BRATTLEBORO -- Four murder cases -- resulting in an acquittal, a dismissal, an extradition and a conviction on lesser charges -- dominated local crime news in 2013.
And December brought another murder case with local connections, as authorities ruled that the Dec. 20 death of John Chakalos in Windsor, Conn., was a homicide. Chakalos owned a Chesterfield, N.H., property known for its annual, elaborate display of Christmas lights. The 87-year-old died of a gunshot wound to the head.
The Chakalos investigation is just beginning. The four other murder cases that made headlines in the Reformer in 2013 involved criminal probes ranging from just a few months old to nearly two decades old. The longest of those cases involved John Grega, who had been convicted in 1995 of murdering his wife the year prior in a West Dover condominium.
Grega served 18 years in prison before he was released in 2012 after new DNA evidence called the conviction into question. Prosecutors and defense attorneys subsequently began moving toward a new trial. But in August, the Windham County state's attorney and the Vermont attorney general's office announced that all charges against Grega would be dismissed due to complications in DNA analysis. Nonetheless, the Grega case may not yet be finished. DNA testing has continued, and a judge has ruled that the state can refile charges if warranted by DNA evidence.
A much more-recent murder allegation resulted in a three-week trial in September in Windham Superior Court Criminal Division. Prosecutors from the state attorney general's office had alleged that Jodi LaClaire of Bennington, N.H., had administered a fatal dose of insulin to 83-year-old Nita Lowery in March 2009. Lowery had been a resident of Brattleboro's Thompson House care home, where LaClaire had worked as a nursing assistant.
A jury acquitted LaClaire of second-degree murder and abuse of a vulnerable adult but found her guilty of stealing thousands of dollars from Lowery's account. LaClaire is scheduled to be sentenced on seven financial-exploitation counts Jan. 10.
The 10-day murder trial of Frank Caraballo in federal court also resulted in a mixed bag for prosecutors. Caraballo had been accused of fatally shooting Melissa Barratt, a Brattleboro woman whose body was found in July 2011 in the woods off East-West Road in Dummerston.
Caraballo was found guilty of distributing heroin, cocaine and crack cocaine; and he was convicted of carrying or possessing a firearm in the furtherance of a drug-trafficking offense, causing the death of Barratt through use of the firearm. The jury did not, however, find Caraballo guilty of actually pulling the trigger. Caraballo's attorneys have asked the court to overturn the verdict.
The final murder case with a local angle involved James Robarge, who is accused of killing his wife in June in Charlestown, N.H. Robarge has been indicted in New Hampshire on first- and second-degree murder charges. But he first made several court appearances in Brattleboro. That's because Robarge, who had been estranged from his wife and living in the Saxtons River area, was arrested July 2 after a police chase that ended in Bellows Falls. Following the arrival of a governor's warrant from New Hampshire, Robarge's attorney said he would not fight his extradition to that state.
Many other cases made local court and police news in 2013, covering a wide variety of alleged crimes and issues. Some examples:
-- School security, mental health: In late January, schools throughout Windham County and in nearby New Hampshire towns temporarily implemented tighter security after officials said someone had made "nonspecific threats."
After a successful public-records request by the Reformer, it emerged that the security measures were spurred by the release from the Brattleboro Retreat of a man who had threatened to harm himself and others. A judge had decided that the state had not proven that the man required involuntary commitment.
There were no school-related incidents reported during the alert period. But the incident spurred ongoing, larger conversations about school security and the state's mental-health system.
-- Embezzlement: Two large-scale, long-term thefts led to prison terms.
The first such sentence came in February, when Sherry Roebuck was ordered to serve 18 months in federal prison and to repay more than $80,000 she stole from Algiers Fire District No. 1 in Guilford. Roebuck had been treasurer of the volunteer-run district, which was formed to operate a sewer system in Algiers Village. She resigned in March 2011, and officials discovered the missing money. Roebuck was convicted of federal program embezzlement and mail fraud.
In December, and also in federal court, Kimberly Wilde was sentenced to 15 months behind bars and three years of supervised release for stealing more than $300,000 from her former employer, Brattleboro-based Potter Stewart Jr. Law Offices. Wilde, formerly of Guilford, had managed the firm's finances and embezzled the money over a six-year period. She has repaid more than $126,000 but still is responsible for the remainder. Wilde is scheduled to report to federal prison in January.
-- Sexual assault: Several local cases involving sex-assault allegations resulted in long prison sentences.
