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Prosecutors flagged 13 Vermont cops for potential credibility issues last year

A photo of a sign outside a white building reading Springfield Police.
Liam Elder-Connors
/
VPR
Vermont prosecutors flagged 13 cops in 2021 for having potential credibility issues. Two were former officers at the Springfield Police Department.

Springfield Police Officer Ryan Prince sat down at a department computer around 3 a.m. on Aug. 20, 2020 to start his shift. When Prince tried to log in, he later told investigators, he found that officer who was using it before him hadn’t logged out of Facebook and had sent a series of sexually explicit messages to a young woman. Prince said he recognized the account – it belonged to Cpl. Shaun Smith.

Prince, a five-year veteran, reported the incident to his superiors. They quickly learned that others in the department had concerns about Smith’s behavior. According to an internal affairs report, Smith’s co-workers often didn’t know where Smith was during his shift, and would search parking lots in town to try to find him. The officers, records show, jokingly called this the “Where’s Waldo” game.

In June 2021, Springfield Police Chief Mark Fountain declared that Smith had violated 10 departmental policies including sexual misconduct, neglect of duty and truthfulness. Smith declined to comment when reached by VPR.

About a month later, Windsor County State’s Attorney Ward Goodenough named Smith in a Brady-Giglio letter, a disclosure prosecutors are required to make if they have information that could undermine an officer’s credibility. The letters often prevent cops from being able to take the witness stand or even bringing cases — core duties for law enforcement officers.

Smith is one of 13 Vermont police officers that prosecutors flagged in 2021 for having potential credibility issues, according to records obtained by VPR. About half the officers named in the 2021 letters were involved in high-profile or previously public incidents, like the three Vermont State Police troopers who resigned after being caught allegedly making fake COVID-19 vaccination cards.

The rest of the incidents in the letters hadn’t been publicly disclosed. They include a Bennington County Sheriff’s deputy investigated for timesheet reporting issues, and a Williston officer who allegedly violated the state’s Fair and Impartial Policing policy.

"I am not tracking this for other counties. You could tell me there are 10 letters issued in another county, and I may never hear about it.”
Ward Goodenough, Windsor County state's attorney

VTDigger, in a 2020 investigation, found 28 law enforcement officers, including several police chiefs, named in Brady-Giglio letters issued between 2015 and 2020.

Prosecutors have different standards for issuing the letters, and the state has no centralized list of officers with potential truthfulness issues.

“I am not tracking this for other counties,” said Goodenough, the Windsor County state's attorney. “You could tell me there are 10 letters issued in another county, and I may never hear about it.”

The fallout from the letters varied across counties. Some prosecutors refused to take new cases and dismissed existing cases handled by officers named in Brady-Giglio letters.

Windham County State’s Attorney Tracy Shriver issued one letter last year for a Brattleboro police officer who wrote an affidavit that had a “material misstatement.”

“I felt like this incident was worthy of a Brady disclosure because it potentially could provide future defendants some arguably exculpatory line of questioning,” Shriver said in an interview. “But it did not result in me refusing to accept any cases from him.”

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But the letters often mark the end of an officer’s time on the job.

Burlington Police Cpl. Brent Navari was fired May 12, 2021, in part because Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George refused to take any more of his cases, records show.

Navari, who spent nearly 18 years as a police officer, ran into trouble in Jan. 2021 after a game warden cited him for feeding deer, a criminal misdemeanor. But, according to an internal investigation, Navari didn’t tell any of his supervisors about the pending charge. Acting police chief Jon Murad only learned of it after George told him, emails obtained by VPR show.

Murad put Navari on paid leave and ordered an internal investigation into his actions. The report, released to VPR through a public records request, found Navari violated two department directives: to report misconduct, and to be truthful.

According to the report, Navari sent a colleague the court documents related to his pending misdemeanor charge and then during the investigation made “evasive and misleading statements” when asked by investigators if any other officers knew about the case.

Navari pleaded not guilty to the charge of feeding deer. He did not respond to a request for comment.

George, the Chittenden County state’s attorney, said she filed the Brady letter because she believed Navari wasn’t truthful during the internal investigation.

“Untruthfulness is untruthfulness,” George said. “I don't think that there is a range, but I do think it's especially telling that he was untruthful during an investigation by his own department.”

It wasn’t the first time Navari’s actions have come under public scrutiny. Navari was one of two officers involved in the 2013 fatal shooting of Wayne Brunette, a mentally ill man who, the officers say, came at them brandishing a shovel. Navari and former Burlington police officer Ethan Thibault were cleared of criminal wrong-doing in the incident. Thibault later faced domestic assault charges that were dropped. In 2016, Thibault resigned amid an internal investigation into allegations he made a late-night threatening phone call to a retired Burlington police officer.

“Untruthfulness is untruthfulness. I don't think that there is a range ..."
Sarah George, Chittenden County state's attorney

George filed two other Brady-Giglio letters in 2021 and declared she won’t take any cases from those officers, either. One was for Cpl. Lance Martel, an Essex police officer charged with voyeurism in October 2021. The charge was dropped in late February, court filings show. Martel is no longer employed by Essex Police, according to Chief Ron Hoague. Hoague declined to provide further information.

The other letter was for Williston officer Travis Trybulski. According to the Brady letter, Trybulski was found to be in violation of the Fair and Impartial Policing policy “through a clear pattern of profiling and bias.” Trybulski declined to comment.

According to a separation agreement, Trybulski left the police department a month after George filed her Brady letter. Williston Police Chief Patrick Foley and Williston Town Manager Erik Wells declined to comment.

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George said one of her concerns is that she doesn’t have access to internal investigations that departments conduct, and only gets limited information if a department thinks there’s a possible credibility issue. George said she’d prefer to review more of the cases.

“I think the transparency there is huge, because it doesn't give me an opportunity to review the information,” she said. “So it doesn't give me an opportunity to write a letter if need be, and it does give the option for that officer to just become an officer somewhere else.”

That appears to have been an issue in Springfield last year, in the case of Cpl. Shaun Smith. He resigned in November 2020 while the internal investigation was ongoing and announced he’d taken a job at Woodstock Police Department, according to department records. Mark Fountain, Springfield's police chief, said he didn’t get a call from Woodstock until after Smith was hired.

Fountain said when he eventually spoke to Woodstock Police Chief Robbie Blish, he mentioned the internal investigation but didn’t say much else about it.

"My investigation was not done — it was still fluid, it was still ongoing. I was not in a position where I could share any details, because it was still an investigation."
Chief Mark Fountain, Springfield Police

“My investigation was not done — it was still fluid, it was still ongoing,” Fountain said. “I was not in a position where I could share any details, because it was still an investigation.”

Blish, in an email, said Smith no longer works for Woodstock Police; his last day was July 30 — four days after he was named in a Brady-Giglio letter. Blish declined to provide more information.

Smith wasn’t the only former Springfield cop to get a Brady-Giglio letter last year. Fountain also discovered a four-year-old internal affairs investigation into officer Logan Defelice. The investigation sustained allegations that DeFelice was untruthful and violated several departmental policies, records show. Defelice, records show, abruptly resigned from the department, but the chief at the time didn’t forward the report to the state’s attorney. Defelice did not respond to a request for comment.

Fountain sent the case to Goodenough, the Windsor County state’s attorney, who issued a Brady letter in March 2021 and said he’d review any old cases where Defelice might be a witness.

In another incident from last year, Hardwick Police Sgt. Darin Barber took home a bottle of whiskey confiscated as evidence, records show. An internal investigation found the department’s policy was unclear about what to do with alcohol seized during a civil matter, and Barber was cleared of any wrongdoing.

But a subsequent review, ordered by the town and conducted by Williston Police, found that Barber appeared to be in violation of department and town policies. Barber, who did not respond to a request for comment, resigned in January.

Hardwick Police Chief Aaron Cochran is currently on paid administrative leave, pending an investigation into his handling of the initial internal investigation in Barber’s actions, said Hardwick Town Manager David Upson.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Liam Elder-Connors @lseconnors

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