By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — Sixteen of the more than two dozen suspects implicated in a Dec. 28, 2007, underage drinking party that caused an estimated $10,600 in damage to the former summer home of Robert Frost in Ripton have agreed to go through a court diversion program rather than have their cases adjudicated in Addison County District Court.
Those suspects — most of them teens, many of them Middlebury Union High School students — were among two dozen people that were arraigned in Addison County District Court on Monday. Seven youths pleaded innocent to charges.
The 16 who were offered, and accepted, diversion were primarily first-time offenders cited for criminal counts of unlawful trespassing at the Homer Noble Farm in Ripton.
The other suspects implicated in the incident either had to reschedule their court appearances; made pitches to have their cases referred to juvenile court; or pleaded innocent with the intent of taking their chances through the judicial system. At least one of the suspects — alleged party organizer Andrew Ford, 17, of Ripton — reported on Monday he was still trying to negotiate a plea deal with Addison County State’s Attorney John Quinn. Ford was one of a handful of suspects not offered court diversion and who face other charges, including unlawful mischief and/or enabling the consumption of alcohol by a minor.
Addison County District Court Judge Helen Toor arraigned each defendant separately, asking them if they understood the charges that had been leveled against them. The defendants, represented either by private counsel or the Addison County Public Defender’s Office, mostly nodded or gave one-word answers.
Ford pleaded innocent to unlawful trespassing and enabling the consumption of alcohol by a minor.
A Vermont State Police affidavit made public on Monday alleges that Ford had “invited friends to come and hang out in a respected poet’s house.” Ford allegedly gave Patrick Deering, 23, of Middlebury around $100 to buy beer for the party. Authorities allege that Ford had become acquainted with the Homer Noble Farmhouse when he was a summer worker on Middlebury College’s Breadloaf Campus in Ripton. The college owns the Homer Noble Farmhouse and the nearby cabin where Frost did his writing and which was untouched during the Dec. 28 party.
More people than anticipated showed up at the party — some reports pegged the number of partygoers at 50 — prompting Ford to tell them it was a friend’s summer house “so they would respect and not damage the home,” according to court documents.
But that didn’t stop the vandalism, which included chairs being tossed through windows, fire extinguishers being set off and furniture being burned in the fireplace, according to court records. Some of those attending the party vomited on the floor.
Fritz Langrock of Middlebury-based Langrock, Sperry & Wool is representing Ford in the case. Attorney Devin McLaughlin filled in for Langrock at Monday’s arraignment.
McLaughlin said talks are in progress between Ford’s camp and Quinn’s office in hopes of reaching a plea agreement within the next two weeks.
“Andrew wants to get it done, put this behind him and move forward,” McLaughlin said.
He referred to a letter of apology to the college that Ford had written and distributed to the media. The letter appeared in the Jan. 24 edition of the Addison Independent.
“He’s feeling sorry and remorseful… and wants to make reparation for (the incident),” McLaughlin said.
Pleading innocent on Monday along with Ford was Deering, to unlawful trespassing and furnishing alcohol to a minor. Five others pleaded innocent to counts of unlawful trespassing and unlawful mischief; they were Jacob McDowell, 17, of Cornwall; Bryan Michael Parks, 19, of Middlebury; Michael Shively, 19, of Middlebury; Kyle Hamblin, 16, of Middlebury; and Eric Berman, 18, of Weybridge.
Defense attorneys served notice on Monday they may argue the trespassing charges on two counts. First, that Ford allegedly told some party participants that the home belonged to a friend and therefore gave them the impression it was OK to enter; and that the Middlebury College-posted sign at the gate leading up to the Home Noble Farm was obscured by darkness and didn’t explicitly say “no trespassing.”
The posted sign reads, “…if the custodians are not present, visitors may view the cabin where Frost lived and worked by walking straight up the lane and looking to the left, as they approach the top, but are asked to remain on the path and disturb no property.”
Addison County Deputy State’s Attorney Christopher Perkett told Judge Toor that participants at the party would have had to walk right past the sign, and that some attendees subsequently confirmed to police they had seen the sign.
The 16 teens who were given the court diversion option will have the opportunity to wipe their records clean of the criminal unlawful trespassing charges if they complete all phases of a program that will likely include community service, substance-abuse education and restitution to Middlebury College for the estimated $10,600 in property damage to the Homer Noble house.
Candidates will first meet individually with staff of the Addison County Court Diversion & Community Justice Projects Inc. (ACCD) to answer some basic questions about themselves — such as whether they are in school or are in the workforce.
They will then meet individually with a court diversion review board, a panel of three to five volunteers that will review the client’s crime and personal profile and determine what kind of community service/restitution program he or she should be assigned to “repair the harm” the client has caused, according to Sharon Tasker-Dalton, executive director of ACCD.
“We try to have them understand that (crime) has an effect on the larger community,” Tasker-Dalton said.
The vast majority of diversion candidates are accepted into the program because they have taken ownership of the crime they have allegedly committed, according to Tasker-Dalton. Those entering the program must pay a fee of $125.
“The only time we will not accept a client is if the person has said, ‘I didn’t do it,’” Tasker-Dalton said. “If you are here, it is because you have acknowledged you have committed a crime.”
Most diversion clients are given a program they can complete within 90 days. The diversion advisory board tries to pick a punishment that fits the client’s crime. For example, the board could assign some or all of the 16 clients involved in the Homer Noble house incident the tasks of maintaining the trail that leads to the abode, studying Robert Frost and/or paying for some of the damage done to the property during the Dec. 28 party.
Diversion caseworkers check in with clients to make sure they are completing their program. Those who do not fulfill the requirements (and don’t have a valid excuse) can wind up back in court for prosecution.
Tasker-Dalton does not anticipate court diversion will have a problem accommodating the 16 new clients.
Middlebury College officials are following the case with great interest.
“The extensive vandalism that took place Dec. 28 at the Homer Noble Farmhouse in Ripton is very disturbing, and we respect the legal process that is addressing the situation,” said Middlebury College President Ronald D. Liebowitz. “The building was the summer home of the celebrated poet Robert Frost from 1939 until his death in 1963, and is a national treasure. The Middlebury College facilities staff has done an excellent job of returning the building to its previous state. The college remains committed to ensuring the site’s protection in the future. We have done everything we can to aid the Vermont State Police in their investigation and we will continue to cooperate fully with the Addison County State’s Attorney.”
Accepting diversion on Monday were Brittany Berno, 17, of Middlebury; Ashley Comes, 17, of Middlebury; Sophie Brewer, 17, of Middlebury; Matt Rizner, 18, of North Clarendon; Jonathan Grohs, 17, of Middlebury; Nancy Greenwalt, 17, of Shoreham; Jeremy Mundorf, 19, of Salisbury; Jesse Mundorf, 21, of Salisbury; Jackson Downey-Teachout, 17, of Cornwall; Chelsey Latrell, 17, of Bridport; Duncan Tilford, 17, of Middlebury; Peter Marini, 18, of Middlebury; Ryan Kenyon, 21, of Salisbury; Dylan Cobden, 17, of Weybridge; Benjamin Kinson, 18, of Waltham; and Tyler Pockette, 17, of Salisbury.