UPDATED Friday, 5:30 p.m.
MIDDLEBURY — After a six-hour standoff, a Middlebury man with a history of threatening others died on Thursday evening during a firefight with local police in the woods off Case Street.
George Demarais, 57, died after he allegedly goaded authorities to shoot him.
Police Chief Tom Hanley on Friday morning said the investigation of the incident had been turned over to the Addison County State’s Attorney’s Office and the Vermont State Police, who will determine whether Demarais was killed by police fire or by a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
It was at noon on Oct. 4 that Demarais, who lived alone in a home at 5454 Case St., called Middlebury police to say, according to Hanley, that he “wanted to die via suicide by cop,” and that he would be in the woods 150 yards behind his home. It is a home that municipal records show was subject to a tax lien. Demarais had recently been notified that he needed to pay an outstanding property tax bill of $7,817.71 by Oct. 7 or face losing his property, according to town records.
Hanley, during a Friday morning press conference, said his department quickly mobilized to the scene while doing some research on Demarais. That research, according to Hanley, revealed that Demarais had been arrested previously for a drunken driving offense that included his referral for mental health counseling after he allegedly threatened to kill someone.
“The background showed that there were some significant issues with this person, that he had been threatening to kill other people, kill himself, over a period of time,” Hanley said. “He seemed to be fairly dangerous at this point.”
Middlebury police ultimately deployed eight officers to the scene, some of whom tried to defuse the situation by talking to Demarais. But Hanley said the man refused to speak on the phone and did not respond to verbal commands from police at the scene. His communication, according to Hanley, was limited to what appeared to be a will taped to his door and a note taped to his vehicle that read, “Come and get me, I hope you can shoot straight because I can.”
Hanley said that Demarais — dressed in a bright yellow raincoat — emerged from his house later that afternoon carrying a long rifle. He ignored a police order to drop the rifle and instead proceeded to a wooded area behind his home, to a crude, barricaded area that he had apparently fashioned himself out of some logs and boulders. Demarais had also stashed a variety of rifles, ammunition, food and a helmet in his makeshift bunker, according to Hanley.
“Clearly, these things had been in place before police arrived,” Hanley said. “He was apparently there prepared for a lengthy standoff.”
A standoff ensued between police and an uncooperative Demarais, according to Hanley. That standoff came to an explosive end at around 6:15 p.m., when Demarais allegedly opened fired on police, who in turn returned fire, Hanley said. The ensuing firefight lasted 30 to 40 minutes and culminated in Demarais’s death.
“He wanted to engage police in a firefight,” Hanley said. “He did engage police in a firefight. He started it and did not stop until he received an injury that incapacitated him.”
Four Middlebury police officers participated in the firefight, according to Hanley. All have been assigned administrative duties pending the VSP investigation.
State police were combing the scene on Friday morning to determine, among other things, how many shots were fired during the incident. Hanley said he could not provide details on how many times Demarais was hit and whether the round(s) were fired by police, who were equipped with body armor and M16 rifles. Miraculously, no officers were hurt during a firefight that took place in close quarters, at dusk, under dense foliage, with a prevailing mist, and with Demarais holding the advantage of an elevated field position, Hanley noted.
“The effort was to deal with this person right away,” Hanley said. “Calling in a tactical support team would have taken many, many hours. We were starting to lose daylight, fast. By 5:30 p.m., it was dark in the woods. The situation couldn’t wait overnight.”
The state’s medical examiner will be asked to determine the details of whose bullet(s) ended Demarais’s life.
State police assisted Middlebury police in temporarily shutting down Route 116 (known as Case Street during its stretch in Middlebury) between Quarry Road and Cobble Road during the incident. Around four area homes were evacuated during the incident, including that of Leo Lessor Jr. Lessor got home from work at 3:45 p.m. on Thursday and received an immediate call from a police officer informing him he needed to leave immediately.
He complied without hesitation and was not able to return home until around 4:20 a.m. on Friday.
Lessor recalled Demarais as a “grumpy, not very sociable individual.” He said Demarais did not return his neighborly waves and did not seem inclined to strike up a friendship. He remembered giving Demarais some mail that had been mistakenly placed in his mailbox and “didn’t even get a thank you.”
Travis Forbes and his family knew Demarais and had struck up an agreement to use some of his property on which to do some maple sugaring. He thought Demarais had moved into the home five or six years ago.
“He seemed to keep to himself,” said Forbes, a town selectman. “We never saw him outside much.”
Forbes added that Demarais was “always decent; we never had any trouble with him.” The Forbes family was aware that Demarais was unemployed and in a difficult financial situation.
“We tried to give him some help to straighten it out,” Forbes said, but Demarais had declined. Forbes believes Demarais had an ex-wife and a son.
“We feel very unfortunate it went down this way,” Forbes said. “It is a tough situation the way the world is; I guess he couldn’t see his way through.”
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.