Threats flood town offices in Brattleboro
By Susan Smallheer
Herald Staff | January 30,2008
BRATTLEBORO — Law enforcement officials said Tuesday there could be criminal charges filed against some of those who made threatening telephone calls and sent e-mails and letters to the town over a vote on whether to arrest President George Bush.
Some of the complaints said the town was filled with "left-leaning wackjobs" and "out of work hippies." Some were more serious threats, including talk about physical harm to town officials.
Acting Brattleboro Police Chief Eugene Wrinn and U.S. Attorney for Vermont Thomas Anderson said that if threats were made against Brattleboro residents, the town and the state wouldn't ignore them regardless of the subject matter.
"There are federal laws that apply to threats over a computer, or the mail, or the telephone," Anderson said, noting he was going to alert the FBI. "If they are getting those sorts of things, they will be taken seriously."
Town officials were inundated with telephone calls and e-mails Monday after news hit the Web that Brattleboro residents will vote on whether to arrest Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for alleged war crimes if they step foot in their town.
They said the stream of verbal and written abuse had lessened by Tuesday.
News of the town's action hit the Internet over the weekend, and by Monday morning all heck had broken loose.
Town Manager Barbara Sondag said that once the story hit The Drudge Report, a conservative Internet site, the town's e-mail inbox began filling up and the phone calls started — most of it negative and nasty.
"We stopped answering the phone," Sondag said. "It's not comfortable for my staff right now; that's pretty clear. I think we're trying to move forward as it simmers down."
Town Clerk Annette Cappy said the calls still were coming in at her office, and some of it was apparently computerized.
She said her office received about five calls from the same mechanical voice, asking: "Why do you hate America? Why do you hate freedom? Why do you hate our commander in chief?"
"There's no one there — it's spooky," Cappy said. She said the staff was hanging up on the calls.
Sondag said the article, which was put on the town meeting warning last week for a townwide vote, was advisory only.
Sondag said the town had received an opinion from the Secretary of State's office, which town attorney Robert Fisher concurred with.
"It carries no legal weight; the town attorney has said he can't write up an indictment," Sondag said. "What did Bob say? 'This is not going to have any legal weight. It's not worth the paper it's written on. You can't do anything with it.'"
Sondag said the majority of the Brattleboro Select Board felt strongly that the issue, a symbolic protest vote, should be put to the voters since the correct number of residents had petitioned for the vote — more than 400 residents.
Sondag said the two issues that have gained Brattleboro national, if not international attention, this year — its lack of a nudity ordinance and now the proposal to arrest Bush — were not on the minds of "everyday citizens of Brattleboro."
"These are fringe issues really, for the people living here and making their homes here," Sondag said. "People aren't in the street here, looking for a head on a stick. For some reason, they make the national news. In some ways, it's unfortunate that a town should be known for these fringe issues.
"I'm surprised by the magnitude and I'm surprised by the tone. But it clearly struck a nerve with a lot of people," she said.
Wrinn, too, said that if threats were made, there would be a police investigation and consequences.
"If we have criminal behavior, we will investigate," Wrinn said, noting that the police department had gotten its share of nasty e-mails and phone calls.
Wrinn said the most obvious charge would be disturbing the peace, a misdemeanor.
Down on Main Street, Jerry Goldberg at the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce said the calls and e-mails have been coming there, too.
"It was nonstop yesterday," Goldberg said, noting the office had received 70 calls and e-mails, 90 percent of them "rather nasty and vitriolic."
A handful of supportive calls came in Tuesday morning, he said.
"We're not responding to the e-mails," he said. "And we don't engage people in conversation. We thank them for calling."
Like Sondag, Goldberg said the calls were on par with the same intensity of people upset with the town last summer for not having a nudity ordinance. The town has since adopted a limited nudity ordinance.
Goldberg said that virtually all of the calls were from out of state, and that people told him they would never shop or stop in Brattleboro again.
"We heard from people from Texas, Santa Barbara saying they had no intention of ever coming here," he said. "I don't think they ever had any intention of coming here."
Contact Susan Smallheer at firstname.lastname@example.org.