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Middlebury patrolman builds a 'Sweet' career

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Posted on December 28, 2017 |
By John Flowers



DonSweet5778.jpg
LONG-TIME MIDDLEBURY Police Officer Don Sweet is retiring this month after more than three decades of service. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury Police Officer Donnie Sweet’s beard is still fairly brown. And while his bullet-proof vest provides some padding, it doesn’t add quite enough girth for him to be mistaken for Santa Claus.

Still, the loquacious lawman epitomized the true spirit of giving among the younger officers on Christmas Day when he worked a double shift. Sweet’s kids are all grown, so the 31-year veteran of the department decided to help cover that coveted day on the calendar so greener folks on the force could share the holiday with their kids.

“They want to be home with the kids,” Sweet said during a recent interview. “(My family) has Christmas on another day.”

Middlebury police recently learned they will ring in the new year without their veteran colleague, longtime friend and occasional comedian. Sweet, 65, is retiring — effective this Friday, Dec. 29.

Sweet began his career in law enforcement back in 1983, as a deputy game warden for Addison County.

He had been working at the former Polymers plastics company off Route 116. It so happened that Ed Cyr — who retired from the Middlebury Police Department as a sergeant in 2009 — was also toiling at Polymers at the time.

“We were sworn enemies,” Sweet recalled with a chuckle. “He was a deputy game warden and I was a bit of a wild child, in my early 20s. We didn’t see eye to eye on anything.”

But as the years went by, Sweet — an avid hunter — got to thinking it might be neat to spend time in the woods in a state job.

“I thought, ‘Maybe (Ed Cyr’s) ideas weren’t so bad,” Sweet said.

He got to know the game warden for the Addison County area, a man named Densmore Gaiotti, who had the colorful nickname of “Bigfoot.”

Bigfoot encouraged Sweet to sign up as a deputy warden.

And he did.

But first, Sweet had to get his educational house in order. He had left high School at age 16, figuring he “knew everything, just like every 16-year-old.” He of course didn’t, and was told he needed a high school diploma or GED in order to become qualified as a deputy warden.

“I took all the course work to get my GED, thanks to my lovely wife (Cindi), and passed it within three months with very high scores,” Sweet said. “I was very proud of that.”

He then earned his certification as a deputy game warden. It was far from a glamor job. A lot of part-time, fill-in work with little compensation. But Cyr enjoyed it. It was about safety, communing with nature and making sure there was a level playing field for all hunters. He would occasionally work with uniformed police on suspected deer jackings and other criminal cases.

Sweet was content to stick with Polymers and his part-time Fish & Game gig — until Cyr suggested he broaden his law enforcement experience. Cyr at this point had signed on with Middlebury PD.

“He said, ‘Why don’t you come up and apply with us? We’re looking for part-timers,’” Sweet said.

He wasn’t immediately sold, but was after going on some ride-alongs with Middlebury officers.

And a career that once seemed anathema to Sweet had suddenly become a must-do.

Sweet applied, was accepted, went through the requisite Vermont State Police Academy training and became a part-time Middlebury officer on July 18, 1986. He joined the force full-time on May 14, 1989.

Academy training has given Sweet a foundation in policing, but he brought with him some natural inter-personal skills you just can’t teach.

A gregarious and fair man, Sweet’s sidearm is delightfully ornamental. He’s able to calm a potentially volatile situation with a grin, a joke, a pat on the back, or a short story. He not only knows every local, he knows their parents, their grandparents, and that day their kid lost a tooth in a snow bank. He should charge an entertainment fee for his homespun anecdotes, though his wife probably makes him pay for her to listen, at this point.

Sweet credits Bigfoot for instilling in him the law enforcement virtues of patience, fairness and empathy.

“You do as you’re supposed to by people,” Sweet said. “No vengeance; none of that stuff. (Gaiotti) said, ‘I won’t tolerate that when you work for me.’ His advice has served me well the last 30-some years I’ve been doing this.”

