Questions Persist About Police Investigation Into Ralph Jean-Marie's Disappearance | Crime | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Questions Persist About Police Investigation Into Ralph Jean-Marie's Disappearance

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A demonstrator at last week's rally in Burlington - COLIN FLANDERS ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Colin Flanders ©️ Seven Days
  • A demonstrator at last week's rally in Burlington

Exactly one year to the day after a Black man in Barre vanished, local officials gathered members of the media for an update on the case.

Standing on the front lawn of the Hollow Inn & Motel, where Ralph "Rizz" Jean-Marie was last seen, Barre City Police Chief Tim Bombardier and Washington County State's Attorney Rory Thibault said the press conference was meant to drum up new interest and leads in the 38-year-old's disappearance. But the two men also spent considerable time defending their investigation, arguing that they were doing everything in their power to find Jean-Marie.

"We've conducted over 56 interviews," Bombardier said. "We've done multiple searches — close to 30 searches — of different areas, including search warrants and outdoor searches, with canine teams, people, scuba teams and aerial drones. A lot of time and effort has been put into this case."

His comments appeared aimed at a dozen or so activists and community members in the crowd, who have accused the police of neglecting Jean-Marie's case because of his race and socioeconomic status. Authorities have deemed the disappearance "suspicious" but said they are no closer to solving it than the day it was reported; they've yet to identify a potential crime scene, find anyone who wanted to harm Jean-Marie, or determine whether he's alive or dead.

"It's easy to say that that is indicative of a lack of effort, or a lack of resolve, on the part of law enforcement," Thibault said. "Nothing could be further from the truth. No single case has had more resources devoted to it by Barre City than the disappearance of Mr. Jean-Marie." 

Both officials said it will take someone coming forward with new information to break the case. "I wish I could say that no stone is left unturned," Thibault said. "But look around us. There are stones everywhere. There are people everywhere."

Some of those stones are living and breathing — and are still waiting to be turned. On the same day as the press conference, a woman who lives directly across the street from the motel told Seven Days that detectives never interviewed her. Another neighbor two houses down said he, too, was not interviewed. Nor was a man whose backyard abuts the property. 

Seven Days spoke with six people who live in different homes within 100 yards of the motel who had not been contacted by the police about Jean-Marie's disappearance. Several said months passed before they even learned someone was missing. 

During an interview at the police station last week, Bombardier said his department interviewed the motel's residents — many of whom, including Jean-Marie and his longtime girlfriend, were staying there with the help of a state voucher program for people experiencing homelessness. But Bombardier, a former chief criminal investigator with the Vermont State Police, did not know whether his detectives spoke to residential neighbors because, he said, he never thought to ask. "That had not been brought to my attention until today," he said. 

He later confirmed that the department had not canvassed the residential neighborhood. Asked whether this was a mistake, Bombardier replied that it is "always good to talk to more people than less." He said detectives would perform the interviews in the coming days: "I just think it escaped their thought process."

A year later, none of the neighbors who spoke to Seven Days recalled anything notable about the night Jean-Marie disappeared. But the fact that police skipped this rudimentary step has further convinced some people that Jean-Marie's case isn't a top priority because he is an impoverished Black man. 

"I'm really, really mad," said Fabiola Williams, a cousin of Jean-Marie who lives in Massachusetts. "Why are they not interviewing these people? Why not go and knock on doors?"

"The fact that Ralph is Black — that's why this case has gone dead," she said.

One neighbor, who requested anonymity to avoid drawing the attention of people she believes are engaging in criminal behavior at the motel, said she was "surprised, but not surprised" that police never interviewed her. Asked to elaborate, she alluded to the color of Jean-Marie's skin and said, "I don't think there's been much urgency."

Lee Morrigan, a Burlington activist working to draw awareness to Jean-Marie's case, put it more bluntly. "That's why I don't trust them to handle this case," Morrigan said of the police. "They can't even do the fucking bare minimum."

Little is known for certain about Jean-Marie's disappearance. Police have not ruled out the possibility of suicide but say no one recalled him ever speaking of depression or taking his own life. And the fact that his wallet, eyeglasses and medication were found at the motel suggests something more sinister than a purposeful departure, authorities say.

Ralph Jean-Marie - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Ralph Jean-Marie

The search for Jean-Marie has been complicated by a number of factors, officials say, starting with the initial report of his disappearance. A friend notified police Jean-Marie was missing on the evening of April 15, 2020, at which point he had not been seen nor heard from in nearly three days. Jean-Marie's girlfriend, Bridget Huckins, later told police that she last saw him walking away from the motel after they had a dispute around 1 a.m. on April 13.

"We stand here today having to question what evidence was lost, what opportunities were missed, in the 60 hours that the people who knew him did not report him missing," Thibault said at last week's press conference. 

Police also doubt the veracity of their witnesses. Bombardier said it's possible Jean-Marie didn't leave the motel alive.

"Does [her] story make sense to you?" Bombardier said of Huckins. "That [Jean-Marie] left all those things behind?"

