A year after Irene, a family’s livelihood still in ruins

August 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

On assignment for VTDigger.org, I went to Stockbridge, Vt. last week to see the White River Valley Campground, which was almost completely destroyed when Tropical Storm Irene hit Vermont late August, 2011. Here’s that story.

Rebecca Smith can’t stand the sound of rushing water.

On Tuesday it will be a year since floodwaters from Tropical Storm Irene swept away much of the campground she ran with her husband, Drew, just off Route 107 in Gaysville, a village in the town of Stockbridge.

Rebecca nearly drowned as she escaped the high water that engulfed their 22-acre property within a matter of minutes.

This week as she stood in the barren floodplain of the White River among rocks – most of them far too large to have come from the campground fire pits the floodwaters washed away – she describes how she heard the boulders knocking against each other as the river, now quietly running through a shallow bed of sand and stone, raged on that Sunday night a year ago.

Read the rest on VTDigger.org.


An investigation of Taser use by the Vermont State Police

August 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

Ariana Davidonis, whose mother Theresa considered Macadam Mason a "life partner," holds up a painting by Mason, who died after a Vermont State Police officer tased him June 20. Photo by Taylor Dobbs

Ariana Davidonis, whose mother Theresa considered Macadam Mason a “life partner,” holds up a painting by Mason, who died after a Vermont State Police officer tased him June 20. Photo by Taylor Dobbs

After the June 20 death of a 39-year-old Vermont artist after he was tased by a Vermont State Police officer, I wrote a series and conducted an investigation of all incidents of Taser use by the Vermont State Police since the general uniform division was equipped with the weapons in 2011.

Here are those stories (the culmination of my 5-week investigation is the final story on this post):

After a three-hour standoff, Shaffer ordered Mason to lay face down on the ground in an attempt to take him into protective custody. Noticing Mason was unarmed, Shaffer lowered his patrol rifle and drew his Taser X-26, L’Esperance said. Mason, who L’Esperance described as being 6 feet tall and 195 pounds, began yelling and moving towards Shaffer, who began to fear for his safety and activated the Taser. Its electrical probes landed in Mason’s chest.

Read more.

Artwork spills out of the small home on a dirt road a couple miles outside Thetford Center, where Theresa and Ariana Davidonis live. A wooden archway stands in front of the vinyl-sided home at the beginning of a stone path around the house to a patio, furnished with a small wooden table. Inside, a painting sits unfinished.

The archway, the table, the stone path, the patio the painting — all were created by Macadam Mason.

Another archway stands at the back edge of the patio, feet from where Mason was standing when Vermont State Police Trooper David Shaffer triggered his Taser Wednesday evening, striking Mason in the chest. Loved ones watched from a large picture window on the side of the house as Shaffer, and subsequently, EMTs, tried to revive Mason. Despite their attempts, Mason was declared dead upon arrival at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

Read more.

At Wednesday’s press conference, Shumlin defended state police, calling questions from the press about the incident inappropriate.

“Listen, team: We’ve got an investigation going on and we’re not going to go into the details until they come out,” Shumlin said. “This is what I want to say: You go out there as a law enforcement officer, have someone threaten to kill you, threaten to kill other people, and then second-guess every move they make when they make them. I don’t think that’s appropriate.”

Asked if the Tasering of someone with a history of seizures or other health issues was questionable, Shumlin stopped a reporter mid-question.

“So what are the state police supposed to do, get a medical records check before they use a Taser?” he asked.

Read more.

The training, a product of 2004 legislation that appropriated $50,000 to enhance officers’ ability to respond to mental health crises, became mandatory in 2006, starting with the 82nd Basic Police Academy Class, officials say. Shaffer was in the 81st.

Read more.

The petition, hosted online by SignOn.org, a subsidiary of MoveOn.org, was created by Morgan Brown, a citizen mental health advocate in Montpelier, after what Brown said was an unsatisfactory response from Shumlin.

“The governor basically made it clear what his position was,” Brown said. “He made his statements … and all we could do was respond, and what would have been better is … to really talk to some of the stakeholders and the different people who try to see this addressed and have a very meaningful dialogue.”

Read more.

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in Orange County Superior Court, Davidonis accused Shaffer of negligence, trespassing and misuse of his Taser.