The late Al Watson was Middlebury police chief when Sweet became a full-timer. Current Chief Tom Hanley began his tenure in 1991, an era that ushered in new technology, more modern law enforcement tactics, and the practice of “community policing.” Each officer was assigned a section of town with which he or she would become particularly familiar. The idea was for neighborhoods to become more comfortable with, and trusting of, specific officers.

CHANGES IN TACTICS

Community policing suited Sweet just fine. He quickly forged strong bonds with folks in the neighborhoods he served, which included the Middlebury College campus and the Seymour Street area.

His domain included the Pine Meadows apartments, which around 25 years ago became a destination for many immigrants — primarily from Bosnia. These Bosnian Muslims sought refuge in Middlebury from a genocidal campaign in their homeland. Sweet sipped more than a few cups of tea and coffee at the dining room tables of these new transplants, some of whom couldn’t speak a sentence in English.

But when you’re a people person like Officer Sweet, there really isn’t a language barrier.

Pine Meadows was the site of one of the most tragic crimes in Middlebury history around 27 years ago — a double-murder/suicide. A man shot and killed another man and woman before turning the gun on himself. Sweet was called in to work that day.

“I had duty at the hospital, watching over the wounded,” Sweet recalled. “The lady who died — I knew her and knew her family. The doctors asked if I would give the notification (to next of kin), and I did. That was a hard time. People were scared.”

It was during the aftermath of the incident, which included counseling for Pine Meadows residents, that Sweet really got to know some of the local Bosnian families.

He quickly learned that (a) these folks had seen and endured such violence on an almost daily basis in their homeland and, (b) they treated law enforcement with a respect akin to reverence.

Sweet was given the chair of honor, in the center of a Bosnian family’s living room, during the meetings with counselors. He was offered coffee, tea or “fine cognac,” which he of course declined as he was on the job.

“I got some insight into what they had been through in Bosnia,” Sweet recalled. “One young fellow said, ‘I don’t know what the big deal is, we saw dead people all the time.’

“Some of the people said, ‘We are not afraid as long as you are here; we know you will protect us,’” Sweet added. “I had to remind them, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not here all the time.”

He got to be close friends with some of his Bosnian constituents, and developed an equally tight rapport with some of the Middlebury College students while he was on the campus beat. Sweet became their go-to person when anything went awry.

“The things I learned from the college kids; they accepted me,” Sweet said. “I could go anywhere at the college with their blessing… ”

While Sweet hadn’t continued his education beyond high school, he attended many college commencement ceremonies — to provide security, traffic control and to send off the new graduates who had confided in him their personal and professional goals.

“It was a wonderful experience,” he said.

Don Sweet has rolled with the punches throughout the years and has adapted to the various changes in law enforcement.

When he first started with Middlebury PD, the officers wrote their incident reports by hand. Computers would come later.

“We had pencils and a good sharpener,” he said with a grin.

Officers have also graduated from revolver side arms to semi-automatic weapons. Pepper spray replaced mace, which is giving way to Tasers as the main non-lethal tool for subduing the most uncooperative offenders.

“Going into the computer age was not real friendly for me,” said Sweet, though he has adapted out of necessity.

Back in the day, Middlebury police were headquarters in the dank, leaky basement of the old municipal building on College St. Prisoners had to be led up the steps to the public restrooms.

“That building was condemned before we left it,” he quipped.

The department has since moved to a more modern, spacious facility off Seymour Street. A new municipal building now stands at 77 Main St.

SWEET STORIES

When you’ve been on the beat for as long as Sweet, you come away with some stories.

Sweet has a bunch.

On more than one occasion, Sweet has seen drunken driving suspects call a relative or a friend for a ride home after having been booked at the station — only to see the “designated driver” show up more intoxicated than their would-be passenger.

