Community Justice Part II: Senate bill pushes new ways to deal with crime

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The theory of restorative justice is neatly summed up in this chart created by John Perry, whose work helped in the creation of Vermont’s system.  “I’ve used this chart in presentations around the country,” Mr. Perry said when asked for permission to use the diagram.  “It might as well be published in Vermont.”

The theory of restorative justice is neatly summed up in this chart created by John Perry, whose work helped in the creation of Vermont’s system. “I’ve used this chart in presentations around the country,” Mr. Perry said when asked for permission to use the diagram. “It might as well be published in Vermont.”

copyright the Chronicle March 19, 2014

by Joseph Gresser

If a bill passed last week by the Vermont Senate becomes law, it will be the latest step in Vermont’s very long struggle to find new, and better, ways to deal with criminals.  That struggle began about 20 years ago, with a group of young idealists, led by a visionary Westmore man, reshaping how justice is meted out.

The recently approved Senate bill would allow some offenders — primarily those who pose no threat to public safety — the option of participating in a nontraditional program, such as the community justice program that operates in Newport.

Its intent is “that law enforcement officials and criminal justice professionals develop and maintain programs at every stage of the criminal justice system to provide alternatives to a traditional punitive criminal justice response….”

In the nontraditional reparative justice program, community volunteers work with an offender to develop a plan for making amends to the victims of his crime and to repair the damage done by his actions.

That program was developed about two decades ago by a group of young workers at the state Department of Corrections (DOC), with support from several governors and an important contribution from a longtime resident of Westmore, Bill Page.

In the 1970s the nation was seized by a fear of violent crime, and a concern that prisons were not fulfilling the intended purpose of rehabilitation.  John Martinson, a noted researcher on the subject, grew pessimistic about the results of all the programs he investigated.

He wrote an article for the magazine Public Interest setting out his findings, an article whose conclusion, usually summarized under the heading “Nothing works,” was spread throughout the popular media.

Around the country, prisons were generally seen only as a means to keep offenders from harming law-abiding citizens.  Legislators followed the public mood and voted for increasingly harsh sentences for all manner of offenses.

A group of new officials at the Vermont DOC, however, thought they could find a solution to what seemed an intractable problem.

“We were arrogant, brash and young enough not to know better,” recalled John Perry in a recent telephone interview.  Mr. Perry retired from the DOC as director of planning in 2011.  “We thought we could make a difference,” he said.

They began in ignorance.

“We knew crime was increasing — increasing like crazy in the late ’70s and ’80s,” Mr. Perry said.

What the young officials at the DOC did not know was that the increase was in reported crime, not actual crime.

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Vermont experienced an influx of new residents coming from other parts of the country.  One of the things they brought with them was an expectation of what government was supposed to do, Mr. Perry said.  As a result, the new residents tended to call police for assistance more often than the locals had.

As in other states, Vermont legislators reacted to what they perceived as an increase in crime by increasing penalties in an attempt to stem it.

The result, recalled former DOC Commissioner John Gorczyk in a telephone interview, was “an explosion in incarceration without an increase in crime.”

The DOC, in those days, was “underfunded, overcrowded and under-loved,” Mr. Perry said.

But young, idealistic officials were put in a position to make changes to the system when Governor Richard Snelling brought William Ciuros to Vermont to take over the DOC.  Mr. Ciuros forced the department’s old guard out and installed “the new kids” in their place, Mr. Perry said.

Those included Joseph Patrissi, then deputy commissioner, Mr. Gorczyk, and Mr. Perry.  Mr. Patrissi is currently executive director of Northeast Kingdom Community Action (NEKCA).

Mr. Ciuros got his deputies to cut their long hair and change their attire from woolen shirts to suits.

“We worked 12 hour days,” Mr. Perry recalled.  “I never worked so hard in my life.”

Mr. Ciuros soon ran afoul of Governor Snelling and was dismissed, to be replaced by Con Hogan, but his team remained in place.

Among other initiatives, they started letting nonviolent offenders serve their sentences in the community, or on weekends, so they could continue working, Mr. Patrissi said.

