KEITH WHITCOMB JR.
BENNINGTON - Animal cruelty allegations, firefighters and teachers accused of misconduct, and burglary incidents were some of the more attention-getting matters that came through Bennington Superior Court Criminal Division last year.
In October, a former Bennington County Sheriff’s Department deputy was charged with shooting and killing a neighbor’s dog in Pownal. Donald Loveland, 51, who resigned from the department before charges were brought, told investigators the dog had attacked his girlfriend and her dog, and had killed a number of his chickens. Loveland pleaded not guilty and his attorney cited a Vermont law allowing domestic dogs to be killed if they are attacking other domestic animals such as chickens.
In July, a Bennington man pleaded not guilty to shooting his pit bull as it was chained behind his mobile home at the White Birches Mobile Home Park. Police were called to the home of Edward Trombley, 47, for a report of three gunshots and found the dog there, dead. Police said Trombley admitted to shooting the dog, and said it had bitten him. However, police were suspicious of the wound he showed them.
In March, Michael Choquette, 45, of Readsboro, pleaded not guilty to two counts of animal cruelty, one for allegedly killing a woman’s cat with a block of wood then throwing the corpse into an outdoor wood furnace.
A number of firefighters were in court for various reasons.
In December, Bryan Watson, 25, a captain of the Bennington Rural Fire Department, pleaded not guilty to felony counts of sexual assault and repeated aggravated sexual assault in connection with alleged sex acts he engaged in with a 13-year-old over the summer in 2011. Shortly after Watson’s arraignment, another BRFD member, Zachary Spaulding, 21, pleaded not guilty to aggravated sexual assault, and sexual assault -- no consent as well as contributing to the delinquency of a minor. The same girl Watson was accused of engaging in sex acts with also told police she had similar contact with Spaulding.
In September, the assistant chief of the Bennington Fire Department, Chad E. Prentiss, 36, of Bennington, pleaded guilty to a second offense of driving under the influence of alcohol. He was given an 18-month suspended sentence and ordered to complete 200 hours of community service. His driver’s license was also suspended for 18 months.
In July, the chief of the Bennington Rural Fire Department, Joseph Hayes, 43, was charged with unlawful mischief, and disorderly conduct after he threw a flashlight at a car he thought was going to hit him at an emergency scene. In early January Hayes pleaded guilty to the disorderly conduct charge and was given diversion. The fire department has since changed its policies to close roads rather than keep them open to traffic during dangerous situations.
A few teachers also faced allegations.
Over the summer, John Dockum, 34, a former teacher at Monument Elementary School, was charged in state court with allegedly having child pornography on a computer he was issued through the school. Dockum’s attorney argued the offending files were located in Dockum’s temporary Internet cache, meaning he did not necessarily know they were even there and there was no evidence he intentionally downloaded the images. The state dropped the charges when the U.S. District Attorney’s Office took interest in the case, but those charges were dropped as well before Dockum was ever formally charged in federal court.
In December, Bryan Love, 37, a teacher at The Mountain School in Winhall, pleaded not guilty to counts of lewd and lascivious conduct with a child. Police said a female student who was infatuated with Love had been touched by him inappropriately. Love has denied any wrongdoing.
Burglaries may have dominated Bennington criminal court in terms of felony charges and kept police busy as well throughout the year.
Dorset, with its rural location and high population of seasonal home owners, was moved to create a neighborhood watch program. Shaftsbury has discussed making similar efforts but so far has only opted to increase police patrols by the Bennington County Sheriff’s Department. While rural areas were hit hard, Bennington itself was no exception, suffering a rash of such incidents in the summer. Police believe many break-ins actually occurred at second homes over the winter and were not discovered until the homeowners returned in the spring or from holiday trips.
One of the more high profile cases involved Eric Lambert, 25, of Shaftsbury, who in January pleaded guilty to six burglary offenses, four counts of sale of stolen property, two counts of grand larceny, two charges of violating his curfew, and one count each of petit larceny, unlawful trespass, false information to police, possession of marijuana, prescription fraud, and possession of burglary tools. His cases took up 18 different dockets and involved 20 crimes, with others being dropped by the state as part of a plea agreement in which Lambert was sentenced to serve between three and 15 years in prison. Police said Lambert mostly stole from relatives and people he knew, seeking small items he could sell. Police said while he was free on conditions while the case was pending, he committed more thefts. At his sentencing hearing he indicated he stole to feed a drug habit and intended to get his life back on track while in prison.
In February, police searched Foster’s Cannery, owned by Preston Foster, 51, looking for stolen property the believed had been sold to the business, which is a recycling center that also buys precious metals. Foster was not charged initially, but later in the year pleaded not guilty to possession of stolen property after police said he knowingly had a bag of jewelry worth around $2,000 that he knew was stolen. The case is still pending.