A Burlington police officer fatally shot a 49-year-old man in the New North End yesterday evening after his mother called police to report that he had been acting irrationally, authorities said.
Wayne Brunette, a longtime Burlington resident, was killed two minutes after two police officers arrived at the home he shared with his parents on Randy Lane, in a quiet neighborhood tucked behind the Lyman Hunt Middle School, police said.
Brunette approached the officers in a “threatening manner,” while holding a “long-handled pointed spade shovel," Vermont State Police Major Glenn Hall said at a late morning press conference inside the Burlington police station.
Corporal Ethan Thibault, a 12-year-veteran, fired his .40 caliber Glock, killing Brunette. It was the first time Burlington police have fired their weapons at someone since 1997.
Corporal Brent Navari, a 10-year-veteran, did not fire. Neither officer was injured. Brunette was pronounced dead at the Fletcher Allen Health Care emergency department.
Burlington Police Chief Michael Schirling (pictured) said that, while the investigation is in its infancy, authorities currently believe Thibault followed the applicable rules and laws in firing at Brunette.
“Everything that we know so far indicates this was appropriate,” Schirling said. “(But) we will go where the evidence takes us.”
Authorities declined to specify how close Brunette was to the officers when he was shot.
When asked about the decision to fire a gun at a man holding a shovel, Schirling said that police officers across the country are taught that implements such as shovels, baseball bats and large branches can be used to seriously injure or kill officers and civilians.
“Every event unfolds differently, and we don’t draw direct lines between, ‘If this happens, do this,’” Schirling said. “There’s a continuum of response. It depends on what you’re facing … the speed of what you are facing.”
Authorities declined to disclose how many shots were fired, and how many hit Brunette. An autopsy is scheduled for later today.
Neighbors said that they heard between two and four gunshots shortly before 5 p.m., disrupting what had otherwise been a quiet evening.
Brunette lived in the home with his parents, Larry and Ruthine “Dolly” Brunette, neighbors said. The Brunettes could not be reached for comment at their home yesterday.
A tree in the front yard of the Brunette home yesterday was partially cut down. Neighbors said that Wayne Brunette had been attempting to chop down the tree, for unknown reasons, shortly before police arrived.
Dennis Hammond was building a cabinet in his garage when he heard a commotion from the Brunette home across the street. He said he heard what he thought were two gunshots, walked outside, and saw Brunette lying in the front lawn, with two officers standing near the curb, guns drawn.
“I shut off the saw. I thought I heard a gunshot, and then another one,” said Hammond, a longtime Randy Lane resident.
Within minutes, police had barricaded his street. Hammond, who said he spoke with Burlington police officers, remembered Brunette as a “quiet guy” who was rarely seen.
Paul Maynard said he thought he heard “three or four” shots while watching television inside his home across the street. He got up to watch the scene unfolding at the Brunette home.
“It startled me,” Maynard said. “It was rapid succession. I heard at least three. I heard officers saying, ‘Stay on the ground; help is on the way.’”
Brunette’s father, Larry Brunette, was outside and saw his son shot to death, Maynard said.
Per police department policy, Thibault and Navari are currently on paid administrative leave pending investigations by the Vermont State Police, which is examining whether the officers violated criminal law, and by the Burlington Police Department, which is exploring whether officers violated department policy.
There were civilian eyewitnesses to the shooting, including members of Brunette’s family, said Hall, who is supervising the inquiry into the officers’ actions.
Hall declined to discuss whether he thought the officers acted appropriately, saying the inquiry was only beginning. Asked whether a shovel constituted a potential deadly weapon, Hall said, “It certainly could be.”
Burlington police had dealings with Brunette in the past, Schirling said, but not for several years. Authorities declined to discuss his mental health status.
Brunette was arrested in March 2001 and charged with a felony use of destructive device, according to Chittenden Superior Court records. Police allegedly found six homemade bombs in his Randy Lane home, and his wife told police that her husband believed that the water supply was drugged and that he was on a mission from God, the Burlington Free Press reported. He pleaded not guilty and was ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation and hospitalized after Judge James Crucitti ruled him mentally ill, according to court records. The charges were eventually dismissed.
Brunette was also arrested and charged with aggravated assault on police, resisting arrest, attempted simple assault and disorderly conduct in 2003, according to court records. Those charges were also dropped.
Police yesterday said that Dolly Brunette called police at 4:19 p.m. Wednesday and reported her son was “destroying property.”
Thibault and Navari arrived five minutes later and quickly made contact with Brunette outside the home, police said.
The officers issued “multiple verbal commands,” telling Brunette to drop the shovel, but he did not comply.
At 4:29 p.m., the officers reported “shots fired, suspect down” and requested rescue.
Vermont State Police arrived on the scene at 4:42 p.m.
The Vermont State Police criminal inquiry will be reviewed by both the Vermont Attorney General’s Office and the Chittenden County State’s Attorney’s Office.
The Burlington Police Department has begun a pilot program in which some officers wear body cameras. Neither officer involved in the shooting had been assigned a camera, Schirling said.
Burlington police officers also carry Tasers — stun guns that are sometimes used to subdue threatening suspects. Schirling and Hall declined to discuss why they were not used.
Asked how his officers were doing in the wake of the incident, Schirling said, “They’re holding up OK.”
“It’s a devastating event,” he said of the officers, adding, “not as devastating as it is for the family. This is not the kind of thing you expect to happen in Burlington when they came into work.”
About 20 Burlington police officers responded to the scene after the shooting, Schirling said.
Authorities said they would likely release more information early next week.
Photo of Burlington Police Chief Michael Schirling by Matthew Thorsen