State requests up to 35 years in Brattleboro kidnap case
BRATTLEBORO -- More than four months after Salahdin Trowell was convicted of two felonies in a Brattleboro kidnapping case, it remains unclear how much jail time he will serve.
After nearly four hours of testimony on Wednesday, Trowell's sentencing hearing ended without resolution and will be continued at a still-undecided date.
But two things became clear: First, a judge ruled there was sufficient evidence to establish that Trowell, 31, of Brattleboro, had been a member of the notorious Bloods street gang when he resided in New Jersey.
Also, prosecutors disclosed their intention to put Trowell in prison for a long time, asking Judge David Suntag to impose a 10- to 35-year prison sentence.
"The 35 years is to keep Mr. Trowell supervised past his 60th birthday," Windham County Deputy State's Attorney Steven Brown told the judge.
"By locking Mr. Trowell up, we will prevent other crimes from being committed," Brown added. "The state feels very strongly about that."
Trowell was arrested on May 23, 2013, when police said they found him hiding under a bed in a Canal Street apartment after a long standoff. Earlier that day, authorities said, Trowell had directed the abduction of two women from the Flat Street entrance of Brattleboro's Transportation Center in an attempt to find a man who owed him a drug debt.
The women later escaped unharmed when the Cadillac Escalade they were riding in was stopped by police on Western Avenue.
Along with Trowell, police charged James Manning of Jersey City, N.J., and Marcus Koritz of Brattleboro. Investigators said Trowell had confronted the victims and organized the kidnapping, but then exited the Cadillac while Koritz and Manning stayed in the SUV with the women.
A fourth person who had been driving the Cadillac also was charged, but those counts were dismissed earlier this year.
Koritz in April pleaded guilty to aiding in commission of a felony, burglary and unlawful mischief, and he was sentenced to four to 12 years in prison.
Manning pleaded guilty to aiding in commission of a felony and unlawful trespass. He is on probation and was called as a witness for the prosecution in Trowell's trial, which began in late February in Windham Superior Court Criminal Division.
On March 1, after deliberating for more than 11 hours, a jury convicted Trowell of kidnapping as well as assault and robbery. Trowell has remained in prison without bail, as has been the case since his arrest.
Wednesday was supposed to have been the day when Trowell would learn how long he will stay in prison. The first few hours of his sentencing hearing, however, were occupied with the question of whether Trowell had been a gang member in his native New Jersey.
Trowell's extensive record is not in doubt: Court documents show that his New Jersey criminal history dates to 1997 and includes convictions for drug offenses, simple assault, aggravated assault and aggravated assault with bodily injury.
On Wednesday, though, Brown called two New Jersey police officers to the stand to offer evidence of gang ties. First was David Lawyer, a New Jersey State Police detective sergeant first class who said he has extensive experience with street-gang issues.
Lawyer testified about a search warrant executed in 2007 at Trowell's home, where police found money, drugs and "some gang paraphernalia" including an 11-page history of the Bloods street gang.
Lawyer testified that Trowell's then-girlfriend sported a tattoo with his name and the numbers "464," which police interpreted as a symbol of his gang affiliation.
Also testifying was Detective Sgt. John Fine of the Burlington, N.J., police department. He detailed a shooting incident in which members of the rival Muslims Over Everything gang had targeted Trowell's home due to his alleged gang ties.
There were other incidents, information from law enforcement and "credible intelligence through informants" that led Fine to conclude that Trowell not only was a Bloods member but also was a leader within the local gang.
Trowell's defense attorney, Burlington-based Robert Sussman, was critical of that conclusion. He said his client bears no gang tattoos, and he questioned the credibility of law enforcement sources who had linked Trowell to gangs.
Sussman also noted that red-and-black beads worn by Trowell -- which had been interpreted as a gang symbol -- also are worn by Muslims. In prison, Sussman said, Trowell leads a Muslim prayer group.
Nonetheless, after considering the testimony, Suntag said "there is sufficient evidence to reach a conclusion that, during a period in 2000s in New Jersey, Mr. Trowell had associations with a gang."
Sussman subsequently pointed out that the Vermont kidnapping case had nothing to do with gangs. But Brown, in his argument for significant prison time, connected Trowell's past with his conduct on May 23, 2013.
"He has the power and the ability to influence what people do," Brown said. "He brought the same culture that he learned in New Jersey to Vermont."
Brown also pointed out that, at the time of the kidnapping, Trowell already had been on court-ordered conditions of release. And he added that, in spite of the guilty verdict, "the defendant hasn't taken any responsibility for the events that occurred on that day."
Sussman balked at Brown's request for a 10- to 35-year sentence, saying that "would be well beyond the boundary of what is reasonable."
He recommended three to six years in prison. Sussman, as he did at trial, argued that no weapons were used in the incident, and the victims were not harmed.
Trowell "didn't do anything physical to anyone," Sussman said, pointing out that, at one point, he told others to not hurt the women.
Trowell, since his arrest, has been a "model prisoner," Sussman added.
"He's doing what he can to fix his life after coming from a very broken, damaged environment," Sussman said.
To buttress that argument, defense attorneys called Trowell's girlfriend, Jolene Belair, to the stand. Belair, a Brattleboro resident who had been living with Trowell prior to his arrest, painted him as a changed, more-mature man who has acted as a father figure to her son.
Trowell is interested in nutrition and bodybuilding, and he came to Vermont to better his life, Belair said.
"A change of atmosphere changes your personality and your reactions to situations," she testified.
In his cross-examination, Brown read short excerpts of recorded jail calls between Trowell and Belair. He portrayed Trowell as obsessed with money and expensive clothes, quoting him as saying, "I gotta do whatever I gotta do to get the green."
At one point, Trowell told Belair that people in Vermont dressed like "bums" before he arrived. Now, he complained, locals are "trying to steal his swag."
Pointing to Belair's testimony that Trowell did not have a regular job, Brown told the judge: "It is questionable how he is living I think it's a reasonable inference that there's a source of income other than Miss Belair."
Wednesday's sentencing hearing came to a halt after Trowell initially declined to speak and then appeared, through Sussman, to waver on whether he had anything to say. The attorneys and judge met briefly behind closed doors and, with the courthouse closing, the hearing was continued to a later date.
"We ran out of time, and the parties all felt it would be best to continue when we have more time," Brown said.
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.
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