Plea agreement in trooper assault case falls apart
By Susan Smallheer
Staff Writer | November 20,2012
BRATTLEBORO — A plea agreement for former Vermont State Police trooper Eric Howley appeared to fall apart Monday after the judge insisted that Howley admit on the record that he had assaulted two men in Wilmington in April, rather than entering a no contest plea.
Howley, 40, of Wilmington, who resigned from the Vermont State Police in May after the incident on Easter at Lake Raponda, had been charged with simple assault for attacking Mark Ellison, 21, of West Wardsboro, and Anton Pike, 21, of Wilmington, who Howley found paddling his canoe without permission that April afternoon.
Howley pushed Ellison to the ground, where his head hit a rock, and he repeatedly pushed Pike against the hood of a cruiser.
Vermont Assistant Attorney General Matthew Levine said Howley had agreed to plead no contest to two counts of simple assault, and be fined $750 per count, as well as pay $2,000 in court costs.
Levine said at a hearing Monday that both victims supported the plea agreement, and Levine said the plea agreement would save the state money and avoid a trial.
Levine said Howley would be paying a substantial fine, and in addition had essentially “lost his career in law enforcement.”
Howley’s attorney, Brian Marthage, told Judge David Suntag that his client suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, and that the diagnosis had been confirmed by both a Bennington psychiatrist and doctors at the Veterans Administration Medical Center.
Marthage told Suntag that Howley’s PTSD was a result of unspecified experiences in the military, as well as events while he was a member of the Vermont State Police.
Marthage said Howley had been receiving treatment for the PTSD for a lengthy period of time after his military service.
But when the judge asked Marthage if the state police knew Howley had PTSD, Marthage said they would have “if they put two and two together.”
The April incident with the stolen canoe was the second time Howley’s been involved in violent treatment of a suspect, the first case involved a drunken person at a wedding reception. In that case, the Vermont State Police reached an out-of-court settlement with the victim.
Howley had to be pulled off Ellison by another Vermont State Police trooper, Genevra Cushman, who had accompanied the on-duty Howley to the lake, according to court records. Cushman had repeatedly urged Howley to let her handle the canoe incident, court records stated.
A special investigation by the Vermont State Police revealed that Howley was quoted as saying in April he was “sick of white trash Vermonters and stupid pot heads.”
Marthage said that Howley actually doesn’t remember the events of his alleged assault on the two men, although he does remember seeing two men out in his canoe that afternoon.
With Suntag probing the two attorneys with questions, Marthage said that Howley didn’t want the information about his PTSD to become public, since he views it as a weakness. “He’s very concerned about the stigma attached to it,” Marthage said, while noting he had told Howley it was “nothing to be ashamed of.”
Marthage said that Howley has applied for disability payments. But because he has refused to seek other employment since he feels unable to hold a job because of the PTSD, he has been refused disability.
Suntag is a longtime stickler for not accepting “no contest” pleas, and he told the two attorneys that even if Howley didn’t remember the events, he needed to take responsibility for them — on the record.
Marthage said that Howley has read the evidence against him, and listened to recordings from the state police cruisers, as well as a video, and he doesn’t contest what happened.
But Marthage said he was “very concerned” about Howley pleading guilty, or admitting to attacking Pike and Ellison, given the threat of the civil lawsuit, which is also expected to name the state.
Levine said he hadn’t seen the lawsuit, although he knew it was coming. He said that both Ellison and Pike supported the plea agreement, and that any “restitution” would come via the civil lawsuit.
After a long back and forth, Suntag told the two attorneys he didn’t have to accept a no contest plea, noting it was a “case of violence.”
Suntag said he needed some time to think about it. About 30 minutes later, Suntag, the two attorneys and Howley went into the judge’s chambers, and there they stayed for 40 minutes.
Afterwards, the two attorneys came back into the courtroom, grabbed their coats, and headed for the door.
Levine said that there no longer was a plea agreement. “Not as of this moment,” and he said the case was “set for a future status conference.”