BURLINGTON — Defense witnesses on Friday began to sketch a portrait of a Williston man facing second-degree murder charges as somebody depressed over financial insecurity, displeasure at work, and a stressful family situation.
Lawyers for Steven D. Bourgoin, 38, maintain their client was insane when he killed five Central Vermont teens by driving his speeding truck in the wrong direction and slamming into their Volkswagen on Interstate 89 in Williston on Oct. 8, 2016.
Bourgoin’s former fiancé, Anila Lawrence, of Williston, was the first defense witness and talked about their eight-year relationship. It appeared to hit rock bottom on May 12, 2016. She said Bourgoin threatened to drive her, their daughter and himself into a South Burlington pond to end their lives.
“We can all just die in the pond,” she quoted him as saying. He had been driving erratically that day as they drove through Williston, Essex and South Burlington, she said.
Lawrence said that was when she agreed to 50-50 custody of their daughter “so we could just go home.” Bourgoin had been allowed one hour of supervised visitation each Saturday morning at Essex gymnastics.
It was in sharp contrast to his behavior early in their relationship. She termed their relationship as “good” between 2008 and 2013. They bought a condo in Williston in 2010 and went on trips to Mexico, the Bahamas, California and Jamaica.
Lawrence said she learned in June 2013 that she was pregnant on the same day Bourgoin was on his way home to ask her to marry him. Bourgoin was initially happy, especially when he learned it would be a daughter.
She would be the first granddaughter on his side of the family.
“His mother always wanted one,” Lawrence said. But soon things went downhill due to family, work and tight finances. “It got a little tricky.”
During their time together, Bourgoin went through a series of jobs at a Toyota dealership, later at Blodgett Supply, as a stay-at-home dad, and at Lake Champlain Chocolates in Williston. Lawrence said he was depressed, talked more on the phone, and stayed up late at night to spend time on the Internet. Bourgoin also began to have intense mood swings — something Lawrence said she had never seen before.
He got more angry about money issues and shutoff notices from utilities, she said.
Bourgoin also was using marijuana, but had stopped drinking, Lawrence told the court.
Bourgoin has pleaded not guilty to the five second-degree murder charges and two misdemeanor motor vehicle counts. Those counts center on him taking a Williston Police cruiser and crashing into his truck and other vehicles at the initial crash scene.
Authorities said when Bourgoin crashed, he had multiple drugs in his system.
Lawrence said the talked about having two weddings — one in Massachusetts, where his grandmother lived, and one in Vermont.
The wedding in Vermont was planned for The Ponds at Bolton Valley, but Bourgoin one day said that he suddenly did not want to have anybody in the wedding party, she said. They called their friends that were expected to be bridesmaids and ushers and told them they were out.
Defense lawyer Robert Katims asked about two domestic abuse cases that led to Bourgoin’s arrest in Massachusetts and later in Williston in May 2016.
Lawrence also acknowledged that Bourgoin acted strange, including the day he took her for a ride to Alburgh to show her the abandoned missile silo that the military used to maintain.
Katims had said in his opening statement that Bourgoin thought he was on a “government mission.”
Lawrence kept her head down throughout her testimony and her long hair covered most of her face. She walked into the courtroom with the hood up on her rain jacket. Lawrence never looked at Bourgoin during her testimony. During bench conferences between the judge and lawyers, Lawrence spun her chair to the left, leaving her back to face Bourgoin.
Also called to the witness stand was Shannon Roberto of St. Michael’s College Rescue to talk about Bourgoin’s demeanor at the crash site. Roberto testified, “The patient was in and out of responsiveness.”
Roberto, an emergency medical technician, also testified Bourgoin appeared confused and disoriented. Bourgoin asked where he was and where he was going, she said. She said she sat next to him in the back of the St. Michael’s College ambulance that eventually took Bourgoin to a Burlington hospital where he was admitted.
Bourgoin also apparently thought Roberto was somebody he knew as having a different hair color and children. Roberto, a college senior, said she had never met Bourgoin.
Also testifying was a former co-worker and neighbor, Alen Sosabic, of Williston. He also allowed Bourgoin to live with his family while Lawrence was living with her parents in Colchester.
Sosabic said the two men talked about Bourgoin’s financial troubles and job issues because they had worked together at two places. He said Bourgoin paced around the house and at one point made a false claim that Sosabic was talking about Bourgoin behind his back.
The day of the crash, Bourgoin showed up at Sosabic’s residence about 4 a.m. and asked if Lawrence was there, he said. She wasn’t, but he invited Bourgoin in and they talked again about his ongoing personal problems.
Sosabic said at one point he suggested Bourgoin take a job at a McDonald’s restaurant to avoid job stress.
Hinesburg Police Chief Frank Koss also testified briefly so the video from his body camera could be introduced as evidence. For the most part, Bourgoin was motionless, but at times he did squirm.
