×

Jim Kenyon: A shot in the dark in Hartford?

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on Jan. 28, 2019. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Columnist
Saturday, February 09, 2019

Under the cover of darkness during the recent cold spell, a half-dozen Vermont state troopers and three Hartford police officers — some wearing flak jackets and helmets while carrying M4 rifles — swooped quietly onto Connecticut River Road.

“We had just got done supper and were watching the news,” recalled Richard Luce, who lives a couple miles south of downtown White River Junction. The 66-year-old Luce and his wife, Gertie, raise beef cattle on a 230-acre farm that’s been in his family for 75 years.

Their evening routine was interrupted by a phone call from their daughter-in-law. “What are all the police cars doing parked on the road?” asked Nicole Wescott, who lives next door.

Richard Luce and his son Mike, who works on the farm, went outside to see what was up. Several officers met them in the driveway. It wasn’t a social call.

“They came in and just started screaming and asking crazy questions,” Richard Luce said. “It’s kind of intimidating when they’ve got those weapons out.”

“It was pretty scary,” added his son.

Along with the Luces, I talked with two other Connecticut River Road residents who came face-to-face with law enforcement that evening. They, too, were puzzled by the show of police firepower.

After two hours of questioning residents and poking around private property, police pulled up stakes without making any arrests.

The next day I heard about what had happened. But when I checked Vermont State Police and Hartford police websites for anything that had gone down on the night of Jan. 31, there was no mention of Connecticut River Road.

It’s as though police were never there.

So what’s this all about?

At around 6 p.m., a state trooper was parked in a U-turn on Interstate 91 in Hartford, just before Exit 10A that leads into New Hampshire. While looking for speeders in the northbound lanes, the trooper — are you ready for this? — “thought he heard a gunshot that went past the cruiser.” That’s according to an email that state police spokesman Adam Silverman sent me after I inquired.

Trooper Eric Vitali reported seeing a pickup truck in the field that abuts I-91 north and is at the far reaches of the Luces’ farm. Over the years, the Luces have built a network of farm roads on their property to get from field to field.

On many evenings, Mike Luce, 34, takes a drive around the perimeter to check on the family’s horses, 50 head of cattle and the area they lease to a wireless company for a cellphone tower. When they discovered police in their driveway, Richard Luce told me his son had “just come off the hill.”

After getting the report of a trooper who had been “potentially fired upon,” it took state police and Hartford cops less than an hour to mobilize. Lt. Anthony French, commander of the Westminster barracks, headed the response team. (Of the officers on the scene, French was the most polite, Richard Luce said.)

When asked if he had fired the shot, Mike Luce told troopers, “I didn’t even have a gun with me.”

Police didn’t have a search warrant, but the Luces gave permission for officers to rummage through their truck and milk house, where they keep a .22-caliber rifle for varmint control.

Noting the two Hartford officers with assault rifles, Richard Luce asked, “What’s with all the guns?”

“It’s just protocol,” an officer responded. (State troopers didn’t have patrol rifles and wore regular uniforms, including protective vests, Silverman said.)

Before they were done, officers paid a visit to Scott Willey, who lives around the corner from the Luces’ farm. Willey wasn’t home at the time, but neighbor Kevin Audette was in the driveway. Audette, manager of Blodgett Supply in Hartford, had stopped by to thank Willey for sanding his driveway.

The heavy police presence prompted Audette to ask, “Did somebody die?”

A trooper shined a flashlight in his eyes. “Why do you ask?”

Just about then, Willey arrived home. Skipping pleasantries, police wanted to know if Willey had heard any shots. “With the way they were yelling and screaming, I thought somebody was dead,” Willey told me when I visited his small engine shop in Quechee. “I’ve never seen such a bunch of overzealous cops.”

Considering they were responding to the report of a trooper being shot at, Silverman acknowledged they may have well been on edge.

That’s not reassuring. It should take more than a trooper thinking he heard a gunshot while sitting in his cruiser on the interstate for cops to react — or overreact — the way they did.

Did anyone in law enforcement stop to think before calling in the cavalry? Instead of a gunshot, could the trooper have heard something more benign? A car backfiring as it passed his cruiser? A tree cracking in the bitter cold?

A lot of time and expense could have been saved, if police weren’t so eager to display their military might. Not to mention what they put residents through. “They really were belligerent about it,” Richard Luce said. “The only thing I’d like them to do now is apologize to my boy.”

That’s probably not happening. State police would say only that the “subsequent investigation was unable to determine conclusively whether or not a shot was fired.” But since nobody was charged, police had no plans to publicize that information, leaving unsettled citizens to wonder what went on.

The day before the invasion (I don’t know what else to call it), state police officials were at the Statehouse asking lawmakers for more than $560,000 to spend on weapons, including AR-15 semi-automatic rifles.

More guns and less transparency? “Pretty scary,” indeed.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.