Barton woman given deferred sentence for arson

copyright the Chronicle January 29, 2014

by Joseph Gresser

NEWPORT — A Barton woman pled guilty to first degree arson Tuesday in the Orleans Criminal Division of Superior Court.

Rebecca R. Ray, 21, apparently settled the score with an informant who helped police arrest her boyfriend for heroin trafficking — by burning down the informant’s house.

Judge Howard VanBenthuysen deferred sentencing in the case for three years.

Ms. Ray is the girlfriend of Matthew R. Prue, 34, of Barton who, with his brother Louis A. Prue II, 40, of Newport was arrested on July 10 for selling heroin, said Morrisville Detective Jason Luneau.  The brothers were charged with selling 26 grams of heroin in a controlled buy carried out at the Subway in Orleans, he said.

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In Superior Court: Attempted murder charge against North Troy stabber dropped

Jennifer Ahlquist, right, sits with her lawyer, Jill Jourdan, at her arraignment in March.  Ms. Ahlquist admitted stabbing her husband and on Thursday, December 5, received a sentence that did not include jail time.  Photo by Joseph Gresser

Jennifer Ahlquist, right, sits with her lawyer, Jill Jourdan, at her arraignment in March. Ms. Ahlquist admitted stabbing her husband and on Thursday, December 5, received a sentence that did not include jail time. Photo by Joseph Gresser

copyright the Chronicle December 11, 2013

by Joseph Gresser

NEWPORT — Jennifer Ahlquist, who stabbed her husband after finding him at a 19-year-old’s house, will not do jail time.  Under the terms of a plea agreement, Ms. Ahlquist, 41, of North Troy, saw the most serious charge against her — attempted second degree murder — dismissed by the state.

She pled guilty to felony charges of first degree aggravated domestic assault with a weapon and unlawful trespass in an occupied residence, as well as to simple assault.

Sentencing for the aggravated assault charge was deferred for seven years and six months, said Judge Gregory Rainville, who presided Thursday, December 5, in the Orleans Criminal Division of Superior Court.  That means the charge will be expunged from Ms. Ahlquist’s record if she does not get into further legal trouble in that period.

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Lowell Six wind turbine protesters convicted of trespassing

Eric Gillard, the brother of one of the Lowell Six, holds a sign in front of the courthouse. Photo by Paul Lefebvre

by Paul Lefebvre

copyright the Chronicle 8-22-2012

NEWPORT — It took a jury of nine women and three men four hours to find wind opponents known as the Lowell Six guilty of unlawful trespass, following a one-day trial here in Superior Court.

The verdict appeared to reflect a trial in which a straight law and order issue trumped a disputed property boundary.

Conflicting testimony over the dispute may have confused the jurors as about an hour or so into their deliberation, they sent a note to the judge.

They wanted to know if there could be a legal owner when a property is in dispute.  And if the dispute was still current.

Trial Judge Martin Maley complimented the quality of the questions, but ruled each irrelevant.

“Do the best you can based on the evidence you heard,” he instructed them.

Disputed property boundaries were the key to the defense case:  If the state could not prove that the protesters were standing on property that was in the lawful possession of Green Mountain Power (GMP), then the defendants could not be convicted of unlawful trespass.

The prosecution argued that GMP was in lawful possession of the property, and that the protesters had broken the law when they refused to leave the land that had been posted by the company.

The trial was the first to be held involving protesters against the Lowell wind project that is being constructed by GMP.

Each of the six were arrested on December 5, 2011, when they refused police orders to leave posted property on Lowell Mountain while blocking the path of heavy construction vehicles.

Although the six presented their case as a group, the jury found each guilty as individuals.

Six more protesters are scheduled to be arraigned next month for a similar confrontation on the same mountain earlier this month.

Held Wednesday of last week, August 15, the trial was surprisingly silent on the underlying and highly charged issue that caused the defendants to break the law.  Before the jury entered the courtroom, Judge Maley warned he would only allow limited testimony on why the defendants were on the land.  And nothing, per se, on wind itself.

The jury, he said, knew what the case was about.  “It’s not a secret to them.”

So wind remained the elephant in the room:  the one everyone knew was there and agreed not to see.

