Vt. man accused of deceiving hemp farmers pleads not guilty
A man accused of backing out on his promise to buy hemp was in court on Thursday. We first told you about Douglas Bell last week. Police say he wrote checks to farmers but those checks bounced. Some crops were left to die unharvested. Our Olivia Lyons reports on what kind of case the state is building.
Douglas Bell, 57, of Middlesex, faces two charges so far. The state expects to file more counts, and farmers who dealt with Bell and his company CBD Vermont continue to come forward.
Bell pleaded not guilty Thursday afternoon. He is charged with theft of services for writing bad checks and false pretenses.
The state argues, at some point, Bell knew he could no longer follow through with his end of the contract but continued to deceive his farmers.
"When it becomes a pattern or scheme that is defrauding an entire class of individuals, we have an obligation to take it seriously and decide whether or not that conduct does cross the line from being just a civil breach to actually being a crime," Washington County State's Attorney Rory Thibault said.
But Vermont Superior Court Judge Mary Morrissey isn't so sure. She says the state must prove Bell entered those contracts with an intent to do wrong.
"Mr. Bell entered into the contract, as did the farmers-- at least based on the evidence that is in the affidavits-- in good faith. Things took a turn for the worse and Mr. Bell did not, according to the paperwork, complete his end of things. But again, where that break of contract turns into criminal liability is a real question," Judge Morrissey said.
In one case, a farm entered into a $50,000 contract with Bell's company, CBD Vermont.
So far, Bell faces charges in connection with two farms but there are at least another dozen farms who say they weren't paid by Bell either.
Because Vermont has never seen a theft of services case of this magnitude, the court must determine which steps to take next.
"What is the scope of theft of services? So, I think that's something we have to resolve first. Whether we continue proceedings at the trial court level or whether we look at an appeal to allow for the Supreme Court to weigh in, in terms of how that statue should be interpreted and what its scope is," Thibault said.
Bell's attorney claims he is not a flight risk. He has a daughter who lives in Burlington. He also owns land in Vermont and has business ties to the community. But the judge still ordered him held on $100,000 bail.