A press release from police about last week’s cleaver attack in Burlington has left questions about the role of an armed bystander at the scene. Here’s what we know — and what we don’t — about the role he played.
Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo first mentioned the armed bystander in a press release hours after the attack. Since then, online comments have sprung up debating the individual’s role at the scene. Some said he saved lives. Others said “gun guy did nothing.”
When opinions mix with facts, it creates fertile ground for fake news and speculation. So we’ve gathered all the relevant information from court filings and public statements to give a clearer picture of the role armed bystanders had at the scene.
The following information comes from public statements by del Pozo and a sworn court affidavit written by Burlington Police Detective Jesse Namdar, who used excerpts from other officers' reports to support charges of first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder.
Editor's Note: As a matter of policy, VPR does not identify witnesses of a crime without their permission; identifying details of the witnesses, including last names, have been redacted from this story.
The Armed Bystander
Here’s what del Pozo says about the armed bystander in that press release Thursday evening:
“The suspect was taken into police custody after being momentarily held at bay by an armed resident. No other persons are wanted at this time,” said del Pozo.“Names and relationships are being withheld pending notifications and further investigation. The incident does not indicate an ongoing public safety risk to the community.”
Namdar’s affidavit quotes a report by a Cpl. Jennifer Cousins who arrived on the scene at 2:34 p.m. Thursday.
“As I drove north, I saw a group of males yelling and gesturing at the end of the driveway just south of 72 Hyde Street. I observed a male with a gun pointed up (east) the driveway.
This male was later identified as John [redacted]. I observed a female victim on the ground, later identified as [Gurung’s wife,] Yogeswari Khadka, with blood around her and a male standing approximately 3 feet east of her in the driveway facing her with a large meat cleaver in his hand at his side. This male was later identified as Aita Gurung.
"I had my firearm drawn and pointed at Gurung and immediately began giving him hard verbal commands to 'drop the knife'. Gurung did not comply and continued to stare in my direction with the cleaver in his hand. I gave him numerous hard verbal commands to “drop the knife” as did other officers on scene. Gurung eventually dropped the cleaver on the ground next to him.”
Police then put Gurung face down on the driveway, handcuffed him, and started providing medical care to the two women he allegedly attacked: his wife, who was laying at the end of the driveway, and her mother, who was on the front porch nearby.
John, the "male with a gun" in Cpl. Cousins’ report, is the same person del Pozo mentioned in his Thursday evening press release.
But Namdar’s affidavit also makes clear that there was a second armed civilian at the scene: a man named Larry.
According to Namdar’s affidavit, Burlington Police Officer Kyle Yeh interviewed Larry and recorded the interview on his body camera.
“[Larry] advised he was working on Hyde St, across the street. As he returned from lunch he advised he observed someone hit someone on the steps. As he observed the suspect hit the female a second time he observed the male armed with a hatchet/meat cleaver hit the woman on the steps.”
The woman on the steps, according to the affidavit, was Gurung’s mother-in-law.
“[Larry] then observed a woman in the driveway tell him to stop at which point the male began attacking her with the meat cleaver. [Larry] attempted to get the male to stop by yelling at him, the male did not listen.”
Larry, it turns out, also had a gun.
“[Larry] remembered he had his firearm in his truck, which he got then returned to the scene. [Larry] advised the female on the ground was barely moving and he observed [John] on scene with a firearm as well.
“He advised when he returned with his firearm he observed the police cruisers arriving on scene. [Larry] also advised he did call 911 in reference to the attack. [Larry] identified the male who was detained by [police on the driveway] as the suspect in the attack. [Larry] also advised once he drew his firearm at the suspect the suspect complied with his orders to stop.”
Of all of the witness accounts described in Namdar’s affidavit, Larry is the only one who says he saw Gurung attack his mother-in-law on the porch.
Based on Larry’s account, Gurung stopped attacking his mother-in-law only when his wife – her daughter – told him to stop.
Other witness accounts described in Namdar’s affidavit seem to begin soon after that, when Gurung was allegedly attacking his wife in the driveway.
A Matter Of Seconds
Police said Friday that the final minute of the incident before police arrived was likely “decisive,” meaning that if police had showed up 60 seconds sooner, they think Khadka — Gurung’s wife — might have survived.
While the witness accounts in Namdar’s affidavit provide an account of the order of events, it’s difficult to tell how much time passed between one event and the next. However, some of what happened during that final minute was recorded on a cell phone video by a bystander.
Police have not released any videos of the incident because the investigation and prosecution are active, del Pozo said.
In her affidavit, Namdar describes the video in detail.
Editor's Note: VPR has chosen not to publish the full passage due to its graphic descriptions, but excerpts provide some insight about the moments before police arrived.
“The video starts with a white male standing in Hyde St. pointing south. The male yells to Gurung, 'Get away! Get away! Get away!'
The video shows Gurung standing in the driveway, Namdar writes. His wife is seen on the ground nearby “covered in blood.”
“Gurung stands over Khadka and paces back and forth. The witness continues to point down the street and yells 'Don’t touch her! Don’t [expletive] think about it again!'
“Gurung continues to pace around Khadka while making statements to include, ‘She betray me, she betray me.’ As he does this, the witness continues to yell at Gurung to back away. Gurung takes the cleaver and strikes Khadka in the head … Multiple voices can be heard yelling in the area. Those voices include what sounds like [the woman recording the video] yelling, ‘God, dude! You’re gonna [expletive] kill her dude!’"
The video shows Gurung hitting Khadka in the head at least three times in the moments before police arrived on the scene.
“Voices in the area can be heard yelling ‘Hurry up!’ and ‘Hurry!’ [John] then enters the video from the south side and approaches Gurung. [John] is holding a firearm pointed at Gurung. The male yells, ‘Back off! Back the [expletive] off!’
With a gun pointed at him, the affidavit says, Gurung continued to attack his wife.
“Gurung then uses the cleaver to chop at Khadka’s lower body one more time. The male points to Gurung with his free hand and points to the ground as he yells for him to drop the cleaver. Police are then seen entering the video ordering Gurung to drop the cleaver and he complies. As officers yell orders to Gurung, Khadka’s moans can be heard in the background.”
The affidavit says John then surrendered his gun to police at the scene. There’s no indication that there were any problems or confrontations between police and John or between police and Larry.
Based on the available information, we know that things happened fast; police say they were at the scene less than five minutes after the 911 call came in, and much of the activity described in the affidavit happened before they got there.
That means the entire incident unfolded very quickly once the attack moved into the street. It’s also clear that witnesses were confused and disturbed by what was happening; people had trouble connecting the sounds they were hearing to the images they were seeing. Some witnesses stopped looking, either because the scene was too graphic or to protect their families.
What we don’t know is pretty much everything else: What would have happened if the police, not bystanders, were the first people to arrive with guns? What would have happened if the police came sooner? What if John had been able to fire his gun? What if Larry had parked his truck closer to where he was working?
It’s nearly impossible to say whether a given variable could have saved Khadka or did save another life, in large part because it’s so difficult to predict how humans would’ve reacted differently in a different situation.
Bystanders With Guns
Del Pozo said his officers have to be prepared for the possibility that armed civilians will be present in almost any situation, because Vermont law doesn’t place restrictions on gun ownership.
“So any person who’s not Brady-disqualified [by federal law] can buy a weapon, carry it, do almost anything with it, take it almost anywhere,” del Pozo said at a press conference the day after the attack. “Our cops are aware of that. They have the benefit of knowing that they may encounter armed people at any given time. That plays into their training, that plays into their tactics. They don’t necessarily overreact when they see an armed person.”
Del Pozo said all citizens have the right to protect themselves and innocent third parties, but he cautioned that it’s very important for bystanders to make it easy for police to determine who is a threat and who isn’t as they arrive on a scene.
“When the police are coming, you need to make it clear that you fit into it as a helper, not as an aggressor,” he said.