Surprisingly, the only one to raise it as an issue was prosecutor Sarah Baker, when she sought to challenge the intent of the defense’s star witness, surveyor Paul Hannan of Calais, formerly of Holland and at one time a Kingdom legislator who served in the House.

Placed on the stand as an expert witness by defense attorney Kristina Michelsen, Mr. Hannan was prepared to provide the rock-bottom kind of testimony the defense needed to support its case.

Mr. Hannan testified that he had 31 years of experience as a surveyor and the credentials to qualify as an expert.  The rules of evidence, however, say that either side can challenge an expert’s witness.  And when her turn came, Ms. Baker proceeded vigorously.

First she asked Mr. Hannan about his association with Sterling College, and learned that during the years 1990 and 1991, he was one of the faculty members who accompanied students on three-to-four-day expeditions on Lowell Mountain.

The prosecutor pressed on.  Did he have any prior knowledge of Don Nelson — who allowed the students to use his property and who also is in a property dispute with GMP concerning the boundary line between his land on the mountain and the adjourning site where the utility is constructing its wind project.

No, said Mr. Hannan.

Ms. Baker may have thought she had found a chink in the defense’s armor when she abruptly asked the witness if he had any association with any anti-wind group.

Instead, the question brought a prompt objection from attorney Michelsen, along with a few hisses and murmurs from the 35 or so spectators in the gallery, a largely anti-wind crowd.

Judge Maley sustained the objection and Ms. Baker sat down, taking with her any references that the industrial wind project on Lowell Mountain had anything to do with the case.

There was a stirring in the closing moments of the trial when one of the defendants, Dr. Ronald Holland, took the stand.  The doctor’s name had surfaced earlier in the trial when Deputy Sheriff Phil Brooks testified for the state.

Of the ten protesters on the mountain that day, the deputy said he only knew Dr. Holland from previous personal and professional encounters.  He went on to testify that about two weeks prior to the December 5 confrontation, he received a call at home from Dr. Holland.  The doctor, according to the testimony, told the deputy he was going to the mountain that day to protest and wanted the deputy to arrest him.

“I informed him I was off duty and it wasn’t going to be me,” Deputy Brooks testified, adding that he passed what he characterized an “odd request” on to the State Police, who didn’t do anything either.

That testimony was before the jury when Dr. Holland took the stand late in the day.  The 67-year-old resident of Irasburg told jurors that days prior to the confrontation with police, he had gone onto the site and measured with twine the distance where he believed Mr. Nelson’s property ended.

And on the day of the confrontation, he testified he went to the limit of that measured distance.

But in a question that had nearly everyone in the courtroom leaning forward on the edge of their seats, Ms. Michelsen asked the emergency room doctor why he had climbed to the top of Lowell Mountain on December 5, 2011.

He paused and bowed his head a moment before answering that he had gone there to “protest the taking of Don Nelson’s property.”

Defendant David Rodgers, 69, of Craftsbury followed Dr. Holland to the stand and testified that he too believed he was on the Nelson property when police moved in to arrest him.

He testified that Dr. Holland had tied a block of wood to the end of a string as a means of measuring the property’s boundary.  And that he was “very careful not to” trespass on the land GMP is leasing to erect its 21-turbine wind plant.

The procession to the stand might have continued had not the prosecution agreed to stipulate that the remaining four defendants had followed the doctor’s lead.

But if the defense thought a protest over property rights could overturn the confrontation that followed, the jury saw it differently.  Nor did any witness refute or challenge the deputy’s testimony over what happened that day.

Deputy Brooks testified he received a call around nine that morning from GMP, informing him that protesters were on the mountain blocking heavy equipment from working on the wind project.  Police arrived roughly two hours later, and observed that the group was blocking cranes and big trucks.

“They were stopped on either side of where the defendants were,” he testified.

Deputy Brooks testified that prior to December 5, GMP had shown him a map of the project and its property boundaries.  And when confronting the protesters, he said he gave everyone the opportunity to step back behind the property line between GMP and the Nelson farm.

Of the ten protesters, three complied with a police order to step aside.  Six refused and were placed under what sounded like a gentleman’s arrest.  The deputy said he chatted cordially with the defendants and discussed everything but the project going on around them.

“I limited myself to that,” said Deputy Brooks.

The biggest problem police encountered that day, the deputy added, was finding a way to transport their prisoners off the mountain.

