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Trial Begins for Former Windsor Police Officer Accused in Shooting

  • Former Windsor police officer Ryan Palmer listens to a witness while on trial at the Windsor Superior Court in White River Junction, Vt., on Sept. 8, 2017 for felony aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and misdemeanor reckless conduct in connection with the shooting of a man in Windsor in 2014. (Sarah Priestap Photograph)

  • Former Windsor police officer Ryan Palmer introduces his attorney, Dan Sedon, to his supporters before the start of the first day of Palmer’s trial at the Windsor Superior Court in White River Junction, Vt., on Sept. 8, 2017. Palmer is charged with felony aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and misdemeanor reckless conduct in connection with the shooting of a man in Windsor in 2014. (Sarah Priestap Photograph)

  • Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Anderson gives her opening arguments to jury at the beginning of the the trial of former Windsor police officer Ryan Palmer at the Windsor Superior Court in White River Junction, Vt., on Sept. 8, 2017. Palmer is charged with felony aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and misdemeanor reckless conduct in connection with the shooting of a man in Windsor in 2014. (Sarah Priestap Photograph)

  • Assistant Attorney General Matthew Levine questions Brittany Smith, of Thetford, Vt., on the stand during the trial of former Windsor police officer Ryan Palmer at the Windsor Superior Court in White River Junction, Vt., on Sept. 8, 2017. Palmer is charged with felony aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and misdemeanor reckless conduct in connection with the shooting of a man in Windsor in 2014. (Sarah Priestap Photograph)



Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, September 08, 2017

White River Junction — Former Windsor police officer Ryan Palmer didn’t testify at the first day of his trial on charges he unlawfully shot a suspect in a 2014 sting operation, but jurors still got to hear Palmer’s version of events from his own mouth.

Prosecutors played a nearly two-hour interview that Palmer gave to Vermont State Police detectives. The interview was conducted four days after Palmer shot and wounded Jorge Burgos during a botched sting on the evening of Nov. 16, 2014, in the parking lot of Ferguson’s Auto in Windsor.

The video is the key piece of evidence against Palmer.

In Windsor Superior Court on Friday, prosecutors painted Palmer as an overzealous cop who launched a poorly planned operation that resulted in an illegal shooting.

Palmer, who has pleaded not guilty, contends he acted in self-defense as Burgos attempted to flee the scene.

“I felt like I was staring down the barrel of a gun in the sense of this vehicle in front of me,” Palmer told former Vermont State Police Detective Sgt. Robert Patten in the interview.

Palmer explained to Patten that Burgos pulled into the parking lot and began to reverse his car as Palmer and a fellow officer exited an unmarked vehicle with their guns drawn and advanced toward Burgos, who had a passenger with him.

In the interview, which was projected on a large screen in the courtroom for jurors, Palmer said Burgos quickly accelerated forward.

“I said, ‘I think he’s going to run me over,’ ” said Palmer, who stated that he was in front of Burgos’ vehicle at the time.

Palmer fired three shots into the car before Burgos exited the parking lot and sped away.

In the interview, Patten quickly expresses skepticism about Palmer’s version of events and shows him video of the shooting captured by a surveillance camera at Ferguson’s Auto. Palmer had been unaware of the video evidence at the outset of the interview.

Palmer: “My perception was that I was standing right in front of the car.”

“There is perception and then there is what we are seeing on the video,” Patten replied. “We aren’t trying to nickel and dime you, but what we can’t argue with is the video. Perception is something subject to debate. ... It looks to me like you are actually clear of the front of the car and are up near the driver’s side front portion of the vehicle.”

Police arrested Burgos shortly after the shooting, and initially he was charged with trying to run down Palmer. Those charges were dismissed after the surveillance video emerged.

A grand jury indicted Palmer on charges of felony aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and misdemeanor reckless endangerment in July 2015. He has been free on conditions pending the outcome of the trial, which is scheduled to run through Wednesday.

