Charges dismissed against people accused of accosting woman at Hartford hotel

By JOHN LIPPMAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 05-07-2024 7:30 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Criminal charges against two people who were accused of accosting and robbing a woman at a motel in Hartford last year have been dropped following the death of the alleged victim and a challenge by a defendant’s attorney that police tainted a witness’ account.

April Sanville and Dana Westcott were facing felony counts of attempted assault and larceny, in addition to unlawful restraint against a 31-year-old woman who had been residing at the South on 5 Motel on Route 5 in Hartford where the defendants had gone in an attempt to collect a debt that Sanville told police the victim owed her, police said.

During the encounter outside the hotel between Sanville and the victim, the two got into an argument over the debt — Sanville claimed the victim had the money to repay it, which the victim denied. During the course of the argument, Sanville struck the victim and physically dragged her to the car while ordering Wescott to take the victim’s phone, according to court documents.

The reason the prosecutors sought dismissal of the charges are not known. But county attorneys faced a potentially difficult prosecution given the death of the victim and principal witness, and a court challenge by one of the defendants alleging the police investigation that elicited her identity was flawed.

Hartford police apprehended Sanville and Westcott, while together in a vehicle on Route 14 the day following the alleged incident at the motel on March 11, 2023.

A post announcing their arrest on the department’s Facebook page received numerous comments of congratulations of a job well done.

The victim told police that she feared Sanville, who she described as “crazy looking,” would kill her if she did not get into the vehicle with her and that she believed she saw a gun in Sanville’s possession. The police affidavit does not report a gun being involved in the incident but does mention that Wescott was in possession of two hunting knives when he was arrested.

Five months following the alleged incident, the prosecution suffered a complication when the victim and principal witness — who had been in and out of the hospital for much of the year — died on Aug. 13, 2023, the day before she would have turned 31 years old, according to a family member who wished to remain anonymous citing fears for the family’s safety.

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The victim, who grew up in Woodsville, died of complications from diabetes and heart failure, the family member said, adding to the family’s grief after the victim’s older sister had died from a drug overdose in 2022.

Then on April 8 a further potential wrench was thrown into the prosection’s case when Sanville’s attorney filed a motion to suppress his client’s identity, contending that police had “tainted” the evidence by asking “unduly suggestive” questions of the only remaining witness that led to the witness identifying Sanville as a suspect.

The police officer conducting the investigation had “implied” to the witness “that the photo the officer was about to show the witness, the only photo, was the person that the officer suspected was the female assailant,” said the motion to suppress filed by Rutland attorney A.J. Ruben.

“The officer first asked the witness if the full name of the defendant sounded familiar to the witness and only then showed the photo to the witness, again implicitly encouraging the witness to agree to identification of the defendant as the assailant,” the motion said, adding that such an approach amounts to “clear potential bias by the witness.”

Vermont case law spells out pitfalls in “confirmation bias” that need to be surmounted in order to obtain credible identification of a suspect by a witness and the case identifying Sanville fell short, the motion argued.

Ruben, the attorney representing Sanville, declined to comment on his client’s motion to suppress.

The court had not yet ruled on the motion when on April 25, 17 days after the motion was filed, Windsor County prosecutors filed notice with the court to dismiss the charges against both defendants. The decision came even though no similar motion to suppress had been filed by Westcott’s attorney.

Joseph Strain, a White River Junction defense attorney representing Wescott, said via email that he “will leave it to the State to discuss the reasons for dismissal” but his client “has always maintained his innocence regarding this matter and we were in the process of preparing for trial.”

Emily Zukauskas, the Windsor County deputy state’s attorney handling the case, did not respond to a request for comment.

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnew s.com.