Police also arrested a seventh individual, Chronicle publisher Chris Braithwaite, who is challenging his arrest on grounds he was there doing his job as a reporter.

GMP’s intent to keep people off the site and the property it has under lease was deliberate and thorough, according to its project manager Charles Pughe, who also oversaw the posting.

“We cleaned out several stores,” he said, speaking of the no trespassing signs the company purchased.  “We had to have so many of them.”

Mr. Pughe testified that the land was initially posted for safety and to keep hikers out of harm’s way.  But he also noted that problems with people at the site began appearing sometime in October, as campers began to gather on the neighboring Nelson land.

Terms of the lease gave GMP authority to exclude or allow access to anyone the company chose, he said.

Mr. Pughe was off site the day the protesters were arrested.  But under cross-examination by Ms. Michelsen, he said, he could tell from photographic evidence — including photographs taken by the arrested journalist — that the protesters were on GMP’s leased property at the time of their arrest.

He estimated the face of the turbine would be about 200 feet away from the Nelson boundary line.

From the moment he took the stand it was evident that Don Nelson was not going to be a friendly witness.

He gave mostly monosyllabic responses to the prosecutor’s questions, and when asked to read a document, he shrugged and said he didn’t have his glasses.  That brought a query from the bench

“Need your glasses, Mr. Nelson?” asked Judge Maley.

“Don’t have them with me,” replied Mr. Nelson.

The prosecutor decided to try a different tack by asking the witness if he had given Dr. Holland permission to go on his property.

“My land is open.  People come and go,” he replied.  “I don’t invite or not invite.  We don’t post it.”

When Ms. Michelsen’s turn came to ask the questions, Mr. Nelson said that Dr. Holland had come to see him about the boundary dispute, and that he had provided him with the coordinates that were in disagreement.  According to his testimony, the dispute began years ago with the landowner who leased the land to GMP.  At the time, the witness testified, there was a difference of roughly 420 feet.

For its final witness, the state put on the surveyor who recently bought out a surveying business in Derby Line that surveyed the Nelson property several years ago in hopes of resolving the boundary dispute.

Andrew Nadeau testified that the previous owner had surveyed the property in dispute in 2007, and that he had spent in excess of two weeks surveying it as well.  But the surveyor who spent the longest time on the stand turned out to be the expert for the defense, Mr. Hannan.

Throughout his testimony, Mr. Hannan repeatedly testified there were fundamental mistakes in the 2007 survey — that affected the boundaries of lots leased by GMP.

He told jurors that in surveying the same ground, he found that markers had been inappropriately defined.  He said there must be corroborating evidence to define a marker or monument that had been used in the past when the land was first surveyed.  And such markers, he added, could be used to determine boundaries.

“When is a stone pile a stone pile or a monument?” he asked at one point.

Jurors already had heard from Mr. Nelson that surveying is not an exact science, and depends in part on the quality of surveys done in the past.  Mr. Nelson noted that he and his neighbor had tried to settle survey discrepancies on their abutting lands through an agreement.  Their boundary dispute was rekindled, however, when the agreement came unraveled.

Mr. Hannan testified that in surveying the land for the Nelsons, he found almost no markers on the ground that were left when the land was first surveyed in 1790.  And he told the jurors that the monuments defined by the 2007 survey were inaccurate.

Closing arguments were short, lasting about five minutes apiece.  Each attorney offered similar arguments to those they had made in their opening statements.

The verdict clearly took the defense and its supporters by surprise.  After asking the judge to poll each juror for a verdict, Ms. Michelsen said she would be filing post trial motions.  The court gave her ten days to submit them.

Prosecutor Baker said she would be requesting a restitution hearing, which means the state will try to convince the court to order the defendants to pay compensation to GMP.

The late hour verdict led the defendants to call off a press conference they had planned to hold at the conclusion of the trial.

In a press release Monday, Dr. Holland was quoted as saying:

“We are obviously disappointed with the verdict but respect the jury’s efforts. This is, and will continue to be, a complex case that rejects the simple and disingenuous offerings of Green Mountain Power.  We will continue to educate Vermonters on the science and math of ridgeline wind-generated electricity.”

As Mr. Pughe was walking away from the courthouse, he said he hoped the verdict would make his job easier.

