Chelsea residents raise concerns about police coverage

By ANNA MERRIMAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 06-25-2021 8:28 AM

CHELSEA — Standing in front of her garden Tuesday morning, Sheilagh Smith pointed a finger across Route 110 at the South Common in front of the Orange County Courthouse.

“I’ve watched drug deals happen there,” she said. “I’ve been in front of the store or library and seen it. There doesn’t seem to be enough accountability for criminal conduct.”

Smith, a longtime Chelsea resident and attorney, is one of many residents expressing frustration recently, using yard signs and speaking at Selectboard meetings over what they call an uptick in crime in the town of about 1,300.

Resident David Hayward said he’s had items stolen out of his garage on the North Common and no one was ever arrested for the crime.

“They don’t do anything,” he said of police response to the break-ins.

According to Vermont State Police Lt. Barbara Kessler, the department has investigated one burglary since May 2020, two in the year before that, and one between 2018 and 2019.

Residents’ concerns came to a head last month when Wayland Childs was charged with going to a motel in Barre, Vt., and holding at gunpoint the man he believes broke into his shop, WRC Automotive, on Route 110 in Chelsea, according to court documents. Childs declined this week to talk about the issue with the Valley News, but residents in Chelsea said his business had been broken into twice.

Childs has received widespread support in town. Red, blue and white signs sprang up in yards all over Chelsea declaring “We’re fed up with crime in our community. We stand with Wayland.” The topic also came up at Selectboard meetings last month, with residents complaining about a lack of police response, and some calling for more extensive police coverage, according to meeting minutes.

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“This underscores the problem,” Smith said of Childs’ arrest. She said she can’t condone holding someone at gunpoint, as Childs is alleged to have done, but that she too is frustrated by criminal activity. “This has been a problem brewing for some time.”

A growing concern

Like many small towns in Vermont, Chelsea doesn’t have its own police department. Its primary police coverage comes from the Vermont State Police barracks in Royalton, which responds to about 10 calls in the town every month, according to Kessler, the barracks commander. The Royalton barracks are almost 19 miles from Chelsea, and troopers there cover 17 towns, all of which “would like more patrol and coverage,” Kessler said in an email earlier this week.

That distance, and the big coverage area, are among the problems Chelsea residents point to when discussing crime in their town.

“Our physical location is such that Vermont State Police cannot quickly respond to an issue in Chelsea,” said Chelsea Selectboard member Kate MacLean. “They could be anywhere in this coverage area.”

To account for at least some of the gaps, Chelsea has a $12,500-a-year contract with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department to provide about four hours of coverage in the town a week, according to Sheriff Bill Bohnyak. He said that coverage mostly includes handling “quality of life issues” such as disputes among neighbors and family fights. He said much of the crime “boils down to the opioid issue.”

Neither Kessler nor Bohnyak said they have seen an uptick in crime in Chelsea in recent years. Vermont State Police responded to 114 calls over the last year, compared with 133 between May 2019 and May 2020, and 102 calls the year before that, Kessler said. Meanwhile, the sheriff’s department responds to an average of 100 calls a year in Chelsea, with little increase in recent years, Bohnyak said.

Whether there’s been an actual or simply a perceived increase in crime, MacLean said frustrations over police response in Chelsea have been present for a long time.

“This has been a concern in Chelsea since I moved here eight years ago. Pre-pandemic, we were having a lot of discussions about community policing,” MacLean said.

Lifelong resident Spike Morris said he’s long been bothered by the response to crime in Chelsea, arguing that people arrested for lower-level crimes are let out of jail too easily.

“They don’t do anything at the courthouse,” Morris said. His friend, Snook Downing, added that he would like people to “pay a price” after they’re convicted of a crime.

Bohnyak touched on that concern as well, saying some of the dissatisfaction with crime in Chelsea could be tied to Vermont’s 2018 bail reform law, which put limitations on who is held without bail after an arrest. The result, he said, is that more people are not detained in custody while awaiting trial following an arrest for low-level crimes like theft.

Misha Johnson, who owns the small produce and herb store and cafe, Free Verse Farm and Apothecary, on the North Common in town, said he is “very aware” of the community’s concerns about an increase in crime. He said he hasn’t experienced any break-ins since opening last year, but he has considered bringing in more security, like cameras, to protect his store.

