Ex-trooper pleads no contest in assault case

Wednesday February 20, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- A former state trooper on Tuesday pleaded no contest to charges that he assaulted two men while on duty last year, though he also claims that he does not remember the incident.

If Eric Howley, 41, complies with court-ordered conditions, he won't spend any time in jail: Windham Superior Court Criminal Division Judge David Suntag imposed a six- to 12-month suspended sentence for two counts of simple assault.

Suntag's acceptance of the plea deal came after lengthy testimony from an expert who said Howley suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder due to experiences in the military and as a police officer.

That affliction, clinical psychologist David Mellinger said, spurred Howley to assault the two victims and also is the reason he suffered from amnesia when trying to recall the incident.

"He has said to me on several occasions, ‘I don't remember what the guys looked like. If they walked through the room right now, I wouldn't be able to identify them,'" Mellinger said.

Howley, of West Dover, was a seven-year veteran of the state police on the afternoon of April 8, when he arrived at Lake Raponda in Wilmington looking for his stolen canoe.

He spotted what he believed to be his boat in the water and "spoke with the occupants of the canoe when they came to shore," investigators said. The men were identified as Aton Pike, 21, of Wilmington and Mark Ellison, 21, of West Wardsboro.

An assault ensued: Howley was charged with pushing Pike's face into the trunk of a police cruiser and pushing Ellison down so that his head hit a rock. One of the men suffered a head laceration.

After the assault, court documents alleged, Howley threatened that he would show the victims "what police brutality was all about" and declared that he "was sick of white trash Vermonters and stupid pot heads."

He had gone to the lake with Trooper Genevra Cushman, who had asked Howley to let her handle the situation. When the dispute escalated, she called for assistance from Wilmington police.

Cushman has said in court documents that, although one of the victims was evasive in answering questions and smelled like marijuana, he was "not being threatening in nature."

In court on Tuesday, Mellinger -- who is based in Bennington and said he has been counseling Howley since 2006 -- said he spoke to the trooper a day or two after the assault in Wilmington.

"He was very shook up, very distressed," Mellinger said. "One thing that stood out for me was his puzzlement."

Howley recalled having gone to the lake with a plan to resolve the situation, Mellinger said.

"He remembered seeing the guys in the canoe," Mellinger said. "Then, he didn't remember from there."

The psychologist said that is a common symptom in those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Mellinger said he diagnosed Howley with the disorder in 2006 after an incident in Arlington in 2005 that left him with physical symptoms of psychological trauma.

"Each day, when he would begin putting on his uniform, he would begin to tremble," Mellinger said.

The psychologist did not testify about the nature of that incident. But in 2005, when Howley was assigned to the Shaftsbury barracks, he and three other officers who responded to an altercation during a wedding reception in Arlington were accused of assaulting a New York man.

It was reported that police assaulted the man with a flashlight, punched him and used pepper spray and a stun gun on him while he was restrained. The victim, who suffered injuries including a concussion, a fractured sinus cavity and broken teeth, filed a civil suit and settled out of court for $135,000.

Howley was not charged criminally in that incident. He became a trooper first class and then a senior trooper in Shaftsbury and was assigned to the Brattleboro barracks in January 2009.

Howley resigned from the state police the month after the Wilmington assault.

His psychologist testified on Tuesday that Howley's emotional trauma dates to his time in the military. Asked by defense attorney Brian Marthage to list traumatic events, Mellinger cited incidents in Kuwait and Guantanamo Bay.

Mellinger also mentioned an incident in Abilene, Texas, where Howley had worked as a police officer.

He did not give any details on what those events were or when they happened. Afterward, Marthage also declined to do so, saying the experiences were "too personal."

Mellinger did provide some detail on another traumatic event -- Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011, when Howley was assigned to find a woman who reportedly had been swept away by Irene's severe flooding.

"He was never able to catch up with her," Mellinger said. "And that was truly haunting for him."

Also, Howley's home was wiped out by the storm, Mellinger said.

After Irene, the psychologist said Howley fell into a deeper depression with a sense of hopelessness. He also "was kind of adverse to situations that called for confrontation," Mellinger said.

Howley also has suffered from other PTSD symptoms including insomnia, nightmares, irritability, difficulty concentrating, "exaggerated startled response" and amnesia, Mellinger said.

"In Eric's case, there have been parts of events that he has been unable to recall," Mellinger said.

He added that Aaron York, a psychiatrist at White River Junction VA Medical Center, concurred with his diagnosis of Howley.

Suntag, though, had some questions. First, he asked whether Howley might be fabricating his claim of amnesia.

Mellinger said that, based on Howley's past experiences, he believed his story.

"With each incident that he's talked about, there were similarities in that regard," Mellinger said.

Asked about what triggers violent responses in those with PTSD, Mellinger said that is "unpredictable." In Howley's case, Mellinger said, "it's as if his radar became much more sensitive to situations that involved confrontation."

That's what happened on the day of the Wilmington incident, Mellinger said.

"He did have a plan ... but once they stepped out of the canoe and there was some sense of antagonism, then immediately the threat level went up for him," Mellinger said.

Suntag also asked whether Howley had considered leaving law enforcement given his trouble with PTSD.

Marthage said his client never told the state police about his diagnosis. And Mellinger, while acknowledging having "serious discussions" about Howley's career, said the trooper still could perform his duties and even received some positive reviews from superiors.

"It's not as if his job performance had so clearly deteriorated that he knew he could no longer do the job," Mellinger said.

After Mellinger left the witness stand, Suntag said he accepted Howley's diagnosis and its link to amnesia. But he was not happy with the plea deal that Marthage and Assistant Attorney General Matthew Levine had struck.

It called for a suspended prison sentence of up to six months along with one year of probation. Suntag said the fact that the crime was committed by an on-duty police officer led to a need for a stiffer sentence and other court-ordered provisions.

When an officer commits a crime, "it detracts clearly from the credibility of the police," Suntag said. "I don't think there's any question, it affects every police officer in the state."

Marthage and Levine huddled during a brief recess and came up with the six- to 12-month suspended sentence and two years of probation.

Also, Howley must continue his mental-health treatment, is forbidden to have any contact with the victims and is not allowed to seek employment as a police officer or security guard.

Additionally, Suntag said he hopes Howley will speak to other police officers about the dangers of PTSD.

"It might be a way of your returning to the community something you took," he said.

Howley, in a brief statement, said he felt "blessed" to be under the care of his doctors.

"I'm looking forward to moving on and moving forward," he said.

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


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