Thomas Costello, a Brattleboro lawyer representing Davidonis, said the lawsuit is still in its early stages.

“We haven’t served [the state] yet,” he said. But Costello says the State Police policy on Taser use fails to properly account for subjects in mental health crisis.

Read more.

Macadam Mason was alone on June 20, and that wasn’t unusual. The 39-year-old Thetford artist often worked at home painting and sculpting while his girlfriend, Theresa Davidonis, met with clients at her nearby hair salon.

Davidonis was glad to get out of the house that Wednesday while Mason recovered from an epileptic seizure he’d had the previous day. She steered clear as she knew he could be moody and withdrawn after a seizure.

In 2011, Mason had more than 10 epileptic incidents that led to spells of temperamental behavior. A recovering alcoholic, he had been sober for three years. Despite his physical and mental challenges, Davidonis’ family described him as a “teddy bear.” He especially adored Theresa’s grandson Carter.

Under other circumstances, June 20 — Carter’s third birthday — would have been a happy occasion. Instead, on a day when the family should have been celebrating, Mason wound up dead after he was tased by state police.

It was the first death in Vermont after a police Taser deployment.

A VTDigger.org analysis of police incident reports shows that since all troopers were issued Tasers in April 2011 (a special unit has had the devices since 2006), stun guns have been fired 33 times. Of the 53 officers who have drawn a Taser, 14 troopers have done so multiple times.

It is unclear, based on police records, how often troopers have fired stun guns on people with mental health problems and/or medical conditions.

Read more.

Green Mountain Daily, a liberal Vermont blog, highlighted some of their takeaways from the story here.

Update, Sept. 30, 2012: The results of Mason’s autopsy, released by Vermont State Police this week, say Mason died because of “sudden cardiac death due to a conducted electrical weapon discharge.” Read the story on VTDigger.

A look at Campaign for Vermont

June 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

Over at VTDigger, I looked into Campaign for Vermont, a group that emerged last fall putting ads on the radio. In response, one of the founders wrote an op-ed criticizing the piece and Green Mountain Daily, a liberal Vermont blog picked it up. Here are those three posts in part; click through to read them in full.

Why is Bruce Lisman spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to ‘start a conversation’?

Campaign for Vermont became a player on the political scene in Vermont late last year — thanks to the largesse of a single wealthy individual and an aggressive local media advertising blitz.

But eight months since a group of prominent conservatives founded the 501(c)(4) organization, its purpose remains unclear.

What is Campaign for Vermont, and more to the point, what is the group trying to accomplish?

The founder of Campaign for Vermont, Bruce Lisman, says the organization doesn’t adhere to a political point of view, but the group has pushed for fiscally conservative ideas outside the traditional Republican Party construct.

Campaign for Vermont, through hyperlocal radio advertising, has indirectly criticized “Montpelier,” a.k.a. Democrats who hold the governor’s office and the Statehouse, for “out-of-control” state spending. It has also chastised the executive and legislative branches for not being transparent enough about the way taxpayer dollars are used by state government.

In a recent email missive to supporters, Lisman wrote that “Campaign for Vermont believes that higher property taxes, increased electric rates and a risky health care scheme will strangle a vibrant economy.”

Lisman, a native of Burlington’s North End, and a former executive with Bear Stearns and J.P. Morgan, says he is trying to draw attention to the state’s financial future through a “campaign for a prosperous economy.”

Listen closely to GOP candidates such as Randy Brock, who is running for governor, and Wendy Wilton, who is making a bid for state treasurer, and familiar Campaign for Vermont themes emerge.

After months of Campaign for Vermont’s focus on “prosperity,” Brock’s media consultant Robert Wickers said in a statement that “[a]s Vermonters learn more about Randy, and hear his positive message of economic growth and prosperity, this race will tighten.” Brock and Campaign for Vermont have also criticized the growth of the budget this year (an overall rate of 6.3 percent).

In the group’s first radio advertisement, Lisman said, “It’s time to use modern technology to make Vermont state government totally transparent and accountable to every citizen.”

Wilton, at her campaign launch for treasurer, echoed that sentiment: “Information is key, but it’s the ease of that information that’s really important too. Because it’s got to be readily available, you’ve got to be able to see it and understand it, and it can’t be in some really arcane spot within the state’s website where you’d never find it even if you put it in a search function. It’s got to be somewhere where people can see it easily.”

