Judge OKs evidence for firearms case against suspect in teen’s disappearance

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 6/25/2019 5:47:50 PM
Modified: 6/25/2019 10:25:44 PM

RUTLAND — Vermont’s top federal district court judge has rejected a motion to suppress statements offered by a White River Junction man identified as a suspect in the disappearance of Austin Colson and also said evidence seized during a search of his home was obtained legally.

A lawyer for Richard J. Whitcomb Jr., 38, maintained that Vermont State Police lied and tricked his client, who now faces federal firearms charges, during an interview with him and his wife on Jan. 16, 2018, shortly after Colson disappeared, as well as during subsequent searches of his Connecticut River Road home south of White River Junction.

“The interview was lawful and does not provide a basis for exclusion of evidence,” Chief Federal Judge Geoffrey W. Crawford wrote in an 11-page ruling this week.

Crawford said the entry by Vermont State Police and Hartford Police into Whitcomb’s home that day also was lawful, as were two subsequent searches.

Colson, 19, of South Royalton, was last seen alive Jan. 11, 2018, a day he was believed to be going with Whitcomb to collect scrap metal. Colson’s trailer was found abandoned on Downer Road in Sharon the following week, and Colson’s body was found in May 2018 in a dilapidated barn in Norwich.

Colson died from multiple gunshot wounds to the head, Vermont’s deputy medical examiner ruled.

Before Colson’s body was found, federal authorities had identified Whitcomb in court papers as the prime suspect in his disappearance, but no charges directly connected to the slaying have been filed in the case.

Whitcomb has pleaded not guilty to two federal firearms charges. One count is for the unlawful possession of a .32-caliber semi-automatic pistol as a convicted felon in January 2018. Whitcomb has a felony conviction for aggravated domestic assault in Windsor County, court records show. The second felony count charges Whitcomb with carrying and using the .32-caliber pistol as collateral in a cocaine deal with Colson in January 2018.

Whitcomb was released from federal court on conditions, including treatment at Valley Vista, a drug treatment center in Bradford, Vt.

Defense lawyer Brad Stetler, of Burlington, had argued Whitcomb was in custody when he gave the statements to police, but he was never read his Miranda rights, outlining his constitutional privileges. Assistant U.S. Attorney Wendy Fuller maintained Whitcomb was never in custody and was free to leave.

Crawford heard testimony on April 10 and May 15 on how Whitcomb was treated by police. Stetler questioned the tactics of State Police Detective Lt. Eric Albright and Detective Sgt. Richard Holden, who is now retired.

Crawford said Whitcomb spoke to the two detectives for about 80 minutes in an interview room. Their interview was audio- and video-recorded, the judge noted. The room was about 20 feet from the door into the foyer, the judge noted. Police said he was free to leave and gave him directions to the bathroom.

During the interview, Whitcomb claimed he was an addict and Colson was his supplier. Whitcomb said he provided a .32-caliber pistol to Colson as collateral for payment for drugs he had provided.

Though he did not find the behavior illegal, Crawford noted that the detectives “engaged in a ruse” to get information from Whitcomb.

It included claims the detectives had surveillance pictures and cellphone information showing him with Colson, Crawford wrote.

“These statements were untrue,” the judge wrote.

Meanwhile then-Detective Sgt. Michael Dion was interviewing Whitcomb’s wife, Sara Willey Whitcomb, in a separate room.

Police said they needed to find the cellphone that Whitcomb had used to communicate with Colson on the day he disappeared. Richard Whitcomb said the phone was “gone,” the judge noted. Whitcomb allowed police to search him, while his wife gave written consent to search their vehicle — both with no results.

Albright said they needed to go to the Whitcomb residence to search. While the Whitcombs were allowed to make the 25-minute drive to their home in their own car, Albright called Hartford Police and asked them to secure the scene at the home on Connecticut River Road.

Hartford Sgt. Karl Ebbighausen and Cpl. Sean Fernandes went to the house and found the Whitcombs’ teenage daughter, who permitted them to enter. While the officers spoke to the teen, her mother called her. She eventually passed the phone to Ebbighausen, and Sara Whitcomb guided the veteran officer into the bedroom where he could find the phone, according to court documents.

Later there was an inquiry about the location of the firearm. Eventually both Whitcombs signed consent searches and the gun was located. Richard Whitcomb has maintained that police said if he did not consent to a voluntary search, Detective Sgt. Kevin Hughes indicated officers would apply for a search warrant.

“Simply because the police informed Mr. Whitcomb of what would occur if he did not consent does not make his consent involuntary,” Crawford wrote, citing past cases.

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