Dropped high-profile insanity cases ripple through community
A day after Chittenden County's top prosecutor announced she was dropping three high-profile cases involving the insanity defense, the victims of those crimes are starting to speaking out. Our Cat Viglienzoni spoke with a man who has spent the last four years in recovery after he was nearly killed.
Darryl Montague says he's frustrated by the decision to dismiss the case against his shooter but the state's attorney says there was no other legal option.
"That's where my mother got to find me," said Montague, recalling the day in 2015 he nearly died. "She was just coming out to tell us lunch was ready... I guess I was still squirming but that part I don't remember real well."
Montague's life will never be the same. Not since that June day when the woman he was teaching at the firearms range across from his Westford home shot him three times.
"The first thing I remember afterwards was waking up with a whole lot of tubes and a whole lot of sounds and a whole lot of looking around in the hospital with all the views and wondering what happened," Montague said.
The hospital was where we first met him three and-a-half months after he was shot. "I lost track of the number of operations so far. I don't even want to think about it," he told WCAX that October. Doctors said it would be years before he was himself again.
Reporter Cat Viglienzoni: How has the recovery been?
Darryl Montague: Slow and painful, but we're getting there.
He's still got two bullets in his head. The damage is permanent. "I've got an eye that doesn't work, an ear that doesn't work, and half my head is still very numb," Montague said.
And getting justice has been an uphill battle. Montague's civil case against the residential care facility that held his attacker, Veronica Lewis, was dismissed. And then on Tuesday, the criminal charges against her were also dismissed. "I'm beyond frustrated. I've always been someone who's had a lot of faith in the system. I still have faith in the system but I'm shaken on it some," Montague said.
"He's angry. He's really angry, and I don't blame him," said Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George. She says her office didn't make the decision to drop Lewis' case lightly.
It was one of three high-profile murder or attempted murder cases that she says they would not have won in court. Defense attorneys planned to use the insanity defense. And despite a recent victory in court in the Steven Bourgoin murder trial, where the wrong-way driver also pleaded insanity, George says the evidence here was different. "All three of them have long psychiatric histories," George said. "All three were obviously found insane by at least two medical experts."
Still, she says her office spent months looking at all possible options, because cases this violent are their priority.
Aita Gurung was charged with hacking his wife to death with a meat cleaver in October 2017 at their Hyde Street home in Burlington, and also trying to kill his mother-in-law. He had sought mental health help at the UVM Medical Center the day of the murder and was later diagnosed with schizophrenia.
And Louis Fortier's case was also dropped. Police say he stabbed a homeless man to death just steps away from Church Street in March 2017, with the moments leading up to the murder caught on camera. After his arrest, Fortier was treated for schizophrenia. "At the end of the day there just weren't any other options," George said.
"I grew up here. I'd like to die here. I almost did," Montague said. He says he's now focused on moving forward and still holds onto his dream of building a shooting range here. "Pray that she never gets out. Pray that we can find a way in the system to avoid this happening to anyone else again."
As for what happens next to Lewis, Gurung and Fortier -- that's up to the Department of Mental Health. Vermont Mental Health Commissioner Sarah Squirrell says mental health treatment is their focus. She says her department acts as a health care provider and will take the appropriate steps to treat mental illness and move people through levels of security and care as appropriate, but she says she disagrees that it's her department's responsibility to ensure public safety.
IS CHURCH STREET SAFER SINCE 2017 FATAL STABBING?
It's been almost two years since Louis Fortier stabbed a man to death in broad daylight just off of Church Street. So what have police done to make sure the public are at Burlington's biggest destination?
Downtown Burlington is known for its shops and restaurants, but locals say that sometimes Burlington's homeless population is what gets noticed.
"Definitely have noticed people around," said Claire Greenlaw, a recent UVM graduate.
"You can see it more because maybe they don't have place to live," added Gillian Perini, also a recent graduate.
Some Businesses and locals say that the homeless loiter, urinate in the alleys, get drunk in public,and scream at each other on Cherry Street and other parts of the downtown.
"We haven't personally had any issues with getting people to leave. I know that other businesses have. When stuff like that happens, we call the police, they show up and that issue gets taken care of in about minutes," said Skylar Lobdell with Outdoor Gear Exchange.
"We monitor these groups. The fact is that people do have a right to be out and about on Church Street," said Burlington Police Deputy Police Chief Jon Murad. He says they have increased their presence in the downtown but that hasn't changed the number of calls. "We are concerned with behavior that is disorderly, we are concerned with behavior that is unlawful, we are certainly concerned with behavior that puts the public at risk."
Burlington resident Alman Newman was among those who say they feel safe. "I recognize that there is crime. I recognize that there are serious problems going on, but me personally, I have never felt threatened," he said.
"I don't think I come downtown and feel unsafe ever really," Perini said.
Police are working to keep it that way. In addition to engaging people on Cherry Street, they're also focusing on City Hall Park and the city's new bus station off of Cherry Street.