Jake Perkinson, chairman of the Vermont Democratic Party, suggests that Campaign for Vermont might be a “launching pad” for a political candidate — most likely Lisman himself. Though he is the face of the organization — his portrait is on email messages and the website — Lisman has said repeatedly that he has no interest in running for office.

Kevin Ellis, a communications strategist with KSE Partners and a supporter of Democrat Gov. Peter Shumlin, says Campaign for Vermont is the Vermont GOP’s ad hoc messaging machine, laying the electoral groundwork for Republican Party candidates this election cycle.

He also speculates that Lisman wants to be a kingmaker. Ellis says Campaign for Vermont’s ubiquitous advertising could be a potential prelude to financing candidates in 2014 — in the event that Vermont’s campaign finance limits are knocked down in the courts.

“Sure, he may give money to candidates,” Ellis said. “But I think he is a millionaire from Wall Street who came to Vermont and wanted to be a player. Spending this money is the best and fastest way to do that. Spending this money makes him a political player, scares the heck out of Democrats and makes him the toast of the Burlington cocktail party circuit among Republicans. But that is a long, long way from playing on the varsity team against pros like Peter Shumlin, Bernie Sanders and Pat Leahy. To steal a phrase from David Plouffe, those guys play chess. Lisman is still playing checkers.”

Read the rest at VTDigger.org

Op-ed: Words and Facts Collide by Tom Pelham

Taylor Dobbs, reporting for VTDigger, might use his recent article covering Campaign for Vermont as a teachable moment about poor journalistic technique. Dobbs, a recent graduate of Montpelier High School and candidate for a BA in Journalism from Northeastern University next January, chose the easy but less informing route. He gathered up the observations and quotes from a handful of insider politicos, namely Jake Perkinson from the Vermont Democratic Party, Jack Lindley from the Vermont Republican Party, political commentator Eric Davis and Montpelier lobbyist Kevin Ellis and presto, he had a political story to tell.

Dobbs’ slant on Campaign for Vermont is that we are not only about politics, but about Republican politics and more, about conservative Republican politics and his politically oriented but fact-challenged sources, not surprisingly, affirmed this perspective.

Dobbs does a disservice to the mission of VTDigger “to create a platform of consistent delivery of fact-driven reports on matters of public interest and to serve as a catalyst for more open debates on key issues that impact Vermonters’ daily lives” and to those seeking informed, balanced reporting rather than slant. In the same way that VPIRG and VNRC are policy-driven organizations focused largely on environmental issues, Campaign for Vermont is a policy-driven organization focused on the future prosperity of Vermont.

Questioning whether or not Campaign for Vermont, at its core, is about politics or public policy is fair game. Like Gov. Shumlin, Bruce Lisman is a wealthy individual who could mount a substantially self-funded effort for elective office. For those who primarily view the world through the prism of politics, like those interviewed for Dobbs’ article, the clear answer is that Bruce, despite his statements to the contrary, has political aspirations.

Read the rest at VTDigger.org

And finally, the Green Mountain Daily post, Tom Pelham has a sad:

Awww, some bruised fee-fees over at Campaign for Vermont, the “nonpartisan” policy shop that’s obviously and blatantly conservative to anyone with a brain who spends five minutes reading their website or listening to their radio ads.

It seems that those dastardly folks at Vermont Digger committed an act of journalism. It took a long hard look at CFV and its founder/funder Bruce Lisman, and published a story pointing out the obvious: that CFV is conservative, that its policy positions are closely aligned with the Republicans’, that all its attacks are against the Democrats, that Lisman is spending a whole lot of money and nobody knows what his real ambitions are.

And that gave Tom Pelham a sad.

Read the rest at Green Mountain Daily

A semester as news editor of The Huntington News

April 22, 2012 § 2 Comments

I spent the spring semester as the news editor of Northeastern University’s student newspaper, The Huntington News, where I coordinated coverage of all on-campus (or near campus) news, including student government, administration and other student issues.

