Police Identify Suspect in Royalton Resident’s Disappearance

  • Austin Colson

  • DeAunna Claflin, of West Lebanon, N.H., takes a moment to collect herself while talking about the disappearance of her 19-year-old son, Austin Colson, of Royalton, Vt., on Jan. 25, 2018, at her home in West Lebanon, N.H. Claflin said she thinks that someone out there knows more about the whereabouts of her son but is not speaking up. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Carly Geraci

  • Some of the scrap metal Austin Colson was believed to have collected on the day he disappeared on Jan. 11, 2018. Authorities are asking for the public's help in identifying where the scrap came from. (Vermont State Police photograph)

Published: 2/14/2018 3:49:09 PM
Modified: 2/15/2018 2:54:17 PM

Burlington — A 38-year-old Hartford man facing federal firearms charges in connection with drug trafficking also is a suspect in the disappearance of a young Royalton man last month, according to court records.

Richard Whitcomb is facing a charge of possession of a .32-caliber Colt pistol as a convicted felon last month, U.S. District Court records show. Court records said Whitcomb, who lives in White River Junction, has a felony conviction for aggravated domestic assault in Windsor County.

He also is charged with carrying and using the .32-caliber pistol during the distribution of cocaine last month, court records show.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office wants Whitcomb detained in the gun case as a danger to the community and a risk to flee, but also noted he may be behind the disappearance of Royalton’s Austin Colson last month. Colson’s 20th birthday was on Tuesday, and police are still searching for him.

“He has yet to be found, but the defendant is a suspect (in) Colson’s disappearance,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Wendy Fuller wrote in her motion seeking Whitcomb’s detention pending trial.

The motion also says Whitcomb used the firearm as collateral during a drug deal with Colson.

“The defendant admitted this conduct to law enforcement and he voluntarily relinquished the firearm he said he used in the offense,” Fuller wrote.

State police have conducted various interviews over the past five weeks.

“It continues to be an active missing persons investigation. At this time, there is significant reason to believe that foul play was involved. Colson was involved in drug transactions before his disappearance,” Windsor County State’s Attorney David Cahill said.

“There appears to be a dispute over money and the collection of money with the sale and purchase of controlled substances,” Cahill said.

He confirmed that there had been at least one state search warrant approved by a judge, but it was under seal at the courthouse in White River Junction.

Cahill urged anybody with information on the case, including the whereabouts of Colson, to call Vermont State Police.

Colson left his Royalton apartment around 11 a.m. on Jan. 11, police said. He apparently traveled to his father’s house on Route 14 in Sharon, where he was supposed to be meeting somebody with a truck that could haul a trailer Colson was using to collect scrap metal, his family has said.

The trailer was found several days later on Downer Road in Sharon.

DeAunna Claflin, Colson’s mother, told the Valley News on Wednesday that she grew up with Whitcomb and that he had told her of plans to meet her son to collect scrap metal on the day Colson went missing. She said Whitcomb later told her that Colson had never responded to a text from him that day.

Claflin, 41, heard about Whitcomb’s recent arrest, but said she didn’t have any details about it.

“I just assumed they were keeping an eye on Richard,” she said.

A federal grand jury in Burlington indicted Whitcomb on the two felony charges on Thursday, but Fuller, the prosecutor, asked that all court records, including the indictment and arrest warrant, be sealed until the suspect could be taken into custody. She wrote she was making the request for the safety of the arresting officers and to prevent Whitcomb from fleeing.

Whitcomb apparently was arrested over the weekend. He appeared for a brief hearing in federal court on Monday afternoon. Fuller asked for a three-day continuance because the government was seeking additional information and that some details, including a lab report, were not due until Wednesday.

The information bears “directly on the question of defendant’s dangerousness and his risk of flight,” she wrote on Monday.

“In the next several days, the government will supplement this motion with additional information about the defendant’s connection to Colson’s disappearance. This information will further demonstrate the risk the defendant poses to the public and his flight risk,” Fuller’s motion said.

By late Wednesday afternoon, Fuller had submitted additional material to the court in further support of detention. She noted that when police seized the firearm from Whitcomb, he also gave investigators his cellphone.

“Police found, among other things, two things of note: (1) that the contents of the phone had largely been deleted; and (2) that there was a recent internet search on the phone for ‘how long does GSR last.’ Law enforcement will testify at the hearing that ‘GSR’ commonly refers to gunshot residue,” the prosecutor wrote.

Federal Magistrate John M. Conroy continued the hearing until 11 a.m. today.

Conroy agreed Whitcomb should be detained in the interim. He is being held at the Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans Town.

Whitcomb’s criminal record includes a felony conviction for aggravated domestic assault 15 years ago, the indictment said. He was sentenced in April 2003 to three to nine years in prison with all suspended but 10 months to serve, records show. They note Whitcomb later faced a charge of violating the terms of probation and received three more months in prison and more conditions. He eventually was freed from probation.

Vermont State Police Detective Lt. John-Paul Schmidt said Colson was thought to have made plans to collect scrap metal on Jan. 11, the day he disappeared. A few days later, the utility trailer Colson was believed to use was found abandoned in Sharon. The trailer was partially loaded with scrap metal.

Schmidt said police are looking for help identifying any locations where metal may have been collected. The scrap likely was collected on Jan. 11 in the Royalton, Sharon, or immediate surrounding area, the detective said.

Colson was last seen wearing blue jeans, Chippewa boots and a hooded camouflage jacket, state police Trooper Chris Blais reported. Colson also was wearing a white ball cap with black lettering reading “A and C Painting.” He has a cellphone but it has been turned off since Jan. 11, Blais said.

In the interview on Wednesday, Claflin said she and Whitcomb went to Hartford High School together in the early 1990s, and Claflin was good friends with Whitcomb’s sister, she said.

Claflin has lost all hope that her son is alive, and said she just wants to find his body.

Colson’s father, Dana, also said “the odds don’t look good.”

“All signs I have seen point toward foul play,” Dana Colson said on Wednesday. “There are no signs whatsoever that he would have taken off on his own free will.”

Before he disappeared, Colson had asked his father if he could use his garage over the upcoming weekend to change the oil in his car; his dad found a brand new 5-quart oil jug inside Colson’s Honda Civic.

His son also had plans to go on vacation to Florida with his girlfriend and her family, a trip he was very much looking forward to, his father said.

Dana Colson is pleading for anyone who lives in the White River valley to search their properties for signs of his son. He urged them to check their barns and any outbuildings. If someone comes across a sign, he asks them to take a step back and call police.

He said he knew his son had plans to collect scrap that Thursday because he had asked to borrow a trailer, but Dana Colson didn’t know who he was meeting. He knew, however, the person would have a truck or an SUV with a hitch, as Colson’s Honda wasn’t equipped to haul the trailer the pair would need to collect scrap.

“We are hoping to generate some leads,” Dana Colson said. “I try to think of it as a 100-piece puzzle. There may be little pieces here and there ... that extra piece might help us get a clear picture.”

Cahill, the state’s attorney, said he hopes the public will see something and alert police.

“It is an active missing person investigation and there is reason to believe that Mr. Colson was harmed or worse,” Cahill said. “We need help from the public on who did this. This is a team effort and we need your help.”

Valley News Correspondent Mike Donoghue can be reached at vermontnewsfirst@gmail.com. Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com.

UPDATE: At a hearing on Thursday in U.S. District Court in Burlington, Richard P. Whitcomb Jr. was ordered held without bail on federal firearms charges.
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