'Funeral parade' leaves village 'burned-out'

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BELLOWS FALLS — A 'funeral parade' by the friends of a Bellows Falls man who shot himself to death two weeks ago left village streets marked with trails of burned-out rubber. Village trustees said the parade was poorly handled by the Bellows Falls Police Department.

The parade, held last Wednesday, has resulted in a couple of criminal citations, acting Police Chief David Bemis told the trustees Tuesday evening during a special meeting called to discuss the situation. Police are pursuing about three other individuals for traffic violations. Bemis said the police department, which at one point led the parade with a cruiser, has viewed many videos of the event to research charges.

A total of six people face charges, said Village President Deborah Wright.

Long dark marks of burned-out rubber are visible all over the village, along the funeral parade route. The Square and the area in front of PK's Irish Pub on Rockingham Street had particularly heavy marks.

The parade was held in honor of Ethan Matthews, who died May 5 after a Bellows Falls police officer pulled him over for what police say was erratic driving on Atkinson Street. Before the officer could get out of his cruiser, Matthews, 25, shot himself in the head, Vermont State Police said.

Bemis gave the trustees a briefing, but some trustees remained incredulous that the police didn't do more to stop the bad and at-times dangerous behavior. He said 50 vehicles — cars, trucks and commercial vehicles — participated in the parade.

Trustee Jonathan Wright said he personally saw two men drag racing down School Street, which is a relatively quiet residential area of the village.

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"I don't know where to begin," he said. "People didn't do their job."

The organizers of the parade were not given a village parade permit, according to Village Finance Director Shannon Burbela, because of the coronavirus considerations.

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But Bemis said the police department was well aware that friends of Matthews were planning an event, which started in the Hetty Green Parking Lot, next to TD Bank, went through The Square, and looped around, down Atkinson Street, to Red Light Hill.

Trustee Gary Lique, who is a member of the Rockingham highway crew, said the damage to the town and village roads was upsetting, and there was little they could do to repair it. "They look horrible," Lique said.

One video shows the parade being led by the Bellows Falls Police Department's K-9 cruiser, driven by Sgt. Mario Checchi, followed by a fire truck.

The police department and fire department have collaborated on birthday parades for village children and individuals during the stay-at-home order.

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The trustees later went behind closed doors to discuss the situation, but came out without any public decision, Wright said.

Wright said the trustees are frustrated the police didn't do anything to shut down the funeral parade, once it started getting out of hand.

Bemis acknowledged the parade got out of hand, but said the individuals were not cooperative and the officers were spread out in the village, making a response difficult.

Wright said in the future, any similar parade will need a permit. She said she has received many complaints from citizens about the parade itself and the marks on the streets.

"We're just going to have to live with it," she said of the tire burnout marks, "until it wears off."

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com.


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