Prosecutor to lose three key staffers
MIDDLEBURY — Two deputy prosecutors and a victims’ advocate will soon be leaving the Addison County State’s Attorney’s Office to pursue other career opportunities.
Addison County State’s Attorney Dennis Wygmans is contending with this impending staff turnover at a time when his own professional future has been clouded by an upcoming recount of ballots in a super-close, Nov. 6 election between himself and Middlebury independent Peter Bevere. Wygmans, a South Burlington Democrat, prevailed on Election Day by a nine-vote margin (7,802 to 7,793). To no one’s surprise, Bevere on Tuesday formally requested a recount that’s likely to occur at the Frank Mahady Courthouse next week.
Meanwhile, Addison County Deputy State’s Attorneys Christopher Perkett and Rebecca Otey are preparing to transition to their own private law practice in Bristol. Otey, who joined Wygmans’s staff last year to prosecute domestic and sexual violence cases, will be stepping down next month. Perkett, hired back in 2004 by former Addison County State’s Attorney John Quinn, will be stepping away in early January.
Otey and Perkett will become partners in a new law firm called OPLaw LLP, based at 25 Mountain View St. in Bristol.
Also moving on will be Victims’ Advocate Jennifer Ricard, who has accepted a full-time position with benefits in her home state of Rhode Island, according to Wygmans.
Otey, Perkett and Ricard all announced their respective departure plans prior to the Nov. 6 election.
“I have been very fortunate to work as both a colleague and supervisor of these three employees, and I am very happy for them as they pursue new challenges, as I know they will all be successful,” Wygmans stated through a recent email.
Perkett said he and Otey had been discussing a professional collaboration for several months. Both have had past experience in private practice. Both are familiar with the Addison County court system.
During an interview on Tuesday, Perkett said the job switch will provide him with a nice change of pace compared to the often-hectic schedule of a prosecutor. He acknowledged having thought about a job switch for several years, but he’d become accustomed to his role.
“Being in a place as long as I have, it gets to be very comfortable,” Perkett said. “I know how to do the job (of deputy prosecutor), and I know how to do it well.”
Perkett had explored other opportunities at established law firms, but couldn’t find the right fit — until this past summer. He and Otey, who had become friends as well as colleagues, compared professional goals and realized they were on the same page.
“It seemed like a natural thing that we would work together (in a cooperative venture),” Perkett said.
Otey’s part-time deputy prosecutor’s position is funded through a federal grant that is subject to periodic renewal. And there are no guarantees these days when it comes to federal budget allocations.
“The way the federal government was going, there was real uncertainty about whether the funding (for Otey’s job) would get renewed this year,” Perkett said. “It’s always a little bit in doubt, as to whether you’re going to have a job five years from now, two years from now and even five minutes from now.”
He recalled a federal government shutdown several years ago that resulted in a 16-day furlough of one of the county’s deputy prosecutors.
“That’s never a position you want to be in,” he said.
So the two deputies found an office location and are poised to open in January.
Otey attended the University of Iowa College of Law and began practicing in Miami. Her resumé includes jobs with the Miami (Fla.) Public Defender’s Office, a law firm in Coral Gables, Fla., and as a Judge Advocate General with the United States Air Force stationed at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. During her active duty tour, Otey gained additional experience in trial litigation, wills and estates, civil law, labor law and other fields of practice.
Still a reservist, she and her husband, Bristol Police Officer Josh Otey, have two children.
Perkett, an attorney since 1997, has tried more than 100 cases. He practiced law in Oregon prior to joining the Addison County State’s Attorney Office. He and his wife have a young son.
OPLaw LLP will handle wills, estates, trusts, employment law, civil and criminal litigation, and family law. The future partners have already been approached by a few prospective clients.
“I’m excited, but a little nervous as well,” Perkett said of his career move.
Serving as a deputy prosecutor has been both a pleasure and an education, Perkett said. And one of the biggest lessons he’s learned is that each case that comes before the court has its own nuances.
NOT BLACK AND WHITE
“Over time I’ve really come to realize that in criminal justice, there’s very little that’s black and white,” Perkett said. “Ninety-five percent of the people we deal with aren’t there because of insidious evil or anything like that. They’re just people who’ve made really bad choices based on a slew of reasons — whether it’s alcoholism or drug abuse or poverty or desperation. The vast majority of them need a second chance and they need someone to show them the way. And that’s why in Vermont, we’ve always focused on rehabilitation.”
He won’t miss the irregular hours and large caseloads that go along with being a prosecutor. And Perkett added his exit has been hastened in part by what he sees as a general lack of legislative support for state’s attorney’s offices. He was candid in voicing his belief that some state lawmakers look upon prosecutors as an overzealous group that “wants to put a lot of people in jail.”
Perkett counters that prosecutors reach plea deals with more than 90 percent of defendants and stress rehabilitation over jail time. He said state’s attorney’s offices have faced a lot of pushback on proposed budget increases to more effectively deal with the growing complexity of cases influenced by such factors as opioid abuse.
“The level of disrespect to myself and to the other deputies finally made it easier for me to decide, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this anymore,’” Perkett said.
Still, he’ll look back fondly on the sense of teamwork that he’s experienced in his job.
“It makes me feel like part of a team that’s helping protect my community,” Perkett said of a prosecutor’s role. “While you can do great work as a private attorney helping individuals, you’re not really protecting the community as whole, as part of that bigger team.”
One case in particular stands out among the scores Perkett has helped prosecute as part of the state’s attorney’s office.
It involved Charlotte resident George Dean Martin, who was ultimately convicted of boating while intoxicated with death resulting after having capsized his hybrid sail/motorboat in Lake Champlain on July 4, 2002. It was an accident that resulted in the deaths of two of the boat’s passengers on the boat, 9-year-old Melissa Mack and her 4-year-old brother, Trevor.
“It was a huge case, with a lot of emotion involved,” Perkett recalled of the 2004 trial.
Perkett never ran for Addison County state’s attorney, believing it would be poor form to run against his boss. But he did apply for the job twice: when Quinn retired in 2009, and again early in 2017 when then-State’s Attorney David Fenster was picked as a Vermont Superior Court judge. In both cases, the presiding governor at the time selected someone else as the county’s top prosecutor — Fenster in 2009 and Wygmans in 2017.
Perkett wasn’t shocked to have lost out to Fenster in 2009, saying “I could see there were headwinds against me on the experience level.”
But he was very disappointed when then-Gov. Peter Shumlin passed him over in 2017.
“The second time was more of a surprise,” Perkett said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].