Courtesy of Vermont Magazine, www.vermontmagazine.com Nov./Dec. 2013 issue.
Story by Leon Thompson
Photos by Jennifer Williams
Between 1945 and 1950, five unexplained disappearances occurred in the Glastenbury Mountain area of Bennington, Vermont, which suspense author Joseph A. Citro dubbed “The Bennington Triangle” in 1992. Of all those trange incidents, the one the Vermont State Police (VSP) remember most is the case of Paula Welden. The Bennington College sophomore walked a portion of the Long Trail after leaving her dining hall shift on December 1, 1946, and never returned. Poof! Gone.
At the time Paula disappeared, Vermont still relied on local sheriffs to patrol towns without municipal police coverage. Local firemen, volunteers, and Connecticut State Police had to help with the search; Paula’s father claimed the lack of statewide law enforcement resulted in an ineffective investigation that ultimately came up empty-handed.
Several months later, in 1947, Vermont lawmakers approved the formation of the VSP. They had nixed the measure 10 years earlier, under strong lobbying by local sheriffs who didn’t want their authority usurped. “Essentially, that young lady’s tragic disappearance led to the formation of the Vermont State Police,” says Wes Newman, a retired state trooper who served the force from 1957 to 1988.
Wes and Sandra Holbrook, a retired VSP dispatcher, are in a conference room at the St. Albans state police barracks, where thefirst leg of the VSP Archives was established in 2007. For several years prior to that date, Sandra and Carol Cross, also a retired dispatcher, had discussed ways to conserve and share the storied history of the VSP. They started with wellpreserved dispatcher manuals and an old sign from the Colchester barracks.
“We wanted to hang on to old items and have a place to put them,” Sandra recalls, while standing near a glass display case that holds vintage tools of the troopers’ trade, such as a rotating cruiser light, license plate, a hat, a badge, and a Graflex camera used to photograph crime scenes, the same kind of camera newspapermen used in the 1940s and 1950s.
While Carol and Sandra have gathered a few items from the state police collections, former VSP employees have provided most donations. The VSP Archives is a nonprofit entity that runs on fundraising and donations; it also has a 12-person board. The centerpiece of the four-year-old VSP Archives website is a fantastic and thorough chronological history of the state police.
Prior to the formation of the archives “We were losing items,” Wes Newman says. “When barracks either changed or moved, a lot of things just went into the trash.” He gestures toward Sandra. “If these guys had not started this, none of this would be here. It would be in a dump somewhere. It’s fun, and it brings back a lot of memories for me.”
Wes joined the VSP after leaving the U.S. Air Force in 1956. Beginning in 1957, he was stationed in St. Johnsbury for 13 years and following that, stationed in Chittenden County; later on, he was a detective, from 1979 to 1988. The VSP was still in its infancy when Wes joined it. The barracks were open 24/7 then. During his first year on the force—long before unionization— a trooper’s workweek averaged 90.4 hours, with one 24-hour off-duty period granted weekly. From May 15 to September 15, there was no vacation allowed; everyone worked holidays and weekends. “We had a two-way radio that worked just sometimes,” Wes remembers, “depending on where you were, and what the weather was.”
Wes once helped solve a case in which four people stole somewhere between 40 and 50 cars in Connecticut and then hid them in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. He was also part of the 36-trooper security detail—when there were 117 troopers statewide—at the 1962 International Senior Girl Scout Roundup in Addison County. Roughly 8,500 scouts and 1,500 adults spanned a 250- acre encampment. “I loved the state police,” Wes says. “It’s a good life.”
The VSP Archives’ St. Albans display is structured the same as others in the state, with memorabilia in the main conference room and lobby. It includes a photo album that Sandra and Carol compiled, spanning the 1927 to 1963 time period: uniforms, documents, microfilm, and personnel records; mugs, hats, and finger-dusting equipment; a photo of Henry Vautier, former St. Albans barracks commander, and a memorial bracelet for Sgt. Michael Johnson, a St. Albans native who—like VSP Sgts. William Chenard, Arthur Yeaw, and Gary Gaboury— died in the line of duty.
The VSP Archives has storage space on the upper level of the St. Albans barracks. Here, these pieces of history await the curious public’s inspection: an original two-way radio transmitter, newspaper clippings, old logs, and manuals, Bobby the Boat—a cartoonish, remote-controlled boat used for boater safety presentations, and a PR pamphlet from the 1960s called Death Stalks the Highway, with photos of fatal accidents on almost every page.
“It was meant to be a deterrent,” Wes says, flipping through the gruesome images on black-and-white pages. “You could never publish that today.”
He then locates an official program from the VSP’s 50th anniversary gala in 1997. Former U.S. Attorney Gen. Janet Reno attended and Sandra met her. “When I hold something like this, it brings back memories,” Wes says. “I can attach a lot of faces to the items I see here.” For instance, John Edwards of Swanton, Vermont. John grew up on a Saxons River farm in the 1950s and, like Wes, needed a job in 1964 when he left the military. He heard a radio ad for VSP employment while working on the farm. “I applied,” he says, “and the rest is history.”
The VSP was just shy of 20 years old when John joined the force. He was 21, and one of fewer than 100 troopers statewide. He was stationed in St. Albans, where he would later be a station commander for many years. He was a detective lieutenant—in charge of all criminal investigators in four northwestern counties— when he retired in 1992. He would then serve as a Vermont legislator and U.S. Marshal.
When John started his VSP career in St. Albans, a dozen state troopers were stationed there. He worked no less than 9½ hours per day with no paid overtime, and made $81 a week. One week at Norwich University was the extent of his basic training. Then, he rode with another legendary trooper, Truman Way, for six months.
“That was a real blessing,” John recalls. “Truman was a real mentor, a great people person. I’ve always felt law enforcement was a business about people, and Truman was a people person.”
So was John Edwards. He felt established and confident as a state trooper three years into his career and built a reputation of integrity. His “best work” was negotiating behind the scenes, he says. For example, in the mid-1980s, the Swanton-based branch of the Abenaki, then led by its fiery chief, the late Homer St. Francis, were planning to occupy the Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge.
John started his work by stopping by Abenaki headquarters with doughnuts and meeting informally with Homer. During one session, John informed some of the planned protestors that, with prior felonies on their records, they could face 15 years in prison just for carrying weapons— never mind hijacking federal land.
“Eventually, the whole idea kind of dissipated,” John says. He spent his career in uniform carrying a piece of advice from a detective he knew: “Most people are really good folks. They just do stupid things.” John has some press clippings, photos, and uniforms that he plans on giving the VSP Archives. “I need to dig some stuff up and get in touch with Carol [Cross],” he says. The goal is a standalone VSP museum, where all displays are consolidated under one roof, as Wes puts it, “to maintain the balance between the past and present.”
“That’s what we hope,” he says. “And hopefully,” Sandra adds, “all this carries on after Wes and I are gone.”