Friday March 29, 2013

KEITH WHITCOMB JR.

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- Police said they charged an Arlington teenager with stealing a fire safe from a friend’s house after reviewing text messages and a recorded conversation with his father in which the father told him to "man up" to the alleged crime.

Benjamin S. Culler, 19, of Joy Lane, pleaded not guilty Monday in Bennington Superior Court Criminal Division to a felony count of burglary. He was released on conditions that he appear at future court hearings and not be charged with new crimes.

According to an affidavit by Vermont State Trooper Lewis Hatch, on Nov. 2 he met with Elizabeth Waters of Arlington who contacted police to report a fire safe of hers was missing from her home. The safe contained personal papers, foreign money, and other miscellaneous items. There was no sign of forced entry into the home.

On Dec. 10, Waters told Hatch she suspected Culler had taken the safe and burned it and its contents in a fire pit behind his house. Culler is the friend of Waters’ son and according to her knew where a key to the house was hidden.

On Dec. 16 Culler and his father, Blaine Culler, came to the VSP Shaftsbury barracks, where Benjamin Culler denied knowing anything about the theft of the safe and said he initially believed police were questioning him about another burglary. Culler told police he believes his ex-girlfriend is attempting to frame him for a burglary in Bennington.

Hatch said he explained to the Cullers the seriousness of the accusation and asked Blaine Culler if he wished to speak to his son about it. Hatch said Blaine Culler agreed and the conversation between the Cullers was recorded.

Hatch wrote "After reviewing their conversation I noted Blaine told Benjamin he needed to man up to what he had done and if he had burglarized the residence. Benjamin told Blaine he did not do it. Blaine then stated, ‘is that why the safe was out behind the house, I saw it there.’ Benjamin then said something that is unclear. Blaine then said ‘who, Eric?’ Blaine encouraged Benjamin to tell the State Police what he did know about the incident."

Benjamin Culler declined to speak to police further.

Waters spoke to police again saying she had found a cell phone in her car that belonged to Eric Goodfellow and on it were text messages sent by Culler in which Culler mentions the safe and says Blaine Culler had seen it and would be going to the police if Benjamin Culler did not. Culler asked Goodfellow what he wanted to do in light of this, according to the affidavit.

Goodfellow spoke to police on Jan. 4 and said he had been dog-sitting for Waters in November and mentioned this to Culler. He said a week after the dog-sitting was done he was at Culler’s house and saw a photograph of Waters when she was younger. Goodfellow said Culler confessed to him that he stole the safe along with help of a person Culler did not identify, and burned the safe’s contents in his backyard. He said he did not respond to Culler’s messages because he felt Culler was trying to get him blamed for the incident.

Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at kwhitcomb@benningtonbanner.com or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr