By Maggie Cassidy
Valley News Staff Writer
Windsor — It was a typical Friday evening in Windsor on Dec. 5, 2014, as snow blanketed downtown. Inside the Windsor Station Restaurant & Barroom, the scene was bustling.
Among the patrons were William “Billy” Henne III, a longtime Windsor resident whose minor run-ins with the law had made him known to local police, and Windsor Police Chief William Sampson, a Massachusetts native who worked in Florida law enforcement for years before returning north four months earlier to become Windsor’s top cop.
Also present was another longtime Windsor resident, Windsor police Officer Ryan Palmer, who three weeks before had shot White River Junction resident Jose Burgos during a drug sting.
Both Palmer and Sampson were off-duty, having walked over together after a holiday party with town employees. Sampson said he had a beer or two. Henne was drinking, according to police reports. Palmer’s beverage of choice that night was ginger ale, the bartender told police.
On all those points, there seems to be no dispute. But determining what happened when Palmer and Henne had a brief scuffle around midnight would result in two investigations by Windsor police and a third one by state police.
Henne told Steven Neily, the Windsor police officer who responded to the scene, that Palmer punched him in the face, according to Neily’s report. Henne walked away with a black eye.
Palmer, who turned 29 in September, said it was Henne who attacked him and that Henne hit his head on a bench in the ensuing scuffle.
Sampson, who was on the other side of the restaurant, divided by a partition, said he didn’t see any of it.
The case ultimately landed at the Vermont Attorney General’s Office, which, in a June 24 letter to the state police, said there was “insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Ryan Palmer assaulted Mr. Henne.”
Separately, two weeks later, Palmer was charged with unlawfully shooting Burgos during the drug sting. The Attorney General’s Office says video evidence contradicts Palmer’s assertion that Burgos tried to run him over. Burgos underwent surgery at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center for wounds to his left arm. Palmer has pleaded not guilty and that case is pending.
The Windsor Station incident raises questions not just about what occurred that night but also about the Windsor Police Department’s handling of incident reports, particularly those involving officers. Among the concerns:
∎ Windsor police deleted the initial report about a bar fight in which an officer was accused of assaulting a civilian.
∎ A second report produced by the Windsor Police Department after the first was expunged made no mention of the Windsor chief’s presence at the bar.
∎ The second report, which recommended charging Henne but not Palmer, referred to photo graphs that Neily took of Henne after the scuffle, but neglected to mention that the photographs depict a swelling eye. The images were not included in the information sent to the Windsor County state’s attorney.
Henne, who grew up attending the same schools as Palmer and recently turned 30, repeatedly refused to give sworn statements to local and state police. In April, he told state police he was “past that” and had “no hard feelings” about the scuffle. Multiple attempts to reach him for this article were unsuccessful.
The First Report
Although Windsor police deleted Neily’s report from its database, a “whistleblower” forwarded a copy to Vermont State Police, according to state police spokesman Scott Waterman.
Several names, including the whistleblower’s, have been redacted. Neily’s report was then shared with the Attorney General’s Office, which provided a copy to the Valley News last month in response to a public records request.
In it, Neily wrote that Henne said Palmer punched him after he made a comment about the Burgos shooting.
About two weeks before the bar fight, charges against Burgos had been withdrawn.
According to Neily’s report, Henne said he saw Palmer talking to a person identified in other reports as Henne’s girlfriend, Kamila Bohac, and Henne walked up between them, put his arms around both of their shoulders and asked “what was going on” and “what happened with the shooting.”
At that point, “Palmer struck (Henne) with a closed fist,” Henne told Neily, according to the report.
Vermont Department of Liquor Control investigator Ladd Wilbur called police, according to the report. (Wilbur told the Valley News that he was completing a regular inspection of the bar and did not see the fight.) Neily and Windsor police Officer Jered Condon arrived at 12:22 a.m. on Dec. 6, 2014, and Palmer asked them to talk to Henne’s girlfriend because Palmer feared she was involved in a “domestic type situation.” Henne had left the scene.
