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New county investigator will pursue assault and sex crimes

MIDDLEBURY — State and local police are getting a big assist in their investigations of domestic assault and sexual abuse cases thanks to a newly created service based in the Addison County Sheriff’s Department headquarters.
It’s called the Addison County Unit for Special Investigations, or ACUSI, and it includes a part-time investigator to help area law enforcement agencies bring to justice perpetrators of assault and sex crimes against adults and children.
It was on May 26, 2006, that then-Gov. James Douglas of Middlebury signed a law calling for “Special Investigative Units,” or SIUs, to be established in counties throughout the state by 2009.
But it took longer than expected to set up Addison County’s special investigative unit, in part due to a lack of appropriate space in which to locate the service. The search for a good spot ended last fall when Addison County Sheriff Don Keeler offered to accommodate ACUSI in around 1,300 square feet of renovated former jail space within his department’s headquarters on Court Street in Middlebury. That space has been divided into an interview room for teen and adult victims; a children’s interview room, a waiting room; and offices.
“We would not have been able to do this without (Keeler’s) active support,” said Fred Saar, executive director of ACUSI. “We feel very fortunate to have this space and to be housed here.”
The Addison County jail closed last year after the expiration of a 15-year contract with the U.S. Marshals Service, which meant the facility no longer housed federal detainees awaiting trial for various offenses, ranging from white collar crimes to drug trafficking.
So the ACUSI seemed like a good way to repurpose some of the space, Keeler noted.
“With the jail closing, it was an ideal opportunity to bring it here and make it happen,” said Keeler, who helped refurbish the space. “It was a win-win for everybody.”
Keeler and Saar also feel fortunate to have landed an experienced professional to serve as ACUSI’s lead investigator. Retired Vermont State Police Det. Sgt. Ruth Whitney routinely conducted such investigations for 10 years with the VSP. She also previously worked for the Middlebury Police Department and most recently served as a deputy at the Addison County Courthouse.
“When this (ACUSI) position opened up, Don asked if I would be interested in it,” said Whitney, who eagerly accepted and has settled well into the role. Since coming on board in mid-December, Whitney has already helped area police departments process more than a dozen assault/sex abuse cases.
Whitney does not arbitrarily take over cases, but rather is at the disposal of local departments when they need a hand in investigating assault and sex abuse allegations. Local police departments are often running on tight budgets with limited personnel and are therefore grateful to accept the extra help. Whitney’s duties include interviewing witnesses and the accused, as well as working with other agencies — such as the Vermont Center for Crime Victims, WomenSafe, the Counseling Service of Addison County, the Vermont Department of Probation and Parole, and the Vermont Department of Children and Families (DCF) — that are customarily involved in the process.
“If (the police departments) are overloaded … they know they can call me to pick up the case,” said Whitney, who is on a 30-hour-per-week schedule.
Asked what she finds most rewarding about her work, Whitney said, “Making someone accountable for victimizing a child or an adult.”
A LOCAL RESOURCE
Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel said Whitney was a big help in taking on two recent cases “that would have been manpower-intensive. We were right in the middle of some other stuff and it made a huge difference for us. Right on the heels of that, she got another case at Vergennes Union Elementary School and helped us out with that. She did a really good job for us and was really helpful.”
Bristol Police Chief Kevin Gibbs has, by necessity, been the lead investigator in all of the major assault/sex crime cases in Bristol for the past 25 years. He credited Whitney with helping him clear up a three-year backlog of major cases that he had been unable to complete due to his other responsibilities on the small force.
“She has been a really handy resource for me, and probably will be in the future,” Gibbs said.
Lisa Lax, director of the local Family Services Division of the Department of Children and Families (DCF), said recent crime trends bear out the need for ACUSI. She said that in Addison County during 2012, her office received 607 reports of child abuse and neglect. Of those, 191 resulted in the DCF intervening for child safety reasons. Forty-two of the reports involved allegations of sexual abuse of a child and 32 related to physical abuse reports.
“Most of the accepted reports involving child sexual abuse necessitate law enforcement involvement and could thus potentially be supported by an SIU,” Lax said. “Fortunately only a few of the reports involving physical abuse necessitate law enforcement involvement, since most are not serious injuries. By serious injuries we mean head trauma, broken bones, severe bruising, etc.”
Indeed, ACUSI is dealing with some of the more disturbing crimes in society, being committed in the shadows.
“It’s a topic nobody really wants to talk about,” Saar said. “The focus of the SIU really is to minimize the impact of these events on the kids.”
That means interviewing the young victims gently and in an environment that is not intimidating. Organizers of the ACUSI believe they have found that setting at the sheriff’s department. A space that was once very institutional and surrounded by metal bars and heavy doors is now open, brightly painted, non-threatening, and equipped with toys and other props to put victims at ease.
“The idea is not to re-traumatize the children and adult victims with the investigation,” Lax said.
Vermont’s SIUs are funded through state grants. The ACUSI in its first cycle has received a $93,790 grant that has included start-up costs, such as new furniture. Repeated annual state funding appears secure, according to Saar.
Addison County State’s Attorney David Fenster is pleased to see ACUSI up and running. The added personnel and interview room — which allows for proceedings to be videotaped for court scrutiny — should lead to stronger cases for the state to prosecute, Fenster believes.
“It is going to be very helpful to have this facility available,” he said.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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