They included a 25-years-to-life sentence ordered in August for David Edson, who had been convicted of repeatedly assaulting a girl in Westminster. Judge David Suntag called Edson's conduct "almost beyond comprehension." The judge also said Edson's refusal to acknowledge his crimes will make it difficult for him to gain entry into sex-offender treatment and to eventually be released from prison.
Also in August, David Piquette of Brattleboro was sentenced to 10 years to life in prison for a 2011 sexual assault at a Marlboro Road motel. The victim, who had met Piquette online, told police she had been held against her will and sexually assaulted. He was convicted of sexual and domestic assault after a trial in November 2012.
Also sentenced to a maximum life sentence for sexual assault was Jeffrey Houle of Bellows Falls. Houle acknowledged that he repeatedly assaulted a juvenile, though he claims to have no memory of the incidents. Houle was sentenced in November to a minimum of four years and two months in prison for the crimes, which happened between 1990 and 2002.
-- Assault: While several area residents were charged with assaulting police officers in 2013, the tables were turned in February when former Vermont state Trooper Eric Howley pleaded no contest to assaulting two men while he was on duty in 2012.
Howley, of West Dover, received a six- to 12-month suspended sentence, meaning he won't spend any time in jail if he complies with court-ordered conditions. He was a seven-year veteran of the State Police on the afternoon of April 8, 2012, when he was accused of assaulting two men at Lake Raponda in Wilmington. Howley believed the men had stolen his canoe. He resigned from the State Police soon after the incident.
Howley, who argued that he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder due to his experiences in the military and as a police officer, also was sentenced to serve two years of probation.
-- Burglary: A fairly common crime was highlighted in 2013 by the resolution of several cases connected to a multistate burglary ring.
The investigation, which involved roughly 100 burglaries in five states, first came to light in early 2012. In 2013, five area men pleaded guilty and were sentenced in connection with the crimes. They were Logan Critchfield of Walpole, N.H.; Christopher Goldschmidt of Athens; Travis Noyes of Rockingham; Criscenzo Ruggiero of Westminster; and Lance Thomas of Rockingham. They admitted their roles in break-ins that affected businesses in municipalities including Rockingham, Saxtons River and Westminster.
Charges still are pending against two other suspects. Cody Loewe of Bellows Falls is incarcerated in New Hampshire and is on arrest-warrant status for Vermont charges, while Dillon Lange of Alstead, N.H., is scheduled for a pretrial conference here in January.
-- Arson: James Ryan of Brattleboro was sentenced in April to serve up to seven years in prison for setting a July 2012 fire at Lawrence Block apartments on South Main Street.
Ryan had been arrested within weeks of the blaze, reportedly telling investigators that he set the fire because the building's owner was taking too long to fix a leak and because he was past-due on his rent. He acknowledged using an accelerant to feed the flames in the wooden apartment building. The fire was extinguished quickly, though, and no residents were hurt.
-- Bank robbery: In July, Nathaniel Kautz of Brattleboro was sentenced to serve two to 10 years in prison for holding up the TD Bank in downtown Brattleboro in April 2012.
Kautz escaped with more than $2,000 but was apprehended later the same day.
Another local bank-robbery case remains pending: In July, Shawn Arguin of Jacksonville, Fla., was arrested after police said he demanded money from a teller at Key Bank on Main Street in Brattleboro. The arrest came under unusual circumstances as Arguin -- after collecting two stacks of $20 bills -- sat down inside the bank, requested that employees notify police and placed the money on a kiosk in the lobby.
A retired Brattleboro police officer who had entered the bank as a customer was credited with helping to take Arguin into custody.
-- Drunken driving resulting in death: Vernon police in December arrested 20-year-old Edward L. Class, who faces two felonies in connection with a June 8 crash that killed a Readsboro woman.
Class is accused of crossing the center line on Route 142 and hitting another car head-on. The other driver suffered relatively minor injuries; Class was severely injured, and his passenger, 22-year-old Tanya May, later died at a Massachusetts hospital. Police say Class had alcohol in his system and may have been "playing chicken" just before the crash. He has pleaded not guilty.
-- Child pornography: State and federal authorities continued to prosecute multiple child-porn cases locally. Examples include Robert Chase, a Brattleboro man who was subject to penalties in both jurisdictions. In Windham Superior Court, Chase pleaded no contest to lewd and lascivious conduct with a child. In federal court, he pleaded guilty to possessing child pornography. Chase in May was sentenced to 68 months in federal prison. His state sentence is slightly shorter and will be served concurrently.
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.