As the girlfriend was talking to police, “Palmer continued to interrupt,” Neily wrote. “Palmer advised that Henne was being loud and aggressive and that he ‘dealt’ with the issue.”
Neily and Condon then located Henne on Main Street. Henne “appeared agitated” and had a “slight odor of intoxicants … but he did not appear to be intoxicated,” Neily wrote.
Neily wrote that Henne accused Palmer of being “out of (expletive) control” and punching him in the face.
Neily gave Henne a “courtesy ride” and asked Henne whether he would like to give a written statement, which Henne agreed to, according to the report. They drove to the police department and entered the lobby, which is monitored via video camera, and Neily took photograph s of Henne’s swelling eye while Henne repeated his accusations.
Neily did not write why Henne did not give a sworn, written statement that night, but told Henne he could come back the next day.
Neily then returned to the restaurant, where Sampson “advised that he had spoken with Henne inside the establishment and got him outside and told him to leave.”
When Sampson further told Neily that Henne had created a disturbance outside the restaurant and should be issued a letter of trespass, Neily demurred, according to the report, because Henne had since “calmed down.”
Neily did not tell Sampson about Henne’s accusations. Neily told the Valley News that “there were circumstances” that explain why he didn’t tell the chief that night, but he declined to elaborate. In the Vermont State Police report, he told investigators that he believed Sampson was “quite under the influence at that point,” but acknowledged that Sampson was not slurring his speech or unsteady on his feet.
When Neily’s shift the next afternoon began at 4 p.m, he told Sgt. James Beraldi about Henne’s accusation that Palmer had punched him. Beraldi told Neily that the department’s internal investigation policy required that Sampson be informed about Henne’s accusation. Beraldi called Sampson, who “ordered the investigation to cease,” Neily wrote in his report.
Beraldi, who later left the Windsor department and has worked for Woodstock police since April, declined to comment.
Neily wrote that he stopped at Cumberland Farms on Dec. 9 about 12:45 a.m. when he saw Henne come out of the store with a “still swollen and black” eye. Palmer’s vehicle tire had been slashed after the skirmish, and Henne — who had been seen in the area of the Windsor Station in the hours after the scuffle — was the prime suspect.
Neily wrote that he questioned Henne about the tire. He said Henne denied being involved with the tire and started talking about the fight, also accusing the chief of drinking “one after another.” Sampson disputes this claim.
The next day, Neily wrote, he received an email from Windsor Sgt. Jon Adams. Sampson had assigned the investigation to the sergeant.
The Second Report
Sampson said he assigned Adams to the investigation because the department’s policy requires that any complaint against an officer be handled by a supervisor. He said it would not be appropriate for Neily, a patrol officer, to investigate Palmer, another officer.
In Adams’ report — which the Windsor Police Department provided to the Valley News — a witness, Sherry Sheldon, told Adams that Henne “just came off the wall and tried to cheap shot (Palmer). Like straight up attacked him … out of nowhere, and I was like wow!”
The bartender, Marissa Ambrosi, told Adams that she did not see the actual altercation, but that Henne “was clearly looking for a fight.”
Adams wrote that he tried to get a sworn statement from Henne, but Henne declined.
In an interview, Adams said Sampson’s presence was irrelevant because the chief did not witness the fight.
According to a Vermont State Police report, Sampson said he wanted Adams to find independent witnesses so the investigation would not be “tainted” by his presence, but he told Adams he would give a statement if requested. Adams said he didn’t interview Sampson because the chief could appear biased in favor of an officer.
In October, Sampson told the Valley News that for a “10-second skirmish,” there has been “more investigation into this than literally need be.”
Sampson also noted that Neily was a “troublesome” presence in the department who didn’t get along with Palmer and other officers, and demonstrated “tunnel vision” in his short investigation of the bar fight while making “slams” at Sampson.
Sampson provided emails to the Valley News from October 2014 indicating tension between Neily and Adams, with Neily defying orders from Adams to move his work station and accusing Adams of creating a hostile work environment.
