NORTHFIELD — The Washington County State’s Attorney says he was not made aware of two crashes involving a Northfield officer over a four-month span, one of which destroyed a police cruiser and another in which a co-worker smelled alcohol.
For the cruiser crash, according to the town, Officer Christopher Hoar was driving on Union Brook Road at about 6:30 p.m. Nov. 28 when the 2017 police cruiser he was driving crashed. No other vehicles were involved and no other property was damaged. Hoar suffered minor injuries. The town recently bought a new cruiser for $34,000 to replace the totaled one, according to minutes from the Select Board’s Jan. 28 meeting. The town received about $18,000 from insurance to replace the cruiser.
According to the crash report involving the cruiser, obtained by The Times Argus through a public records request, Berlin Officer David Rhoden responded to the crash. Rhoden said in his report Hoar told him he was speeding and took his eyes off the road when he drove off the roadway and hit a retaining wall. The report didn’t say what Hoar was distracted by.
According to a crash report obtained by The Times Argus from the Department of Motor Vehicles, Hoar crashed and heavily damaged his personal vehicle in August. Northfield Officer Levi S. Willey, who had been recently hired by the department in June, wrote the report about the crash and noted he smelled alcohol on his co-worker. He said in the report he didn’t ask Hoar to provided a breath sample or conduct field sobriety tests because he didn’t see any signs of impairment from Hoar. Willey said in the report he did not turn on his body camera, though he didn’t say why. He reported Hoar told him to treat the crash as non-reportable, so photos weren’t taken of the scene. It’s unclear why Willey was taking direction from a driver involved in a crash or why Northfield police conducted their own investigation involving an off-duty officer where criminal conduct may have occurred. Town officials won’t talk about the crashes because they say they are still under investigation.
Willey said in his report Hoar called Officer Brian Gosselin directly, who was also on duty, to tell him about the crash. He didn’t say why Hoar didn’t call 911 to report the crash.
The Times Argus learned through public records requests the town has hired private investigator Daniel K. Troidl, a retired Vermont State Police detective who now operates a private investigation firm out of South Hero, to help with the investigations. The Times Argus recently learned Police Chief John Helfant sent Troidl a list of rules and regulations, as well as policies and procedures from the department that may be relevant to the investigation. They included neglect of duty, ethics, reporting of violations of law, use of body cameras, falsifying reports, obedience to laws and how to handle motor vehicle accidents.
State’s Attorney Rory Thibault said in a Thursday email he has not been provided any information about either crash from Northfield Town Manager Jeff Schulz or Helfant. Thibault said he did talk with Berlin Police Chief William Wolfe after the Times Argus reported the cruiser crash and said the chief was “helpful and cooperative with my questions.”
Thibault said based on what’s been reported, “an independent and detached review is necessary and appropriate: The response by the Northfield Police Department to the incidents and the underlying conduct of Officer Hoar should be scrutinized. I cannot recall another instance in my tenure where a department has investigated a case where one of its own officers is the subject or alleged victim in an investigation.
“It is a best practice to utilize a neutral and detached investigator to ensure an impartial inquiry, and critically, to avoid the appearance of impropriety. Public faith and confidence in law enforcement is critical, and that confidence is tested when there is an actual or perceived basis for bias or preferential treatment.”
Helfant is currently under his own investigation, which Thibault asked for over a year ago. The investigation was prompted by allegations that Helfant lied in affidavits for drug cases while Helfant was an officer in Berlin. The attorney general’s office said Feb. 6 that investigation is expected to be completed shortly. Helfant has denied those allegations. Two drug cases have since been dismissed because of the allegations.
Thibault said in the email Thursday he was pleased to learn Troidl was investigating Hoar’s crashes.
“I have reviewed his work into other departments’ internal affairs issues, and believe his reports are thorough and impartial,” he said.
Thibault said he recommended to Schulz that either Troidl or another investigator conduct an internal investigation into the allegations against Helfant.
“To my knowledge, such investigation was not initiated, although that action may have been deferred in deference to the findings of the Attorney General’s review into Chief Helfant,” he said.
Thibault declined to comment on whether Hoar’s reported conduct rose to the level of a criminal investigation, pending an ability to review the internal investigation by Troidl.
“Additional information may trigger a request for review for criminal charges by another agency,” he said.