Strafford residents step up to fill gaps in social safety net

John Blakeney, left, and Nick Howe, right, of Howe Enterprises, look over the site of a fire in Strafford, Vt., on Monday, Sept. 11., 2023, that destroyed a cabin early on Saturday, and speculate on how one of their portable toilets, partially melted from the heat, ended up in a nearby brook. Eddie Gallagher was arrested Saturday morning, September 9, 2023, for allegedly burning down his home, a camp with no running water in Strafford, Vt., and arraigned on a charge of first degree arson via Webex from the Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, Vt., on Monday, Sept. 11, 2023. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

John Blakeney, left, and Nick Howe, right, of Howe Enterprises, look over the site of a fire in Strafford, Vt., on Monday, Sept. 11., 2023, that destroyed a cabin early on Saturday, and speculate on how one of their portable toilets, partially melted from the heat, ended up in a nearby brook. Eddie Gallagher was arrested Saturday morning, September 9, 2023, for allegedly burning down his home, a camp with no running water in Strafford, Vt., and arraigned on a charge of first degree arson via Webex from the Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, Vt., on Monday, Sept. 11, 2023. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

Sue Coburn, photographed outsided Coburn's General Store in Strafford, Vt., on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023, is the town's safety officer, a position she's held for 20 years, and is responsible for connecting transients with food, services, transportation and a place to go, “out of Strafford,” she said. Coburn sat on a bench in front of the store with FAST Squad member John Lloyd nearby on Saturday, Sept. 9, next to Eddie Gallagher, who told her he had burned his camp down and wanted to fight with police. After about an hour three Vermont State Police troopers arrived, Gallagher “was ready to go,” said Coburn. He calmly knelt down and put his hands behind his back to be arrested. “What’s puzzling us is why did they decide not to dispatch an ambulance?” said Coburn. “Some how, some way, Vermont’s got to step up and do something about the mental health.

Sue Coburn, photographed outsided Coburn's General Store in Strafford, Vt., on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023, is the town's safety officer, a position she's held for 20 years, and is responsible for connecting transients with food, services, transportation and a place to go, “out of Strafford,” she said. Coburn sat on a bench in front of the store with FAST Squad member John Lloyd nearby on Saturday, Sept. 9, next to Eddie Gallagher, who told her he had burned his camp down and wanted to fight with police. After about an hour three Vermont State Police troopers arrived, Gallagher “was ready to go,” said Coburn. He calmly knelt down and put his hands behind his back to be arrested. “What’s puzzling us is why did they decide not to dispatch an ambulance?” said Coburn. “Some how, some way, Vermont’s got to step up and do something about the mental health." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

John Lloyd, right, of South Strafford, right, takes a break from his run on Taylor Valley Road in Strafford, Vt., on Monday, Sept. 11, 2023, to talk with Pat Kelly, left, at the site of an arson fire that destroyed a camp early on the morning of Sept. 9. Lloyd is a member of the town's FAST Squad and was with Sue Coburn when Eddie Gallagher, who lived at the camp, was arrested after admitting to setting the fire. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

John Lloyd, right, of South Strafford, right, takes a break from his run on Taylor Valley Road in Strafford, Vt., on Monday, Sept. 11, 2023, to talk with Pat Kelly, left, at the site of an arson fire that destroyed a camp early on the morning of Sept. 9. Lloyd is a member of the town's FAST Squad and was with Sue Coburn when Eddie Gallagher, who lived at the camp, was arrested after admitting to setting the fire. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

Strafford, Vt., Constable Ed Eastman, 74, said on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023, that he met Eddie Gallagher more than two years ago after there were complaints of a squatter living at the camp on Taylor Valley Road owned by Gallagher's father. He went to the camp where he met both father and son, and started checking in on Gallagher, bringing him food from the food shelf and taking him to Coburns’ General Store for groceries. He gained Gallagher's trust and befriended him, listening to his dream-like stories.

