×

Suspect in Austin Colson disappearance case challenges firearms evidence



Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 10, 2019

RUTLAND. — The White River Junction man facing federal firearms charges is asking a federal judge to throw out statements and evidence that Vermont State Police gathered early in their investigation of the 2018 disappearance of Royalton teen Austin Colson.

Richard J. Whitcomb Jr., 39, attended but did not testify on Wednesday at the initial hearing on his evidence motion in U.S. District Court in Rutland, a session that lasted five hours. While Whitcomb has not been charged in the shooting death of Colson, whose body was found in Norwich with gunshot wounds to the head almost five months after he disappeared in mid-January of 2018, federal prosecutors have identified him as a suspect in that case in court filings.

State police have searched Whitcomb’s house on Connecticut River Road at least twice. The first search, on Jan. 18, 2018, turned up the .32-caliber, semi-automatic pistol that prompted federal authorities to charge Whitcomb with breaking the law prohibiting convicted felons from possessing guns. Whitcomb has pleaded not guilty to that charge and to a charge that he used the gun as collateral in a cocaine deal with Colson. He is free on bail.

Bradley Stetler, Whitcomb’s Burlington-based defense lawyer, is basing his motion to suppress, if the case goes to trial, on the way that state police detectives questioned Whitcomb and his wife, Sara Willey Whitcomb, at the Royalton barracks a week after Colson went missing, and on the methods Hartford and state police used to persuade the couple to allow the first search of the house later that day.

While the Whitcombs both ultimately assented to searches of Sara Whitcomb’s car and of the house, Stetler said, police effectively violated Richard Whitcomb’s Constitutional rights under the Fifth and Fourth Amendments, by pressuring him to make statements, accusing him of lying and failing to make clear that they considered him a suspect in the Colson case.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Wendy Fuller on Wednesday asked State Police Detective Lt. Eric Albright whether he and fellow detective Richard Holden warned Whitcomb of his right to remain silent and of his right to the presence of a lawyer under the U.S. Supreme Court’s Miranda ruling.

They did not, Albright testified, because Whitcomb “wasn’t in custody.” The statement prompted Stetler to say, “The issue is what a reasonable person in Mr. Whitcomb’s shoes would have felt he could have done.”

Holden, who is now retired, was not available to testify on Wednesday, so Judge Geoffrey Crawford continued the hearing until he could testify. Fuller declined comment when asked after the hearing whether Whitcomb is still a suspect in Colson’s disappearance.

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304.