Former trooper gets suspended sentence for double assaults
By Susan Smallheer
Staff Writer | February 20,2013
BRATTLEBORO — A former Vermont State Police trooper received a suspended sentence of six to 12 months after he pleaded no contest Tuesday to charges that while on duty he assaulted two men who used his canoe without permission last year.
Eric J. Howley, 40, of Wilmington is suffering from long-standing post-traumatic stress disorder, triggered in part by his service during Tropical Storm Irene, his longtime psychologist testified Tuesday.
During the storm the former trooper was assigned to the case of a woman swept away by the raging Deerfield River in Wilmington.
Howley’s home was also destroyed during Irene, said therapist David Mellinger, who said he first diagnosed Howley with PTSD in 2006.
The assaults, which took place at Lake Raponda in Wilmington on Easter Sunday, came almost eight months after Irene, which devastated Wilmington and other areas of southern Vermont.
Another trooper, who was there with Howley, was unable to stop him from assaulting the two men. Howley had reported his canoe as stolen to Wilmington police earlier that day.
The confrontational nature of the incident over the canoe triggered the PTSD, and Howley has no memory of assaulting the two men, his therapist said.
The April 8, 2012 incident wasn’t the first time Howley was involved in allegations of excessive use of force. In September 2005, Howley was one of two troopers and two other officers responding to an incident with a drunken guest at a wedding reception in Arlington. The man ended up with a concussion, a fractured sinus and five broken teeth.
While Howley and other officers were never charged in that case, the state settled a lawsuit with the victim in the Arlington case for $135,000, and Howley remained on the force.
Judge David Suntag said in sentencing Howley on Tuesday that the ex-trooper had injured every Vermont police officer by his actions, and he urged him to speak with other fellow officers about the dangers of not addressing post-traumatic stress disorder.
The judge said the case deserved “a greater level of scrutiny,” and said he was concerned about the “public perception” of the case.
“This affects every police officer in the state,” Suntag said.
As a condition of the plea agreement, Howley agreed not to seek employment again as a police officer or security guard, and he will be on probation for an additional two years. Suntag also ordered him to continue mental health counseling.
Howley has applied for disability benefits as a result of the post-traumatic stress disorder.
Mellinger said Howley’s PTSD stemmed from events in Kuwait and Guantanamo Bay, where Howley served in the military police, as well as an incident in Texas. Mellinger never described the events and Howley’s attorney, Brian Marthage of Bennington, refused to as well.
Mellinger said Howley’s illness, which was never disclosed to the state police, was aggravated by Howley’s assignments as a trooper during Tropical Storm Irene. The woman who was swept away, Ivana Taseva, 20, of Macedonia, was later found drowned.
Howley, who appeared in court informally dressed instead of his usual suit and tie, didn’t take the stand Tuesday.
But he answered in a clear and steady voice to a long string of questions posed by Suntag about whether he understood the plea agreement, and whether he accepted the changes dictated by the judge.
He told the judge he “felt blessed” by the help he received from Mellinger and Dr. Aaron York, a psychiatrist with the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in White River Junction, where he recently started receiving treatment as well.
Suntag said that if someone had assaulted a police officer as Howley had injured the two men, it would likely have involved jail time.
Howley had been a member of the state police for 7½ years, he told the judge. Howley resigned last year after the incidents, but before he was charged with the assaults.
Howley entered the plea after protracted negotiations between his attorney and the Vermont attorney general’s office after Suntag said Tuesday he wanted a longer period of supervision for Howley and a provision that he not seek work as a police officer or security officer again.
Assistant Attorney General Matthew Levine told Suntag that the two men Howley admitted assaulting — Mark Ellison, 21, of West Wardsboro, and Anton Pike, 21, of Wilmington — supported the plea agreement.
Levine said the plea agreement meant the state could save the cost of a trial, as well as bringing one of the victims back to Vermont from Colorado, where he now lives. The attorney general’s office prosecuted the case, after a special investigation, because of a conflict with the Windham County state’s attorney’s office, which had worked with Howley in the past.
Levine had said Pike and Ellison have an attorney, and that both the state and Howley expect a lawsuit from the two men.
According to court records, Howley pushed Ellison down on the ground, where Ellison hit his head on a rock. He had to seek medical attention. Howley pushed Pike onto the hood of his cruiser.
Marthage said after the three-hour hearing that Howley never disclosed he had PTSD to state police.
“I think there’s a culture that you don’t reveal it,” said Marthage, who added that many police view PTSD as a “weakness.”