane, she said that the guns at their house were locked up, and she had hidden the key.

Mr. Bickford apparently made no bones about the threat of violence when he returned to Ms. Coburn’s house that morning.  He said he loaded the gun in the driveway and put it on the stove while the two continued to talk.

“When asked if he made any threats to use the gun, C. Bickford remarked something to the effect of ‘I don’t know; I probably did to the point of if I couldn’t have her nobody’s ever,’” Detective Petersen’s affidavit says.

Mr. Bickford also told police he believed Ms. Coburn was going to turn him in for attempted murder and suggested he had no alternative but to kill her, Detective Petersen’s affidavit says.

In the midst of the couple’s second conversation that morning, the phone rang.  Mr. Bickford told Ms. Coburn not to answer, but when she made a dash for it, “that’s when I shot her,” he allegedly told police.

He did not want Ms. Coburn to answer the phone because “she was going to seek help,” court records say.

“She tried to get by me once to get out the door and I wouldn’t let her and then when the phone rung I just told her don’t answer the phone,” Mr. Bickford allegedly told police.  “Visit with me.  And she made one wild dash to go to the phone.  I guess that was it.”

“No, I didn’t intend to kill her,” he said, according to the affidavit.  “But when she started threatening me with having me arrested and all of that, I don’t know, I didn’t have much choice.”

He told police that when he returned with the gun, “I didn’t know just what was going to happen, but I wanted to be in control.”

He allegedly told Detective Petersen that he had “nothing to gain from shooting Coburn and should have walked away from the whole setup.”

Mr. Bickford said he believed he shot Ms. Coburn in the abdomen and chest area from a distance of ten or 15 feet, and he did not check on her after shooting her because he knew she was dead, Detective Petersen’s affidavit says.

A babysitter at a neighbor’s house that day told police she heard two loud bangs, but did not see anything or anyone.  She said it sounded like someone was moving furniture.

Mr. Bickford told police that, at first, he had no intention of using the shotgun, but said that Ms. Coburn “ran her mouth about me using her the way I had been using her, and she was probably correct.”  He said he believed Ms. Coburn would find a way to “put him away for threatening her.”

“The lady’s dead.  I shot her and I’m guilty as hell,” he told Detective Petersen, according to the affidavit.

In a later interview that evening, Mr. Bickford told police Ms. Coburn had told him he could “get out.”

“He further noted, upon returning to Coburn’s house he told Coburn if I couldn’t have her nobody was going to,” Detective Petersen’s affidavit says.

“I was 100 percent wrong,” he told police.

Mr. Bickford frequently expressed remorse as he talked to police.  At one point, he said he would do anything to bring Ms. Coburn back, “but it was too late.”

“C. Bickford remarked he had more problems now than he did before,” Detective Petersen’s affidavit says.  It goes on to say that Mr. Bickford said he “wished he could go back and change the past.”

After the shooting, Mr. Bickford told police, he drove around Orleans and Caledonia counties for a while then went to the village office in Lyndonville, which he believed was the police station.  There he was given directions to the police station, where he turned himself in.

The murder has pretty much consumed the thoughts of many who knew the two.

“When I saw it on Facebook, I thought it was a hoax,” said Sue Squires of Glover.  “My mouth started getting wide open.  I’ve known Carlton all my life.  I don’t understand it.  He’d help you out in any way he could.”

“When you think of Carlton, you think of Carlton as a joker and with a smile on his face,” said Sharon Bickford.  “It’s such a tragedy.  You just sit here in a whirlwind trying to make something of it.

“I’ve known Rachel all my life,” Mrs. Bickford said.  “She was a nice lady, very friendly, cordial, always had a smile on her face, very personable.  She just loved life.  For everybody that knew both of them it’s an awful shock, for the whole community.”

Family and friends are simply trying to process the tragedy, Mrs. Bickford said.  “Never in a dog’s age, never, that’s not him,” she said about the charge against Mr. Bickford.

“What to hell happened?” Mr. Currier said.  “Chances are I’ll never see Carlton again.  Without a doubt I won’t.”

He said he wonders if the multiple medications Mr. Bickford took for a variety of health problems may have affected him.

Conviction on a first-degree murder charge carries a sentence of 35 years to life.

Mr. Bickford was denied the services of a public defender.  Judge VanBenthuysen said that because of his assets and income, he would have to retain an attorney himself.

contact Tena Starr at tenas@bartonchronicle.com

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Lowell wind: Neighbors sick and tired of turbine noise

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Rita and Paul Martin at their home on the Eden Road in Albany.  The Lowell Mountain turbines dominate the view behind them, though the camera used in this photo was barely able to capture them.  Photo by Chris Braithwaite

Rita and Paul Martin at their home on the Eden Road in Albany. The Lowell Mountain turbines dominate the view behind them, though the camera used in this photo was barely able to capture them. Photo by Chris Braithwaite

by Chris Braithwaite

ALBANY — Jim and Kathy Goodrich have a nice home with a porch along the entire west side that overlooks acres of neatly trimmed lawn and, about a mile away, the long, sinuous ridgeline known as Lowell Mountain.

Now that view is dominated by the 21 towers of the Lowell wind project, their blades reaching 460 feet high.  And the house is for sale at a discounted price.

“What I came here for is gone,” said Ms. Goodrich, a Wolcott native who worked for IBM in Chittenden County and then spent ten years with her husband in a landscaping business.

“This was going to be where I spent the rest of my life — quiet, peaceful, relaxed,” Ms. Goodrich continued.  “But I can’t stay here.”

One of the features their home has lost is the quiet, the couple says.

“Sometimes they’re really loud,” Ms. Goodrich said.  In one hot spell, with the bedroom windows open and two fans running, she recalls, “I could hear them over everything.  It was some kind of roar.”

“It’s really hard to explain what it sounds like,” Mr. Goodrich said.  “To me, it’s mechanized gears, but mixed in with a swoosh, swoosh, swoosh.”

He suspects that the turbines often exceed the limits imposed when the state Public Service Board (PSB) gave the project its certificate of public good.  Mr. Goodrich sounds unconvinced by Green Mountain Power’s claim that its turbines have remained within those limits — 45 decibels outside, 35 inside — 99 percent of the time since they began to spin in late 2012.

Ms. Goodrich thinks the noise limits miss the point.

“I don’t doubt that most of the time they’re in compliance,” she said Monday.  “But to me, those guidelines are too much for people to handle, hour after hour after hour.”

The couple is not sure whether the turbines are affecting their health.  Mr. Goodrich recently experienced blade flicker for the first time, as the sun set behind the turbines and cast their moving shadows into the house.