There was that time years ago when he chased down a youth whom he had busted for possession of marijuana. That youth was angry, and wanted to get even with Sweet. One night, Sweet was working the night shift at the old PD headquarters when he heard the front door open and a commotion at the top of the stairs. He spotted the youth, who bolted out the door, but not before leaving Sweet a present. It’s a hand-sewn pig, with Sweet’s name on it.

“I laughed and set it on my desk as a keepsake,” Sweet chuckled.

A few years ago, Sweet was interviewing a woman at a local bank, who happened to be married to the infamous pig-gifter.

“I said, ‘Tell your husband I’ve still got that keepsake, and see what he tells you,’” Sweet said.

Indeed, not all of Sweet’s calls have involved people.

He recalled an alert to a former beauty salon at 56 College St. Some frightened people in the salon reported a deer trapped in the restroom. So Sweet cleared a lane to the back door and opened the bathroom door.

“That deer almost bowled me over getting out of there,” Sweet grinned.

Some of his best stories date back to his deputy game warden days.

There was that time Bigfoot called him to Sudbury to help him capture a bobcat. 

He arrives at the scene and Bigfoot and another guy are standing next to the large, pissed-off pussycat who has been caught by the leg. Bigfoot grabs a stick and tells his two nervous assistants to spread a canvass over the snarling feline and hold him down. The plan: Bigfoot is going to release the bobcat’s leg, then the guys are going to remove the canvass so the animal can walk back into the woods.

Sweet and his buddy do as they’re told.

The bobcat doesn’t.

“He starts walking over to us, and he’s mad,” Sweet said of the feline.

Then Bigfoot comes to the rescue.

“He pokes the bobcat in the ribs and tells him, “Get outta here!’” Sweet said.

Amazingly, it worked.

“I told (Gaiotti) ‘I’ll never trust you again,’” Sweet laughed.

Not all the stories are funny.

Sweet recalled the day he was asked to check on some alleged deer jackers in Salisbury. He located a group of suspects, but couldn’t reach his partner by radio. He figured he’d handle the case on his own. He turned on the blue lights to his vehicle and started walking up to the car where the deer jackers are located.

Suddenly, he hears a truck roar and it’s bearing down on him. Sweet dives to safety.

“There were seven of them and one of me,” Sweet said. “One of them had a gun in his hand.”

The suspects make their getaway.

Fortunately, Sweet and assisting police officers were able to track down all but one of the seven men.

Bigfoot advised him not to personally serve complaints to the suspects, but Sweet said it was something he had to do.

“If I don’t, I’ll never work alone in this county again,” Sweet said of his feeling at the time.

Well, it’s small county. One of the defendants in that caper delivered some firewood to the Sweet residence earlier this winter. And that was OK with Sweet.

The past is water under the bridge.

“Like anybody else I’ve ever dealt with, when it’s over, it’s done,” Sweet said.

He’s enjoyed every minute of his law enforcement career, but he believes it’s time to move on.

“If I could, I’d stay another 30 years,” Sweet said, but added his body isn’t recovering as fast from the rigors of police work.

He’ll have plenty to do in retirement.

In addition to traveling with wife Cindi, fishing and hunting, he’ll spend more time with their three grown children and his grandkids.

Sweet will miss his colleagues and his daily interactions with Middlebury residents.

“It’s the people of this town who have made it possible to enjoy what I do,” he said.

Hanley said Sweet will be missed.

“Don was ‘Old Reliable,’ never shirked a duty assignment, was always willing and able to take extra shifts and duty assignments — especially when the department was short-handed or during emergencies,” Hanley said. “He was an old-school police officer. This was a job he loved doing and he devoted himself to it... Having been raised in this area, he had a wealth of knowledge of the geography and of the many families who lived here. He had an uncanny ability to communicate across the generations with many of the area residents, and was thus trusted and respected as one of them. He never sought promotion, as doing the work of a patrol officer was something he loved and was good at.”

Middlebury police will host a get-together for Sweet at 3 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 29, at the police station.

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected] 

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