That program hit a hard bump when the son of vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Farraro was arrested at Middlebury College with two and a half pounds of cocaine, said Mr. Perry.

He met the qualifications for release, except for having a residence in Vermont, Mr. Perry recalled.  That was quickly managed, but the national media soon descended on Vermont to photograph the sign saying “luxury condominiums” outside his apartment complex, Mr. Perry said.

Madeleine Kunin had just been elected governor, and she tried to provide political cover for the DOC by creating the Community Corrections Advisory Board, Mr. Patrissi said.

She appointed Mr. Page to the board, as well as John Downs, a founding partner at Downs, Rachlin and Martin, and Fay Honey Knopp, a director of the Safer Society Foundation.  The Safer Society program is a national referral service for sex offenders seeking therapy.  She was also the founder of the Prison Research Education Action Program.  Also on the committee was Jack Coleman, a former president of Haverford College who spent a sabbatical from his job as an inmate at a Pennsylvania prison.  Mr. Coleman was a friend of the warden, who was the only one who knew he was there voluntarily, Mr. Perry said.

Mr. Patrissi and Mr. Page had already met, at a book club meeting at Mr. Page’s house on Willoughby Lake where both men spent summers.

After the meeting, Mr. Page, who knew Mr. Patrissi was commissioner of corrections, approached him.

“He asked, ‘How would you like to know something about human nature?’” Mr. Patrissi recalled.  “I’d been in corrections 20 years and I was schooled in that side of human nature,” he said.

Mr. Page had been director of corporate planning at the Polaroid Corporation during that firm’s glory years and had learned from the work of E.O. Wilson, a sociobiologist and the world’s foremost expert on ants.  Professor Wilson’s work, which traced the genetic basis of human nature, was being used by Polaroid in its marketing efforts, Mr. Patrissi said.

If Mr. Page decided someone was worthy of his attention, he’d latch on to that person as a teacher, said Mr. Gorczyk.  Both Mr. Perry and Mr. Patrissi called him a mentor.

Mr. Page began running a kind of school for DOC officials, inviting them to his house, or taking them down to the Cambridge, Massachusetts, headquarters of Polaroid for classes with him or other experts.

As Mr. Perry recalled, he outlined some of the basic principles of human nature, including an innate fear of strangers, a preference for working in groups of around six members and, most importantly, the principle of reciprocity.

“If I buy you a drink at a bar,” Mr. Perry said to explain reciprocity, “you had better buy the next round.  If I have to buy the second round, there won’t be a third one, and we won’t be friends.”

Working with Mr. Page and Mr. Downs, the group began to feel its way toward the system of reparative justice.

All felt that a real system of justice had to begin by putting the victim at its center, something that the English system of law, which was largely adopted by most U.S. states, did not do.

A reading of history, Mr. Perry said, shows the English originally had a system of law that rated the worth of an individual by his or her rank and punished offenses with fines that were proportional to the crime.

The basic idea, Mr. Perry said, was that a village needed all of its citizens if it was to function, so disputes had to be resolved in a way that would not cause the loss of someone’s skills to the community.

When William the Conqueror took over England in 1066, he assigned his son the task of creating a system of colonial law, Mr. Perry said.  That law treated every crime as an offense against the king, who was presumed to own everything in the country.  Fines were no longer paid to a victim, but were given to the king, and many crimes were punished by death or mutilation.

Vermont, in its Constitution, bans the latter form of punishment, which it calls “sanguinary punishment,” Mr. Perry said, so a system that turned away from the English model could be seen as being in accord with the intent of the state’s founders.

Mr. Perry found similar ways of meting out justice in such native societies as the Navaho, who resolve criminal offenses with a series of meetings or circles which seek to define the nature of the crime and gradually, through discussion, to find a way to mend the damage.

Whenever they hit a problem, Mr. Page would create a report that analyzed the situation in detail and proposed a solution, Mr. Perry said.

“He was right every damned time,” he recalled.

Mr. Patrissi said Mr. Page showed great patience with the group.

“Here we were, with this genius, who already knew where this was going to go,” he said.  “We were in the hands of a genius.”