Jim and Kathy Goodrich on their front porch, with Sophie.  Photo by Chris Braithwaite

Jim and Kathy Goodrich on their front porch, with Sophie. Photo by Chris Braithwaite

“That really irritated me,” he said.  As a young man, he said, he couldn’t go into a disco club because of the effect strobe lights had on him.  “That night it really freaked me,” he said of the flicker.

As for the noise, Mr. Goodrich said, “I’ve got an idea it’s affecting my health, but I don’t know.  I know it has an effect on our talking to each other.  I get cranky.  She gets cranky.”

“It’s frustrating,” Ms. Goodrich agreed.  “It’s beyond our control.  I can ask him to turn the TV down, but they don’t listen up there,” she added, gesturing to the turbines.

Underlying the couple’s personal concerns is their anger about the project’s environmental impact.

“For me it’s about what they did to the top of the mountain,” Ms. Goodrich said.  “I’m a Vermonter.  I respect what we have here.  Now that it’s there it’s the interrupted views, the noise, the stress it’s brought into our lives.  It’s everything.

“I wouldn’t have any problem in the world with green power,” she continued.  “But it seems that they took away more green than they’ll ever give back.”

The third member of the household, a small dog named Sophie, “gets really skittish when the turbines are noisy,” Ms. Goodrich said.  “At times I can’t get her to take a walk down the driveway.”

Molly Two lives just down the hill, where Goodrich Road meets the Eden Road.  The big dog sticks close to Paul Martin if he takes her outside when the turbines are running.  She has become gun shy, and she’s started going to the bathroom on the floor of the Martin house.

The Martins’ horses were spooked by the turbines at first, Mr. Martin said, but seem to have grown used to them now.

When the wind’s right they hear the turbines outside.  Mr. Martin described the noise as “just a big rumble like a jet.”

“With a lot of that thud, thud thud,” his wife, Rita, added.

When he goes outside, Mr. Martin said, “my ears will start ringing to beat hell.  They never did that before.”

As for Ms. Martin, he said, “She woke me up one night and said ‘My heart is pounding terrible.’  I could hear the thud thud from the towers.”

“For some reason my heart wanted to beat in that rhythm,” Ms. Martin recalled.

“We were told we wouldn’t hear them” by the people from Green Mountain Power, Mr. Martin said.

Since they’ve put an air conditioner in the bedroom the turbine noise doesn’t disturb their sleep, the Martins said, though they still hear them on some nights.

When they moved onto the Eden Road in 1974, their place was at the end of the road.  Now, the Martins say, people wanting to view the turbines generate considerable traffic past their home.

They say they’ve thought about moving, but are not sure they could sell their homestead.

“Who’d buy it?” Ms. Martin asked with a shrug.

“What most bothers me is the destruction it’s done on top of the mountain,” Mr. Martin said.

“Paul’s taken both our kids up the mountain,” before the turbines arrived, his wife said.  “Thank God he did, too.  It will never be the same.”

Shirley and Don Nelson flank a sign that is common in their neighborhood.  Photo by Chris Braithwaite

Shirley and Don Nelson flank a sign that is common in their neighborhood. Photo by Chris Braithwaite

A bit closer to the turbines, at her home on the Bailey-Hazen Road, Shirley Nelson has a list of symptoms that have arrived since the wind project started spinning.  She has a ringing in her ears, and sometimes worse.

“This morning it felt like a pin sticking in my ear,” she said Monday.  “I have headaches, usually around my temples but sometimes like a band wrapped right around my head.

“One of my daughters gets migraines within an hour of visiting our house,” Ms. Nelson added.

“Both Donny and I wake up in the middle of the night because it sounds like something coming out of the pillow,” she said, referring to her husband, Don.  “I never said much about it, because I thought I was crazy.”

Then she found a research paper by Alec Salt, Ph.D., from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, entitled “Wind Turbines can be Hazardous to Human Health.”

He writes about very low frequency sound and infrasound, which wind turbines generate in turbulent winds.  “Our measurements show the ear is most sensitive to infrasound when other, audible sounds are at low levels or absent,” Dr. Salt writes.

Thus infrasound can be most troublesome when other sounds are blocked by house walls or even a pillow, he continues.  “In either case, the infrasound will be strongly stimulating the ear even though you will not be able to hear it.”

That can cause sleep disturbance, panic, and chronic sleep deprivation leading to high blood pressure, the paper says.

“Some days I am very tired,” Ms. Nelson wrote in an e-mail Monday.  It is hard to stay awake on such days, she added, and “it is hard to concentrate and I find I am unable to do simple things like balancing a checkbook.”

The Nelsons routinely see turbine flicker in their home as the sun goes behind the towers.  It sends shadows spinning slowly across their refrigerator, their floors and across the lawns outside.

“It’s just really annoying,” Ms. Nelson said.

Dislike of the turbines and their effects is not universal in the neighborhood.  Albert and Esther Weber live a little west of the Martins on the Eden Road, just across the Lowell town line.

“I hear them, but they’re not offensive to me,” Mr. Weber said.  “I figure the wind should do some good for a change.  The wind ripped the roof off my house.  It should make some electricity, and it should make our taxes go down.

“I love the windmills,” Ms. Weber said.  “I’ve always loved windmills since I was a girl in school, and learned about Holland.  When they said they were going to put some up here, I was thrilled.”

She likes to see the towers glowing on the mountain in the early morning light, and finds that the afternoon shadows flickering in the backyard “look kind of neat.”

Further down the road Carl Cowles said he hears the turbines almost all the time, and they bother him.  “I think I hear them more at night than in the daytime,” Mr. Cowles added.  “I do wake up, and I hear them.  I don’t know exactly what woke me up.”

When he’s not traveling around the world on business, Kevin McGrath lives on the other side of the mountain on the Farm Road in Lowell.  He recalls a visit from a friend, another Lowell resident who had voted in favor of the wind project.  Mr. McGrath was complaining about the turbine noise.

“He said, ‘We’ll listen for the noise as soon as the jet plane goes away.’  I said, ‘That is the noise.’”

“It sounds like a plane that never lands,” he said.  He measures the sound with a hand-held meter.

“At times it is under 45 decibels outside,” he reports.  “You don’t have anything to say.  This is the way it is.”

“People like myself, who have had the land for 20 or 25 years, aren’t used to this new intrusion into their lives.  If you have a leaky faucet in your sink, is it below 35 decibels?  Yes it is.  But not being able to turn it off will drive you crazy.  It’s an intrusion.”

Mr. McGrath has bombarded the Department of Public Service with complaints that the turbines have kept him and his guests awake at night.  He’s currently asking Green Mountain Power (GMP) for detailed data about wind speed and other weather conditions, which he wants to pass on to his own, independent noise expert.

“They’re kind of waffling on that,” he said of GMP in a telephone interview Tuesday.

“We’re talking to Kevin,” GMP spokesman Dorothy Schnure said Tuesday.  “We’re going to continue to talk with Kevin.”

