Sheriff Steps Forward; Sheriff Steps Forward; Sheriff Steps Forward; Sheriff Steps Forward, Starts County ‘SIU’

Front Page / Oct. 23, 2008 12:00am EDT

By Sandy Vondrasek


Sheriff Steps Forward;

Starts County ‘SIU

By Sandy Vondrasek

Sheriff Bill Bohnyak has decided that Orange County shouldn’t have to wait any longer to have its own special investigative unit (SIU) to address complaints of "child abuse, sex crimes, domestic violence, and crimes against those with physical or developmental disabilities."

So, Sheriff Bohnyak announced Tuesday that he is stepping forward—with lots of personal commitment, the support of several victims’ groups in the county, but, so far, no funding—to form the County of Orange Special Investigative Unit.

Following the guidelines of a 2006 law mandating the formation of SIUs throughout Vermont by mid-2009, the Orange County unit will be a "multi-disciplinary" service, Bohnyak said Tuesday. COSIU, he said, will offer victim and family support services, as well as criminal investigations by a trained officer.

Bohnyak said his office will provide a 20-hour-per-week investigator, Lt. Tracy Simon, to handle the law enforcement component of the unit. Bohnyak said this week that Simon, certified as a full-time officer for 18 years, has in the past handled child and sexual abuse cases. She has had training in "child exploitation" and in sexual abuse investigations, he said, and will seek additional training in the future.

Interest in the 2006 law mandating SIUs soared this year, following the July 25 kidnapping and death of 12-year-old Brooke Bennett of Braintree. Federal prosecutors have charged her 42-year-old uncle, a convicted sex offender, with the crime.

The case elicited a groundswell of popular support for mandatory sentences for offenders. However, in testimony this summer before the Senate Judiciary Committee, county prosecutors, Atty. General Atty. Gen. William Sorrell, and victims’ advocates said that dedicated, investigative units were essential to getting more convictions in the first place.

Although the 2006 law mandated creation of SIUs statewide, it only allocated start-up funding for the units. Some regions and counties have taken steps to establish SIUs, but at present, there are only two fully functioning units in the state, the Chittenden Unit for Special Investigations and Northwest Unit for Special Investigations in St. Albans.

Do Something

Sheriff Bohnyak said this week that his decision to move forward was motivated in part by the Bennett case, and his perception that the community was looking to him "as a law enforcement leader in the county to do something."

In fact, the 2006 law charges "the department of state’s attorneys and sheriffs" with collaborating with "law enforcement agencies, investigative agencies, victims’ advocates and social service providers" to establish the SIUs.

Bohnyak said another impetus for stepping forward was the likelihood that, under current plans, Orange County towns would be splintered off into three different SIUs, due to the location of state police barracks, and of social service agencies.

Bohnyak said that he felt that it made sense to have one county-based program.

He conceded that Orange County State’s Atty. Will Porter had already taken steps to align northern Orange County towns with an SIU being formed to serve Essex, Caledonia, and Orleans Counties.

State’s Atty. Porter could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Bohnyak said he felt that "as the sheriff, if I don’t ask for this now, the county will be split up in three again, and once again, the citizens will be left out in the cold."

Bonhyak also pledged to work with other law enforcement agencies, and he noted that the "lapping" jurisdictions of those agencies are a part of the "delicate situation" in the county. The Vermont State Police barracks in Royalton, he agreed, had its own investigator to handle SIU-type cases.

Noting that the SIU needed a full-time investigator, Bohnyak said he anticipated, at least initially, a division of duties.

Lt. Simon would handle cases "that come into the sheriff’s office," he said. "If VSP gets the call, it’s their case."

Lt. Bill Harkness, commander of the Royalton barracks, said this week that he could not comment Bohnyak’s proposal, since he did not yet know any details.

Like Bohnyak, Lt. Harkness noted the importance of "qualified, competent investigators" to handle sexual violence and child abuse cases.

He noted his barracks had a "dedicated" detective who handles these cases, but that that officer was also a "full-time trooper" with other patrol duties.

The state, he said, will have to provide more funding in order to staff the mandated SIUs.

Harkness also pointed out that "divided counties," were hardly a rarity in Vermont, so far as law enforcement goes. The Royalton barracks, he said, covers 20 towns in three counties.

Bohnyak’s decision to create a one-county SIU comes with the enthusiastic support of the executive directors of two victims’ advocacy groups in the county, Safeline Inc. and the Orange County Domestic and Sexual Violence Task Force. Both groups have pledged to offer victims’ services to the SIU, and Bohnyak said that Safeline’s Nancy Lynch and he planned to work together on finding grant funding for the new SIU, which will be established as a non-profit.

Jennifer Beaudin Ring, the Task Force’s director, this week expressed her "absolute" support of Bohnyak’s plan.

"The sheriff has been involved with the Task Force a number of years, he’s been a great supporter," she said. "He is very dedicated and knowledgeable about the issues, and he clearly sees the important need—because of the unique nature of sexual violence and the unique rural nature of Orange County—for a special unit."

Ring noted that the sheriff’s office already has a "child-friendly" space that is used by investigators to interview juvenile victims, and that several advocacy groups, including her own, were "very excited" to collaborate on this project.

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