When Governor Snelling returned to office after Governor Kunin finished her last term, he called Mr. Patrissi in and demanded 12 great ideas, Mr. Patrissi said.

He liked the proposal for a reparative justice program and, after his sudden death, so did his replacement, Governor Howard Dean.

In order to figure out how to sell the program to Vermonters, the DOC wrote a grant and hired a polling firm to conduct the sort of market research that might be undertaken before a company like Proctor and Gamble launches a product, said Mr. Perry.

After conducting focus groups and an extensive telephone poll, the results were in.  The people of Vermont hated the DOC, they also disliked the state’s attorneys, criminal defense lawyers and judges.  They did like juries, though, Mr. Perry said.

“They trusted themselves,” he concluded.

Vermonters were also very positive about the reparative justice system when it was explained to them.  The polls showed 92 to 94 percent favorability ratings, Mr. Perry said.

“Nothing gets 94 percent favorability ratings,” he said.

The first attempts at operating a reparative justice system were run through the DOC, but it soon became clear that the program would work better if it were handled by community members through an organization outside state government.

That led to the creation of community justice centers.

Over the years, the results of the reparative board have proved the worth of the idea.  A 2007 study was hard to publish, said Mr. Perry, because journals found it hard to believe that recidivism could be reduced in Vermont by 26 percent through the process.

Since the creation of restorative justice programs, Vermont has been frequently visited by representatives from other states and other countries seeking to learn from the state’s experience.

Because Vermont has a unified corrections system, unlike other states with county, city and other government subdivisions running jails, its database is the most comprehensive in the country — a boon for researchers, Mr. Perry said.

Still, he and Mr. Gorczyk said they are not satisfied with the system as it exists.  They feel it is underused.

Mr. Perry said he is pleased to see many schools are beginning to use the principles of restorative justice is dealing with infractions such as bullying.  The results, he said, are very promising.

State law prohibits the use of reparative boards for some crimes, such as domestic abuse.  Mr. Perry said he regrets that and believes the practice can achieve excellent results in those cases, if used properly.

Mr. Gorczyk said he has been pessimistic about the future of reparative justice until recently, but said the new Senate-passed bill is giving him renewed hope.

For Mr. Perry, it’s important to take the long view.

“We’re only 20 years into what will be a 100-year process,” he said.

This is the second of a three-part series on community justice.  The first part was in the February 19 issue of the Chronicle, and can be read here.

contact Joseph Gresser at joseph@bartonchronicle.com

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Murder charges brought in O’Hagan killing

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Keith Baird is brought into the Vermont Superior Court in Caledonia County’s criminal division on Monday to face charges of murder, kidnapping, and burglary.  Photo by Todd Wellington, courtesy of the Caledonian-Record.

Keith Baird is brought into the Vermont Superior Court in Caledonia County’s criminal division on Monday to face charges of murder, kidnapping, and burglary. Photo by Todd Wellington, courtesy of the Caledonian-Record.

copyright the Chronicle March 12, 2014

by Bethany M. Dunbar

ST. JOHNSBURY  — Two men have been charged with the murder and kidnapping of Mary Pat O’Hagan, a 78-year-old Sheffield grandmother who was killed three and a half years before the arraignments Monday, to the day.  A third man has been cited.

Keith J. Baird, 33, who is in jail in St. Johnsbury, and Richard Fletcher, 27, who is in jail in Springfield, pled innocent to the charges, which also included burglary, were assigned public defenders, and were sent back to jail and ordered to stay away from 28 specific people, including witnesses, co-defendants, and members of the O’Hagan family.

Michael Norrie, 23, has been cited for the same charges and faces extradition from a prison in Pennsylvania to face the charges.

All three men are from Sheffield.

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Police make arrests in the murder of Pat O’Hagan

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

After three and a half years of investigation by detectives and tips from the public with key information; police said citations were issued in the September 2010 murder of Pat O’Hagan. Richard Fletcher, age 27 of Sheffield, and Keith Baird, age 33 of Sutton (Fletcher’s brother); were both cited for burglary, kidnapping, and first degree murder of Pat O’Hagan. Mr. Baird also faces an additional charge as a habitual offender. Affidavits submitted on Friday, March 7, to the Vermont Superior Court, Caledonia Criminal Division were accepted for probable cause. An arrest warrant has been granted for the arrest of Michael Norrie, age 23 of St. Johnsbury who is being charged with burglary, kidnapping, and first degree murder.