But Ms. Schnure didn’t say GMP would provide the data he’s seeking.  Instead, she emphasized that the utility stands ready to test any home near the project, to see how much its structure reduces outside noise.  Then the utility would put an outside meter near the house, to provide an approximation of turbine noise inside the home.

So far, she said, “no one has taken us up on the offer.”

GMP announced last week that in a test period from May 22 to June 5 its project did not exceed the PSB noise limits.

However, in two earlier test periods noise exceeded the limits for a total of just over four hours, the release said.

The PSB has scheduled a hearing for August 8 to decide what sanctions should be imposed on GMP for the violations.

contact Chris Braithwaite at chris@bartonchronicle.com

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NCUHS board favors plans to hire police officer

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by Joseph Gresser

NEWPORT — After a discussion that occasionally veered toward the contentious, the North Country Union High School board decided Tuesday to move forward on negotiations with Newport aimed at hiring a city police officer as a community resource officer in the school.

The board was acting on a recommendation from its human resources committee, which favors hiring the officer.

Newport representative Richard Cartee said he is worried that the $40,000 available to pay for the officer will be too little, and the school will find itself spending money it doesn’t have.

Principal Bill Rivard pledged not to spend more than the amount given to the school out of Medicaid funds.

“I’ll hold you to that,” Mr. Cartee said.

“Please do,” replied Mr. Rivard.

Mr. Rivard said the $40,000 represents new Medicaid money above and beyond the money now used to pay for a half-time school psychologist and a behavior specialist.

Mr. Rivard said he has spoken with Newport Police Chief Seth DiSanto and come up with a draft of a memorandum of understanding outlining the responsibilities of the school and the police department.

Under the terms of the memorandum the officer will “provide specialized assistance… to the school’s administrators, teachers and parents.”

The agreement also lists the officer’s duties as providing instruction to students, investigating criminal activity, and dealing with other police matters concerning the school or students.

Newport Mayor Paul Monette, who attended the school board meeting along with Alderman Dennis Chenette, said the council has yet to see the agreement.  Mr. Monette said he is concerned about any potential cost to city taxpayers.

“The bottom line is that we already have a million dollar police force and we don’t want to increase that,” the mayor said.

Mr. Cartee said he was disturbed to hear people saying that he attended the city council meeting Monday night in order to oppose the board’s plans.

He had gone to the meeting as a Newport taxpayer, he said, to express his concerns about the possibility that the city would get stuck with unforeseen expenses.

Richard Nelson, a board member from Derby, said he has mixed feelings about the proposal.  While he understands that the cost of the program’s first year will be covered by the Medicaid grant, “all good things come to an end,” he said.

Nevertheless, Mr. Nelson continued, most of the people he’s spoken to about the proposal have favored hiring a school resource officer.

“I spoke with some police officers,” he said.  “They’re eager to see it, see how it works.  It could be a benefit to the school and a benefit to the students.”

Mr. Nelson said the school has an ex-state trooper serving as truancy officer, who is “a hell of a good guy doing a good job,” but he will retire someday.

The school could think about combining the two positions, Mr. Nelson said.

He said that although some people worry about having a law enforcement officer in school “I always believe, if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear.”

The board need not worry about negotiations, he suggested, because any changes made by the police or city officials would have to be ratified by the school board.

Scott Boskind, another of Derby’s representatives on the board and himself a former school principal, said that it’s important to think about the question of school safety.

“While no one wants to talk about the most horrific events,” he said, the violent attacks in Newtown, Connecticut and Columbine, Colorado, should never be forgotten.

Mr. Boskind even cited a school massacre in 1927 in Michigan “where a school board member planted a bomb because he was disgruntled.”

Mr. Cartee laughed.  “I appreciate that,” he said.

“While I’m glad that we have a board member who is cognizant of finances, we all have a passion to make sure students come to school and are going to be safe,” Mr. Boskind said.

“I think that never, ever, ever can you say I am not concerned about safety of students,” Mr. Cartee said.  But all too often the school approves spending on a program and then exceeds that amount, he continued.

He said that a good example is the cost of the school’s new running track, the bulk of which was to have been paid for through private fund-raising events, but which was largely paid for with public funds.

If hiring a resource officer costs $50,000 a year, and voters approve the expense, that would be fine with him, Mr. Cartee said.

Mr. Rivard said that the cost of a Newport officer would vary depending on the amount of experience the officer has.  Should a very senior officer decide to seek the post, that might mean fewer days on the job.

For instance, Mr. Rivard said, it might mean the officer is in the school 125 days a year rather than 175.  In no event, he said, would the cost exceed $40,000

Maggie Griffith, one of Newport’s representatives, asked Mr. Rivard if officers are called to the school often.

Mr. Rivard said he didn’t have figures, but they are there “some.”

Mr. Nelson said the officers he talked to said there ought to be a school resource officer because they are called to the school four or five times a week.  He made a gesture indicating that he didn’t believe those statements.

There were no votes cast in opposition to the plan to seek a school resource officer.  Mr. Nelson abstained from voting.

contact Joseph Gresser at joseph@bartonchronicle.com

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Sodden skies torment farmers

A horse grazes on what’s left of its pasture, along Elm Street in Barton, just as Tuesday’s downpour subsides.  Photo by Chris Braithwaite

A horse grazes on what’s left of its pasture, along Elm Street in Barton, just as Tuesday’s downpour subsides. Photo by Chris Braithwaite

by Tena Starr

“It’s kind of a nightmare.”

That’s how Brandon Tanner of Glover described this summer’s weather and his own efforts to put in hay for his dairy cows.

“It’s one of those things where you’re forced this year to get what you can get when you can get it,” Mr. Tanner said.  “There’s no planning, no helping other people.  It’s sort of you do yours when you can do it the best you can.”

He said he managed to get his first cut, as usual, back in May.

“Soon as I got done haying we had a snowstorm,” he said.

Mr. Tanner isn’t alone in his frustration with this year’s odd weather and, lately, relentless rain.

Farmers, strawberry growers, boaters, anyone who enjoys a day at the beach — they’re all likely to say “Enough already.”

Although Mother Nature isn’t.

There’s some hope that by the end of the week the stubborn weather pattern will break down, permitting a couple of consecutive rain-free days by the weekend, said meteorologist Lawrence Hayes at the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury.

The problem, he said, is that Vermont has been stuck in between two upper level features involving a serpentine jet stream that moves northward.  The sources of its air is the Gulf of Mexico and the southeast coast, hence the subtropical air in Vermont.

Also, “the air has been so copiously humid (dew points around 70) that any shower that forms is risk of generating at least moderately heavy rain,” Mr. Hayes said by e-mail.

The result of all this has been a lot more rain than usual, as well as more rainy days, in both May and June.

