A homeless man with documented mental illness walked into Burlington City Hall on Monday, lit a newspaper on fire and damaged windows with a hammer, police said.
It happened Monday morning, shortly after Dennis Phillips, 62, was released from the crisis center at the University of Vermont Medical Center, according to an affidavit filed in criminal court. He'd visited the emergency department twice since the previous evening and was released both times.
Around 9:45 a.m. Phillips allegedly called 911 from inside the building and threatened to burn it down. He told the police dispatcher that he was lighting a fire because "the fucking hospital lets me go every time to [sic] go up there they won't help me," the affidavit said.
Responding officers found city employees stomping out two small fires on the floor in a hallway. Phillips was barricaded inside a small second-floor break room with a hammer, which he used to damage "antique" windows, causing between $1,500 and $2,000 in damage, the affidavit stated.
Police talked him into surrendering, then took him back to UVM Medical Center at his request. He faces charges of reckless endangerment, second-degree arson and felony unlawful mischief.
A department press release noted Phillips' criminal record and history of "police interactions."
“Today, Dennis Phillips put hardworking city employees at risk, and that is unacceptable,” Police Chief Jennifer Morrison said in a press release announcing his arrest. “His long history shows that he has repeatedly and consistently endangered the public. My officers are working closely with the office of the State’s Attorney to ensure that he faces consequences for committing arson in an occupied building.”
The incident occurred two days before Phillips was scheduled for a court hearing in a pending criminal case on whether or not he should be hospitalized for treatment of a mental health condition. State prosecutors and Phillips' public defender, Sara Puls, had previously agreed to a finding of insanity in the case, Puls said.
She described Phillips' stated frustration with trying to get help at the hospital as an "all-too-common series of events" that's the result of a broken mental health system.
"Trying to jam Mr. Phillips into the criminal justice system is just wrong," she said.
Phillips had appeared on track to receive an order for non-hospitalization, or court-ordered community treatment, for his pending case. His alleged actions on Monday "may change that calculus," Puls said.
The state has a short supply of in-patient treatment beds.
Puls said Phillips has been homeless for "quite some time," including periods when he lived out of his car. Phillips filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Burlington Police Department last year over an incident involving his car, but the case was quickly dismissed.
Police on Monday also issued Phillips a yearlong trespass order to keep away from city hall. He responded by telling officers and hospital staff that he would obtain a gun once the trespass period expired and go after the mayor, police alleged. He was not charged for making criminal threats.
Phillips is not the first man with mental health issues to scare city hall employees. In 2018, Christopher Hayden barged into city hall shouting for the "Jew" mayor to come face him. Mayor Miro Weinberger was visiting with high school students at the time. They were ushered out a side door.
Over the years, Hayden had repeatedly been found not mentally competent to stand trial.