VERGENNES — The mortal remains of John Collette have been buried beneath a simple headstone in St. Peter’s Cemetery in Vergennes since soon after his death of a heart attack at age 46 on July 17, 1932.
But a fortuitous discovery by an amateur historian is allowing Vermonters to learn the rest of Collette’s story, a story that will allow him to have his name posthumously etched on a far more elaborate monument — the National Law Enforcement Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Research by historian Brian Lindner revealed that Collette was responding to a call as an Addison County Sheriff’s Department deputy when he collapsed in the Vergennes railroad station nearly 78 years ago. His sacrifice in the line of duty will be recognized — along with that of the late Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles inspector Robert Daniel Rossier, who crashed his motorcycle on a rain-slick road near Brattleboro while on patrol on Sept. 8, 1935 — at a special May 13 ceremony in Washington.
Though Collette did not lose his life amid a hail of bullets or in some sensational scuffle, his death in the line of duty left a large hole in his family’s collective heart and a big void in the Vergennes community, according to area newspaper accounts.
A very detailed account of the incident in the July 22, 1932, edition of the Vergennes Enterprise and Vermonter indicates that Deputy Collette was asked by the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles to go to the city rail station during the evening of July 17 to check a train for a hit-and-run suspect. That suspect — Raymond Porcheron of Bristol, Conn. — had fled the scene of an automobile accident on Shelburne Road the previous day.
Authorities suspected that Porcheron might be headed to Vergennes, where he once lived. Collette reported that he knew Porcheron, and indeed was quite familiar with many other people in the community. In addition to being a sheriff’s deputy, Collette was assistant station agent in Vergennes and ran a small I.G.A. grocery store next to what is currently Kennedy Brothers on North Main Street.
The train pulled into the station as scheduled and Collette, with his friend F. M. Dana, checked in and around the train cars. Dana eventually spotted a man trying to conceal himself in the shadows of the station’s freight house. Dana alerted Collette, who ordered the man (Porcheron) to come into the train station.
“The man obeyed and as they approached the station, Mr. Collette entered first, the man was following and his position was between Mr. Collette and Mr. Dana,” the newspaper account reads. “At the door the man stopped and hesitated. Just at this moment, Mr. Dana heard Mr. Collette fall violently.”
Dana found Collette lying face down near the station’s telephone booth, “the side of which he had struck as he fell,” according to the account. Collette’s face had by this point turned purple, and, ultimately, he died. Authorities determined that the stress of the fugitive case had caused Collette to suffer a heart attack. The deputy had shown symptoms of heart problems during the preceding months, state and local newspapers reported.
Meanwhile, Porcheron slipped away from the station during the confusion and made his way to Burlington, where he turned himself in to authorities the next day.
He was released on $200 bail after pleading not guilty to leaving the scene of an accident, according to the July 19 issue of the Rutland Daily Herald.
Collette left a wife and three children, who along with many other Vergennes citizens grieved the tragic loss of a dedicated father, public servant and merchant. With the I.G.A. store long gone and with Vergennes no longer having an active train station, Collette’s death seemed destined to become a footnote in the Little City’s history.
That is, until Brian Lindner happened upon some news clippings late last fall while researching an entirely different project on behalf of the Vermont State Police Museum and Archives Committee. Lindner had been looking up newspaper accounts of a dramatic police-fugitive showdown that occurred on Route 108 in Stowe in July of 1931. He poured through a lot of clips covering the early 1930s and became temporarily sidetracked by another headline: “Deputy Sheriff Dies During Arrest.”
He saw the name “John Collette,” a name he quickly learned was not featured on either the national or Vermont Law Enforcement Memorials.
“I spoke with the (Addison County) sheriff (James Coons), and he got a copy of the death certificate,” Lindner recalled. “He wanted to ensure his officer got credit.”
The National Law Enforcement Memorial bears the names of law enforcement officials who have died in the line of duty. More than 18,600 officers are currently carved into the two curving, 304-foot-long marble walls that form the monument.
Coons had to act quickly in order to have Collette’s name vetted for consideration for the national memorial. He received word of Collette’s candidacy last Dec. 18. The deadline for applications was Dec. 31. The new honorees are scheduled to be unveiled at the monument as part of a May 13 candlelight vigil.
“I thought, ‘We’d better get cracking,’” Coons recalled.
In addition to getting a copy of Collette’s death certificate, Coons reached out to some of the late deputy’s surviving family members, which include at least four grandchildren and at least one great-grandchild. Turns out that great-grandchild, Mike Collette, lives in the Vergennes area and had done some research of his own on his ancestor.
“He said, ‘I have some stuff, I’ll bring it down,’” Coons said of his initial conversation with Mike Collette.
They checked the Vergennes Historical Society, the Bixby Library and the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History for information on Deputy Collette. Unfortunately, the family’s archives only produced one rather poor quality photo of John Collette. Nonetheless, the researchers amassed enough information to complete the memorial application and submit it just before the deadline.
It was an exercise that saw Mike Collette learn some new things about his great-grandfather.
“I didn’t know he was a deputy sheriff until I talked to Sheriff Coons,” Collette said. “It was another twist in the story. It was really interesting.”
Coons and the Collettes were thrilled to learn that the late deputy’s application had been accepted and that he will be added to the national memorial.
“I’m pretty proud of him,” said Mike Collette, who said he probably won’t be able to attend the candlelight vigil, but will listen to the proceedings that will be streamed over the Internet.
Grandson Peter Collette was also pleased to hear his relative will finally get his due. Peter noted that his grandfather was not the only Collette to die early. John Collette’s son (and Peter’s father) Norbert drowned in Lake Champlain with two others in an ice fishing accident.
“They never found him,” Peter, 69, said of his dad.
Peter Collette never met his grandfather, but now has an extra reason to hold him in high esteem.
“We are extremely honored,” he said of the upcoming memorial inscription. “It is quite an honor, especially after all these years, for him to be recognized.”
John Collette is one of two Addison County sheriff’s deputies to lose his life in the line of duty. The other was Raymond Russell, who died on July 3, 1941, while trying to keep the peace during a milk strike.
“The farmers were concerned about not wanting to ship their milk and were obstructing the people who did and so the milk haulers had hired deputies to ride on the milk trucks,” Coons said.
Russell was riding on one of those trucks. Some striking farmers stopped the truck, jumped on it and started dumping the milk cans. Russell attempted to intercede, found himself pushed off the truck and died as a result of the fall.
Russell is already included on the national monument. Now Collette will join him.
“I think it’s fantastic that (Collette’s) ultimate sacrifice is finally being recognized and memorialized appropriately,” Coons said. “And if it wasn’t for the work of Bruce Lindner, who knows when — if ever — it would have been discovered. I think it is a true honor to (Collette), his family and the department.”
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.