The two sides also stipulated dash cam video from the cruiser operated by South Burlington Police Officer Michael DeFiore the night of the crash could be used as evidence. As DeFiore escorts one of the women injured in the second crash, she is overheard shouting vulgar names at Bourgoin as he is attended to by medical personnel in the grassy median.
With the state resting its case at the end of Thursday, the defense began Friday with the traditional motion seeking dismissal of the murder charges on grounds the state failed to prove its case. Katims said the state failed to show any intent on the part of Bourgoin.
“There is a vacuum,” Katims said about not showing any intent.
He noted that not everybody driving the wrong way on the interstate has the intent to kill people. Katims noted earlier police testimony about other drivers entering the interstate at an exit have no bad intent. Those drivers are often elderly, got going in the wrong direction, or are from another country.
Katims said the state might be able to show a lesser offense — manslaughter — was possible.
State’s Attorney Sarah George said Bourgoin made a three-point turn in the southbound lane before driving north. She said drivers honked and flashed lights, but he ignored their warnings. George said the state also was under no obligation to show a motive.
Judge Kevin Griffin said under court rules he had to decide the arguments based on the evidence most favorable to the state. He said he thought willful wanton disregard had been shown.
On Monday, the first of two psychiatrists that found Bourgoin insane at the time of the crash is expected to testify.
Next week, a small group of what may be Rutland County’s future engineers will fly out west to test their problem-solving, physics and current events knowledge against 70 teams from around the world.
The Rutland Robo-Rattlers robotics club placed second and the Robo-Rhinos placed third in the FIRST Lego League robotics state competition at Norwich University in December — the Rhinos’ first competition — and will be bringing some Vermont ingenuity to the Legoland International Invitational tournament, May 17-19 in San Diego, California.
The FIRST Lego League is an international robotics program for students age 9 to 14 to learn, build, present and compete in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) focused program.
The name of the game is Lego robots, and this year’s theme is Space.
“They’ve got two minutes and 30 seconds to do as much as possible,” said Rutland Area Robotics coach Scott McCalla.
Each of the teams began preparing for their challenge in August, having been tasked with building a robot that can complete as many tasks as it can in a short period of time, from moving objects and placing them in boxes to releasing a hammer that triggers a launching mechanism, sending a shuttle up a shaft.
The robots don’t have to be built to certain specifications, but they can be only so big and must be powered by a small engine called a Brick, using software to plan a course.
“We use some fairly complex programming to determine what angle the robot is at, so we can make really precise turns,” Emelia said.
The key, the Rattlers agreed, was to create a multi-tasking robot that could complete several activities during a single mission.
After completely tearing apart their model more than halfway through their months of preparation, the Rattlers created their second “Python” robot, capable of activating a lever that released a sledgehammer-type arm. It was equipped with different hooks for its various attachments, and moved blue targets that represented meteors around the table-top field at a precise velocity.
The Rhinos created Spiker MK 2, a wheeled robot that picks up objects and places them in different containers, races over gates and moves small coins from holding bins.
Spiker MK 1 died earlier this year, Robo-Rhino team member Royal Wood said.
The teams must complete three components of the competition: the robot challenge, an on-the-spot core values test, and a world problem-solving presentation.
For the Robo-Rattlers, team member Emelia McCalla said they were targeting the high levels of radiation experienced by astronauts while in space.
“Right now, we’re doing nutrition,” McCalla said. “When they’re getting all of this radiation, it makes them really sick. So, we have figured out certain nutrients will help protect you against radiation.”
McCalla and her teammates found a lot of the vitamins and compounds in dark, leafy greens, the antioxidants in berries, and resistant starch in potatoes helped to aid ailing astronauts.
Meanwhile, the Robo-Rhinos were keeping their horns to the grindstone researching how to implement global positioning satellites for space travel.
“If you were traveling to Mars, you would be outside of our atmosphere. ... What would you do to navigate?” Scott McCalla said.
Emelia McCalla said the team decided to flip the beams of light off of pulsars, a type of star, to generate intergalactic space travel trackers.
Finally, the core values challenge is a quick-thinking, on-the-spot challenge posed to each of the teams, who then have several minutes to come up with a collective solution.
“We had these beads that we had to arrange in a way that explained what our team was about,” Emelia said of a previous core challenge. “It sounds simple, but it’s a very complicated series of steps to make sure your teamwork comes through.”
The Robo-Rattlers got their start six years ago after a circuitry camp over the summer left the students and parents wanting more.
“I don’t think we knew what we were getting into,” Emelia McCalla said.
Food insecurity affects children at a higher rate than other groups, according to a study being highlighted by a statewide charitable food distributor.
According to the 2019 Map the Meal Gap report, put together by Feeding America, 15.9% of children in Vermont are food insecure, compared to 11.9% of Vermonters in general.
“One of the big complicating factors is Vermont families on the brink of balancing their monthly budgets have competing expenses,” said Nicole Whalen, director of communications and public affairs for Vermont Foodbank, on Friday. When families have to pick between buying food, paying rent or meeting other financial obligations, they often make do with less food.