Palmer resigned from the Windsor force in July 2016, citing personal reasons. At that time, he had moved out of state.

Patten took the stand in Windsor Superior Court on Friday afternoon, but only took a few questions before the 105-minute interview was played. He will retake the stand on Monday.

Assistant Attorney General Matthew Levine called one other witness to testify on Friday: the passenger who was in Burgos’ car, Brittany Smith.

Smith was Burgos’ girlfriend and she had active arrest warrants out for heroin sale and identify fraud at the time of the shooting. Shortly before the incident, she had been in a New Hampshire “fugitive of the week” feature in the media.

Smith testified in the morning, before the interview was played, and gave an account similar to the one shown in the video in terms of Palmer’s positioning in relation to the vehicle at the time of the shooting.

“At any point when Jorge’s vehicle was driving forward, did you see anyone in front of the vehicle?” Levine asked Smith.

“No,” she replied.

Smith said she felt fear when Palmer and officer Christopher Connor jumped out of an unmarked pickup truck in plainclothes and approached with their guns drawn. She testified that she didn’t know they were police officers and thought Connor was an old landlord with whom Burgos had quarreled.

Palmer and his defense attorney Daniel Sedon claimed Palmer was shouting “police, police!” throughout the roughly 10-second encounter, but Smith said she couldn’t make out anything either officer was saying because the car windows were rolled up and the radio was on.

On cross examination, Sedon pressed Smith on whether she knew Connor and Palmer were police officers. Burgos also was wanted by police.

Smith did not change her answer under questioning.

At the beginning of the trial on Friday morning, attorneys gave their opening statements.

In the defense’s statement, Sedon provided new details about the origins of the botched sting operation that led to the shooting. He said Palmer received a call on the afternoon of the day of the shooting from the wife of a former Lebanon police officer who had seen Smith featured as the fugitive of the week.

The woman, identified in court as Veronica Marvin and again as Veronica Monique, took it upon herself to find Smith on Facebook and engaged her in a conversation. The woman eventually convinced Smith that she wanted to pay off an old drug debt.

It turns out, coincidentally, that Smith actually had a friend by the same first name who plausibly could have owed her money.

“What Veronica Marvin does is persuade Brittany Smith to come to Vermont and go to Ferguson Auto to collect this money,” Sedon said in his statement. “Brittney Smith is highly suspicious, of course ... but the temptation of collecting this drug debt is just too great, so she agrees.”

Veronica Marvin then called Windsor police and informed Palmer that Smith would be at the auto shop around 4 p.m.

Within about an hour, Sedon said, Palmer gathered three other officers and solicited the help of his friend, Meghan Place, a victim’s advocate in Windsor County, to sit in a pickup truck in the parking lot and pretend to be Veronica Marvin to assist with the ruse.

Officers Connor and Palmer took Connor’s personal vehicle and parked near the entrance of the parking lot, while two other officers in marked cruisers waited on nearby streets. After Burgos and Smith drove by, Palmer waited a few seconds and then pulled into the parking lot behind them, blocking the vehicle, Sedon said.

Palmer and Connor hopped out and moved toward Burgos’ Honda wagon with their guns drawn.

What happened next is at the heart of the trial.

Sedon contended the video footage of the incident doesn’t capture Palmer’s perception because of its angle. The footage is from a distance and doesn’t have any sound.

“Your question in this case is an extraordinarily narrow one,” Sedon told jurors. “Detective Palmer, his perception of danger and his actual danger were real that day.”

In her opening for the state, the prosecution team’s Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Anderson offered a starkly different account of what the evidence will show.

She called the sting a “rushed plan” and a “poor plan” by an officer who has an “ill-advised obsession to make an arrest.”

She said Vermont State Police were able to trace the trajectory of the shots Palmer fired that day, and said the evidence will show he had to have fired his gun from the side of the vehicle, not the front.

“He was never in jeopardy of being run over,” Anderson said. “He simply shot (Burgos) to stop him from fleeing that day.”

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.