According to the Chronicle’s weather records (which record weather in West Glover) precipitation in May was 7.88 inches — almost double the long-term average of 4.03 inches, and exceeded only in May of 2011.  It also snowed in May.  The Chronicle’s weather records go back to 1987.

In June, there was some rain in West Glover on 21 out of 30 days.  It added up to 6.23 inches, well above the long-term average for June of 4.14 inches.

In St. Johnsbury the 14-day stretch of measurable rainfall from June 23 to July 7 was the longest consecutive day stretch there during the warm weather season, meaning May through October, Mr. Hayes said.

For most, the soggy weather is simply an annoyance.  But for some, it has economic consequences, as well.

Peak View Berry Farm in Orleans doesn’t have any strawberries at all this year, although it’s not due to the wet weather that’s plagued so many strawberry growers in Vermont.

“We lost our strawberries in January when the thaw came and then it got so cold in February,” said Michelle Bonin, who owns the farm with her husband, Marcel.  “The thaw literally pushed all of our plants out of the ground.  That was something we’d never seen.”

The Bonins have since put in 13,000 new plants and are hoping to have a crop from the ever bearers in October.  But even tending the new plants is tough with the wet weather.

“A few days ago I wanted to cultivate my strawberries and couldn’t because of the mud,” Marcel Bonin said.  “The ground is saturated.  I’d have a mess.”

In Westfield, Gerard Croizet at Berry Creek Farm said he’s lost 20 to 25 percent of his strawberries to the weather, mold in particular.

The berries are big, although softer than usual, and the yield has been good, he said.

It could be a lot worse, though, Mr. Croizet said.  “I know some people lost most everything.”

“I’m not depressed,” he added.

Both the Croizets and the Bonins grow vegetables as well as berries, and say that weeding is a big problem with their fields so wet.  And while some crops are doing well in the subtropical weather, others are struggling.

Mr. Croizet said he’s worried about disease at this point, particularly late blight, which might make an early appearance due to the moisture.

“I don’t remember nonstop rain like that,” he said.

“I think it’s extraordinary, I think it’s quite dramatic for the whole area,” Mr. Bonin said about the unusually long stretch of rainy days.

He said his Orleans farm stand is usually open by the last week in June.  It’s not this year.  “I don’t have anything to put in it,” Mr. Bonin said.

For dairy farmers, the persistent rain not only makes it hard to make any hay, but also the quality suffers.

Most farmers make round bales these days — those plastic wrapped bales that resemble giant marshmallows.  It takes a comparatively short stretch of dry weather to make a round bale as opposed to a square one, but this summer has daunted even those attempts.

It takes at least a couple of days to “put up something that’s not going to be an ice cube,” Mr. Tanner said.

If the hay is too wet, it will be frozen solid come winter when the farmer wants to feed it to his animals, he said.

That’s one problem.  Another is that some fields are so wet farmers can’t even get on them to hay.

And yet another is that grass, especially orchard grass, declines in quality — meaning it loses protein — once it begins to head out.

“You can always supplement grains in order to make up what you lost on your grass, but especially the past three years, that’s been sort of unaffordable,” Mr. Tanner said.

He said that last year, a classic summer, he squeezed in five cuts of hay.  “This year, so far, I’ve done one.  I’ll be lucky if I get three.”

Evan Perron isn’t overly worried about the weather, even though he’s one of the few who still makes square bales.

“The hay I cut will be just fine, for horses, ponies, sheep, it will still be 10-12 percent…it’s nothing you could turn into milk and survive,” he said.

Mr. Perron said that when he was a kid it was common to wait until after July 4 to start haying.  “There was a time we might not have thought much of it,” he said about the long rainy stretch.  “We’d just be a week late.”

But now that people try to get 20 or 30 percent protein from their hay, “it’s a pretty big deal,” he said.

“I don’t think I ever recall such a soggy streak as this one.”

contact Tena Starr at tenas@bartonchronicle.com

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In Westfield: Police have suspect in homicide

Peter Lavalette.

Peter Lavalette.

by Paul Lefebvre 

WESTFIELD — A movie set carpenter for major films and a part-time resident here is believed to be the victim of a recent homicide in this town of roughly 500 people.

State Police are not releasing the name of the deceased, but neighbors say he is George Kouzoujian, who has lived off and on in town for the last two or three years, and reportedly kept an apartment in New York City.

Next-door neighbor Randall Brenner said in an interview that a State Trooper came to his house around 5:30 Tuesday morning to tell him “George was deceased.”

However, when Mr. Brenner raised a question about safety, the trooper told him security was not a concern.

Police are releasing few details except to say that a suspect, Peter Lavalette, 49, of Derby is being held in custody after he was stopped for a traffic violation in Indiana shortly after midnight Tuesday.

According to a State Police press release, a call from the Jasper County Sheriff’s Department alerted Vermont authorities at 12:49 Tuesday morning that they had arrested Mr. Lavalette after he allegedly “indicated he was involved in a homicide in Vermont.”

The release goes on to say that he is being held on a “felony warrant for homicide, pending extradition back to Vermont.”

The state’s chief medical examiner was expected to perform an autopsy Tuesday to determine the cause of death.

Mr. Kouzoujian lived at the end of Fuller Road, a dirt road, in a small, two-story blue house that at one o’clock Tuesdayafternoon appeared to be an active crime scene with a mobile State Police laboratory parked in the yard, its swinging back doors open to the house.

Two State Police cruisers were parked nearby along with a silver crew club pickup.  A trooper standing in the road just beyond the neighbor’s driveway stopped traffic from proceeding any further.  Four or more people in white forensic-type clothing were seen walking on the grounds.

Although police are withholding the deceased’s identity until the autopsy is completed and the next-of-kin have been contacted, neighbors and store clerks in town expressed shock and surprise over the death of the man that most knew by the name of George.

“He was very friendly but not close,” said Mary Brenner, who along with her husband, Randy, moved from Washington D.C. to Westfield 16 years ago.

“That’s why we like it back here, to have peace of mind,” she said, while sitting on the back porch with her husband watching the ongoing investigation up the road.

She said Mr. Kouzoujian had spent most of the winter away and had only returned to Westfield in May.

“He said he had been working his butt off so he could have his summer off,” she recalled, as she continued to praise him as a good neighbor and someone who was always busy with projects around the house.

At the Westfield General Store, Mr. Kouzoujian was evidently a familiar and friendly face.

“We’re still in shock,” said the store owner, who declined to give her name.

“He was a quirky little fellow, you know what I mean?” offered Sue Dunne, a clerk at the store.

On the Internet, Mr. Kouzoujian is listed as a union carpenter in the New York Production Guide.  According to a listing posted in the New York Times, he was a carpenter in several films and a construction foreman in the movie Crocodile Dundee.

