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Crime Lab Backup Slows White River Junction Shooting Case; Gun Still Not Tested Year Later

Lucas Dennis-DeVries, an aspiring filmmaker who grew up in Strafford, stands near the spot outside the Tuckerbox cafe where he was shot in White River Junction in May 2012. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

Lucas Dennis-DeVries, an aspiring filmmaker who grew up in Strafford, stands near the spot outside the Tuckerbox cafe where he was shot in White River Junction in May 2012. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

More than one year after a man was shot while walking in downtown White River Junction in what police said was a random attack, evidence in the case has not been examined by the Vermont state crime lab.

Hartford police say they still hope to make an arrest in the April 2012 shooting of Lucas Dennis-Devries, who sustained a gunshot wound to the buttocks while walking in front of the Tuckerbox Cafe.

But Deputy Hartford Police Chief Brad Vail said the investigation has been significantly slowed while investigators wait for the Vermont Forensics Lab in Waterbury, Vt., to process multiple pieces of evidence in the case.

Police say that one firearm that had been taken into evidence, along with other pieces of evidence they declined to specify, were sent to the lab within weeks of the shooting.

“We are still waiting on the lab,” Vail said. “They’re not the fastest in the world and we’re going through the same frustrating process everyone else is.”

Vermont Forensics Laboratory Director Margaret Schwartz confirmed that evidence from the case, including a firearm, had not been examined. She said that the lab has a lengthy backlog, including 100 cases in the firearms section alone. But Schwartz acknowledged that, given the nature of the case, the evidence should have been examined earlier.

“It’s on our backlog, and Hartford hasn’t been a squeaky wheel, sadly,” Schwartz said. “But certainly, we are looking into it and will be prioritizing it. Typically, when we know there is evidence in a case that’s critical to an investigation, typically, we try to prioritize it. We had a breakdown in communication. If it remains a priority for them, it hasn’t gotten to me in any way.”

While cases that are about to go to trial or involve a suspect in custody usually take priority, Schwartz said an unsolved shooting should have merited a quicker examination.

“Homicides take first priority,” Schwartz said, adding, “I would assume a shot in the butt would come up close to that.”

“We go through and it’s prioritized based on the investigator’s needs,” Schwartz continued, “based on whether there is a court date or if somebody is in jail and the report will help determine if they stay in jail or not.”

Vail said that while the lab’s delays were not solely responsible for the failure to make an arrest, he was surprised to learn that the shooting case had not been made a priority, and did not think it necessary to lobby for a speedier examination.

“It’s frustrating, but sometimes things do take time,” Vail said. “It’s a common misconception among the public. They watch TV, and think it goes to the crime lab and a day later you have results. It’s not the case.”

Vail said that through other means police have been able to eliminate one suspect who had been tied to the firearm sent to the lab, but declined to provide additional details.

Dennis-Devries, a Strafford native who had recently moved to White River Junction at the time of the shooting, said that as he was walking from his job at Tip Top Cafe toward Tuckerbox around 9:45 p.m. on April 25, he nodded at a man he did not know standing at the corner of Currier and North Main streets. The man had a small German shepherd.

As he continued to walk, Dennis-Devries said he felt a sharp pain and realized he had been shot in the buttock. He was taken to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and released two days later with a minor injury.

After the shooting, the man with the dog ran off around a corner, Dennis-Devries said.

In an interview yesterday, Dennis-Devries, 27, said he was unaware of the lab delays and had been rebuffed when he recently asked Hartford police for updates in the investigation.

“That certainly does come as a bit of a shock,” Dennis-Devries said. “I want to give everybody the benefit of the doubt — people are trying their hardest. But it’s hard to give the benefit of the doubt when information like that surfaces.”

Dennis-Devries said he is completely healed, and bears no mental scars from being shot while simply walking down the street.

“I’m totally past it,” he said. “It hasn’t really crossed my mind at all. It’s one of those things I get recognized for, that’s kind of funny. They will say, ‘Someone got murdered (outside the Tuckerbox)’ a year ago. It’s actually me. I’m alive. No mental or physical effects.”

The Vermont Forensics Lab is the only crime lab in the state and processes evidence for the state police, local police, prosecutors and public defenders. It operates under the Vermont Department of Public Safety.

The lab currently has only one firearms analyst, Schwartz said. They have struggled to recruit and hire a second firearms analyst, Schwartz said.

The result is frequent delays in all but the most urgent cases. Often, Schwartz said, cases jump to the front of the line only when police prod them to act.

“It gets put on the back-burner if they aren’t pushing for results,” Schwartz said.

Windsor County State’s Attorney Michael Kainen said yesterday that he was unaware of the hold-ups at the crime lab, and declined to comment further.

Though the case is open, Vail said that Hartford Police Department continues to believe that the public is not in danger from whomever shot Dennis-Devries.

Mark Davis can be reached at mcdavis@vnews.com or 603-727-3304.

Related

Letter: Justice Delayed in Hartford

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

To the Editor: I don’t think that any reasonable person expects policework to proceed as it does on TV, as Deputy Hartford Police Chief Brad Vail asserted in the Valley News recent story about the 2012 shooting in White River Junction. However, it is frankly astonishing that an entire year has passed and the Hartford police are still no closer …