Saturday July 20, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- A Townshend man has been accused of a hate crime, with authorities alleging that he chased a black Vermont Public Interest Research Group staffer from his door with racial epithets, obscenities and what appeared to be a gun.

Herman Donna, 62, told investigators a much different story. In court documents, Donna admitted to yelling at the man but denied making racial comments and said he owns no gun, suggesting instead that the victim mistook a lighter and a gardening tool for a weapon.

The Vermont Attorney General’s office is prosecuting the case. On Tuesday, Donna was arraigned on one count of simple assault (hate crime) in Windham Superior Court Criminal Division. He pleaded not guilty and was released on conditions, including an order that he have no contact with the alleged victim.

The charge stems from an incident on July 17, 2012, when the victim -- a 26-year-old black male -- was going door-to-door for VPIRG, a Montpelier-based nonprofit.

An affidavit written by Detective Robert Snetsinger, an investigator in the attorney general’s office, says the man was "distributing organizational brochures promoting the health of Vermont’s people, environment and economy" and had been given "a bicycle, clipboard, map, the brochures and an identification card to carry out his duties."

He was greeted at Donna’s Jay Road home by a woman "who politely informed him they were not interested in speaking with him," the affidavit says.


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But the victim told an investigating state trooper that, as he walked away from the home, a male emerged from the home and yelled, "Hey!"

The VPIRG worker "observed the male reach up and grab a gun, described as a black-colored pistol, from above the porch doorway," the affidavit says. Using racial slurs, the man -- identified as Donna -- allegedly threatened to kill the victim and ordered him to "get out of here, go now faster or you ain’t going to make it down that hill."

The victim "apologized and begged him not to shoot," the affidavit says. But Donna allegedly followed, first on foot and then in his gray SUV, while continuing to point what appeared to be a weapon.

Donna drove at approximately 5 mph while continuing to use racial slurs and saying "you don’t belong in this town," court papers say.

Donna eventually turned around and returned to his home, the victim told police. He claimed he "was very afraid during this incident, saying that he had never been more scared in his life."

The VPIRG worker walked to another residence and asked to use a phone. A man who lives there described the victim as "appearing pretty distressed, including seeing him shaking" while saying that "he had been chased away from a residence on Jay Road at gunpoint."

Eleven days after the incident, Donna told a state trooper that he recalled the victim being at his home "but could not understand why he was there," court documents say.

"He added that he does not like people on his property because they don’t take no for an answer," the affidavit says. "Donna admitted that he was mad and he yelled at (the victim) to get out of there and that he did not want him there."

Donna said his house had been broken into a few years prior "and he has now become paranoid, so he locks the house and cars to keep from being burglarized again," Snetsinger’s affidavit says. "He said he is vigilant and watches out for his neighbors."

He also claimed to have no guns in his home.

"Donna did acknowledge that, as he left the house, he grabbed a hand-held lighter and a hand-held gardening tool," court documents say.

Those items were kept above the porch door. The lighter had "an orange handle with a metallic tube extending from the handle" while the garden tool had "a black handle with a rake and hoe attached," officials said.

"Donna claimed to have never said that he was going to kill (the victim) but added that he could understand how (the victim) may have taken it that way because of how he was pointing the igniter at him," the affidavit says.

Donna also said he "did not ever make any statements" about the VPIRG worker’s race.

Donna’s wife told police that her husband made no threat to kill the visitor, and she "added that she did not know what her husband had in his hand when he left the house, but they did not have any firearms in the house."

It is not clear why the charge was filed a year after the alleged incident. Ultan Doyle, a Vermont assistant attorney general, said he could not comment because the case is pending.

He also could not comment on why the attorney general’s office is handling the case. Doyle did say, however, that "hate crimes are a rare occurrence for our office."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.