Ms. Dunne noted that he used to come into the store and show off the carpenter work he had been doing on movie sets, including a recent job he had done for Russell Crowe’s new movie, Noah.

Mr. Kouzoujian had recently been in the store, and Ms. Dunne was still struggling to come to terms with his tragic and untimely demise.

“Things don’t happen like this around here,” she said, before catching herself falling into a cliché.  “Isn’t that what they always say?”

People Tuesday characterized Mr. Kouzoujian as friendly and a nice guy.  Ms. Brenner recalled how he had bought a rototiller from her, although he didn’t really need it.  And then there was the time he fastened a relay to his house that enabled the Brenners to get a better Internet connection.

Still, Ms. Brenner saw her neighbor as something of a loner.  She said he “didn’t look to be the marrying type,” and that he seldom brought friends to his house.

There was one man, though, who was often seen in the company of Mr. Kouzoujian.  Around town Peter Lavalette was considered Mr. Kouzoujian’s handyman.  He reportedly did odds and ends for the deceased, and Ms. Dunne recalled seeing the two of them together a few times.

So did Andy Hass, who runs the hardware store in town.  While he agreed with the other folks in town — in describing Mr. Kouzoujian as a nice guy — he saw another side of him as well.

“He could look like a half-eaten sandwich,” he said, describing a time when Mr. Kouzoujian came into the store, leaving Mr. Lavalette waiting in a parked vehicle.

Apparently, those were the roles each assumed when Mr. Kouzoujian came into town to shop.  Unless called into the hardware store for advice, Mr. Lavalette stayed in the car while Mr. Kouzoujian carried on his business inside.

Ms. Brenner said Mr. Lavalette worked for her neighbor as a laborer, and that he was “in and out all the time.”

Mr. Hass described Mr. Kouzoujian as a “super friendly” customer who was easy to work with in sizing up a job.

He said that when he heard about the death Tuesday morning, it caught him by surprise.  He only knew him by his first name, as Mr. Kouzoujian didn’t keep a slip, preferring instead to pay cash.

contact Paul Lefebvre at paul@bartonchronicle.com

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House votes down farm bill

A group of heifers hang out in Brownington.  Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

A group of heifers hang out in Brownington. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

by Bethany M. Dunbar

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. House of Representatives has rejected the five-year farm bill, 234 to 195.

Congressman Peter Welch of Vermont was among the no votes.

Mr. Welch supported the bill as it was passed by the House Agriculture Committee, but in a telephone interview Tuesday he said he was among the Democrats who voted against the bill on the floor on Thursday, June 20.

An amendment supported by House Speaker John Boehner was just too drastic, he said.  The speaker encouraged several changes, including stripping out a dairy insurance and supply management plan for farmers.  Also, cuts to nutrition programs to help low-income families were severe, Mr. Welch said.

He said some Republicans wanted to drastically cut nutrition spending, and people who received help with food costs would be required to take drug tests and go into a work program.

“You had to go into a work program that didn’t exist,” Mr. Welch said.

States would also get financial benefits for getting people off the programs.  In other words, the provisions were designed to get rid of nutrition programs, Mr. Welch said.  He said he just couldn’t vote yes in good conscience.  He hopes a new version of the bill will be developed.

“I’m more disappointed about the farm bill going down than just about anything I’ve done in Congress,” he said.

The House Agriculture Committee bill had bipartisan support, he said, and would have included cuts to food programs that were more severe than the Senate’s version.  But Mr. Welch said he supported the committee bill because he was confident it could be repaired in a conference committee.

Asked what now, Congressman Welch said, “It’s really Mr. Boehner’s decision.”  He added,  “America needs a farm bill.  It’s outrageous, basically, to give rural America the back of our hand.”

A letter Mr. Boehner wrote to his colleagues asks them to support an amendment called the Goodlatte/Scott amendment to cut dairy programs and get rid of supply management.

“Taxpayers have shelled out $5.44-billion for dairy programs since the 2002 Farm Bill (which I voted against),” says the letter.

Mr. Welch said the dairy program in the committee bill was a good plan, spearheaded by Vermont farmers.  It would have gotten rid of subsidies, replacing them with a margin insurance plan and supply management.

The Senate version of the bill, as outlined by Senator Pat Leahy last year, reduced spending by more than $23-billion.  Dairy farmers would have the option to buy margin insurance to protect their prices when the federal milk price drops below the cost of production.  The supply management provision would discourage overproduction of milk by paying less if a farmer increases production at times when the price is down.  The insurance would be available at a lower price for the first four million pounds of milk, about the annual production of 200 to 250 cows.

The U.S. Senate has passed a farm bill twice.  After the no vote on Thursday, Senator Patrick Leahy issued a press release saying the House Republican leaders “trumped practicality with ideology, at the expense of farmers and consumers and millions of families who constantly struggle to keep hunger and malnutrition at bay.”

The farm bill covers dairy policy and nutrition programs.  The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is an $80-billion program.  The House version of the farm bill would have cut it by $20-billion while the Senate version would have cut it by $4-billion.

In the past, the farm bill has also helped create jobs in rural areas through a program called the REAP zone.  It has funded environmental protection programs.  The Senate version of the bill included these provisions and others to help farmers get organic certification and to expand farmers markets.

Some of Mr. Welch’s priorities for the farm bill are disaster insurance for vegetable growers, promoting local fruits and vegetables in school lunches, and helping pay for efficiency improvements for maple sugarmakers, grants for maple research, and opening state lands to maple sugaring.

contact Bethany M. Dunbar at bethany@bartonchronicle.com

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Lowell church gets a new steeple

Lowell Church Steeple 3

Omer Roberge (left) and stepson Brian Dodds top the new steeple of the Lowell Congregational Church with a new stainless steel cross on Saturday. Over 140 hours of work went into welding the cross, which was created by students at the North Country Union High School Career Center. Photos by Micaela Bedell

by Micaela Bedell

LOWELL — A new steeple was installed on Lowell’s 72-year-old Congregational Church building this past Saturday.

Open the doors of Lowell Congregational and you’ll find a large, diverse family, said member Becky Erdman at Saturday’s steeple raising.  But the congregation wasn’t always so big, and a new steeple wouldn’t have been possible without material donations and volunteer work from an influx of new members.

“It’s literally standing room.  We have to put chairs in the aisles,” said Mrs. Erdman of the 30- to 80-member increase in membership.

Verniece St. Onge, the longest participating member of the congregation at over 50 years, attributed the increase in membership to “young blood.”

“We’ve got a young family here with a new pastor,” she said.  “And a choir, which we haven’t had in years.  We’re just booming.  We’re full of life again.”

Mrs. St. Onge and others attribute recent membership increases to Pastor David Dizazzo.

