LONDONDERRY—With a number of unsolved arson and burglary cases in the region, concerned residents filled the seats on the main floor and balcony of the Town Hall on Monday night.
All eyes were focused on three state troopers, Commissioner of Public Safety Keith Flynn, and State Rep. Oliver Olsen, I-Jamaica, the legislator who brought them to town.
After approximately 12 suspicious fires in 10 years, and 17 burglaries in just one month, the community’s patience and sense of safety had worn threadbare.
Before the community meeting started, an observer noted that many residents had developed their own theories and suspect lists.
Olsen organized the June 8 meeting three weeks ago with the intent of discussing the suspected arsons in the area.
However, phone calls piled up as constituents expressed concern about the number of recent break-ins, so the meeting grew to include both topics.
One of the break-ins occurred at his neighbor’s house, Olsen said. A number of businesses were robbed, including the post office. One woman, according to Olsen, came inside from gardening to find someone had broken in.
“This is not the norm,” Olsen said. “This is not the Londonderry we know as home.”
Olsen: ‘These things take time’
Olsen opened the meeting saying that the citizens’ concerns had reached the highest levels of state government. He added that the troopers and commissioner might not provide as many details as the audience would like because of ongoing investigations.
“These things take time, and we need to be patient,” Olsen said.
He also asked audience members to keep any theories or rumors to themselves, rather than use the meeting to point fingers.
The Vermont State Police are experts at investigations, he continued, urging citizens to consult with troopers before hiring private investigators.
Flynn said that detectives under his auspices were investigating both the suspicious fires and burglaries.
Arsonists’ motivations for setting fires range from boredom, to revenge, to insurance fraud, Flynn said. Finding evidence, building a strong prosecutorial case, and making arrests were the investigators’ goals.
“We will not stop,” Flynn said. “There will be an arrest made, and it will happen.”
An audience member asked the commissioner if he based his confidence on conjecture or fact.
“It’s based on tenacity, sir,” Flynn replied.
“This is a high priority for us,” said State Police Lt. Col. Matthew Birmingham.
Despite staff turnover in recent years, the Vermont State Police force has remained devoted to investigating the suspicious fires, he said. The FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) have also been consulted.
State Police Det. Sgt. Steve Otis, the state’s fire investigator for southern Vermont, said that the state has five fire investigators in all.
When asked whether any of the suspicious fires could have concealed a burglary, Otis said that each fire, and the combustable material involved, looks different.
“You’re able to examine those things to see what’s there and what’s not there,” he said.
In response to a question about the most vulnerable arson target in town, Otis said that while the fires had some general similarities, providing such specific information would not prove prudent.
The motives and targets of arson change, he said.
State Police Sgt. Anthony French of the Rockingham barracks said that patrols have increased in town since the robberies started in early May. Troopers patrolled Londonderry daily for the past couple weeks.
Stepping up patrols
Flynn said that statewide, all conversations about robberies trace back to the state’s opiate issue.
No distinguishing factors determine which towns will have opiate issues, he said.
“Demand knows no boundaries,” Flynn said. “The opiates are going to go where the demand is. We can’t treat our way out of this problem. I also know we can’t arrest our way out of it.”
The state arraigns between 15,000 and 25,000 people a year, Flynn said. It has jail cells for 1,500.
“It’s trying to carry six gallons of water in a five-gallon bucket,” he said.
In Flynn’s opinion, Vermont needs to improve its ability to reach addicts in the early stages of their addiction and while their support networks remain intact.
Heroin addicts don’t use to get high, Flynn added. They use to keep from the ill effects when the drug wears off, a phenomenon called “dope sickness.”
Needed: new information
Otis said that solving cases, especially arson cases, takes patience. It also takes someone stepping up with new information.
The community at large hears the conversations or picks up on tiny details that turn the tide of an investigation, he said.
Residents wanted assurances. They wanted a greater police presence. They felt frustrated that if they called 911, it takes troopers about 45 minutes to arrive from the Vermont State Police’s Rockingham barracks.
One woman relayed an incident where she called 911 to report a driver on her desolate road, someone she suspected of doing a drug deal. The operator put her on hold “forever,” until she finally hung up.
Birmingham explained that while it wasn’t an excuse, emergency operators triage calls. Using Monday’s police log as an example, a homicide in Windsor, a life-threatening car accident, or a domestic assault in progress will take precedence over the report of a suspicious car.
Still, he asked audience members to always call back. He added they could report concerns about how operators handle calls to supervisors within the state police.
In response, another audience member asked what law enforcement was doing to improve communications.
Flynn said that the state police are consolidating their dispatchers from four offices to two. Troopers in the Rockingham barracks will soon move to new barracks in Westminster.
The VSP increasingly uses data to direct its resources, such as where to place patrols, he said.
Stand your ground?
A neighbor read a letter from Paul and Phyliss Schnitman, whose house burned in a suspicious fire last month.
In the letter, the couple described their loss as devastating. They lost many “treasures,” they wrote, and unless some call to action to stop the “lawlessness” takes place, they did not feel safe rebuilding their home.
Audience members repeatedly asked what rights they have in Vermont to defend themselves.
Speakers repeatedly said that while people always have the right to defend their homes, they should always call emergency services first. Birmingham advised people to leave the scene for a safer place.
“No piece of property is worth your life,” he said.
“One of the best things you can do is be a good neighbor,” Birmingham added. “Anything that’s suspicious you should report to the police.”
One audience member commented about knowing who is dealing drugs in which parking lot.
But the police don’t, French commented, imploring citizens to tell the police what is happening.
Windham County State’s Attorney Tracy Shriver said that the meeting marked the second time in one day someone asked, “Don’t you know they’re dealing drugs?”
“We need you to tell us this,” she said. “As insignificant as it seems, [the state police] are asking you for help. Call them.”
This response didn’t appear to satisfy some audience members who seemed to look for a broader permission to defend first and ask questions later.
One man asked if Vermont has a “stand your ground” law that allows for deadly force when protecting one’s home.
Shriver that “stand your ground” was a frequently misused term around the nation and that she wouldn’t use that phrase to cover any legal rights Vermonters have to defend themselves.
Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark said that he will attend the June 15 Londonderry Selectboard meeting at the board’s request. The town is exploring contracting its police protection with the Sheriff’s Department.
Clark, a 25-year veteran in law enforcement in Vermont, added that not all robberies come down to people stealing items to sell quickly for drugs. He said that thefts happened in the state long before opiates and their abuse became widespread.
“We are not going to stop,” Flynn said. “Those person or persons will be brought to justice.”
“It’s your homes, it’s your community, it’s more than a tangible item — we get it,” he added.