Deleted Report: ‘ It Was Gone’
According to a report on the incident the Vermont State Police would later compile, Adams, a former police officer in Hartford, deleted the report from the database used by Windsor police — known as the “CAD” system, short for computer aided dispatch — at 11:15 a.m. on Dec. 31, 2014.
Waterman, the state police spokesman, said both Hartford and Windsor police use the same database. When an investigating officer, Capt. JP Sinclair, accessed the system in Hartford, Waterman said, the log showed who deleted the report and when.
Max Schlueter, a former director of the Vermont Criminal Information Center at the state’s Department of Public Safety, is now a senior research associate at the nonprofit Crime Research Group of Vermont, which provides professional research services to criminal and juvenile justice agencies. Speaking generally about the databases that police use statewide to store incident reports, Schlueter said it would be “ill-advised to completely delete a record.”
“If (a person) turned around and sued the arresting agency and they had destroyed all their records, they would be in trouble,” Schlueter said.
Assistant Attorney General John Treadwell said that, if the state had decided to file charges in the case, the deletion of Neily’s report would be problematic because he and defense attorneys would have wanted to review it.
“Absolutely,” Treadwell said. “We would have an obligation to disclose all reports relative to the matter.”
Sampson said he agrees with Treadwell’s assessment, but faults Neily for what happened. Neily refused to make corrections to the report that would have made it appropriate to put back into the system, Sampson and Adams said, including correcting spelling and grammar errors, removing bias against Palmer and removing irrelevant information.
Twelve days after the bar fight, Neily submitted his formal resignation from the Windsor department to take a job as a patrol officer in Springfield, Vt.
Adams said Neily entered the report into the CAD system before it was approved by a supervising officer, which he said goes against standard practice in Windsor.
Adams said officers generally write their reports in Microsoft Word documents and send them to their supervising officers, who send back corrections before the final copy is put into the CAD system.
Sampson’s account of typical procedure differs slightly. He said reports in the CAD system “regularly” are “kicked back” to officers — in other words, deleted — to make corrections in their original copies.
“As soon as it gets kicked back, the report doesn’t exist,” Sampson said.
Adams said he deleted Neily’s report out of the CAD system “because I was assigned the case at that point, it was my case, and the chief told me to.”
Sampson said it was Adams’ decision. Sampson underscored that Henne refused to swear to the statements he made to Neily.
“What Neily was able to get was nothing that was useful,” Sampson said.
Neily told Adams he would make spelling and grammatical corrections to his report, but he was “not comfortable with taking out any of the facts,” according to an email between the two provided to the Valley News by Sampson. Before Neily started work in Springfield, Windsor reprimanded him for allowing Henne to talk about the bar fight when he was investigating the tire-slashing, according to emails provided by Sampson.
In an interview, Neily said he got along with other officers in his department. He said the investigation should have been handled by Vermont State Police from the start — which is allowed under Windsor police policy — and declined to directly address Sampson’s assertion that he had “tunnel vision” for Palmer.
“His opinion is his opinion,” Neily said.
Treadwell said it is not within the Attorney General’s Office’s purview to reprimand or censure police departments unless their actions rise to the level of a crime. He said he is “not aware of any criminal violation” related to deleting incident reports.
Vermont law defines a public record as “any written or recorded information, regardless of physical form or characteristics, which is produced or acquired in the course of public agency business.” Deputy Secretary of State Chris Winters said “using a very straight reading” of the definition, Neily’s report appears to meet the standard.
Even if Neily’s report were to be considered a “draft,” Winters said, a record of it should be kept. Winters noted the analogy of selectboards being required to keep draft meeting minutes, even if a different version is approved.
“You still have the record of the draft and what was changed,” he said.
Allen Gilbert, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, pointed to a section of the law that establishes a fine of up to $1,000 for willful destruction of public records. Another section of the law says public records can be deleted by their custodians only when “specifically authorized by law or under a record schedule approved by the state archivist.”
When asked in an interview last week whether he punched Henne, Palmer said: “No, I don’t remember that.”
