White River Junction Man Charged in Setting Buses Ablaze

Robert Duprey is arraigned at Windsor District Court in White River Junction, Vt., on August 5, 2013. Duprey was charged with torching several school busses at the Butler Bus Service in White River Junction last summer. 

Valley News - Sarah Priestap

Robert Duprey is arraigned at Windsor District Court in White River Junction, Vt., on August 5, 2013. Duprey was charged with torching several school busses at the Butler Bus Service in White River Junction last summer. Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

White River Junction — A White River Junction man who was originally questioned as a witness in regards to a blaze at Butler Bus Service last August that charred three school buses and resulted in nearly $200,000 worth of damage was charged with the crime last Friday, nearly a year after the incident.

Robert Duprey, 26, was arrested and charged with third-degree arson and first-degree unlawful mischief. During his arraignment hearing Monday at the Windsor District Court, Duprey pleaded not guilty to the charges, both felonies. If convicted, Duprey could face between one and eight years in prison.

He is being held on $50,000 bond at the Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield.

Duprey was denied a request for release during his arraignment by Judge Robert Gerety after Deputy Windsor County State Attorney David Cahill stated that Duprey was a flight risk. Cahill explained to the judge that neighbors of Duprey told police that the 26-year-old admitted he planned to sell his belongings and flee before he was arrested last week.

When Gerety denied Duprey’s release request, Duprey, dressed in jean shorts, white Nike tennis shoes and a red Boston Red Sox T-shirt, slouched forward, rested his forehead on the table and stared at the ground.

Duprey’s attorney, public defender Jordana Levine, declined to comment after Monday’s arraignment. She withdrew as his counsel and Sandra Nelson has been assigned as Duprey’s new public defender, according to the affidavit.

There isn’t much physical evidence cited in the affidavit linking Duprey to the arson, but police describe numerous interviews with friends and neighbors of the White River Junction man who they claim admitted lighting the buses on fire.

The affidavit provides the following account: On the night of August 26, 2012, police detective Christopher Aher responded to a report that several school buses were on fire at the Butler Bus Service on Pine Street in White River Junction.

With assistance from three other Hartford police officers, Aher interviewed several people in the area of the blaze, one of whom was Duprey, watching nearby. Aher recognized him from prior police involvement.

Duprey told police that he was walking from the Haven to his job at the Valley News — he was a part-time employee in the mailroom from November 2010 until this month — when he heard “coughing” from somewhere in the area and said he saw “what he believed to be ‘sparks’ or someone flicking a lighter,” the document said.

Duprey then told police he saw one of the buses burst into flames, but didn’t see anyone entering or exiting the burning structure. Before Aher released Duprey, he asked him if he was carrying a lighter and he said “yes.” Aher told Duprey he may be contacted in the near future about the incident, and Duprey said he could be reached at the Haven.

For the next couple months, Hartford police and the Vermont State Police investigated the arson. But the fire’s intense heat destroyed any evidence that could lead to a suspect, police said.

Emo Chynoweth, vice president of Butler Bus Service, told police the damage to the three buses was valued at $197,742. Two were destroyed completely and one was salvaged and repaired, according to the affidavit.

The investigation picked back up again in May 2013, when an unrelated incident lead police to believe Duprey was in possession of, and selling marijuana. Officer Jon Kustafik opened a case and since Duprey was still a suspect in the unsolved bus incident, Aher accompanied Kustafik to his home. Two probation officers joined them to perform a “spot check on Mr. Duprey as part of his conditions of release” on a prior offense.

Police checked Duprey’s residence, but found no evidence in support of the drug suspicion. However, a vehicle was parked in the driveway, with Duprey’s ex-girlfriend, Ashley Richarson, and a fellow Valley News employee, Christopher Dunham inside. Richarson told Aher that she knew who set fire to the buses, and when asked directly if it was Duprey, she said “yes,” the affidavit stated.

In a later interview, Richarson revealed to police that Duprey allegedly told her he started the bus blaze, but then later denied it. Richarson told police “he is a liar, he lies all the time, it’s just what he does,” and added that he likes to play with fire.

On the same day, police interviewed Duprey, who offered an alternate account of the events the night of the fire, claiming that he saw two or three kids run from the buses, coughing and yelling that it was on fire.

When told by Aher that the police had witnesses accusing him of arson, Duprey said, “I am sticking to my story, I am sticking to what I know, it’s the God’s honest truth, I’ll take a polygraph test, I didn’t light them buses on fire, I was headed to work,” according to the affidavit.

At the conclusion of the interview, Aher writes in the affidavit that “Mr. Duprey was allowed to leave, and no charges were filed against him, even though Detective Tkac stated that there was enough probable cause developed to arrest him.”

After Duprey’s interview, police spoke with Denise and John Page, who employed Duprey’s ex-girlfriend, Richarson, as a baby-sitter, and posted under the “suspicious fire” heading on the Hartford Police Department’s Facebook page that “Robert Duprey probably did it ...”

Denise Page wrote in her statement that Richarson told the couple about Duprey’s involvement in the bus fire and that Richarson was scared to tell police because “he was very controlling and beat her on a regular basis,” the document said. John Page told police in a written statement that Richarson had been “abused both mentally and physically.”

The next day, police met with Dunham, Duprey’s Valley News co-worker who was in the car with Richarson the night police searched Duprey’s residence. Dunham told police that “he never knew about the Butler Bus Arson” but said that when Duprey “became angry with someone or while at work at the Valley News, he would often threaten to ‘blow them up’ or ‘burn them down.’ ” Dunham also told police that at work “he would get mad and threaten to burn the Valley News to the ground.”

In a separate interview, Stephen Laux, Duprey’s roommate during his time at the Haven, told police that the man liked to “light fires” and that witnesses at the Haven saw him lighting paper at the smoking area and letting it burn on the table.

Duprey was scheduled to take a polygraph test on June 27 at 4 p.m., but never showed up at the Hartford Police Department. When reached the next day, Duprey claimed he was at work during the scheduled time for the test. But police contacted Duprey’s supervisor at the Valley News who said he was not at work during the time period in question. Throughout the month of July, police were told by a several neighbors of Duprey that he tried selling them his belongings because he needed money so he could get away to avoid a polygraph test “he knew he was going to fail,” according to the affidavit.

This information lead police to arrest Duprey on the afternoon of August 2.

A status conference is set for Sept. 10 at 2 p.m.

Katie Mettler can be reached at kmettler@vnews.com or 603-727-3234.