Snow, social media key as Bellows Falls manhunt unfolded
BELLOWS FALLS — Bellows Falls Police Chief Ron Lake said he turned to social media Friday night to alert and then reassure the public that a dangerous criminal was on the loose in a Bellows Falls neighborhood.
Lake said once he posted on the Bellows Falls Police Department's Facebook page asking residents to lock their doors and turn on all their outside lights, the response was visually amazing.
"We would have needed another nuclear power plant to power all the lights that went back on," said Lake during an interview Monday. The posting was shared more than 900 times.
Despite the close attention to the 12-hour manhunt on social media, Lake said his department did not receive any tips about John-Victor Wetherby's whereabouts.
Lake said social media is both a plus and a minus for his department, as he said he had to respond to a false rumor that a man, who was allegedly stabbed by Wetherby, had died.
If word spread that there was an alleged murderer on the loose, he said, tensions would have escalated. He said the New Hampshire man did not die, but he said he was forced to respond to the false social media posting in order to keep tensions in the small village under control.
"Those sorts of things cause chaos and is a disaster in itself," Lake said. "There's enough tension trying to protect the community, but when he said the victim has passed, it was 'Oh my god, we have a murderer running loose,'" he said. He said that Bellows Falls residents are very tuned in to social media, and the Bellows Falls department knows that.
The chief said he had called all staff on duty Friday night, and after a 10:30 p.m. meeting, officers went back out to try to find a clue to Wetherby's whereabouts.
He said while the VSP tactical unit was dismissed, he was determined to find Wetherby. He said he talked to members of Wetherby's family, and they told police they had had no contact with him. He said he was convinced if Wetherby wasn't captured, "it would just lead to another attack."
Area law enforcement had been looking for Wetherby since March 2, when he allegedly attacked a man in Westminster. The second attack, a stabbing, took place shortly after noon on Friday at a house on Hyde Street.
"How could a 33-year-old man just disappear?" Lake said. Police knew his last general direction was north, so they didn't think he had headed back into Bellows Falls village.
After the late-night staff meeting, snow turned out to be the police's best friend. Police found fresh tracks going over a snowbank on Pond Road, which is a relatively short distance from Hyde Street. Lake said Bellows Falls Police Officer Mario Checchi and his dog Caesar picked up the track, and Checchi, Caesar and another officer started tracking the prints, which led them more than two miles through six- to eight-inch deep snow for about two hours. "It was quite a hike," said Lake.
The officers and dog finally ended up at the home on Cota Heights Road, a small road off Darby Hill Road, north of Bellows Falls and in Rockingham. The dog stopped at the house and kept going around the house. There was a vehicle in the garage, he said, further worrying the police. The chief said he then called a son who lives nearby and he told police his parents were away. "What a relief," said Lake.
Bellows Falls police called in for help from the Vermont State Police, and State Police Sgt. Eugene Duplissis shot Wetherby after Wetherby pointed an antique double-barreled shotgun he found in the house. It was not loaded, police said.
Vermont State Police spokesman Adam Silverman said the tactical services unit had been dismissed from the Bellows Falls scene after it searched the Hyde Street home and didn't find Wetherby. But he said Duplissis and another Vermont State Police officer were still in the Bellows Falls-Rockingham area and responded to the home, leading to the confrontation in the second-floor bedroom of the Cota Heights Road house.
Silverman said after the tactical unit had searched the home on Hyde Hill, they had gone to the Westminster barracks and waited for a few hours, and then dispersed. Duplissis was still at the barracks at 12:30 a.m., when Bellows Falls police said they believed they had found Wetherby. He said the tactical unit is not ordinarily used for searching and apprehending subjects, while regular troopers and their canines are regularly used for that purpose.
"It was quite effective. They did a good job," said Village President Deborah Wright, noting she was briefed by Lake on Saturday morning about the incident.
Duplissis, the officer whose shot grazed Wetherby, is on five days of administrative leave. A member of the VSP tactical services unit, Duplissis is also a member of the Vermont State Police's Use of Force Training Review Panel, and it is the second time in 14 months that he's been involved in a police shooting. Duplissis and the other eight officers involved in a fatal shooting of a bank robbery suspect outside Montpelier High School in January 2018 did not face charges in that case, as the attorney general's office ruled the use of force was justified in the shooting of Nathan Giffin.
Duplissis himself was shot in the head with shotgun pellets while on the job back in 2014 in Leicester, a small town in Addison County, and received a Medal of Valor, along with another VSP trooper who was also shot in the incident.
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