Keith Baird is currently being held at the Northeast Regional Correctional
Center in St. Johnsbury for a lack of bail on multiple counts of violations
of conditions of release, habitual offender, and violations of an abuse
prevention order. Richard Fletcher is a Vermont inmate housed at a
correctional facility in Kentucky; although he was recently brought back to
Vermont and is being held at southern Vermont facility center in
Springfield serving a sentence for sexual exploitation of a minor. Michael
Norrie is serving a sentence in federal jail in Pennsylvania on federal gun
crimes.

Baird and Fletcher will be arraigned on the above listed charges on Monday, March 10, 2014, at 12:30PM. The arrest warrant obtained for Norrie will start the process of his extradition back to Vermont.

Pat O’Hagan was last seen on September 10, 2010. Her body was found nearly four weeks later on Horn Road in Wheelock, Vermont, on October 3, 2010; approximately ten miles from her home at 3064 Route 122 in Sheffield.

The Vermont State Police extend their appreciation to the Sheffield
community, Vermonters, and the media for their help and dedication in
keeping Pat O’Hagan’s memory alive.

Questions regarding the case should be directed to the Caledonia County
State’s Attorney. – from Vermont State Police.

To read a related story from past coverage, click here.

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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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Roger Pion shown competent for trial

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

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

by Bethany M. Dunbar

NEWPORT — A new examination of Roger Pion’s mental health shows that he is currently competent to stand trial, attorneys and Judge Howard Van Benthuysen heard in the criminal division of Orleans Superior Court Tuesday.

His new lawyer, Chandler Matson, asked for some time to prepare for a trial.  He is the third attorney on the case and said he does not have all the records yet.  He said he is 60 to 70 percent up to speed.

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Brooks sentenced to 18 months for embezzling

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by Chris Braithwaite

BURLINGTON — Kim Brooks will serve 18 months in federal prison for embezzling more than $160,000 from her former employer in Orleans.

The 48-year-old Brownington woman was dismissed from her job at Desmarais Equipment in the spring of 2011 after an audit of the farm equipment dealer’s books revealed significant discrepancies.

She has since been an active volunteer with the Orleans County Fair, where she served on the board of directors.

Indeed, the thousands of hours Ms. Brooks donated to the fair were cited by two people who spoke on her behalf at her sentencing hearing in U.S. District Court here Monday.

Her attorney, David Sleigh, used their remarks as the basis of a request for a “downward departure” from federal sentencing guidelines that would have reduced her prison sentence to five months.

But Judge William Sessions was unmoved.  His remarks suggested that the fact that Ms. Brooks is “obviously an extraordinarily intelligent person” who enjoyed her community’s respect made her crime all the more serious.

“How can someone who is so respected commit such a flagrant violation of trust?” the judge asked before he handed down the 18-month sentence.  He said he would request that the sentence be served at a federal prison camp in Danbury, Connecticut, and ordered Ms. Brooks to surrender herself there on October 8.

Ms. Brooks was first cited to appear in state court in early 2012 following a State Police investigation.  Her case moved to U.S. District Court after a federal grand jury issued a three-count indictment in October 2012.

Ms. Brooks pled guilty to one count after negotiating a plea agreement with federal prosecutors in late April this year.

Judge Sessions waived any fine, which could have been as high as $250,000.  But as part of the plea agreement she was ordered to forfeit $11,885 to the government in a “preliminary order of forfeiture” issued by the court on Friday.

According to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s office, Ms. Brooks must pay a total of about $163,000 in restitution.  Judge Sessions ordered her Monday to give up 10 percent of her future gross income for that purpose.

That was one of several conditions of a three-year term of supervised release the judge added to her prison sentence.  He also ordered Ms. Brooks to avoid work that involved any fiduciary responsibility.

The judge told Ms. Brooks he had considered several factors before passing sentence.  None of them seemed to work out in her favor.

