Jim Kenyon: Kidnapping, rape case spurs questions of secure treatment in Vt.

  • The Southeast State Correctional Facility in Windsor, Vt., Monday, Oct. 30, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Everett Simpson. (Police photograph)

  • Windsor County State's Attorney David Cahill, left, speaks with public defender Robert Lees about pending cases before the start of a morning arraignment session at Windsor Superior Court in White River Junction, Vt., on Aug. 22, 2017. (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
Published: 4/6/2019 10:10:08 PM

Valley Vista was Everett Simpson’s get-out-of-jail-free card. But as the fallout from his case continues, will more people grappling with drug addiction go directly to jail in Vermont?

Simpson sat behind bars for nearly four months last fall while awaiting trial on multiple charges, including assaulting a state trooper, before he was granted bail and allowed to check into Valley Vista, the private substance use disorder treatment center in Bradford, Vt., on Jan. 3.

But the night after arriving at Valley Vista, the 41-year-old from St. Johnsbury walked away from the facility off Route 5 that was once a nursing home.

A police affidavit gives a chilling account of Simpson’s alleged crimes that followed his disappearance from Valley Vista:

After stealing a car in Bradford sometime during the night, Simpson arrived in Manchester, N.H., on Jan. 5, a Saturday. Shortly before 1 p.m., Simpson approached a 23-year-old woman in the parking lot at the Mall of New Hampshire. Celia Roessler had just buckled her 4-year-old son into his car seat. Simpson elbowed and shoved the unsuspecting mother into her Kia’s passenger seat.

With Roessler and her son now his captives, Simpson drove back to Vermont, where he raped her at a White River Junction hotel. He ripped the hotel room phone out of wall, took her driver’s license and threatened to show up at her home if she reported him. With Roessler and her son still in the room, he fled in her car.

Roessler then called Hartford police, according to the affidavit.

(As a general practice, the Valley News doesn’t identify victims of sex crimes, but Roessler publicly identified herself last month, saying she has “nothing to hide from or be ashamed of.”)

On Jan. 7, Simpson was apprehended outside Philadelphia, but not before leading police on a high-speed chase that ended with him crashing his third stolen vehicle into a telephone pole, police said.

Simpson is being held at Northwest State Correctional Facility in Swanton, Vt., on kidnapping and other federal charges. He’s also facing aggravated sexual assault, kidnapping and stolen vehicle-related charges in Windsor County.

If convicted, Simpson faces life in prison. Regardless of the outcome, Simpson’s case could leave its stamp on Vermont’s criminal justice system for years to come.

Why’s that?

Criminal defendants awaiting trial frequently ask — through their attorneys — to be released from jail to undergo treatment for substance use disorders, Windsor County State’s Attorney David Cahill told me.

Pre-trial detainees account for one-quarter of Vermont’s in-state prison population. When I checked last week, 364 of Vermont’s 1,470 in-state prisoners were behind bars because they couldn’t make bail or were ineligible.

By completing a pre-trial treatment program outside of prison, defendants hope to show that they’re getting their lives back together and don’t need to be incarcerated while their cases wind through the court system. If all goes well with their recovery efforts, defendants are in a better position to argue during plea negotiations to have charges reduced. Potentially, it could keep them out of prison altogether.

Could the Simpson case give Vermont judges and prosecutors reason to pause when other defendants pitch treatment over jail during bail proceedings?

“How could it not?” Cahill asked.

And when I talked with Chief Superior Judge Brian Grearson at the Vermont Statehouse last week, I was reminded that judges are people, too.

“Something like this can’t help but have an effect,” Grearson said.

On Tuesday, the Simpson case came up during a legislative committee hearing on bringing back so-called “good time” in the state’s prison system. The proposal would allow inmates to reduce their sentences through, among other things, completing drug treatment programs.

When a legislator mentioned the Simpson case, Sen. Richard Sears, a Bennington County Democrat, called it a “bad example” of how the system is not supposed to work.

“I’m hoping we won’t stop using treatment for offenders who need it,” Sears said.

Vermont Defender General Matthew Valerio told me that he hasn’t heard talk at the Statehouse about tightening up what treatments are available to pre-trial detainees. But nothing can be ruled out, he said.

“There can be a knee-jerk reaction when you have a horrific crime,” he said. “No judge ever got criticized for keeping people locked up.”

Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas, a Bradford Democrat, said she’s heard from a few residents who wanted to know more about how Simpson ended up at Valley Vista and the state police’s tepid response to his disappearance.

“I hope we can learn from this and improve procedures moving forward without having an impact on Vermonters’ treatment in the future,” she said. “We have so few treatment options in Vermont. I’d hate to see the pendulum swing in the other direction.”

Roessler, whom police say Simpson kidnapped and raped, has filed a civil lawsuit in Chittenden Superior Court that alleges the state and Valley Vista bear responsibility for her and her son’s ordeal.

The lawsuit points out that approximately 1½ hours passed before Valley Vista reported to state police that Simpson had gone missing.

After hearing from Valley Vista shortly before 10 p.m., state police didn’t seek a warrant for Simpson’s arrest that night or issue a “be on the lookout” alert to other law enforcement agencies. It also failed to send out a news release informing the public about Simpson’s disappearance.

The day after Simpson was apprehended, state police acknowledged there were “additional steps that should have been taken.” An internal investigation into its handling of the matter is now underway.

In the lawsuit, attorneys for Shaheen & Gordon, the Concord law firm representing Roessler and her son, wrote, “local communities throughout New Hampshire and Vermont have been left in shock, feeling unsafe, and demanding answers to how a dangerous Vermont criminal defendant could be allowed to escape, cross state lines into New Hampshire, and commit such heinous acts against two innocent New Hampshire residents.”