“I would like to see what increased police presence would do,” Johnson said. “I would like to see better follow-up when there are complaints. I don’t want people to feel the need to take things into their own hands.”

Though many of those are longstanding concerns, MacLean said Childs’ arrest on May 20 brought them “to the fore.”

Resident Frank Keene, who has a “We stand with Wayland” sign in his front yard, said, “Wayland took the bull by the horns.”

Childs, 35, pleaded not guilty to aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, second-degree unlawful restraint and reckless endangerment during a hearing in Washington Superior Court on May 21, according to court documents. He was released on conditions including that he not possess firearms and that he stay 300 feet away from Scott A. Irish, 40, the man he’s accused of holding at gunpoint.

The charges stem from an incident the previous day when Jean Zampieri, 57, told Barre police that Irish had tried to sell her a computer that appeared to belong to a place called WRC Automotive, according to an affidavit in the Childs case from Barre City Police Officer Amos Gaylord. Zampieri said she had recently seen a post on Facebook about a break-in at the auto shop, leading her to believe the computer was stolen, the affidavit said.

A short time after her first call, Zampieri called Barre police again to say she was bringing Childs to meet Irish outside the Hollow Inn in Barre, even though Gaylord told her to wait for state police, the affidavit said. She said “she was now trying to buy some of the stolen property from Irish and that we needed to come arrest Irish after she bought the item,” Gaylord’s affidavit said.

She told Gaylord that she had first gone to the Vermont State Police with her concerns but was told the trooper handling the WRC Automotive break-in case was not on duty. Barre police reached out to the state police who reiterated that the trooper was not on duty and that there were no other troopers available at the time, according to the affidavit.

Barre police went to the Hollow Inn and found Childs kneeling over Irish, holding a loaded handgun to the back of his head, according to the affidavit. In reviewing surveillance footage, police said they saw Childs arrive at the hotel, get out of the car, force Irish to the ground and hold him down at gunpoint for over two minutes before police arrived, Gaylord wrote.

Nobody has been charged in relation to the WRC Automotive break-in, but Kessler said it is under investigation. According to Gaylord’s affidavit, Irish acknowledged having something to sell because “I do drugs” and was “dopesick” and “hurting.”

Kessler said police were investigating whether Irish was connected to the break-in, but on Thursday declined to comment further, saying the investigation is ongoing.

Seven days after the incident at the Hollow Inn, police learned that two catalytic converters had been stolen from a storage facility in East Montpelier, according to a news release from Vermont State Police. Using surveillance footage, police identified Irish and tracked him down in Northfield, Vt, the release said. They seized a catalytic converter from Irish and charged him with larceny, according to the release, as well as serving an unrelated arrest warrant for burglary and possession of stolen property out of Randolph.

Irish was issued a citation to appear in Washington County Superior Court on the larceny charge on July 29. He could not be reached for comment this week.

Looking for solutions

After Childs’ arrest and the outpouring of support for him from members of the community, Chelsea officials say they’re starting to take a harder look at how to address crime in Chelsea. A special Selectboard meeting is scheduled for Tuesday when MacLean said she expects board members, Bohnyak and members of the public to discuss the role sheriff’s deputies play in town, the sheriff department’s yearly contract and whether there should be more police presence.

Some, like Selectboard Vice Chair Levar Cole, say change could come from asking police to focus more efforts on stopping drug deals and increasing patrols through town. He also said deterring crime will come from members of the community looking out for each other. Some Chelsea residents have already formed a neighborhood watch group and report any suspicious incidents to police. Others are increasing their own personal security and adding cameras and outdoor lights to further deter robberies and break-ins, he said.

“It takes constant vigilance,” Cole said. “It’s a whole community effort, not just policing.”

Keene, the Chelsea resident with a sign supporting Childs, says residents need to pay for a larger physical police presence to deter crime.

“We never see them in the evening,” Keene said in an interview Tuesday. “I think the town is willing to pay more for (protection).”

Sheilagh Smith shared Keene’s opinion, saying residents’ taxes in Chelsea are relatively low compared with other parts of the country and paying a little extra for more protection couldn’t hurt.

“You get what you pay for,” she said of the current coverage from the sheriff’s department. “It’s time to pony up some dough.”

Anna Merriman can be reached at amerriman@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.

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