Prosecutor shifts from clubs to courts; Addison County state’s attorney shares his story
MIDDLEBURY — Dennis Wygmans had always envisioned himself as someone who would bring entertainment to the masses, whether as co-owner of the former Burlington nightclub Club Toast or as a budding attorney looking to represent rising stars in the music industry.
But about 10 years ago, Wygmans flipped the script. He decided to make the courtroom his new stage, where real-life dramas play out for the highest of stakes — justice.
Addison County’s new state’s attorney recently took some time to recount his journey from barrooms to posh legal offices to the Frank Mahady Courthouse in Middlebury, where he and his staff are handling a full docket of cases that routinely range from larceny to aggravated sexual assault.
Wygmans said he relishes the work, and he is spearheading changes in the manner in which defendants are prosecuted, particularly the processes for substance abusers and people with mental health problems.
“This is the first job I’ve loved since owning my own nightclub,” Wygmans said during a recent interview. “Working as a prosecutor is very rewarding in a lot of ways.”
He had grown accustomed to late nights operating Club Toast, which introduced Vermont to a number of talented bands during its six-year run. Now Wygmans is learning that a state’s attorney can also keep strange hours. His interview with the Independent began at 8:30 a.m., and he had already been on the job for around five hours, working with police in the aftermath of a high-speed chase in Bristol.
But it comes with the territory, and Wygmans has shown himself to be adaptable.
The University of Vermont graduate has always loved the music scene. He spun records at UVM’s radio station, WRUV 90.1 FM, and freelanced as a disc jockey at nightspots around Burlington.
“I has always wanted to work in that industry, from when I was a child,” he recalled. “I attended a lot of concerts and was fascinated by the production and promotion of a show. I knew a lot of musicians. It seemed like a natural progression.”
He and his brother, Justin, decided to become invested in the local entertainment during the early 1990s, when they opened Club Toast.
“It was really popular,” Wygmans said. “We (featured) bands from all over the planet. That was our deal.”
But the brothers arrived at a crossroads in 1998. In order to really prosper, they felt they needed to either put on bigger shows at larger venues, or expand their small empire to include other bars.
“It’s hard to make it off of just one venture,” Wygmans said. “My brother didn’t have much of a stomach for doing larger concert production. The risk was just too much for him to handle. And we didn’t really want to be in the bar business.”
So Justin went into construction and Dennis — following a brief detour to Massachusetts — began studying law at Seton Hall University in New Jersey in 2001.
His goals were to practice entertainment-related law and represent artists trying to sign with record labels. The vocation had potential when Wygmans entered law school, but it faded due to several factors: People began to download music through the Internet, and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 allowed media companies to consolidate radio stations and blocks of artists.
“It eroded independent music in many ways,” Wygmans said of the new federal law. “Then you had the downloading on top of it and a very poor industry response to that.”
At the same time, entertainment lawyers saw their insurance rates go up precipitously, due in part to what Wygmans called the “puffery” that some in the industry practiced.
“It became very expensive to get insurance to represent artists, if you were going to shop them, and a lot of firms were not going to shop artists any longer,” Wygmans said.
Still, Wygmans eventually caught on with a large firm in New York City that prepared and reviewed contracts. He was working long hours for a nice paycheck. But he was among the many corporate lawyers laid off during the economic crisis in 2009. He and his spouse, Nicole, had just had a child. He didn’t want to work again in corporate law, which he found “very boring.”
ON THE MOVE
So the family decided to roll the dice on its next adventure.
“We figured we’d pick a spot to move between Philadelphia and Portland, Maine,” Wygmans recalled.
Their destination was set when Nicole found a job as a dean at Marlboro College in Brattleboro. Since Wygmans is a native Vermonter who grew up in Jericho, he was happy to come back home.
But he needed to sort out his next career move.
“I did a couple months of soul searching,” Wygmans said.
He decided to go into criminal law, but needed a license to practice in Vermont. He clerked for attorney Dan Davis in Brattleboro, and passed the bar exam.
The first major full-time gig for the newly minted criminal lawyer came in 2013, when he was hired as an Addison County deputy state’s attorney.
“I had never pictured myself being a courtroom lawyer,” Wygmans said. “I really thought I’d be a ‘corporate, behind-the-scenes, doing-the-deals guy.’ The bandleader, not member. I was always a behind-the-scenes person. The criminal law thing was something totally new, but it’s very interesting work, it is, I dare say, entertaining. There are always intellectual challenges, factual challenges. I am one of those people who thrives in a challenging atmosphere. I have really enjoyed it. I have made the right choice.”