It was a totally new experience, and learning to manage a staff and coordinate photography and reporting for multiple stories at once was definitely a challenge, but I am very glad I had the chance to do it. Some of the stories I’m especially proud of from the semester, in no particular order and not necessarily written by me:

Coverage of the Barstool Sports Blackout Tour, which sparked controversy from women’s rights activists at Northeastern:

Coverage of a proposed Chick-fil-A location in Northeastern’s Curry Student Center, which caused outrage in the LGBT community:

Northeastern’s cafeteria workers spoke out against their managers, who they say mistreated them:

I’ll be spending another summer with VTDigger.org starting tomorrow. I’ll be covering the campaign season here in Vermont, as well as other political happenings.

Some hockey coverage

January 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

I got the privilege of covering some Northeastern women’s hockey games this past weekend when The Huntington News’ normal beat writer was unable to make a pair of games. It was a fun change of scenery.

The then-No. 7 Northeastern women’s hockey team left nothing up to chance this weekend as it blew by the University of New Hampshire Wildcats 8-0 Saturday and the University of Vermont Catamounts 5-1 Sunday.

The team’s first offensive line had an especially productive weekend, scoring nine of the 13 Huskies goals, including two hat tricks.

Junior forward Casey Pickett scored a hat trick on Saturday and freshman Kendall Coyne put together three of her own goals Sunday, the Huskies’ first two hat tricks of the season and the first of Coyne’s career.

The Saturday game was a historic one for both teams as it was covered live on ESPN 3, making it the first-ever women’s hockey game on an ESPN station. A record crowd of 1,227 attended.

Read the rest at HuntNewsNU.com.

In Haiti, a health care oasis

January 26, 2012 § Leave a comment


I wrote for Haiti Rewired about a new hospital in Central Haiti, finishing construction this year.

MIREBALAIS, Haiti – Officials and builders from Haiti, The Dominican Republic, and the United States gathered here Tuesday to celebrate the completion of phase one of construction on the Mirebalais National Teaching Hospital. The 320-bed facility, located just outside downtown Mirebalais, is the result of a collaborative effort between the Haitian Ministry of Public Health and Population (MSPP) and Partners in Health, an American non-profit focused on international public health.

Dr. Paul Farmer, co-founder of Partners in Health, spoke at the event about his first time in Haiti as a young medical student in 1983.

“The first year, let me tell you, was a terrible experience medically,” he said. Farmer recalled the disappointment he felt when he visited a clinic he was involved with. “[It was terrible] to go into a clinic that you were actually involved in running, as I was, and supporting, as I did ardently, but see that the quality of care was so poor that it would be a better idea to shut the clinic down, which is what we did.”

Farmer said that first year inspired a dream, which is being realized by the new hospital in Mirebalais.

Read the full article on Haiti Rewired.

Circle of Friends Haiti project wish list

December 16, 2011 § 1 Comment

My girlfriend Tori and I are headed to Haiti shortly after Christmas to spend a couple of weeks volunteering at an orphanage operated by a project called Circle of Friends. In advance of our trip, the folks in Haiti working at the orphanage sent us a list of supplies they’re in need of. If anyone cares to donate some money, clothing, or supplies from this list, it would be a huge help. We’ll bring them down to the orphanage who will put them to good use.

I realize it’s the holiday season and many people have probably already put a big dent in their bank accounts shopping for loved ones, but if you can spare some money or any of the following supplies, you’d make some difficult lives much easier:

  • Ryobi 18v power drill kit with a small set of wood and concrete drills and a small set of assorted drill bits. (Estimated cost: $175)
  • For Kids (used, washed) clothes: we need most urgently, 3 Boys: Ages 4, 10,12; underpants, sweatshirts, sweatpants, T-shirts, shorts, and pants. Crocs. The kids are typically a bit smaller than kids the same age in USA.
  • Women: Size 12/14 and size 10, sweatshirts, sweatpants, shirts/teeshirts, winter hats.
  • Toys/education materials; writing pads, notebooks, crayons, any mind stimulating toys.
  • For House:  some cheap towels, washcloths and twin sheets.
  • Large bottle of Aleve and Ibuprophen and children’s multi-vitamins.
Any and all help is appreciated. If you live in Central Vermont or the Burlington, Vermont area, we can likely arrange to pick up the items. If you can help, please email taylor.dobbs(at)gmail(dot)com.