Sex assualt investigator back on job

MIDDLEBURY — An Addison County investigator of sex crimes against children is now back at work after a two-week hiatus, which began late last month after Addison County Sheriff Peter Newton decided to drop the state-funded post from his department due to its cost and what he said was a decline in cases.

But local advocates for the Addison County Unit for Special Investigations (ACUSI) detective’s position took issue with Newton’s statistics and said there’s plenty of work to keep the position busy.

The investigator in question, Det. Lt. Ruth Whitney, will now fall under the jurisdiction of the Middlebury Police Department after having been under the management umbrella of the Addison County Sheriff’s department since the post was created more than six years ago.

“We had learned her position had ended with the sheriff’s department and there was a concern among some of the partners in ACUSI that (Whitney) was not continuing,” Middlebury Police Chief Hanley said. “She’s got a good reputation with them. So we looked into a resolution.”

It was on May 26, 2006, that then-Gov. James Douglas of Middlebury signed a law calling for “Special Investigative Units,” or SIUs, to be established in counties throughout the state by 2009. The rationale: Help police agencies bring to justice the perpetrators of sex and/or assault crimes against children and adults.

Addison County was the last region in Vermont to organize its unit for special investigations, hiring Whitney in early 2013. The ACUSI functions as a nonprofit corporation with a board of directors responsible for operation of the unit. That 11-member board includes the chiefs of the Vergennes, Middlebury and Bristol Police Departments; Newton; Addison County State’s Attorney Dennis Wygmans; and representatives of several area nonprofits, such as WomenSafe, which represents victims of domestic and sexual abuse.

Fred Saar is executive director of ACUSI. He recalled Whitney was one of three candidates for the ACUSI job in 2013.

“We had found a jewel,” he said of Whitney.

Whitney primarily investigates cases in Bristol and Vergennes, though she has also occasionally helped Middlebury and Vermont State Police investigators with their cases. For example, Whitney assisted Middlebury Police Det. Kris Bowdish in the investigation of Roger Schmidt, who had been accused of taking videos of women while they were undressed at his Middlebury massage business.

Whitney has been a full-time, certified law enforcement officer since 1984. Her past employers have included Middlebury Police and the VSP.

Detectives who investigate child abuse and adult sexual assault cases have specialized training that is continuously updated, Whitney noted. At a minimum, a detective must attend the National Children’s Advocacy Center Child Forensic Interview Course, offered yearly in Vermont.  Investigators are also periodically required to critique each other’s interviews to learn best practices.

Addison County has been receiving a $60,000 grant each year through the state budget to fund ACUSI. One of the grant stipulations is that the investigator must be aligned with a police department or the local sheriff’s department. That host department is reimbursed for the investigator’s salary.

Then-Addison County Sheriff Don Keeler agreed to take on the contract and accommodate ACUSI in around 1,300 square feet of rented space within his department’s headquarters on Court Street in Middlebury.

“I think all the chiefs in Addison County would like to host the position; the problem is, $60,000 doesn’t cover all the expenses,” Saar said, noting in particular the needed police vehicle.

“And there’s not a lot of money lying around,” he added.

Newton, who succeeded Keeler last March, told the Independent late last month that Whitney had retired. And during an interview last week about his first months on the job, he said he hoped to train another one of his employees to take on the investigator’s role.

But in a press release issued Monday, Newton said he was dropping the post, which he said was costing his department an additional $15,000 annually and was dealing with cases mainly in Bristol and Vergennes.

Newton claimed ACUSI cases have been on the decline, citing a total of 43 cases during fiscal year 2019 that he said culminated in three arrests. He described the cases as including seven simple assaults, 12 agency assists, one background investigation, one computer crime, three cases of cruelty to a child, three lewd and lascivious conduct allegations and 14 sexual assaults.

“Given this data relative to the costs associated with the position, the sheriff has concluded the department and the county could better be served with a part-time investigator or some sort of on-call position,” Newton stated in his release.

“The sheriff’s department has evaluated the efficacy of this position and feels it will be better to have one of the other three police departments (Middlebury, Vergennes, or Bristol) pay the additional costs associated with the position.”