Wygmans became the office’s point person in prosecuting sex crimes and domestic violence cases. It is the latter category of crimes that Wygmans found most perplexing.
“I think people in the general community tend to miscomprehend what the motivations are in a number of those offenses, and it’s hard to see people purposefully put themselves in harm’s way and remain in a very destructive environment,” Wygmans said of domestic cases. “That’s what a lot of victims of domestic violence do. I am not judging anyone … but it’s still hard to watch, and it’s hard to see happen.”
After three years on the job in Addison County, Wygmans wanted to broaden the scope of his legal work. So this past December, he successfully applied for a deputy state’s attorney job in Chittenden County, where he began taking on a wide range of criminal cases.
His departure from the Frank Mahady Courthouse was short-lived, however.
On his way out the door, Wygmans had applied for the Addison County’s top prosecutor job when David Fenster was named to a Vermont Superior Court judgeship.
Gov. Peter Shumlin picked Wygmans from a list that included longtime Addison County Deputy State’s Attorney Chris Perkett.
Shumlin named Wygmans to the job this past January. He said he and Perkett continue to have a good working relationship.
“I told Chris before I put my hat into the ring,” Wygmans said.
He knows his way around the local courthouse, so he hasn’t had to negotiate a learning curve.
“I like the pace here. You can spend some real time on cases,” Wygmans said.
ON THE JOB
The county’s new state’s attorney, in just less than four months, has already put his imprint on the office.
He’s implementing a new driving-with-suspended-license (DLS) policy for offenders that allows them to get back on the road if they comply with a contract that includes paying off their fines.
“We’ve moved toward a policy of forgiveness if someone can be reinstated in a six-month period after arrest,” Wygmans said, “Some people have taken advantage of it already.”
The main advantages of the new policy, according to Wygmans: Getting people back in the driver’s seat helps them remain employed.
“Handing out tickets one after the other hasn’t done anything for that particular individual when they have reached a point of criminal DLS,” Wygmans said. “We are in a rural county; people are going to drive.”
He also told the Independent of his plans for a “treatment court” for offenders struggling with addiction. Eligible defendants would be those considered high-risk for relapses, and who have been judged as good prospects for sticking with a treatment program, according to Wygmans.
If the defendant fails the program, he or she is essentially assured jail time, according to Wygmans.
There’s not enough money to make the new program fly in Addison County, so it will be coordinated up north.
“We have gotten a commitment from the folks in Chittenden County to take our cases,” he said. “That’s still in the works, but we expect by this summer to be able to offer people who qualify the option (of a treatment court).”
He expects a fairly small number of people will qualify for the new court due to its tough acceptance standards.
“It’s a rigorous vetting progress,” Wygmans said. “You meet twice with the judge (in Chittenden County) and give progress reports. You have to show real progress in changing your life. It can take a long time — two or three years. In some cases, it might be easier to just go to jail than to engage in this process. But for those who are committed, there’s a very high success rate.”
Another one of Wygmans’ priorities: Devising a “mental health option” for defendants whose offenses can be linked to mental health issues. Wygmans is working with the Counseling Service of Addison County to design such a program.
“I think our responses to mental health are woefully inadequate,” he said. “(Criminal court) is the only solution available now.”
Since taking the top job, Wygmans has been looking at local crime trends. One such trend, according to Wygmans, has been a spike in drunken-driving cases. He believes the county could benefit from a renewed education campaign on the dangers of drinking and driving.
He is also concerned about the number of drug-related cases he is seeing.
“Drug abuse is tearing people apart,” he said.
Asked to describe his philosophy on punishment in criminal cases, Wygmans gave the following response: “If it’s a violent case, I’m not going to show a lot of compassion. But when it comes to petty crimes, I’d rather see (a punishment) that leads someone down a path to rehabilitation, as opposed to incarceration. Jail can be a pretty disruptive force.”
Wygmans is looking forward to spending a lot of time in the courtroom during the months and years to come. He’s had his fill of nightclubs and law firm suites.
“I think I can safely say, having practiced in a few different areas, that there’s no job as an attorney that’s as fun as working in criminal law,” Wygmans said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]
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