The state and Valley Vista have yet to respond to the suit.

Simpson’s rap sheet includes convictions for simple assault, burglary, theft, stalking and escape. His most recent conviction — for retail theft — came in 2001, the lawsuit states.

In September, Simpson allegedly stole an SUV from a hospital parking lot in Littleton, N.H. Police caught up with him in Lyndon, Vt., where he attempted to elude police in a chase that reached 90 mph. After he was stopped, Simpson punched a state trooper in the head and grabbed his gun belt before finally being handcuffed, according to a police affidavit.

Unable to make his $20,000 bail, Simpson was sent to Northeast Regional Correctional Facility in St. Johnsbury to await trial in Caledonia Superior Court. On Nov. 20, Simpson’s public defender asked the court to reduce his bail to $5,000 to “allow him to go to residential treatment at Valley Vista,” according to Caledonia Superior Court records.

The court granted Simpson’s request, but apparently he couldn’t come up with $500 in cash to pay the 10 percent fee that a bail company required to post his bail.

In late December, Simpson’s public defender, Bridget Grace, asked the court to reduce the bail to $3,000, which would require him to pay $300 to a bail company. (In a financial document filed with the court, Simpson reported his household income at $1,500 a month.)

Grace told the court that Simpson would sign a release authorizing Valley Vista to “immediately” notify police if he left “against medical advice,” which would trigger his immediate arrest and incarceration.

Caledonia Deputy State’s Attorney Maria Byford had agreed to the arrangement, Grace wrote in her Dec. 28 “stipulation to modify bail.” Superior Court Judge Robert Bent then approved Simpson’s reduced bail and transfer to Valley Vista.

Since 2017, Valley Vista has been owned by Meridian Behavioral Health, a limited liability company based in New Brighton, Minn. According to its website, Meridian provides acute psychiatric and substance abuse treatment services at more than 30 locations in five states.

Valley Vista, which has 80 beds, accepts patients covered by Medicaid and private insurance. Roessler’s lawsuit alleges “Valley Vista was not required to admit Mr. Simpson — it chose to do so, and for profit. ... Valley Vista knew that Mr. Simpson posed a serious risk of harm to others, especially if he were to escape and be allowed to roam free in the community.”

Last Wednesday, I stopped by Valley Vista’s administrative building, which is separate from the treatment facility, to talk about what had happened. Marketing Director John Caceres declined to comment.

Documents filed in the Caledonia Superior Courthouse that I looked at didn’t provide any clues as to why Simpson was considered a good match for Valley Vista’s services. I hoped the attorneys in the case could help clarify it, but neither the public defender nor the prosecutor called me back.

Court records also didn’t indicate what substances Simpson was seeking treatment for or how long he’d battled his addiction.

Cahill, Windsor County’s state’s attorney, didn’t seem surprised. Prosecutors seldom have access to a detainee’s medical records, he said. Grearson, the state’s chief superior judge, told me it can be hard to tell “what’s motivating” people to seek treatment.

Judges and prosecutors are left to figure out whom to take a chance on.

“Generally speaking, criminal defendants who propose residential treatment as an alternative to pretrial detention are a diverse group,” Cahill said. “Some genuinely want to address the root cause of a substance-driven crime. Others are simply looking to get out of jail and see residential treatment as a vehicle to do so.”

To get an outsider’s take, I called Josiah Rich, who is director of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights, a nonprofit organization Providence, R.I. Rich, a physician and professor of medicine at Brown University, spends a lot of time caring for people in prison.

It’s been Rich’s experience that most people who are battling substance abuse aren’t prone to violent crime sprees.

“It’s not what 99 percent of the people do when they have an addiction,” he said.

They tend to run afoul of the law for such crimes as theft and forgery. Keeping people locked up for drug-driven crimes might quench the public’s thirst for punishment, but that’s about all it does, Rich said. Even with treatment, there’s no guarantee that people won’t “do something bad” after their release, he said. (And roughly 95 percent of people eventually do get out of jail.)

In an interview with Valley News reporter Jordan Cuddemi last month, Cahill stressed that there’s no such thing as a “secure residential treatment facility” in Vermont.

“The state has not invested in providing an environment where individuals can receive intensive substance abuse treatment while also being kept behind lock and key for protection of the public,” Cahill said. “We have prisons. We have private-sector medical facilities. We don’t have anything that blends the two.”

I asked Cahill what he had in mind.

The answer is right in front of us, he said. Three miles outside of downtown Windsor, the Southeast State Correctional Facility sits empty.

The state mothballed what was once known as the “prison farm” in 2017. When I drove past it last week, the 12-foot-high metal fence topped with shiny razor wire seemed plenty capable of keeping people from wandering off.

I mentioned Cahill’s idea to a half-dozen or so lawmakers at the Statehouse.

“It makes sense,” said Rep. Kevin “Coach” Christie, a Hartford Democrat who serves on the House Judiciary Committee. “The state owns the land. It’s already secure. It doesn’t seem like rocket science to me.”

But he was the only one who seemed intrigued by the idea. With the Department of Corrections’ budget already at $155 million a year, there’s not much appetite in Montpelier for spending more on inmates or detainees. Lawmakers tuned into DOC’s needs are focusing on what to do about the decrepit women’s prison in South Burlington.

No doubt the old prison farm would need work. Some buildings are beyond repair and would need to come down. Modular housing would probably have to be set up inside the 28-acre enclosure.

I don’t think Cahill’s idea is far-fetched. A drug treatment facility in a secure setting — to go along with what is already offered in the state — might be what some people battling addiction need. It could also raise the public’s comfort level.

For a while in the 1970s, the prison farm in Windsor served as the state’s drug and alcohol residential treatment facility.

Sometimes going back in time can be a step forward.

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




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