Seven Days' attempts to reach Huckins were unsuccessful. She was jailed last August — four months after Jean-Marie's disappearance — following an arrest for allegedly selling fentanyl-laced heroin to an Orange County man who died from an overdose. She was later released to home detention, and the case is pending.

Last fall, state's attorney Thibault pursued a confidential court process known as a criminal inquest that sought to compel testimony under oath. The prosecutor said at the time that he believed some witnesses were withholding information. Crime scene investigators also pored over the motel room looking for evidence of foul play. Thibault and Bombardier declined to detail those efforts but said they brought the case no closer to a conclusion.

Meanwhile, a swirl of rumors has sometimes sent detectives down rabbit holes in the name of due diligence. Facebook posts about Jean-Marie are filled with wild theories about his disappearance. Tipsters have even sent police videos and photos that they claim show Jean-Marie being killed, according to Thibault. One turned out to be a scene from a movie; another was a picture from a country in the Middle East. 

"Those are all things that, on face value, don't really look that credible," Thibault said in an interview. Police have worked to rule them out anyway, he said, to "ensure that stone, in that moment, does not remain unturned."

Asked about the police failure to interview neighbors of the motel, Thibault noted that the department has limited resources and must direct its focus toward the most "promising leads."

"I'm not going to second guess where they put their priorities," he said, growing frustrated with the line of questioning. "We could play what-ifs all day."

"It's great that you have, I guess, exposed a flaw in the investigation," he later told this reporter. "I hope that somebody did see something that leads to some fruitful or productive evidence."

Bombardier, for his part, said he doubts interviews with neighbors at this point would yield much information. Police have been requesting information from the public for months, he said, and have even offered a $5,000 reward. Still, "it's part of crossing the Ts and dotting the Is and needs to be done."

Barre City Police Chief Timothy Bombardier - COLIN FLANDERS ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Colin Flanders ©️ Seven Days
  • Barre City Police Chief Timothy Bombardier

Indeed, a main tenet of criminal investigations is that nothing can be taken for granted, according to Joe Giacalone, a former New York Police Department detective sergeant who once led a Bronx cold case squad. Managing thousands of such cases over a more than 20-year career taught Giacalone that good police work does not involve sitting back and waiting on witnesses to come forward. "You can't rely on the public to do your job," he said.

Now an adjunct professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, Giacalone teaches students to canvass locations that "have eyes" on areas of interest — and the earlier the better, since the rub of time can erase memories. "Maybe they heard an argument, or they saw somebody get pushed into a car," he said. "You never know."

Roy Rose, who lives next door to the motel, echoed those words. While he did not now remember anything remarkable about the night Jean-Marie disappeared, he said he might have if police had asked him a year ago. "You never know," he said.

The interviews are not the only aspect of the investigation that Barre City Police might have overlooked. Bombardier said his detectives scoured South Main Street for any security footage that might have caught sight of Jean-Marie that night. But at least one business with cameras facing the street — Heath Self Storage, located a third of a mile from the motel — was never asked for footage, according to owner Herbert Heath. It's too late to check the security system now: It only saves tape for 30 days, Heath said.

Asked about this, Bombardier said he was unaware that the storage facility had cameras facing the street, though he said he would look into it. The police chief declined to share a list of businesses that were asked to contribute footage.

Williams, Jean-Marie's cousin, recalled him as a soft-spoken, kind-hearted person. She said his disappearance has weighed heavy on their family, especially his two children who live in Massachusetts. His oldest son, age 16, has started seeing a therapist, Williams said, and recently told his mother: "They didn't give me a chance for my dad to be here for me."

"Ralph is not resting," Williams said. "Ralph needs justice."

In recent weeks, family members and activists have called on the Barre City Police to bring in the Federal Bureau of Investigation for a consultation. They also want Bombardier to release security footage from the motel. Many reiterated their demands at last week's press conference and lobbed a series of other pointed questions and criticisms at the officials.

Bombardier has brushed it all off. He said there's no evidence to suggest Jean-Marie's disappearance has any elements that would prompt a federal investigation, nor is there even any evidence for FBI agents to consider.

"They have offered any and all assistance," Bombardier said in an interview. "So if we get to something that we think we can work with in furtherance of this case, there are resources available to us." 

As for the footage, Bombardier would not even confirm any exists.

"If we had any information — video, photo or a hard piece of evidence — that releasing to the public would bring closure to this case," Bombardier said, "we would have already released it."

Just as frustrating to activists has been a lack of public attention to Jean-Marie's case, particularly in Barre City. The first news coverage of his disappearance came two months after Barre City Police first put out a press release about it, and vigils and protests held in the city have been sparsely attended. The same was true for a rally in Battery Park in Burlington over the weekend.

Organizers had hoped that news coverage of last week's press conference would inspire people to show up. Anticipating a need for crowd control, several organizers wore reflective vests. But only a dozen people were on hand for the rally's noon start time.

"This almost proves my point," said Morrigan, the Burlington activist, scanning the mostly empty park. "Vermont doesn't care. I mean, I hate to generalize, but it is hard to generate care for a missing Black man. And what a crime that is."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Case Dismissed?"