He also said he didn’t recall Henne making a comment about the Burgos shooting prior to the scuffle.
“I’m really kind of over it. It was one of those things, it was kind of an insignificant thing to me,” Palmer said. “It was stupid, and it got blown out of proportion.”
Palmer said statements he made to Adams describing the skirmish speak for themselves. In Adams’ report, Palmer is quoted as saying Henne and his girlfriend, Bohac, appeared to be “having problems throughout the night.”
“At one point (Bohac) had sat down right in front of me and I was backed up against the wall just sitting at the table waiting for the people I was with to come back,” Palmer said in Adams’ report. “(Bohac) started talking about how Billy (Henne) didn’t treat her right. … I really didn’t want to be involved with any of it.”
Palmer said when Henne saw the conversation between Palmer and Bohac, “I could tell he wasn’t real happy with that.”
“Henne comes over and says ‘hey what’s going on here?’ ” Palmer said, according to Adams’ report. “He then grabs me by my neck and head area and tries to pull me up out of my seat. I then shoved him off of me, and I could see he kind of had a wild look in his eye I could tell he was going to fight. So he comes back and we kind of wrestle around and knock over a couple of tables. While we were rolling around on the floor Bill (Henne) hit his head on a bench. Then it got broken up and Bill (Henne) got thrown outside basically the whole bar.”
In the interview with the Valley News, Palmer said he felt he was the victim.
“Here’s the thing,” Palmer said, “I got attacked that night.”
He said he “absolutely” thinks the Attorney General’s Office “looked into it a little harder than they would have” if it weren’t for the shooting during the drug sting.
When asked whether that was the case, Treadwell said it was “hard to answer that question because they are separate incidents that were reviewed independently but they were here at the same time.”
State Police Take Over
By March 8, Windsor police had sent Adams’ report to Windsor County State’s Attorney Michael Kainen, recommending the disorderly conduct charge against Henne.
Adams said his decision not to include photographs of Henne’s eye was consistent with standard practice. If Kainen had chosen to prosecute, then Adams would have sent the photographs to him.
On March 11, an unidentified person sent Neily’s original report to Sinclair, the state police captain. In his report, Sinclair wrote that “there were discrepancies” between Neily’s and Adams’ reports, including “some omissions of potential witnesses, to include the Chief, a Liquor Control Officer, another Windsor PD officer and civilian witnesses.”
Vermont State Police provided a copy of Sinclair’s report to the Valley News in response to a records request. Some names and sections were redacted.
Sinclair had a conference call with Treadwell, the assistant attorney general who is also chief of the criminal division, and Matthew Levine, another assistant attorney general who is prosecuting Palmer in the Burgos shooting.
The prosecutors asked state police to re-investigate, and Sinclair handed the case to Detective Sgt. Tara Thomas and Detective Sgt. Mark Potter.
Thomas noted early in her report that Adams also failed to mention Neily’s original report and that the photographs of Henne’s face showed a swelling eye, among other details. She and Potter interviewed Sampson and Neily separately.
Thomas wrote that she questioned Neily about the fact that “not one person” at the bar besides Henne came forward to say an officer assaulted a civilian and whether “he felt that was odd.”
“(Neily) stated he did not feel it was odd, and that it was likely that all the patrons were covering for (Officer) Palmer, alleging it was a conspiracy,” she wrote.
Henne — whose name was redacted from the state police reports — once again declined to give a sworn statement, calling Neily “pushy,” and Palmer said he wished for his sworn verbal statement to Adams to serve as his only statement.
Treadwell declined to say whether Vermont State Police should have been called in to investigate from the start.
“Generally my experience is that when there are allegations involving law enforcement officers they are usually investigated by state police,” he said.
In an interview last week, Sampson said the incident was not significant enough to require investigation — especially since Henne did not want to press charges, he said — but he had Adams investigate to dispel any potential suggestions of misconduct.
“The only reason I did an investigation,” he said, “was because I didn’t want it to look like we’re covering something.”