KEITH WHITCOMB JR.
BENNINGTON -- The chief of the Bennington Rural Fire Department pleaded guilty Tuesday to a charge of disorderly conduct which stemmed from an incident at an emergency scene in June where he threw a flashlight at a vehicle he feared was going to hit him.
Joseph T. Hayes, 43, of North Bennington, was charged in July with misdemeanor counts of disorderly conduct, and unlawful mischief. The state dropped the mischief charge and Hayes agreed that he would go before a reparative board with the next four months. If he completes the board's instructions his case will be sealed and not show up on his record, said his attorney William D. Wright, of Bennington.
According to Bennington Police, on June 3 at 11:18 p.m. officers were sent to North Bennington Road where the Bennington Rural Fire Department was assisting with downed power lines. Both Hayes and Fred Grant, the driver of the vehicle Hayes' flashlight struck, had contacted police to report an incident.
Police said Hayes told them he was crossing the road when he saw a vehicle coming at him, moving fast. He said he shined his flashlight at the car to get it to slow or stop but it did neither. Police said Hayes told them the flashlight was thrown in front of the vehicle and he had "choice" words with the driver.
Grant told police he was traveling between 15 and 20 mph with another vehicle in front him ahead by three car lengths. He said his vision was inhibited by rain and lights from a pickup parked on the roadside and facing him. He said he did not notice Hayes until he heard something hit his vehicle and Hayes started shouting at him.
Police said Hayes told them he did not have reflective gear on at the time and was crossing the road to check the number on a utility pole.
Wright said in an interview that his client feared he would be hit by Grant's vehicle and while jumping out of the way Hayes underhand tossed the flashlight which hit Grant's car. He said it was an instinctive action and there was no intent to hit or damage Grant's vehicle.
According to Wright, Hayes agreed to the plea agreement because he wished the case to be over with and felt the reparative board was acceptable, rather than take the matter to trial. "This is the ugly part of our system," Wright said. "He's thought about a trial and the system has a way of wearing people down."
Wright said the reparative boards tend to ask for some sort of monetary donation or community service after speaking with the person about whatever incident brought him or her before it. The board is made up of community members and proceedings are confidential. He said he expects Hayes will have no trouble completing the reparative board's directives and once he does notice will be sent to the court and his record sealed.
Wright said the BRFD has opted to close roads when there are emergencies rather than risk this type of incident again or put its members at risk from passing motorists. He said it was a surprise to the department that Hayes was the one charged. Wright said he was prepared to bring up Grant's driving record, which according to Wright contains traffic violations from four different states including Vermont. He said as far as he knows Grant has moved out of the area.
Attempts to reach Grant were not successful. No restitution was ordered as part of the case.
"The facts and circumstances of the case indicate it was not a malicious act," said Deputy State's Attorney Alexander Burke. He said the state felt the reparative board was a suitable resolution to the case.