“What was most important in my assessment is the level of planning,” he said.  “This is a case in which money was taken over three years,” he noted.  “It was not some casual act.  That level of calculation is extremely serious.”

Judge Sessions noted that Ms. Brooks had been working with a small company for 15 years, and knew that her embezzlement would make it impossible for her co-workers to get raises or bonuses.

“That’s a pretty flagrant violation of a person’s level of trust,” the judge remarked.  “That you could go to work, knowing full well you have been stealing from them for years, is inconceivable to me,” he added.

Turning to deterrence, the judge said embezzlement cases have become so common in Vermont that “some have referred to it as an epidemic.”

“There needs to be a statement to the community that these violations of trust are treated seriously,” Judge Sessions said.  “There needs to be a clear understanding by people who are in charge of other people’s money that to steal it is a serious crime.”

The brothers whose business was the victim of the crime, Rene and Roger Desmarais, both had a chance to speak to the court Monday.

“We were in business for 49 years and had a lot of good help — people you trusted,” Roger Desmarais said.  “Apparently we had a silent partner we didn’t know anything about.”

He said the loss cut into the price the brothers got when they sold their business.  “We weren’t showing the profit we should have been,” he said.

He recalled the day an accountant “figured out something was wrong,” and confronted Ms. Brooks.

“She said she had made some mistakes in life.  She was as cool as could be,” Mr. Desmarais said.

Reading from a pre-sentence investigation that was not made public, Judge Sessions said that Rene Desmarais felt humiliated by the case, a feeling that was “fueled by her arrogant public behavior.”

After Ms. Brooks was caught, the judge asked Roger Desmarais, “was she acting in an arrogant way?”

“No,” Mr. Desmarais replied.  “Kim was being Kim.”

“We considered her a real friend,” Rene Desmarais said when it was his turn to talk.  He said the crime also affected 12 to 14 people who worked for the dealership.  They got no raises for four or five years, he said.  “At the end of the year there was no profit to distribute.”

The judge asked Rene Desmarais if Ms. Brooks was arrogant after her crime was revealed.

“If I was accused of doing what she did, there’s no way I would have flaunted myself,” Mr. Desmarais replied.  “She goes on as if nothing ever happened.”

Judge Sessions established the fact that Ms. Brooks hadn’t paid any of the money back since her crime was discovered in early 2011.

Ms. Brooks’ attorney, David Sleigh, took responsibility for that.  He routinely warned his clients against contacting their alleged victims before the criminal case was settled, he told the judge.

Two friends were in the courtroom to speak for Ms. Brooks.

Lori Royer said her friendship with the defendant went back to their high school days.  “She did a lot for the fair,” Ms. Royer said.  “She kept the harness racing alive and well.”

“She’s got a very kind heart,” Ms. Royer said of Ms. Brooks.  “She’s a very good person.”

Judge Sessions asked if the two had talked about the criminal case.

No, Ms. Royer replied.  “Rene’s my neighbor, Kim’s my friend, we just don’t talk about it.”

Randy Patenaude told the judge he had worked with Ms. Brooks at the fair, and that she had also cared for his mother, who suffered a serious stroke.

“Without her motivation, my mother would not be where she is now,” he said of Ms. Brooks’ care.

“Kim devoted thousands of hours to the Orleans County Fair,” Mr. Patenaude said, “not for any glorification or monetary gain.”

Mr. Sleigh did not argue that his client should not go to jail, but urged the court to shorten the term from the federal guideline of 18 to 24 months.

“Kim for years has given enormously to her community,” the attorney said.  “It is hard to overestimate the importance of the Orleans County Fair to the community.”

“Little of the wrongful taking wound up as a benefit to Kim,” Mr. Sleigh added.

The judge pursued that issue.  He noted that three checks involved in the crime had gone to her partner, for a total of close to $45,000.

“Where did that money go?” the judge demanded.

During a later exchange with Ms. Brooks, Judge Sessions said the three checks went to Harvey Cleveland, Ms. Brooks partner and, until he stepped down in July, president of the Orleans County Fair.

“What were they used for?” the judge asked.

“One, and a significant portion of another, was sent to Ohio to assist someone I knew,” Ms. Brooks replied.