Vermont Foodbank is a statewide nonprofit dedicated to hunger relief efforts. It distributes food to a network of food shelves, meal sites, and similar places where charitable food supplies are available.
Feeding America is a national nonprofit with similar goals.
Whalen said Feeding America has released the Map the Meal Gap report annual for the past several years. She said the level of child food insecurity has been flat for much of that time, with some slight dips here and there, but the rate has yet to dip below pre-recession levels.
According to Whalen, the study shows the overall food insecurity rate in Rutland County is 11.7%. Among Rutland County’s children, however, it’s 16%. Washington County has an overall rate of 11.3% and a child rate of 16.5%.
In all counties, she said, the child rate is higher than the general rate. The general rate ranges from a low of 9.6% in Grand Isle County, to a high of 13.1% in Essex County.
About 40% of the state’s food insecure people don’t qualify for federal assistance programs. Many of them turn to food shelves and the like, Whalen said.
Tom Donahue, chief executive officer of BROC Community Action, said between Oct. 1 and March 31 BROC’s food shelf served about 1,036 people per month. Of that, 29% were under the age of 18.
Whalen said not getting proper nutrition is a problem for anyone, but with children it can affect their development and fuel cycles of generational poverty.
The Vermont Foodbank is advocating for “Child Nutrition Reauthorization legislation,” a bill encompassing a number of food security programs.
Kathryne Toomajian, a senior adviser for U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said Friday said the last Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill passed in 2010 and expired in 2015. Its programs, however, are permanently funded.
She said the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry is expected to take the issue up at some point this year, but an exact timeline hasn’t been set at this point. It’s generally a bipartisan effort, she said.
Lincoln Peek, a spokesman for U.S. House Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said it’s expected the matter will reach the House this year.
The Map the Meal Gap report is put together using information from federal sources such as the Department of Agriculture, Census Bureau, and Bureau of Labor Statistics, in addition to Nielsen Holdings, a New York-based information company, according to a release from Vermont Foodbank.
An interactive map and the full report can be viewed at https://map.feedingamerica.org/.
The report is supported by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, which, according to its website, is a, “private family foundation working to improve the standard of living and quality of life for the world’s most impoverished and marginalized populations.”
It also gets supported by the Conagra Brands Foundation, which is tied to Conagra Brands, a Chicago-based food company.
MONTPELIER — The Vermont Supreme Court has rejected convicted murderer Jody Herring’s appeal of her sentence of life in prison without parole.
Herring, 43, was sentenced in November 2017 for killing Department for Children and Families worker Lara Sobel, 48, and three relatives — cousins Rhonda Herring, 48, Regina Herring, 43, and her aunt, Julie Falzarano, 73. Herring killed Sobel outside the DCF offices at Barre City Place on Aug. 7, 2015. Police said she killed her family members at a Berlin farmhouse earlier that day, although their bodies were not discovered until the next day.
She pleaded guilty to four counts of murder in July 2017.
Because Herring was given a life sentence, state law requires the case be appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court.
She was represented by Joshua O’Hara out of the Defender General’s office. O’Hara argued Judge John Pacht, who sentenced Herring, abused his discretion because he used Herring’s history of trauma against her instead of using it as a mitigating factor against a life sentence.
O’Hara argued that Pacht concluded, erroneously, that Herring would be released without rehabilitation if she were allowed parole. He said when someone has the ability to get parole, whether they are rehabilitated is taken into consideration.
The state was represented by Solicitor General Benjamin Battles out of the Attorney General’s office. Battles argued that Pacht wasn’t required to weigh Herring’s past more heavily than the other evidence considered in the case, including the evidence that suggested Herring’s prospects for treatment were “dim.”
Battles argued Pacht also did not sentence Herring with the thought that she would be released on parole without treatment.
The two sides made their cases via oral argument in February. The state Supreme Court released its decision Friday siding with the state.
The court said Pacht did take Herring’s history, and the subsequent anxiety disorder that resulted from it, into account when he sentenced her, but in his sentencing remarks he did not find it was the primary cause for her to commit the murders. It said rage appeared to be the motivating factor in the killings. The court said Pacht did not abuse his discretion.
“Finally, to the extent that the court took defendant’s anxiety-related mistrust of others — and the resulting likelihood that she might resist treatment — into account in sentencing her to life imprisonment without parole, this was a legitimate consideration because of its link to the prospective safety of the community,” the Supreme Court wrote.
It added later on in the decision that risk to public safety is something a court is required to consider when sentencing someone.
The court said Pacht did not hold Herring’s past against her and did appear to use it as a mitigating circumstance like O’Hara wanted.
As for the rehabilitation piece, the court said Pacht was clear when he explained he gave Herring the life sentence without parole based on “the magnitude of the crime,” not on whether Herring would be receptive to treatment.
“The court repeatedly emphasized the nature of the crime, and the effects it had on the victims’ families and friends, and on the safety and well-being of DCF workers,” the Supreme Court wrote.
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