'Error in communication' caused mistaken release

BENNINGTON — Vermont Superior Court officials are reviewing processes and staffing after an "error in communication" led to a Massachusetts man, whom a judge ordered held without bail, being allowed to walk out of court this week.

Richard P. Ellis, 26, of North Adams, Mass., denied two felony charges Monday afternoon for an incident last week in which police said shots were fired. Ellis, who police called "extremely dangerous," was mistakenly allowed to leave court, but was returned to custody by 6 p.m.

Court officials stressed it's not a common occurrence.

"The important thing for us is to understand what happened and take immediate measures," State Court Administrator Patricia Gabel told the Banner on Thursday. "We've done that."

The error was realized very quickly, said Wendy Dickie, court operations manager for the Superior Court's criminal division in Bennington.

"Everyone was immediately made aware of the situation," she said.

"It's something we take very seriously," said Laurie Canty, clerk of courts for Addison, Bennington and Rutland counties.

Canty said there was confusion when Ellis was arraigned as to whether he had been ordered to be held, because the judge also imposed release conditions.

Canty categorized it as "a clerical error, a misunderstanding."

Gabel said short staffing means there aren't enough people to work in the courts, which she said "creates challenges in making sure things are handled correctly."

Ellis pleaded not guilty at arraignment to felony aggravated stalking with a deadly weapon and aggravated assault with a weapon, and misdemeanor domestic assault, reckless endangerment and aggravated disorderly conduct.

The charges stem from what police described as a domestic altercation Friday morning. According to a court affidavit by Bennington police, Ellis threatened a woman he knew and himself during an incident in which he fired a handgun several times.

Judge John W. Valente, at Ellis' arraignment, ordered him held without bail pending a weight of evidence hearing. That hearing would determine what, if any, conditions could be imposed on Ellis pending the outcome of his case.

"Following the arraignment, Ellis was mistakenly allowed to walk out of court and was not held as ordered," Bennington police said in a press release issued just before 5 p.m. on Monday. "Ellis was aware he was being held without bail."

In a subsequent news release issued just after 6 p.m. that day, police said Ellis had been returned to custody.

Gabel said officials are using the incident as an opportunity to evaluate processes and training so, in the future, there are redundancies — more than one person will be paying attention to what a judge ordered.

"In this case, there was a miscommunication," she said. Though the judge ordered him held, "it was believed he issued a different order."

"We've gone to the legislature and requested staff positions be added to the courts," Gabel said. "When our courts are understaffed, that's when errors can occur." Staff are responsible for the court office windows and must handle issues in courtrooms, she noted.

"The response I'd expect would be exactly what happened here," Canty said. "The second it came to our attention, which was very quickly after it occurred, the sheriff's department and police departments were notified so he could be taken back into custody."

Officials declined to comment on whether any judicial would staff face disciplinary action.

Ellis is now scheduled to return to court on Thursday. He's listed as detained in Rutland prison.

Ed Damon can be reached at edamon@benningtonbanner.com, at @edamon_banner on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 111.


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