Strafford, Vt., Constable Ed Eastman, 74, said on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023, that he met Eddie Gallagher more than two years ago after there were complaints of a squatter living at the camp on Taylor Valley Road owned by Gallagher's father. He went to the camp where he met both father and son, and started checking in on Gallagher, bringing him food from the food shelf and taking him to Coburns’ General Store for groceries. He gained Gallagher's trust and befriended him, listening to his dream-like stories. "I don't have the training for that," said Eastman of the kind of mental health care or social work that he sensed Gallagher needed. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Strafford Constable Ed Eastman, 74, fills a trailer with firewood in preparation for winter at his home in Strafford, Vt., on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023. He said he wasn't aware that Eddie Gallagher, whose trust he had gained over a more than two-year period, had burned his house down until he passed Vermont State Troopers driving into town on his way to work on the morning after the fire. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Strafford Constable Ed Eastman, 74, fills a trailer with firewood in preparation for winter at his home in Strafford, Vt., on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023. He said he wasn't aware that Eddie Gallagher, whose trust he had gained over a more than two-year period, had burned his house down until he passed Vermont State Troopers driving into town on his way to work on the morning after the fire. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

Edward Gallagher III appears by video from the Southern State Correctional Facility on Monday, Sept. 11, 2023, to be arraigned in Windham County Superior Court on a charge of first degree artson for allegedly burning down his home, a camp with no running water in Strafford, Vt., early Saturday morning. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Edward Gallagher III appears by video from the Southern State Correctional Facility on Monday, Sept. 11, 2023, to be arraigned in Windham County Superior Court on a charge of first degree artson for allegedly burning down his home, a camp with no running water in Strafford, Vt., early Saturday morning. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

By JOHN LIPPMAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 10-03-2023 8:21 AM

STRAFFORD — Sue Coburn was at home on a recent Saturday when her husband, Melvin, called around 9 a.m. from Coburn’s General Store in South Stafford, which their family has run for 46 years.

Saturday is usually Sue’s day off, but Melvin was asking her to come to the store. There was a man behaving strangely. Earlier he had been walking along the road and acting erratically. Now the man had come into the store and asked the clerks to call an ambulance for him.

Melvin Coburn knew that his wife, the town’s “service agent,” was the person to turn to when it came to helping someone in crisis.

“She’s good with these things,” Melvin told police at the time.

In Strafford, the social safety net is an informal one, focused on looking after neighbors and strangers alike, rooted in progressive small-town values.

“Strafford is really known for stepping in and helping people,” Sue Coburn said. “In many different ways.”

Coburn noted — her exasperation evident — that even left-leaning Vermont lacks adequate public services to help its most vulnerable and at-risk residents, particularly in rural corners.

And so that’s often where residents like her come in.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Hartford parts with state champion girls hockey coach
Kenyon: By charging for after school program, CCBA loses sight of its mission
Upper Valley Memorial Day ceremonies 2024
Police: Vermont man arrested for stealing gas in Newport to refuel stolen vehicle
Upper Valley Memorial Day ceremonies 2024
Dozens of layoffs at former Vermont Teddy Bear distribution center due to start Thursday

“If there’s a situation that arises, I try to find the solution one way or another,” Coburn explained this past week in her office at the store.

In her role as service agent, she attends to the rare wayward traveler stranded in Stafford without transportation and resources, to provide them a meal, obtain some clothing, arrange a ride or secure a warm place to sleep for the night.

And so it was that Saturday morning outside the general store. Sue Coburn — and other Strafford residents such as John Lloyd of the FAST Squad, town constable Ed Eastman and neighbor Shannon Varley — played a role in looking after a troubled member of their community. When the man’s final public breakdown happened, the compassion he was shown by townspeople likely prevented a more tragic ending.

‘I need help’

A few minutes after her husband’s phone call, Sue Coburn arrived at the store and saw a man across the street leaning on a guardrail.

She signaled to him with a friendly wave, inviting him to sit down on the bench in front of the store, next to the ATM machine.

“He said. ‘Me?’ ” Coburn recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he came over and sat down with me, and I said, ‘Let’s talk about what you’re looking for and what you need.’ ”

She was careful to pose the question in a manner that was neither threatening nor judgmental, Coburn said.

“I need help,” the man answered.

For the next hour Sue Coburn listened. The man, later identified as 37-year-old Edward Gallagher III, explained that he had been “held captive” and “forced to live” at a cabin on Taylor Valley Road in Strafford and how “zombies in the forest” were out to get him. He had wanted an ambulance to come get him.

Although calm, Gallagher’s conversation was “all over the place,” Sue said.

Gallagher, who goes by Eddie, also told Coburn that earlier that morning he had set the aforementioned cabin on fire and watched the it burn to the ground from a chair in the middle of the road.

Sometimes the helper needs help, and this was one of those times.

