Two Recent Cases Put Vermont's Domestic Violence Laws to the Test | Crime | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Two Recent Cases Put Vermont's Domestic Violence Laws to the Test

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Winooski detective Christopher Matott (right) and attorney Robert Katims - DEREL BROUWER
  • Derel Brouwer
  • Winooski detective Christopher Matott (right) and attorney Robert Katims

Guns were prominent in the abuse Sean Wilson was said to have inflicted on his girlfriend. In 2017, after one of his shifts as a Brattleboro police officer, Wilson drove to her Colchester residence, broke down the door and fired a bullet over the bed where she lay, the woman said in court documents. He was upset because she'd met a friend for drinks.

Wilson's career as a cop ended last summer, but the abuse escalated, according to his girlfriend. She said he threatened to kill her and a coworker she'd sought out for help. On January 18, Wilson took his girlfriend's cellphone and held a gun to his own head when she pleaded for him to give it back.

On January 28, the girlfriend and a coworker reported his actions to South Burlington police. Officers helped her request an emergency protective order. Her petition to the court was clear: "I just want to be safe," she wrote. "I want his guns taken away."

Within hours, a judge issued the order and required that Wilson surrender all weapons. South Burlington police went to the couple's shared apartment — twice — to collect his firearms. They arrested him for domestic assault and criminal threatening.

None of it stopped Wilson from possessing at least one gun in the following weeks. On February 17, he drove by his girlfriend's workplace in his truck, someone there reported to authorities. Then he went home and fatally shot himself in the head.

Wilson isn't the only man with ties to local law enforcement to have his guns seized recently in connection with domestic abuse allegations. Winooski detective Christopher Matott was arraigned February 20 in Grand Isle County Superior Court on seven charges, including two felonies. The female victim in that case told police she feared Matott might seek to hide some portion of his estimated 20-gun arsenal. He ended up surrendering 11 firearms.

While a state law enacted in 2018 was intended to keep guns away from potentially violent people, the two recent cases highlight the difficult task authorities face in trying to disarm those accused of domestic violence, including times when the alleged abuser wears a badge.

"Often those individuals have deep knowledge of the criminal legal system and how it operates," said Sarah Robinson, deputy director of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. "Sometimes that knowledge is used to both threaten and intimidate victims and also to manipulate the response of the system that's intended to protect victims."

Wilson's former girlfriend told the court she had experienced more than 100 instances of physical abuse since 2015. She wrote that she hadn't reported Wilson's behavior "because of his law enforcement ties." The woman declined to speak with Seven Days; the newspaper is not naming her because the case involves domestic assault.

Wilson, 46, was a Marine Corps veteran who worked as a Brattleboro cop from 2016 until 2018. He left after the Windham County state's attorney raised concerns about his relationship with a federally indicted drug dealer — but he soon got a job with the Essex Police Department. He lasted a few months before Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George said she would refuse to try his cases, citing problems with his credibility. Wilson moved on to the Franklin County Sheriff's Office but left law enforcement altogether by July 2019.

When she came forward in January, his girlfriend wrote that Wilson was abusing her weekly. Police in South Burlington, where she worked, took the report and arrested Wilson. A Chittenden County judge signed an emergency relief-from-abuse order that included the temporary seizure of Wilson's firearms.

Such orders don't authorize police to search for firearms without permission. Instead, Wilson pointed officers to three guns — in his silver Chevy Silverado truck, along the bedroom wall and on a living room table, Chief Shawn Burke said.

But Wilson hadn't been completely forthcoming. Shortly after officers returned to the station with Wilson and the firearms, the woman said they didn't have the full arsenal. Officers went back to search and collected more weapons, including guns that were stuffed under a mattress and wedged between couch cushions, Burke said. Police were able to make a second sweep, he said, only because the residence was in the woman's name.

Details about Wilson's apparent noncompliance with the order weren't included in the written court record for any of the proceedings against him; it's unclear whether the judges knew.

Colchester police have yet to release information about the gun Wilson used to kill himself. Burke said he wouldn't be surprised if the death investigation shows that his officers hadn't found all of Wilson's firearms.

"These are extremely hard orders to execute," he said. "In a lot of ways, we narrowly missed what could have been a murder-suicide."

Wilson's case played out as the Vermont legislature considers a controversial bill intended to remove guns during domestic violence crises.

In 2018, lawmakers created "extreme risk protection orders," which allow authorities to confiscate firearms if a judge deems an individual an imminent safety threat to himself or others. Most domestic violence victims, however, initially seek a broader relief-from-abuse order, commonly called a restraining order. Judges can order firearm relinquishment as part of a temporary restraining order — as the judge did in Wilson's case — but often do not, advocates say.