The remaining four defendants of the Lowell Six are:  Ryan Gillard, 23, of Plainfield; Suzanna Jones, 50, of East Hardwick; Ann Morse, 48, of Craftsbury; and Eric Wallace-Senft, 46, of West Woodbury.

contact Paul Lefebvre at paul@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.

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Roger Pion denies crushing cruisers

Attorney David Sleigh (left) represents Roger Pion in Orleans Superior Court. Photo by Joseph Gresser

copyright the Chronicle August 8, 2012

by Joseph Gresser

NEWPORT — Roger A. Pion pled innocent Tuesday to crushing seven police vehicles with a jumbo tractor.  He also denied charges related to a July arrest for possession of marijuana and resisting arrest.

An affidavit for the July 3 incident says Mr. Pion was injured during arrest and required medical treatment.

One of the charges against Mr. Pion was dismissed by Judge Robert Bent.  David Sleigh, the 36-year-old Newport resident’s lawyer, is asking Judge Bent to throw out others as well.

Mr. Pion first appeared in the Orleans Criminal Division of Vermont Superior Court Friday for arraignment on 11 felony charges and three misdemeanors related to the destruction of the police vehicles on August 2.

Seven of the felonies were for unlawful mischief involving more than $1,000 in damages, one for each of the destroyed vehicles, which belonged to the Orleans County Sheriff’s Department.

The other felony charges included two of carrying a weapon while committing a crime, one of impeding a public officer and one of aggravated assault — with a weapon — of a law enforcement officer.

Mr. Pion was also charged with reckless or grossly negligent driving, leaving the scene of an accident, and unlawful mischief resulting in damages less than $250.

Mr. Sleigh told Judge Howard vanBenthuysen, who presided by telephone, that Mr. Pion would not waive the 24-hour period allowed by law before entering a plea, so the arraignment was postponed until Tuesday at 1 p.m.

Judge vanBenthuysen set bail for Mr. Pion at $50,000, despite Orleans County State’s Attorney Alan Franklin’s request that Mr. Pion be denied bail, or should bail be granted, that it be set at $250,000.

Mr. Sleigh pointed out that Mr. Pion had been unable to meet bail of $15,000, to counter Mr. Franklin’s request.

In court on Tuesday Mr. Pion pled innocent to the remaining charges related to the events of August 2, in order to allow the judicial process to move forward.  Mr. Pion also entered a plea of innocent to misdemeanor charges of resisting arrest and possession of marijuana that resulted from a traffic stop in Newport on July 3.

Newport City Police Patrolman Aaron Lefebvre said in an affidavit that he followed a car east on East Main Street that day, and saw that it lacked a license plate validation sticker and that it was speeding.

He pulled the car over and was told by the driver that she was rushing to Tractor Supply in Derby for work-related reasons, Patrolman Lefebvre said.  He said Mr. Pion and Joshua Hall, the car’s two passengers, confirmed the woman’s story.

Patrolman Lefebvre said he noticed that Mr. Hall seemed nervous and that he smelled the odor of pot coming from the car.  He said he asked the occupants of the car to get out and allow the car to be searched.

The driver and Mr. Hall agreed and the latter quickly handed over a container with a small amount of marijuana in it and a wooden pipe, Patrolman Lefebvre said.

He said that Mr. Pion, who was in the rear seat of the car with his pit bull, initially refused to get out of the car, but eventually consented to do so, although he would not allow officers to pat him down for weapons.

Patrolman Lefebvre said the search of the car turned up no more pot, and the three were allowed to get back in.

He said a records search then showed that there was a warrant out for Mr. Pion.  Patrolman Lefebvre said Mr. Pion became irate when asked to get out of the car again.

Patrolman Lefebvre said that there was “a brief banter of obscenities,” and then Mr. Pion pushed the driver’s seat forward and began to get out of the car.  He said he tried to take Mr. Pion into custody by using a “hands on approach.”

Mr. Pion continued to argue and resist arrest, Patrolman Lefebvre said, and during the confrontation, the dog got loose.

Patrolman Lefebvre said Mr. Pion stopped resisting and asked permission to get his dog and turn it over to the people in the car.  After he did so, Mr. Pion became combative again, Patrolman Lefebvre said.