So Coburn called her friend John Lloyd, a volunteer with the Strafford FAST squad, which comes to the aid of people in emergencies, hoping he “might have a better understanding of these things than I did.”

Once Lloyd arrived at the store it did not take long for him to assess Eddie’s situation and he called for an ambulance.

Troubled history

Eddie arrived at the cabin in late 2021, brought there by his father, Edward Gallagher Jr., with whom he had lived for 20 years in St. Johnsbury, Vt., Edward Gallagher Jr. said in his interview with the Valley News.

Eddie’s mother died of a drug overdose in 1996, when Eddie was about 9 years old. Eddie is one of six children he had with his former wife, Gallagher said. Gallagher and Eddie, along with a younger brother, moved from Rhode Island to Vermont in 2003, after Gallagher married his second wife, from whom he later separated.

Later, when Gallagher, a member of the Vermont National Guard, was ordered to Iraq in 2005, Gallagher said he left 19-year-old Eddie at home in charge of his 16-year-old younger brother.

It was around that time, beginning in 2004 and through 2005, that Eddie began running into skirmishes with the St. Johnsbury police and was charged in several instances of petty crime such as underage drinking, furnishing alcohol to a minor, unlawful mischief, noise in the night, petit larceny and disorderly conduct, according to state court records,

His son had held occasional jobs at McDonald’s, St. Johnsbury Academy as a dishwasher and Save A Lot as a cashier, but for the most part he spent time alone producing rap music and rap videos, which his father said he had a talent for. None of his jobs lasted.

“He hasn’t worked for a long time. He lacks social skills,” Gallagher said of his son, who he said would occasionally help him with “projects around the house” and mowing the lawn.

Gallagher said his son has a history of hospitalizations — first in Massachusetts and a second time for four days in 2021 at Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital in St. Johnsbury following what he said was a suicide attempt.

It was after being released from NVRH that Gallagher said his son asked if he could go to live at the cabin in Strafford — which Gallagher said he had recently purchased earlier to “fix up and flip.” Gallagher said he took Eddie’s discharge after a relatively short hospitalization as allaying initial worry he had about the risk of his son’s mental health.

“If (the hospital) is not concerned, why should I be concerned?” Gallagher said.

Fear expressed

One thing Eddie said suggested to Sue that Strafford was lucky things hadn’t turned out worse that morning.

“He told John and I that he didn’t care who came. (Eddie) said he had called the police because he sort of wanted them to come and maybe he would fight with them and maybe they would shoot him and that would take care of everything.

“He was really desperate for something to happen,” Coburn concluded.

At the same time, Eddie wasn’t sure he wanted help, expressing fear that if was taken to a hospital they would “pump me full of drugs.”

Three Vermont State Police cruisers with three troopers apiece arrived at the scene around 10 a.m., an hour after Coburn had first beckoned to Eddie to sit with her on the bench. They hung back and asked Sue to “stage” the man, meaning to keep him in place until the ambulance arrived.

When police finally approached Eddie, however, he was compliant and there was no violent confrontation as he had hinted earlier.

“The minute he saw the police cruiser, he got off the bench and down on his knees and put his hands behind his back,” Coburn said. “He was fine going with them,” she said, adding, “and they were very good with him.”

Eddie was arrested and charged with arson in the first degree. At his arraignment on Sept. 11, Windsor County Superior Court Judge John Treadwell set bail for Eddie to be released and ordered him to reside at a “court-approved address” pending a mental evaluation. The state does not have special residential facilities to house criminal defendants simultaneously suffering psychologically.

Asked after Eddie’s arrest why Vermont State Police had not responded after Eddie had frantically called 911 more than two dozen times in the hours preceding the fire, a spokesman for the state police said that Eddie, although his calls indicated he could “potentially harm himself” he also “expressed a desire to fight with responding troopers.”

Police did not have evidence that Eddie was threatening others and “in a situation like this, a response from police often can serve only to escalate a situation and place an individual, along with first responders, at greater risk of harm,” spokesman Adam Silverman said via email, noting such situations require resouces police do not have.

“It’s also important to note that in apparent mental-health situations, any response would be best served by including an embedded mental-health crisis worker, and, like troopers, they are not on duty 24/7,” he said.

As of Friday, Eddie still had not been able to make bail and was being held at Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, Vt.

The neighbor

Shannon Varley, the former owner of Strafford Village Farm on Justin Morrill Memorial Highway used to walk her dogs along Taylor Valley Road and in late 2021 began noticing a figure behind the windows of a dilapidated hunter’s cabin she had long known to be vacant.

