Londonderry residents seek answers, tell State Police of fears of arsons, burglaries

From left, Vermont State Police Commissioner Keith Flynn is introduced to the packed Londonderry Town Hall by state Rep. Oliver Olsen. All photos by Cynthia Prairie. Click to launch gallery.

From left, Vermont State Police Commissioner Keith Flynn is introduced to the packed Londonderry Town Hall by state Rep. Oliver Olsen. All photos by Cynthia Prairie. Click to launch gallery.

Cynthia Prairie
© 2015-Telegraph Publishing LLC

Emotions burbled beneath a surface of congeniality as more than 200 Londonderry residents jammed Town Hall on Middletown Road Monday night to hear from Vermont State Police and its fire investigators concerning a recent spate of burglaries and the long history of suspected arsons in the area.

State Rep. Oliver Olsen of Londonderry had brought together a large contingent of public safety personnel – which would have been larger save for a homicide investigation in Windsor – that included Vermont Commissioner of Public Safety Keith Flynn and Lt. Col. Matt Birmingham, Det. Sgt. Steven Otis, the chief fire investigator in the Londonderry arsons, and Sgt. Anthony French, all of the Vermont State Police.

Windham County State’s Attorney Tracy Shriver and Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark were also in attendance to answer questions. And state Sens. Dick McCormack and Alice Nitka stood with the audience.

Birmingham cautioned those gathered that the police would not offer a lot of detail into the arsons, but that it “was not a stagnate investigation. … There will be an arrest made and we will work to that goal.”

That point was later emphasized by Otis, who said that arson investigators indeed “have narrowed our focus, but we are open to new information.”

Residents politely peppered the panel with pleas for answers. But the cautious public safety officers would only say that there are at least 12 suspicious fires over the past 10 years are being investigated. The statewide fire investigation team, only numbers five, they said, but added that they were working hard on the Londonderry cases. Police added that the South Londonderry First Baptist Church fire of August 2010 was not among the suspicious fires.

Londonderry residents also are uneasy because of a recent spate of home and business burglaries that have included a break-in at the Post Office.

Olsen added that the situation in Londonderry “has visibility to the very top of command in fire safety.”

One resident asked what the motivation for arson would be, to which Flynn replied that the reasons run the gamut. “Revenge to just plain sport, cash motivation, kids who were bored just wanted to see a fire …”

And another asked if all the arsons were related, to which Otis replied, “There are connections, they aren’t random. But I won’t go further than that.”

A friend of arson victims reads a letter to the audience explaining their concerns over policing. Behind her, Otis, Flynn and

A friend of arson victims reads a their letter to the audience explaining their concerns over patrolling in Londonderry. Behind her, from left, Det. Sgt. Steven Otis, Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn and Sgt. Anthony French.

The saddest point of the arson discussion came when a friend of Paul and Phyllis Schnitman, who lost their Under the Mountain Road home to arson on M ay 5, read a letter from the couple thanking the community and firefighters for their support but questioning whether they can again live in Londonderry without the public safety infrastructure necessary to make them feel safe enough.

Londonderry residents also are uneasy because of a recent spate of home and business burglaries that have included the Londonderry Hardware, the New American Grill** and the Post Office. A number of residents commented on the brashness of the perpetrators. One expressed concern for children who come home to an empty house that could be the target of a burglar, another said it’s easy for a burglar to scout out a home just by sitting in the woods.

And a number wanted to know what actions they could legally take should they confront a burglar. State’s Attorney Shriver told the group that they legally could defend themselves and their property, but getting out of the house and calling 911 was a safer alternative.

That suggestion did not sit well with a number of residents who complained that the Rockingham Barracks was 20 miles away and that the town had no police patrol presence. Birmingham told the crowd that officers did not remain at the barracks waiting to be dispatched, but were instead assigned to be out patrolling areas.

Londonderry resident packed Town Hall to listen to public safety officials about the spate of arsons and burglaries in the area.

Londonderry resident packed Town Hall to listen to public safety officials about the spate of arsons and burglaries in the area.

Sgt. French agreed that police response will be delayed. But he added that “Winhall Police help us out a lot” and State Police are increasing patrols. He said that residents need to be the eyes and ears of law enforcement since they see the problems. “We aren’t in the community seeing what you see, knowing what you know. You need to step up and give us a call.”

Olsen then urged residents to call the Rockingham Barracks at 875-2112 to report suspicious activity. “These guys are asking for your help,” he said.

Otis also suggested that if residents are going to be away from home for a time and someone is checking on their home, make sure that they don’t always check at the same time each day. “Change patterns,” he said.

Outdoor lighting is also effective, he said, but make sure any outdoor lighting that is on a motion detector is high enough so that it can’t be unscrewed. Use hidden cameras, and tell your neighbors of your whereabouts.

But the talk quickly turned to the nationwide opiate drug problem that is hitting Vermont with a vengeance.

State Police Commissioner Keith Flynn attributes the recent burglaries to the opiate problem that is affecting the country as a whole. “As long as we have a market, people will come here and sell heroin.”

Flynn said, “Every place I go in Vermont, every conversation is coming back to opiates. We have a problem in this state that is unprecedented. As long as we have a market, people will come here and sell heroin. It’s cheap, heroin is cheap and we have people lined up at treatment centers. We can’t treat ourselves out of this problem and we can’t arrest our way out of this problem. There is middle ground. We need to get better on the education piece … It’s not just here. It’s in the Northeast Kingdom, it’s in Chittenden County.”

Asked what people were stealing, Flynn replied, “TVs are out of vogue because they are now too big … (so they are targeting) cash and anything that can be converted into cash. Gold and jewelry.”

One business owner expressed frustration over seeing the same people getting arrested time and again for various offenses and being returned to the streets to commit crimes again.

Flynn said, “Every year in Vermont, we arraign 15,000 to 25,000 people and have room for 1,500 people (in jails). So our goal has to be to get the worst-of-the-worst in jail.”

Before the 90-minute meeting ended, Sheriff Clark told the group that he would be meeting with the Londonderry Select Board next Monday night to discuss more patrols.

** On Tuesday June 9 the Vermont State Police announced that two 24 year old Londonderry residents have been arrested and charged with burglary in the June 1 break-in at the New American Grill.

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About the Author: Cynthia Prairie has been a newspaper editor more than 30 years. She has worked at such publications as the Raleigh Times, the Baltimore News American, the Buffalo Courier Express, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Patuxent Publishing chain of community newspapers in Maryland. She and her family moved to Chester, Vermont in 2004.

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  1. Kathy says:

    While I’m not a Londonderry resident, I feel I should share this because I suspect my Chester home was being cased.

    This past weekend I had an unknown individual at my residence asking some extremely odd questions. I didn’t respond, sent the individual on their way, then phoned the Vermont State Police. The VSP responded and I shared all pertinent information with the officer.

    Was the person trying to distract me? Did the person count on breaking in if no one answered the door?