Whitcomb, suspect in teen’s disappearance, sentenced to prison on firearms charge

  • Richard Whitcomb, of Hartford, left, arrives in Windsor Superior Court with his wife Sara Whitcomb, right, and attorney Bradley Stetler, middle, to plead not guilty to a charge of home improvement fraud in White River Junction, Vt., Tuesday, June 19, 2018. Whitcomb is under suspicion for his possible involvement in the disappearance of Royalton resident Austin Colson. Whitcomb was released on bond. (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 Staff Writer
Published: 1/8/2020 5:00:38 PM
Modified: 1/8/2020 10:06:00 PM

RUTLAND — The White River Junction man who prosecutors said was involved in the disappearance and homicide of Royalton teen Austin Colson two years ago has been sentenced to prison on a firearms charge.

On Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Rutland, a federal judge sentenced Richard Whitcomb to 37 months in a federal penitentiary. Following his release, Whitcomb will spend three years under supervised release.

Whitcomb declined to comment on his charges during his appearance in court Wednesday. Whitcomb’s family members and friends attended, as did Colson’s parents and other of his family members.

The sentence is part of a deal that Whitcomb, 40, agreed to in September when he pleaded guilty to a charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm.

In exchange, prosecutors dropped a second charge alleging that Whitcomb used his firearm — a .32-caliber pistol — as collateral in a drug deal with Colson.

Though that charge was dismissed, Assistant U.S. Attorney Wendy Fuller referenced the allegation in court Wednesday, and in a sentencing memorandum filed Monday, as she discussed Whitcomb’s history of drug dealing and use.

“The gravamen here is the defendant’s involvement with drugs and a firearm,” she wrote in the sentencing memorandum, adding that Whitcomb has admitted to selling drugs regularly, often as part of his relationship with Colson.

She accused Whitcomb of contributing to a high rate of addiction in Windsor County, which she called “a community struggling with the devastating effects of persistent drug abuse” in the memorandum.

Fuller echoed the document in court Wednesday, accusing Whitcomb of keeping the “cycle of addiction alive.”

“This is not just having a firearm in his home. ... There are greater factors here that play into the seriousness (of the crime).”

In the memorandum, Fuller also wrote that Whitcomb is “involved in the disappearance and homicide of Austin Colson,” though she added that the government is not currently asking the court to sentence Whitcomb in relation to Colson’s death.

Neither Whitcomb’s nor Colson’s family members spoke during the sentencing Wednesday, but Whitcomb’s wife, Sara Willey Whitcomb, previously sent a letter to the judge urging him to impose a lesser sentence on her husband.

“Everyone in Rich’s life has let him down since the day he was born. ... I will forever support Rich and assure he is on the right track,” she wrote in the Dec. 26 letter. She took responsibility for the gun in the home, saying that it was there before Whitcomb, and that she’d forgotten about it, adding, “I never thought it would be an issue.”

“What does this abnormally long sentence for possession of a firearm do for a man like Richard?” she asked in the letter.

But on Wednesday, Willey Whitcomb had a different outlook, saying she was “very happy,” with the sentencing.

“It’s over and we’re putting it behind us,” Willey Whitcomb said in an interview following her husband’s court appearance.

Colson’s parents also spoke after the sentencing, expressing hope for the investigation into their son’s disappearance.

“He’s not sentenced for the crime we want at this point,” said his father, Dana Colson, following the appearance in court. He added that Whitcomb’s sentencing Wednesday was what the family had expected.

“It’s reasonable for right now,” Colson’s mother DeAunna Claflin said following the sentencing. She added in a phone interview Wednesday night that she’s glad Whitcomb will be off the streets during his sentence.

The gun charge stems from a larger investigation into the disappearance of 19-year-old Colson on Jan. 11, 2018. According to the sentencing memorandum, Colson went missing the day he agreed to gather scrap metal with Whitcomb, though the 40-year-old claimed Colson never showed up.

During the investigation, police discovered that an alibi Whitcomb had given them was untrue and that he had searched “How long does GSR last” on his phone, according to the memorandum. GSR stands for gunshot residue, according to prosecutors.

As police started looking at Whitcomb as a suspect, they found that he had a gun in his home, despite being a felon, and that he allegedly used the gun in a drug sale, leading to the federal firearms charges last February.

To date, nobody has been charged in connection with Colson’s disappearance or death. His remains were discovered in a barn in Norwich in May 2018. An autopsy found he had been killed by a gunshot wound to the head, which a coroner deemed a homicide.

“I’m holding in, I’m hanging in there,” Claflin said in an interview Wednesday night. She said the whole case has torn her family apart because Colson had “such a bright future.” The family is holding a candlelight vigil for him on Saturday to mark two years since Colson’s disappearance.

“No matter how long it takes, I’m going to push along until we get justice for him.”

Last November, Whitcomb pleaded no contest to an unrelated home improvement fraud charge out of Windsor County. He was ordered to serve nine to 10 days in prison on that charge, which will run concurrent to the federal sentence.

Whitcomb’s attorney requested Wednesday that he be sent to a federal prison in northern Massachusetts or Berlin, N.H., so he can be closer to his home in White River Junction.

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

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