Later she would see a man outside the cabin with a Chihuahua in the morning letting out the dog for a potty break. Varley would wave as she passed, but the man “seemed timid and nervous around people, so I just gave him space.”

Then one day when Varley was getting her farm’s produce stand ready for the weekend she turned around and saw Eddie at the door, holding his Chihuahua.

Although Varley said Eddie had difficulty communicating why he was there, “the gist of it was he said he had walked past our farm several times and noticed we had lots of animals and dogs and he wanted to know if we take good care of his dog.”

Varley tried to keep the conversation going to express her concern to Eddie for his welfare because “winter was coming and it was going to get cold” and the cabin where he was living was an uninsulated “shack.”

” ‘I’m actually less worried about finding a good, safe home for your dog and I’m more worried about you,’ ” Varley remember saying to Eddie.

Varley and her husband, B.J. Miller, took in the Chihuahua — named Hogan — and were able to establish trust with Eddie, who would walk the mile to their farmhouse to call his father or ask questions, such as would it be safe to drink the water from the stream if he boiled it.

Others in the neighborhood would anonymously drop off food and necessities at Eddie’s front door, Varley said.

Varley and Miller would make sure he left with water and food after he visited them. Concerned about his welfare, Varley said she asked a local social services nonprofit if there was anything they could do to help Eddie but the agency told her they were not equipped to handle such situations. They suggested she call the state police.

She called the state police “but the officer said that unless he’s a danger to himself or anyone else there’s not a lot they can do.”

In recent months Varley noticed that Eddie had put up sawhorses to barricade the entrance to his cabin with “keep out” signs posted on them. He spray painted graffiti on the outside walls.

Once Varley suggested to Eddie, “you know I think you may qualify for Medicaid” in order to get medical treatment and help. She was reminded of his reply after she learned about Eddie’s calls to police that fateful night threatening to burn down his cabin if they didn’t come.

“He said ‘Yeah, I thought about that and I should just call 911 sometime to let them know I need help.’ That stuck with me because that is definitely where Eddie’s head was in terms of getting help: ‘I’ll just call 911.’ ”

Eddie’s case illustrates an issue not just in Vermont, with its woefully inadequate resources to assist people who are indigent and in a mental health crisis, but a national problem in priorities.

“If we were going to grade our culture on how we take care of our most vulnerable we’d get a big fail,” Varley said, believing Strafford is rare exception to the national malaise. “It’s the people like Eddie around the edges that fall through the cracks.”

Cries for help

In the hours before setting fire to his cabin in the early morning of Sept. 9, Eddie had called police “approximately 29 times,” telling a dispatcher in the last call received at 2:35 a.m. that “he has a gallon of gasoline and will be lighting his shack up as a ‘signal fire’ to escape from the hostage situation” that he asserted police had “forced him into,” the affidavit from state police said.

By the time firefighters arrived at the scene around 8 a.m., the former cabin was a heap of smoldering ashes. Somehow the fire contained itself to the cabin’s lot and did not spread to the surrounding woods.

But the heat was so intense that it melted the windows of an old school bus that was parked next to the cabin. When firefighters arrived, they found a portable camping chair in the middle of the road and a portable toilet, which previously had been stationed on the cabin’s lot, across the road and tilted like the Leaning Tower of Pisa on the banks of the stream.

Ed Eastman, the Strafford town constable, said that Eddie pushed the portable toilet away from the fire and across the road, he suspects, because it was rented and Eddie did not want it destroyed in the fire.

“He’s a strong boy. He didn’t want it to burn up. I think he knew it would cost his father money. That’s the only reason that I think how it got” to be leaning on the side of the creek, Eastman said.

The constable

Like Varley, Eastman was familiar with Eddie Gallagher well before last month’s fire and arrest. Two years ago, Eastman received a phone call from a member of the United Church of Strafford alerting him to reports of a “squatter” living in a cabin on Taylor Valley Road, a thickly wooded unpaved stretch dotted with hunters’ cabins and a few homes between Justin Morrill Memorial Highway and Chelsea Road. Could he go and check it out?

When Eastman visited the cabin, which did not have plumbing, running water or winter insulation, he met Eddie and his father, who happened to be there when Eastman pulled up.

The elder Gallagher explained to Eastman that he owned the cabin and his son was residing there with his permission.