Whitney acknowledged she had planned to retire in June of 2020. Her early retirement came as a surprise to Hanley and others in the law enforcement community. She provided the following emailed explanation of the end of her relationship with the sheriff’s department:

“The separation was mutually agreeable and I look forward to continue helping the victims of child abuse and sexual assault seek justice and working with the other detectives and partner agencies.”

Saar placed the number of annual ACUSI investigations at around 90. Not all of these cases require comprehensive investigations that result in prosecution, however. Some cases might involve a report of a child being spanked in a store, or someone suspecting they were watched in the shower, Saar noted.

“They all need looking at,” Saar said of the allegations the office receives. “If someone hits their kid in a store, what are they doing (to the child) at home? Sometimes, nothing. Those cases go quick.”

Whitney said it’s difficult to estimate the number of cases she fields each year.

“There have been times when I have investigated upwards of 100 cases in a year,” she said. “These investigations are extremely complex and time consuming and can take weeks, and sometimes months... ”

Some investigations require her to travel outside of the county and state, to execute multiple search warrants, and interview many witnesses. When she’s done her work, she refers all of her cases to the Addison County State’s Attorney’s Office for review and a recommendation on whether any criminal charges should be filed.

“A large majority of the cases involve juvenile offenders that don’t result in an “arrest,” as all juvenile matters are confidential,” she said.

“Success is not measured by the number of arrests, but how to best serve the victims and their families,” she said.

George Merkel is chief of the Vergennes Police Department and a member of the ACUSI board. He said the ACUSI post has “been a very important position for all of Addison County.”

Merkel noted the nature of the ACUSI detective’s work — dealing with difficult cases with young victims — can be very challenging and emotionally draining.

“You deal with things that are sometimes very difficult to deal with, and you have to stay objective and focused,” Merkel said. “It takes a real knack to develop trust and a relationship with the victims and the other people involved, including the accused.

“It takes a very special person to do this kind of work,” he added. “It’s not the kind of thing where you can throw someone in a position and say, ‘Now you’re going to investigate these kinds of crimes.’ You need to have some job knowledge and training.”

Merkel said he believes the county is getting more than its money’s worth from the ACUSI position.

“The job that Ruth does saves local municipalities countless hours of work, not only the investigatory part of it, but also if it goes to court, working with WomenSafe, working with the Vermont Department for Children & Families,” he said. “It’s invaluable. You can’t put a price tag on it.”

Hanley agreed. And while the ACUSI detective works mostly on cases outside his department’s jurisdiction, he saw the value to the greater community of maintaining the post. So when it became clear last month that neither Vergennes nor Bristol police were going to be able to absorb the position within their respective departments, Hanley offered to see what Middlebury could do.

He was able to get the police union to sign off. He then secured Middlebury Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay’s permission — on the condition the police department’s oversight of the post doesn’t cost Middlebury taxpayers any money. Middlebury’s fiscal year 2020 police budget has no room for an extra employee, let alone one that focuses on matters outside of the county’s shire town.

“All sides were happy with the agreement and saw it as a ‘win-win,’” he said of Middlebury preserving the ACUSI post.

So Whitney will serve through next June, or until the $60,000 in grant money runs out. Hanley is working on getting Whitney a car. She will continue to work out of the rented space in the sheriff’s department.

“It will be business as usual,” Hanley said.

The ACUSI board is proactively preparing for life without Whitney when she retires next June. A committee is preparing to launch a search for a new detective. And at the same time, Hanley said the state must rethink the way it funds its units for special investigations.

“For long term sustainability, we should not be relying on a hand-out from the state,” Hanley said. “The annual grant is static. The investigator’s pay, which is sub-standard — less than an entry-level untrained police officer’s pay — contains no benefits, yet the investigator must have significant experience in the field and must exhibit a high level of expertise to meet the standard of service set forth in statute.”

Now’s the right time, according to Hanley, for state and local officials to “re-examine the program and develop a long-term way to fund and staff this to meet the expectation of the Legislature.”

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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