“When this pastor took over full time there was just — I don’t know.  People were affected,” said new member Don Nolti.  “He’s a great Bible-believing, Bible-preaching pastor, which is what attracted me.”

The Lowell Congregational Church acquired a new steeple Saturday.  The process took more than four hours, and over 20 congregation members gathered to watch.

The Lowell Congregational Church acquired a new steeple Saturday. The process took more than four hours, and over 20 congregation members gathered to watch.

Lowell Church Steeple 5

A new steeple tops the Lowell Congregational Church.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pastor Dizazzo, who gave his first sermon in the church on January 1, 2012, calls it more of a “right place at the right time” situation.  As he watched the beginning of the installation process, he mused on the symbolism of raising a cross higher onto the church.

“It’s very symbolic to us because, as a church, the goal is to lift Jesus higher,” he said.  “As we lift him up in our own lives, on top of the church is also this stainless steel cross.”

After a new church steeple was installed on Saturday, Lowell Congregational Church Pastor David Dizazzo embraces member Omer Roberge (left) in celebration.  Former Pastor John Genco’s wife, Ruth Genco, admires the steeple, and other members of the congregation clap for Mr. Roberge.

After a new church steeple was installed on Saturday, Lowell Congregational Church Pastor David Dizazzo embraces member Omer Roberge (left) in celebration. Former Pastor John Genco’s wife, Ruth Genco, admires the steeple, and other members of the congregation clap for Mr. Roberge.

Mrs. Erdman agreed that the cross is symbolic, but took it further.

“It’s a very modern cross going onto a very conservative church building,” she said.  “And [the combination] is going to work.  Because that’s exactly what’s going on inside.”

It took more than four hours to put up the new steeple Saturday morning.  It was done by congregation member Omer Roberge and his stepson Brian Dodds.  Over 140 hours went into welding the cross that topped the steeple, a product of North Country Union High School’s Career Center.  Instructor Roger Wells led seniors Ben Duranleau and Calvin Peacock and junior Paige Gagnon on the project.

Mr. Dodds constructed the base for the steeple, and roof brackets were donated by Guay General Repair and Steel in Newport Center.   Desrochers Crane Service in Derby also donated some time and equipment.

As the 170-year-old bell of Lowell Congregational rings to announce the new addition there are smiles all around.  The church has never had a steeple, but as eight-year-old Caleb Dizazzo put it, “This church was made for a steeple.”

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O’Hagan case: Fletcher sentenced to 15 years, eight months

Mary Pat O’Hagan was a dedicated community volunteer, mother and grandmother, and organizer of the Sheffield Field Day each Labor Day.  Photo courtesy of the O’Hagan family

Mary Pat O’Hagan was a dedicated community volunteer, mother and grandmother, and organizer of the Sheffield Field Day each Labor Day. Photo courtesy of the O’Hagan family

by Bethany M. Dunbar

RUTLAND — A suspect in the 2010 murder of Mary Pat O’Hagan of Sheffield was sentenced in U.S. District Court hereTuesday to 15 years and eight months in prison for producing child pornography.  Once Richard Fletcher, 26, of Sheffield, serves his jail time he will face a lifetime of supervised release under a long list of strict conditions.

Chief Judge Christina Reiss ruled that she had been convinced by a “preponderance of the evidence” — after two days of testimony — that Mr. Fletcher was, in fact, involved in cleaning up the crime scene at Ms. O’Hagan’s home after she was murdered almost three years ago, and that he offered the use of his truck to move the body.  Soon after that, he had the truck crushed.

The child pornography and murder cases are completely unrelated, but the sentencing for the first one was overshadowed in the two-day sentencing hearing by testimony about the murder.

Federal prosecutors made an effort to take over where state prosecutors left off in punishing someone for the murder of the beloved grandmother in Sheffield.

The state prosecutor, Assistant Attorney General Cindy Maguire, has said the state does not have enough evidence to prove Mr. Fletcher’s involvement beyond a reasonable doubt — the higher standard that would be needed to charge and convict him for homicide in state court.

Assistant U.S. Attorney William Darrow had asked the federal judge to consider increasing the sentencing guidelines for child porn, which calls for a 15-year minimum sentence.  The charge was that he met a 12-year-old girl from Utah online and convinced her to send him pornographic photos of herself from her cell phone.

Federal sentencing rules allow the judges to consider all sorts of information about the defendant’s past, including criminal activity for which the person has not been convicted.

Mr. Darrow asked the judge to add five years to Mr. Fletcher’s minimum 15-year sentence — based on his alleged involvement in Ms. O’Hagan’s murder.

It was an effort that failed.  While the judge ruled that she was convinced of Mr. Fletcher’s involvement, she was not convinced that the sentencing guidelines should be increased due to that factor.

Instead, she sentenced him to the highest possible sentence within the guideline, which was 15 years and eight months. That sentence will not start until Mr. Fletcher has served the rest of a state sentence for unrelated crimes.  That sentence runs until February of 2016.

Many of the O’Hagan family members sat through two days of sentencing in hopes that, in their minds, justice would be done.  To that end, they said after Tuesday’s hearing, they felt “outraged and appalled.”

“Obviously we think our mother’s worth a lot more than eight months,” said her son Matt O’Hagan.

One of the judge’s decisions was that the O’Hagan family would not be allowed to testify as victims.

“It’s not that it’s not important,” Judge Reiss said.  “It would abuse my discretion.”

The O’Hagans said they were disappointed but would not give up, and they would continue to follow the court process.  Two other men prosecutors believe were involved in Ms. O’Hagan’s face unrelated charges.

The O’Hagans also made a plea in front of two local television stations and three newspapers for anyone in the Sheffield area who knows anything that hasn’t been presented yet to come forward.  If no more evidence is found by September, the three-year statute of limitations will run out on the crime of being an accessory after the fact, such as cleaning up the crime scene.

They also suggested Vermont law should be changed to increase the statute of limitations, or to allow a charge of felony homicide.  That charge could come into play if a person, or a group of people, commit a crime and a killing occurs as part of it. Anyone in the group could face the charge, even if only one of the people pulled the trigger on the gun.

Two other people who prosecutors believe were involved in the death of Ms. O’Hagan are in court for other matters.  On Wednesday, June 12, Michael Norrie, 22, of Sheffield is scheduled for a change of plea for being an unlawful user of controlled substances and knowingly possessing a .22 caliber revolver, knowing or having reason to believe it was stolen.

Vermont State Police did multiple interviews with Mr. Fletcher, Mr. Norrie, and Mr. Norrie’s brother Keith Baird, 31, who is charged in state court with 48 counts of violating an abuse prevention order and being an habitual offender.