Along with Patrolman Corey Marcoux, Patrolman Lefebvre said he tried to get control of Mr. Pion’s hands.  He said he then “proceeded to affect an arm bar take down which resulted in Pion being transferred to the ground while he continued to resist placing his hands beneath his stomach.”

After the officers handcuffed Mr. Pion, an ambulance was summoned to treat him for “non-life threatening injuries,” Patrolman Lefebvre said.  He said Mr. Pion was later taken to North Country Hospital to be evaluated for further injuries.

Patrolman Lefebvre said police searched Mr. Pion and found 4.3 grams of marijuana and a loaded .38 caliber hand gun concealed in Mr. Pion’s crotch area.

An affidavit from State Police Detective Trooper Lyle Decker traced the events of August 2.  Detective Decker said that the State Police were called around 12:42 p.m. and told that several of the sheriff’s vehicles were being run over behind the department’s headquarters on Route 5 in Derby.

Detective Decker said he spoke to several witnesses who told him they saw a tractor driven by a skinny man with facial hair.  One witness said he saw the tractor drive back and forth over several cruisers three or four times, Detective Decker said.

That witness said the man in the tractor then stopped as if waiting for someone to come out of the building, he said.

Detective Decker said that Newport Police Sergeant Nicholas Rivers and Patrolman Tanner Jacobs were in the Brown Cow restaurant, not far from the sheriff’s department.  As they left they saw a tractor matching the description of the one seen crushing the cruisers and caught up to it as it turned from East Main Street onto the Causeway, he said.

In his affidavit Patrolman Jacobs said the tractor slowed down after turning onto the Causeway.  The tractor’s driver looked back at the cruiser and “quickly accelerated in reverse towards our direction,” Patrolman Jacobs said.

Patrolman Jacobs said he put his cruiser into reverse and backed up ten or 15 feet before bumping into the car behind him.  He said the tractor was still coming toward the cruiser, so he and Sergeant Rivers, fearing that they would be run over,  jumped out of their car.

The officers drew their weapons and pointed them at the driver, he said.  The tractor stopped and, along with deputies and troopers who had arrived on the scene, Patrolman Jacobs said he ordered the driver out of the tractor.

Mr. Pion was arrested, Patrolman Jacobs said, and a hand gun was taken from him.  According to Detective Decker it was a VORA .70 caliber 765.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Mr. Sleigh argued that the evidence provided in the affidavits was insufficient to warrant some of the charges against Mr. Pion.

A felony charge of impeding a public officer was dismissed by Judge Bent for lack of probable cause after Mr. Sleigh argued that under Vermont law dating back to the 1830s, the crime requires that the officer be hindered while actual performing his duty.  Judge Bent rejected Mr. Franklin’s contention that the Orleans County deputies were impeded in their pursuit of  Mr. Pion by the lack of operable cruisers.

Mr. Sleigh also asked Judge Bent to dismiss the aggravated assault charge on the grounds that there was not proof that Mr. Pion had intended to cause bodily injury to someone.  He said the state’s affidavits showed that Mr. Pion had backed his tractor toward the officers, but also said that he stopped 15 feet from their cruiser.

Mr. Franklin said that Mr. Pion turned, looked directly at the officers and then backed his tractor toward their car.  He said the officers were in fear of their lives.

Mr. Sleigh countered that there might be charges under which placing someone in fear of imminent danger might be a factor, aggravated assault is not one of them.  He said that the affidavit provided no evidence that the tractor was used in a way that would cause bodily harm.

Judge Bent said he needed time to consider the matter and review the law before making a decision on Mr. Sleigh’s motion.

Mr. Sleigh’s final motion was one alleging that Mr. Franklin, by filing multiple charges of unlawful mischief, one for each car, is attempting to make several charges out of a single criminal act, thus violating the constitutional provision against double jeopardy.  Mr. Sleigh asked Judge Bent to strike all seven of the charges.

Mr. Franklin asked for time to respond to this motion, a request that Judge Bent granted.

Mr. Franklin again asked that Mr. Pion be denied bail, or that bail be set at $250,000.  Judge Bent, though, left bail set at $50,000.  Mr. Pion remained at Northern State Correctional Facility for lack of that sum.

contact Joseph Gresser at joseph@bartonchonicle.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.

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