MIDDLEBURY — The Champlain Farms clerk in Vergennes who on Sept. 28 restrained a robber wielding a large knife was not responsible for her death during the incident, according to Addison County State’s Attorney David Fenster.
Fenster on Wednesday afternoon released the conclusions of his lengthy review of the circumstances surrounding the death of Yemalla Sprauve, 34, who attempted to rob the Main Street convenience store at 4 a.m. and was found unresponsive by police when they arrived.
Fenster and Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel on Wednesday afternoon made public at a press conference and in a press release for the first time many details of the struggle between Sprauve and the clerk, Dana Phillips, 52, of Vergennes.
In 2011, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner concluded that Sprauve died of cardiac arrhythmia while acutely intoxicated with cocaine during the struggle with Phillips while he held her down while waiting for help to arrive.
On Wednesday, Merkel said the struggle lasted about 15 minutes and began behind the store’s deli counter, where Phillips was making coffee, and ended near the store’s front entrance. That’s where Phillips — who Merkel described as about six feet tall and at least 200 pounds — restrained Sprauve until a customer arrived and called police at Phillips’ request.
The press release described details, many of them captured on videotape:
“Ms. Sprauve approached Mr. Phillips holding the knife out in front of her, pointing it at him, and said, ‘Gimme all your money or I’ll cut you.’ Ms. Sprauve lunged at Mr. Phillips, and he grabbed the knife by the blade. The two then began to struggle, knocking over display stands and a computer monitor. Mr. Phillips was eventually able to take the knife from Ms. Sprauve. During the course of the struggle, the two ended up wrestling on the ground and Mr. Phillips positioned himself on top of Ms. Sprauve.”
According to the press release, “Ms. Sprauve continued to struggle against Mr. Phillips as the police were being called to the scene,” but at some point Phillips “told one of the customers that Ms. Sprauve may have passed out and another call was made for an ambulance.”
Merkel confirmed on Wednesday that Sprauve, a former John Graham Shelter resident who had transitioned into a downtown apartment, was unresponsive when his officers arrived on the scene. He said Vergennes and Charlotte rescue personnel arrived shortly afterward.
Fenster said he concluded in his review of the Vergennes police investigation, as did the attorney generals’ office in a review of the case, that Phillips essentially acted in self-defense and in a reasonable manner.
“His actions were legally justified. There was nothing reckless about them. There was nothing intentional about them. For it to be a crime, he would have had to have acted either with some sort of culpable mental state, intended to hurt her or intended to kill her, or acted so recklessly that that happened, and also not acting in self-defense,” Fenster said.
“But in this case he only used as much force as was reasonably necessary under the circumstances to subdue her and restrain her until the police arrived.”
Fenster said it was not surprising that it took months for an investigation to conclude.
“It was a serious incident. It was important not only to the clerk of the store but to the family of the decedent,” he said. “I wanted to make sure it got the time and attention and thorough review it deserved. I also wanted to make sure the attorney general’s office had an opportunity to review it for a second opinion. They have a lot of experience with use-of-force cases.”
Wednesday’s legal conclusion does not preclude Sprauve’s family from filing a civil suit against the clerk or Champlain Farms, or both.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.