An Essex man allegedly used racial slurs against a convenience store clerk, pointed a loaded handgun at her and threatened to shoot anyone who came after him before driving off early Tuesday, according to court filings.
Essex police later arrested Sheldon Rheaume in a Hannaford parking lot. Officers found the 23-year-old wearing a tactical vest and with a loaded 9-millimeter pistol in his car.
During a court appearance later Tuesday morning, a shackled Rheaume, wearing a white T-shirt and jean shorts, listened quietly and occasionally looked up at Judge David Fenster. Rheaume faces charges of aggravated assault and reckless endangerment, offenses that carry heftier potential prison sentences for him because prosecutors consider the crimes motivated by hate.
In court documents, deputy Chittenden County state's attorney Zoe Newman argued Rheaume poses a continuing threat to the public.
"[Rheaume] went into a store, seemingly at random, and, unprovoked ... held a loaded gun to the victim's head because of her race and/or ethnicity," Newman wrote.
At the urging of the Chittenden County State's Attorney's office, Fenster ordered Rheaume held without bail.
According to an affidavit filed at Vermont Superior Court in Burlington, Rheaume walked into a Maplefields convenience store in Essex early Tuesday and noticed a clerk, a 27-year-old woman of color, sitting in a chair behind the counter.
Rheaume allegedly called the clerk a "lazy nigger bitch" and walked out of the store to speak with a male employee. That person allegedly told investigators that Rheaume complained about the clerk, "repeatedly referring to her as 'nigger.'"
When the woman went outside to where the two men were standing, police say, Rheaume pulled a pistol from his pocket, pointed it at her and said: "I'll handle you."
Before he drove away, according to the affidavit, Rheaume said, "Come send anyone you want after me and I'll shoot them," and then took a "tactical vest with ballistic plates" from his car and put it on.
Tuesday wasn't Rheaume's first time bearing arms or sporting a tactical vest in public. His photo appeared at the top of an April story in the Burlington Free Press about a gun rights rally in South Burlington. He was shown standing along Shelburne Road wearing the vest and holding an AR-15.
At the same rally, Rheaume gave an interview to ABC- and Fox-affiliated Local 22 & Local 44.
"This isn't an evil rifle," he told the TV station as he hefted the weapon. "It's a tool."
Rheaume faces a maximum of five years in prison on the aggravated assault charge and one year in prison for reckless endangerment.
In Vermont, a hate crime designation can add more time to prison sentences. Rheaume faces up to two additional years because of his allegedly racist motives.