Cops and courts, a year in review


BENNINGTON -- So-called "big city problems" have come to the relatively small town of Bennington, as evidenced by many of 2013's cops and courts headlines.

* Police began the year by delivering quite a shock to the drug-dealing community, as well as the general population, when on Jan. 16 at least 100 officers from multiple agencies sought to arrest more than 60 people in a county-wide drug sweep dubbed "Operation County Strike."

Making use of a Hummer, a helicopter, and a tactical response team dressed in full-body armor, police arrested 47 suspected drug dealers in the day-long operation. The other suspects either turned themselves in the next day, or were already incarcerated. The show of force was such that police said suspects turned themselves in who were not on the list of those being sought.

The sequel, "Strike Two," netted 16 arrests and occurred Sept. 25. Other counties have launched similar operations. Police were acting on information they gathered over a period of months from informants.

* An affidavit made public through one of the sweep investigations indicated a man named "Jason Balsh" was directing women to act as prostitutes in Bennington. Balsh turned out to be a fictional alias invented by local businessman Thomas Lyons, the former owner of Bennington Subaru, who police said used the persona to direct the women to himself. He pleaded guilty in April to four misdemeanor counts of prohibited act-procure, meaning he solicited women on four occasions. Prosecutors said only three women were involved.

* In May, Bennington Police, with the help of agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigations, executed search warrants on the Green Spa and Cozy Spa, located on Main Street and North Street, respectively. They were investigating allegations of human trafficking and prostitution, however all that came of it was a citation for the owner of Cozy Spa to appear in court in late July.

That citation was never acted upon. State's Attorney Erica Marthage said the state's definition of prostitution relies on its definition of "sexual intercourse," which covers many things, just not the specific activity suspected of happening at the spas. Both spas investigated appear to still be open for business.

* A rape case that has been pending for the past 26 years finally saw some forward motion in the last year. Leonard Forte, 72, informed the court in late 2012 that he had been removed from a heart transplant list, prompting the state to resume action on his case. Forte was convicted in 1987 of three counts of sexual assault, but the trial court judge overturned the convictions because he said the female prosecutor was overly emotional in her closing arguments. The state appealed and after a series of legal maneuvers the Vermont Supreme Court ordered a retrial.

Holding the case up has been Forte's claims of ill health related to his heart. For some years he had been appearing in the local court via telephone to keep judges up to date on the condition of his health. At Forte's latest hearing, earlier this month, the case was put out another seven months so his new doctor could monitor him.

* Peter Campbell-Copp, a Manchester publisher, was sentenced in April to serve six months in prison, with a five- to 20-year suspended sentence, for having defrauded aspiring authors and a printer out of nearly $200,000. He had been scheduled for a three-week trial, but admitted on the day the trial was to begin that he took large sums of money from many authors with the promise he would deliver them their books, however he did not follow through on his obligations.

In October he was charged with fraud again for allegedly borrowing $28,000 from a woman with no ability to pay her back as was agreed upon. This happened while his other fraud cases were pending.

* The former Bennington Rural Fire Department Chief, Joseph Hayes, 44, was charged with embezzlement in June. According to police, Hayes put the department's name on a number of unsold raffle tickets when it became clear not enough had been sold for the department to make its money back. Hayes pleaded not guilty, and his attorney called the affair an example of bitter department politics.

A condition of Hayes' release was that he not handle department funds. A few months later, Hayes was charged with violating that condition by participating in the department's Prudential Committee meetings at which financial decisions were made.

The case is still pending.


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