According to the grand jury indictment, “$11,885 in proceeds from one of these unauthorized checks was used to purchase a used truck in Ohio.”

“One went to a young farmer who was trying to start up a business,” Ms. Brooks continued.  “At the time I anticipated it was coming back,” she said of the money.  “I found out that was not true.  I never received any of the money back.”

Then Ms. Brooks turned to face the Desmarais brothers and their wives.

“I’m sorry I betrayed your trust,” she told them.  “I’m sorry for losing your friendship.  I will do everything I can to pay you back.”

contact Chris Braithwaite at chris@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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Photos and beer can trail lead to arson arrest

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State Police fire investigators have concluded that the fire that totaled all four of the Albany Fire Department's vehicles was deliberately set.   Pictured is smoke blackened engine number one, where the fire started.  Photo by Tena Starr

State Police fire investigators have concluded that the fire that totaled all four of the Albany Fire Department’s vehicles was deliberately set. Pictured is smoke blackened engine number one, where the fire started. Photo by Tena Starr

by Tena Starr

ALBANY  — An Albany firefighter, who allegedly told police he has a problem with fire and needs help, has been accused of trying to burn down his own department.

Elmer Joerg, 45, of Holland pled innocent last week in the Criminal Division of Orleans Superior Court to a count of second degree arson and another of reckless endangerment.  He was held on $250,000 bail.

The fire, which occurred at about 1 a.m. on August 11, ruined all of the Albany department’s vehicles and much of their equipment.  The department is back in business, though, due to the generosity of other communities that have donated everything from helmets to trucks.

Police affidavits say that a trail of Natural Light beer cans, as well as game cameras set up in the fire station, led investigators to Mr. Joerg.

The game cameras were set up because of an earlier gasoline theft.  Although they were damaged in the fire, the photos were eventually recovered and included several images of an individual inside the firehouse at the time of the fire.

When Albany Fire Chief Donald Peters looked at the pictures he told investigators he believed the man might, in fact, be one of his firefighters.  He identified the man as Elmer “Jim” Joerg, Lieutenant James Cruise of the State Police Fire Investigation Unit says in his affidavit.  Mr. Peters also had gone by the Joerg residence and noticed an ATV in the yard that matched the description of an ATV a neighbor saw leaving the scene of the fire, police say.

Last Tuesday Chief Peters scheduled a mandatory meeting for all fire department members, in part to regroup and familiarize themselves with their new equipment.  Also, a State Police fire investigator individually questioned firefighters, both past and present, in the hope of shedding some light on the fire.

Mr. Joerg was the only Albany Fire Department member who did not attend the meeting.  Investigators were told that Mr. Joerg had been taken to the hospital by ambulance the day before with an unknown illness and was in a coma.

Sergeant Jeremy Hill and Lieutenant Cruise went to Mr. Joerg’s home where Jacqueline Joerg said her husband was still in the hospital.  She indicated that she did not know the nature of his illness, but it could have been an overdose of some sort or a suicide attempt, she told police.

Mrs. Joerg told police her husband had been very upset that “someone could have started a fire at the station and destroyed all the equipment.”

Investigators found a number of Natural Light beer cans in a barrel on the Joergs’ porch and more on the ground in front of his car.  Later they saw a Natural Light can on the side of the road on the Hitchcock Hill Road in Albany and took it as evidence, noting the “born on” date was the same as that on the cans at Mr. Joerg’s house.

On another trip between the Joerg house and the fire station they noticed a second Natural Light can, again with the same “born on” date as those at the Joergs’ home.

On August 14, the day after the fire department meeting, police investigators were able to interview Mr. Joerg at North Country Hospital.  He initially denied being involved in setting any fire at the Albany fire station.

But when police explained to him that they had pictures, his beer cans, and that his ATV and jackets matched those witnesses saw, “He bowed his head and was nodding yes and finally agreed that it was him,” Lieutenant Cruise’s affidavit says.

Mr. Joerg allegedly told police he’d gone to the station on his ATV and used his firefighter’s access code to get into the back door of the station.  He’d forgotten to bring a lighter with him, so he used the kitchen stove to set some paper on fire, lit cardboard with that, and ultimately lit the cab of fire engine number one, he allegedly told police.

Mr. Joerg said he then fled the scene and later returned as an Albany firefighter.

Monica Grondin told State Police Fire Investigator Detective Sergeant David Sutton she saw someone inside the firehouse about 1:15 that morning.  After leaving the building, he started his ATV and drove along the shoulder of Main Street past her home with the headlights off, she said.

In the course of the first interview with investigators, Mr. Joerg allegedly told them “he set the fire because he had a problem with fire and thinks about setting fires often, and has urges to set fires that he is usually able to control.

“He also advised that he is a danger because he set this fire and admitted that he would not have minded dying in this fire,” Lieutenant Cruise says in his affidavit.

Police interviewed Mr. Joerg a second time, and he went into more detail, saying he’d also tried to set fire to the rescue vehicle.

He also allegedly said that he’d panicked and pulled down the smoke alarm in the building.

Mr. Joerg said he’d set about seven fires over the past ten years but no one had been injured in them, police said.

His criminal record includes charges in Vermont, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.

He has been charged with giving false information to a police officer and possession of marijuana in Vermont.

In the late 1980s, in New Jersey, he was convicted of sexual assault, arson and larceny.  A charge of making a terrorist threat was reduced to disorderly conduct.

In Rhode Island in the 1990s Mr. Joerg pled no contest to assault with a deadly weapon and breaking and entering.

If released from jail, Mr. Joerg is ordered by the court to have no contact with any member of the Albany Fire Department and to stay at last 300 feet away from the fire station.

A competency and sanity evaluation has been ordered.

contact Tena Starr at tenas@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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In Barton: Chronicle reporter watches car get stolen

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by Bethany M. Dunbar

BARTON — A veteran reporter for the Chronicle had his car stolen from the office as he was working inside on Tuesday.  But about three hours later, the vehicle was found in Orleans, and the person who took it was caught.

About 3:30 p.m., Assistant Editor Natalie Hormilla Gordon arrived for her evening shift job and noticed a young man in a hooded sweatshirt sitting in Paul Lefebvre’s car, holding the steering wheel.

She did not recognize him, thought it was odd, and when she went inside, she told Mr. Lefebvre, who went outside to take a look.  By then the car was being driven from the scene, badly.  It’s a Honda CRV with standard shift, and the driver was stalling as he made his getaway, down Water Street and north on Route 5, as Mr. Lefebvre watched.

Thinking he might be able to head it off on foot, Mr. Lefebvre cut through the schoolyard at a run to try to get his car back.

The attempt proved unfruitful, so he came back to the office where he called the State Police to report the theft.  Chronicle staffers also decided to post the car’s theft on Facebook.  Trooper Erika Liss came to the Chronicle office and interviewed Mr. Lefebvre and Ms. Gordon, who had got a good look at the robber.  She described him as a white male in his twenties, average size, with blue eyes, wearing a Navy blue hoodie.

“He had his hands on the wheel, looking kind of intense,” she said.  “He was just sitting there, and I thought, maybe he knows Paul.”

Mr. Lefebvre said his first thought was, “How am I going to get home tonight?”

His car had been in an accident about a week and a half before, and the back window was smashed out and covered with a green tarp and duct tape.  It also had problems with the door, created in the accident.

Mr. Lefebvre said it has not been a very lucky car for him, as he has had to put in a new motor, water pump, and clutch.

“I think that car has a hex on it,” he said.

But Mr. Lefebvre’s luck was apparently turning a few hours later, when people started calling the office to say they had seen the car in Orleans Village.  They were aware of the theft due to the Facebook post.  Mr. Lefebvre called the police back to say the car had been spotted in Orleans, and Lieutenant Kirk Cooper went to the village, spotted the car and found out the driver was in the bathroom at the Sunoco station.  The driver, who said he is from Enosburg and had no wallet with him, was cited after he came out of the bathroom.

Mr. Lefebvre had his car back, and nothing seemed to be missing from the vehicle.

contact Bethany M. Dunbar at bethany@bartonchronicle.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

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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