Police officers in front of the O’Hagan home just after she was reported missing in September of 2010.  Photo by Joseph Gresser

Police officers in front of the O’Hagan home just after she was reported missing in September of 2010. Photo by Joseph Gresser

The court heard tapes of police interviews with Mr. Fletcher and Mr. Norrie, including confessions.  A corrections officer, Katina Farnsworth, testified that Mr. Fletcher had told her he’d been involved in the O’Hagan death and wanted to get it off his chest.

Also testifying was an inmate who had been Mr. Fletcher’s cellmate.  The inmate, Aaron Smith, said he had talked to both Mr. Norrie and Mr. Fletcher about the O’Hagan murder.

Mr. Smith, who is awaiting sentencing on a charge of receiving child pornography, testified that he was hoping his cooperation in this case would help him get a lighter sentence in his own case.

“Mr. Smith has a lot on the line here, but since I’m the sentencing judge, I’m aware of that,” said Chief Judge Reiss.

She said she would take his motivation into consideration.

Mr. Smith went through a detailed description of Mr. Fletcher’s confession to him about what had happened.

“He was concerned that Norrie was going to spill his guts,” said Mr. Smith.  “Even though he was extremely proud that there was no evidence.”

As outlined by Mr. Smith, Ms. O’Hagan was accidentally killed by Mr. Norrie, who shot her while the other two were robbing her house.  Mr. Fletcher cleaned up the crime scene, and the others used his truck to get rid of her body.

Mr. Fletcher’s attorney, Karen Shingler, cross-examined Mr. Smith about the charges against him, including describing some of the images and videos police had found on his computer.

Once testimony was done, the judge asked Mr. Fletcher if he had anything he’d like to say.

“I just want to say I’m sorry for my crimes your honor,” he said.

The O’Hagans said they hope the memory of their mother will shine through in all of this, a woman who was a pillar of the community.

“There’s a lot of people just like her,” Terry O’Hagan said, noting that the reason his mother even knew Mr. Fletcher was because she had helped him with an adult education class.

“She was helping Richard Fletcher get his GED,” he said.

He said the community of Sheffield and the surrounding towns have been so good to the family, he is glad at least that the names of the perpetrators are now known at least.  It will mean even if they don’t spend time in jail for this, people will know who they are, he said.

“They know what to look out for,” he said.

Matt O’Hagan thanked the Vermont State Police for their two years of efforts and for the help of the press.

“You left us to our privacy when we asked it, and we appreciate that,” he said.

contact Bethany M. Dunbar at bethany@bartonchronicle.com

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Editor’s Picks pages.  For all the Chronicle’s stories, pick up a print copy or subscribe, either for print or digital editions.

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O’Hagan case: Police testify about homicide confessions

Mary Pat O’Hagan was a dedicated community volunteer, mother and grandmother, and organizer of the Sheffield Field Day each Labor Day.  Photo courtesy of the O’Hagan family

Mary Pat O’Hagan was a dedicated community volunteer, mother and grandmother, and organizer of the Sheffield Field Day each Labor Day. Photo courtesy of the O’Hagan family

by Bethany M. Dunbar

copyright the Chronicle June 5, 2013
RUTLAND — Vermont Assistant Attorney General Cindy Maguire told a federal judge last week she does not have enough evidence, at this time, to prosecute Richard Fletcher in Vermont District Court for killing Mary Pat O’Hagan more than two years ago.

Yet much of the rest of the day was spent in a “condensed homicide case,” as the federal prosecutor put it, in United States District Court here.

On its face, the sentencing hearing was meant to determine how much time Mr. Fletcher should spend in jail for creating, receiving, and possessing child pornography.  But prosecutors argued that he should serve more time for that offense if he was also involved in an unrelated killing.

In a complicated twist of the rules of sentencing in two different court systems, Chief Judge Christina Reiss of the U.S. District Court told attorneys in court on Wednesday, May 29, that she would listen to evidence of the homicide.

“The law is fairly firm,” she said, that she can consider this evidence.  “I am less convinced as to how it can be used.”

Ms. O’Hagan was a beloved grandmother and community volunteer who lived in Sheffield.  She was 78 years old when she was killed.  She was missing for a month before her body was found in the woods in the next town.

Mr. Fletcher is 26 years old and lives in Sheffield.

Assistant U.S. Attorney William Darrow has yet to spell out a recommended sentence to the court, but he has asked the judge to consider a longer jail term based on criminal activity Mr. Fletcher was likely involved in — even though he has never been charged for it or convicted of it.

In a lengthy sentencing memorandum filed May 17, Mr. Darrow spells out the evidence to suggest that Mr. Fletcher and Michael Norrie, 22, also of Sheffield both had a part in the death and disposal of the body of Ms. O’Hagan on September 10, 2010.  The memo says Mr. Fletcher knew details of the crime scene and the scene where the body was found that were not known by anyone but police and the killers.  It also includes Mr. Fletcher’s confession, although the descriptions of the events of the night Ms. O’Hagan died vary considerably from interview to interview.

The sentencing memo says that including information about the homicide is legal in federal sentencing, where the U.S. Attorney must only have a preponderance of the evidence to talk about the past behavior of a defendant.  To get a homicide conviction in state court, the prosecutors would need to meet a higher standard of proof — guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Sentencing guidelines in federal district court are not mandatory.  But in order for a judge to increase a sentence beyond the guidelines, the judge must do a guideline analysis.

In Mr. Fletcher’s defense, Attorney Karen Shingler said even if the guidelines are not increased, her client is looking at 21 years in jail.  That is because Mr. Fletcher is already serving time for other unrelated charges, so he cannot get credit for time served for those until February 2016.  That means a 15-year sentence would keep him in jail until 2031.

The judge decided to divide the sentencing hearing into two parts.  The first was about the child pornography case.  The second part of the sentencing — testimony about the murder of Pat O’Hagan — started on May 29 but was not finished.  The judge set June 11 to hear the rest of the testimony.

Child pornography

On November 17, 2011, a grand jury passed a seven-count indictment for child pornography.  Charges include production, receipt and possession of child pornography.  Mr. Darrow says Mr. Fletcher found a 12-year-old girl who lived in Utah online while he was at home on furlough from other convictions.  He told her he loved her and would be her boyfriend, and convinced her to take pornographic pictures of herself on her cell phone to send to him.  He told her that he would kill himself if she didn’t do it. He sent her photos of himself with a gun to his own head, according to court records.

Ms. Shingler described Mr. Fletcher, 24 years old at the time, as “a very immature kid.”

Mr. Darrow said Mr. Fletcher was not a kid, as he had already been convicted of aggravated assault for threatening to kill a man with a shotgun, and another charge of assault for threatening a woman with a knife.  He was on furlough when he committed this crime, which, the attorney said, is why the sentences must be served after ones he is already serving — not at the same time.