The measure now under consideration in Montpelier, H.610, would require that judges order gun seizures as part of temporary restraining orders if there's evidence that the subject has access to any firearms. It also closes a loophole that can enable individuals under a protective order to buy guns if their federal background checks are delayed. And it criminalizes possession of firearms while someone is subject to a temporary order.

Gun-rights advocates have lined up to voice Second Amendment and due process objections to the bill, and Gov. Phil Scott has expressed a general distaste for further gun-control measures. Proponents of the bill are emphasizing its importance to victims. Research by the state Domestic Violence Fatality Review Commission has found that roughly one quarter of all homicides in Vermont involve the use of firearms in the context of domestic abuse.

"This isn't a gun bill," Attorney General T.J. Donovan said. "This is a domestic violence bill."

The bill also improves how victims, police and courts communicate about an alleged abuser's access to firearms. The seemingly small changes — adding specific questions to the restraining order petition form, requiring police to tell judges what firearms were surrendered — would make a "huge" difference, said Robinson of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

"We're not asking the right questions all the way through the process," Robinson said.

When an alleged abuser is also a police officer, victims themselves may be reluctant to offer such information to authorities without prompting.

Winooski detective Matott repeatedly used his badge to discourage his girlfriend from reporting his abuse, in part by telling her that authorities would "laugh" if she ever sought a restraining order, she said in court papers. Matott worked for South Burlington police from 2014 to 2017 before joining the Winooski department. He was assigned last year to a federal Drug Enforcement Administration task force.

The woman gave birth to a child in December, which prompted her to seek help, she said in court filings: "Chris has pointed a gun at my head, and I can't ever let my daughter see that or have that happen to her."

She successfully petitioned Grand Isle Family Court for an emergency protective order on February 6. The judge did not require Matott to surrender any firearms, but the woman described his gun collection to Grand Isle sheriff's deputies at the courthouse. She said he carried guns everywhere, including on a Florida vacation, and that he owned around 20 firearms, according to sheriff's reports provided to Seven Days in response to a records request.

She also expressed fear that Matott might try to hide some of his weapons in response to the restraining order. While she was speaking with deputies, Matott sent her multiple text messages, including one that said he was planning to go to her parents' house in Swanton because she wasn't answering his messages.

"She wants to make sure they take all firearms," a deputy wrote.

Based on that information, Grand Isle State's Attorney Doug DiSabito applied for and received an extreme risk protection order. The order handed an awkward mandate to the sheriff's department: Ask a fellow law enforcement officer to turn over his guns.

Under current law, police are not to give subjects of such orders advance notice of a gun seizure. But Matott's case was apparently complicated by the fact that some of his guns belonged to the Winooski Police Department. Grand Isle deputies called Winooski Chief Rick Hebert, who informed Matott that he must turn over his guns. Matott said he was on his way home to Alburgh, Hebert recalled, so the chief told him to instead drive to the Grand Isle County Sheriff's Department.

At the station, deputies passed off the task of seizing and storing Matott's guns to Winooski Lt. Justin Huizenga. "I did not want to hold on to another agency's weapons," Sheriff Ray Allen said.

Huizenga escorted Matott to his Alburgh home alongside a Vermont State Police trooper, who provided security. Matott surrendered eight handguns, shotguns and hunting rifles, in addition to his three duty firearms. Those 11 weapons were about half of what his girlfriend had estimated he owned, although DiSabito said she had not been able to list or describe 20 different guns.

Hebert said the surrender was thorough and that Matott cooperated.

"We would handle that professionally and with the severity that it deserves, regardless of who was involved," he said.

The alleged victim did not seek to press criminal charges, her attorneys with Vermont Legal Aid said in a press release, but DiSabito said he couldn't ignore the severity of Matott's alleged conduct "in good conscience." Matott has pleaded not guilty to seven charges, including aggravated domestic assault, and is free on conditions, including that he not possess any weapons.

Meanwhile, the woman had given investigators audio recordings that captured several instances of alleged abuse. "They clearly demonstrate Mr. Matott screaming at her, berating her, using profoundly derogatory language towards her, and threatening to harm her," George, the Chittenden County state's attorney, wrote in a February 26 letter to Hebert. She also noted Matott's use of racial slurs in reference to the woman's former boyfriend. "I am unwilling to call him as a witness on behalf of the State and will not accept any criminal cases from him going forward," George concluded.

Matott is currently on unpaid leave from the Winooski department.

At a February 27 court hearing in North Hero, Matott's girlfriend dropped the protective order against him.

DiSabito, the Grand Isle state's attorney, said that as long as criminal charges are pending, he wouldn't agree to any arrangement that allows Matott to access a gun. But he acknowledged he couldn't promise much more.

"Ultimately, I have a sense that if somebody really wants access to a firearm, it might take a little time, but I think there's a high probability that they'll access one," he said, "especially if they're in law enforcement."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Disarmed — and Dangerous? | Two recent criminal cases put Vermont's domestic violence laws to the test"