Eastman, who has been Strafford’s town constable for 34 years, could tell that the hesitant and awkward man living at the cabin was someone who might be needing assistance. Unbidden, Eastman took it upon himself to become Eddie’s link to and helpmate in the outside world.

Eastman said his natural habit is to help someone when they are in need, imbued by his beliefs “as a Christian and a Freemason.”

“That’s the way I am. Anybody that needs help, that’s what I do,” he said this past week at his home on Pennock Road in Strafford while taking a break from loading a trailer with firewood, six inches of unlit cigar between two fingers.

“He kind of shied away from me because I was in uniform,” Eastman recalled. He later learned about Eddie’s numerous encounters with police in St. Johnsbury.

“But I kept telling him what I could do for him if he wanted me to, kept stopping by and seeing him. And then we got to where he’s get in the pickup with me and ride to Coburn’s” to get items he wanted, “milk and soda and treats he’d eat,” Eastman said.

Eastman would bring Eddie a delivery from the food shelf to the cabin every other Wednesday or hot meals from the senior center where he cooks, and visit with him for awhile.

“We kind of hit it off and then a year went by and then I could stop by the house and sit down with him, smoke a pipe or cigar and we’d have a conversation,” Eastman said.

Eddie would talk about the rap music he’d made — although the cabin had no plumbing it did have high-speed internet access through a hook up with ECFiber — and posted under the name Grunge Wizard on YouTube,

The conversation would occasionally veer off into the surreal, as Eddie became obsessed with a what he believed might be lurking in a nearby tree farm that presented a danger to him.

Eastman admitted Eddie could appear hostile at times, especially if he was surprised by someone approaching him, and remembers when he arrived at the cabin once Eddie yelling so loud “it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.”

After that, Eastman said he made sure to honk the horn on his truck when he drove up to cabin to warn his approach.

But of one thing Eastman is sure. Eddie, although people might have been afraid of him, was not a danger to anyone.

“I learned that with people who have problems like that you got to let what they say flow through one ear and out the other. I never felt scared with him because he wasn’t going to hurt anybody. It was hurt himself I was worried about,” Eastman said.

The last time Eastman spoke with Eddie was at 11:45 p.m. on the Friday night before the early morning Saturday fire, the second call of that evening. Eddie seemed to be having “one of his bad spells” — although in the two calls he did not say anything about wanting to go to the hospital or threatening to burn his cabin — making it difficult to understand him on the phone.

But in any case Eastman said he had come to expect such episodes with Eddie and didn’t think too much of it.

“That’s why I was wondering when I learned about the fire I was afraid he burned up in it,” Eastman said. “I tell you, it was a relief to find out he didn’t burn up.”

Eastman worries that Eddie is not getting the care he needs and is the wrong place.

“The state’s got to do something. The kid needs help. He’s not going to get any better in there. They need to not just push him aside,” Eastman said. “I know they don’t have a state hospital any more and there are only so many beds but I think if he had a chance he could turn around,” Eastman said. “Because, like I said, he was not a menace to anyone but himself.”

‘The safest place’

His father, Edward Gallagher, said in his interview with the Valley News that he would not pay bail to release his son from jail.

Gallagher recounted Eddie told him on the call that he ” ‘had to burn (the cabin) down because they wouldn’t give me a ride to the hospital.’ ”

“He called me and said if you miss me there’s $1,000 bail and can you bail me out? I’m like, ‘it’s not going to happen.’ I don’t want him here to burn me down. Not that he would. But he’s definitely not in his right state of mind as far as I’m concerned,” Gallagher said.

Gallagher predicted people might judge him harshly for refusing to bail Eddie out of jail but he said he did all he could for his adult son, whom he does not claim as a dependent.

Gallagher pointed out that in order to make things more livable for Eddie at the cabin, he replaced the roof, rented a portable toilet, installed a propane-fueled “heating system,” regularly sent food packages and other items and every couple weeks drove down from St. Johnsbury to take his son to The Fort truck stop off Interstate 89 in Lebanon, where Eddie could take a shower.

Finally, he had made arrangement with a contractor to install insulation in the cabin later this month.

“I’m a good father. He just never listened to me. It’s unfortunate but the good thing is he didn’t kill anybody, didn’t kill himself. He didn’t hurt the neighbors. Hopefully he’ll get some help down there and he’ll become a really nice person and move out of this.

“Probably where he is, is the safest place he could be right now,” Gallagher said.

Contact John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.