Mr. Fletcher’s 12-year-old victim is now 15, and she flew to Vermont from Utah to testify.  A slight, soft-spoken teenager, she walked to the podium and read a prepared statement.  She said she met “Richie” online when she was in the middle of a hard time in her own life.  Her mother was quite sick, and her father had his own issues.  Mr. Fletcher gave her attention she needed at the time.

“He acted like he cared about me and made me feel important,” she said.  “He would listen when I needed to talk about all the things that were happening in my life.  The hardest thing now is coming to grips with the fact it wasn’t a sincere relationship. The relationship alienated me from my parents at a time when I really needed to be close to them.”

She said he called her all the time when she was in school and made it hard to focus, and he called her at night and kept her awake all night talking to him.  “The worst part was the pressure he put on me to send him pictures of myself,” she said.  “I was scared and overwhelmed.  I was only 12 at the time, so this was definitely not what I should have been dealing with.  I didn’t do any of the things a normal kid my age was doing.”

“Today is the first time I have ever seen Richie in person.  Part of me still wants to believe he is the person I got to know online, but the bigger part of me knows he is not.  It makes me both sad and very angry.  I hope he never has the chance to hurt anyone else the way he hurt me and my family.”

Ms. Shingler argued that the case is a run-of-the-mill child pornography case and much smaller than many.

“This is a production case, small p,” she said.  Mr. Fletcher received six images, did not share them with anyone, did not obtain money for them or put them online, she said.

Judge Reiss dismissed one of the seven counts in the case, saying that a person cannot be convicted of both receiving and possessing the same piece of pornography.  Mr. Darrow has filed a motion to reconsider, saying the receipt and possession charges stemmed from different times.  The possession count was for owning the pornography more than a week after Mr. Fletcher received it.

Police officers in front of the O’Hagan home just after she was reported missing in September of 2010.  Photo by Joseph Gresser

Police officers in front of the O’Hagan home just after she was reported missing in September of 2010. Photo by Joseph Gresser

Homicide

Ms. O’Hagan’s sons, a nephew, and others were on hand for the sentencing hearing.  At the end of the long court day, they came out to give a brief statement to the press.

“We were hoping that it would have been resolved today,” said Matt O’Hagan.  “It’s been two and a half years for us.  So another couple of weeks, we can wait.  This is a new process to us.”

He added, “We’re hoping for a positive outcome.”

For much of the afternoon the family watched as police investigators took the stand.  They then listened and watched as tapes of police interviews were played in their entirety, a prerogative Ms. Shingler asked for in order to put Mr. Fletcher’s confessions into context — and possibly to raise issues of whether or not the confessions were legal.

“We’re not saying that the state of Vermont will never bring a murder charge against Mr. Fletcher,” said Mr. Darrow.  “We’re saying it is not likely,” given the current state of the evidence.

“Would you then ask me to resentence Mr. Fletcher?” asked the judge.  She asked if Mr. Darrow wanted a split sentence — one for child pornography with a specified amount of extra time tacked on for homicide.

“I would have to carve off a portion of the sentence,” she said.

Mr. Darrow said he did not expect a two-part sentence with a certain amount of time set for the homicide.  Should Mr. Fletcher ever get convicted of homicide, the sentencing judge could consider running the homicide sentence concurrently with the existing sentence, Mr. Darrow said.  (In other words, the sentences could be served at the same time.)

Lieutenant J.P. Sinclair of the State Police was the first to take the stand.  He is the forensic liaison with the crime lab and was in charge of the team at the crime scene.  He described the crime scenes at Ms. O’Hagan’s home and an old class-four road in Wheelock where the body was found later.

Ms. O’Hagan was shot in the head with a small-caliber gun.

Photos of the scenes were displayed on television monitors around the courtroom, but a photo of O’Hagan’s body was not shown during the hearing May 29.

Ms. Shingler argued that it was not necessary.

“It proves nothing, supports nothing that is in dispute,” she said.  She said the prejudicial impact of showing it outweighs any advantage.  Mr. Darrow said the condition of the body is an issue in the case, as are items at the scene where she was found. The judge suggested the attorneys could stipulate that the body is, indeed, Ms. O’Hagan.

State Police Detective Sergeant Jason Letourneau testified about interviews with Mr. Fletcher, in which he described details of the scenes that were not known publically.  In the first interview, Mr. Fletcher said he’d heard things about the crime scene and that he knew rumors were going around town about him and Michael Norrie.

“She was shot, killed, and supposedly raped.  That’s what I heard,” Mr. Fletcher told police.  “I heard there was a shot in the ceiling.”

Police had released no details of the scene, and in fact, there was a shot in the ceiling and Ms. O’Hagan had been shot.  Her body was left with no pants or underpants on, and it was not buried.

Mr. Fletcher was interviewed three times, and during one of the interviews, police seem to badger him and say they know he is not telling the truth.  In a second one, police spend a half an hour before the interview asking him for advice fixing a clutch in a vehicle, even asking him to look at a photo of the problem on the officer’s cell phone.

“I think it’s important for the judge to understand the kind of professional tactics that were used,” said Ms. Shingler.

“I don’t think it was your idea,” says one of the officers interviewing Mr. Fletcher in the second interview.  “Did you try to help her?  Was she already dead?”

“I got sucked into it,” says Mr. Fletcher at one point.  “I’m not wearing a wire,” he says later in response to a suggestion by the officers that he could help them convict Mr. Norrie.

A video interview with Mr. Norrie shows him weeping and almost incoherent.

In the first interview, Mr. Fletcher says he has heard things but doesn’t admit being on the scene.  In later interviews he says he helped Mr. Norrie dispose of the body.  He says Mr. Norrie shot Ms. O’Hagan accidentally during a robbery.

“When I left, she was standing there alive,” he says at one point.  Then he says he heard two gunshots.

To put the statements in perspective, the officer says he interviewed about 800 people who said they had information about the case, and no one mentioned the gunshot in the ceiling except Mr. Fletcher.

Police took him to the O’Hagan house, asking him to show them how he found the body and the crime scene.  He said he saw an end table tipped over (which was the same end table that had been actually tipped over) and described where Ms. O’Hagan’s body was.

The judge asked to hear directly from the state prosecutor, who told Judge Reiss that the state had very little physical and forensic evidence:  no seminal fluid, no blood, and no firearms directly linked to the case.

Ms. Shingler said she wanted the judge to hear the entire tapes of some of the interviews because she believes there are issues about whether or not they are admissible.

“The April 11 interview which we have yet to hear… has some clear Miranda violations,” she said.  Mr. Darrow said the fourth and fifth amendments would not be applicable in this case.

Testimony will continue on June 11.

contact Bethany M. Dunbar at bethany@bartonchronicle.com

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Editor’s Picks pages.  For all the Chronicle’s stories, pick up a print copy or subscribe, either for print or digital editions.

 

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