Burlington authorities say a woman was raped in the bathroom of the Edward J. Costello Courthouse last week. The state Attorney General's office says a warrant was issued yesterday for 32-year-old Robert Rosario of Burlington, who's still at large.
Rosario had been at the courthouse on a drug charge. And after the alleged assault police had wanted to keep his identity under wraps until it was made public in a news story yesterday.
Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo joined VPR to talk about the case.
Alex Keefe: What's the latest on the investigation as of [Friday] afternoon?
Chief del Pozo: Right now there's an active hunt for Mr. Rosario. I'm not going to discuss the particulars of where he might be or what leads we have but there are several agencies looking for him and it spans more than one state. This rape allegedly happened more than a week ago.
Alex Keefe: You decided not to release any information until after you'd already been contacted by the press. Explain this decision to keep it quiet for the time being.
Chief del Pozo: To be clear, the Chittenden Unit for Special Investigations. which is a unit that takes officers from all over the county, had the lead on on this case. Although I supervised detectives assigned to that unit, it is a fairly autonomous unit. So their decision when they briefed us on it was to hunt for him quietly. Since he allegedly assaulted somebody known to him. The thought was that, you know, if we could go ahead and pick him up, for example at a future court appearance, if we could pick him up at a residence or a place that he hung out at – when I say we I me, I mean the royal we, the police. That would be the best way to go about it and that overly publicizing the incident, it might spook him into running.
Alex Keefe: Police are not obligated to send out a press release about a criminal suspect but a warrant is public record. Did you think that this would not get out, that this wouldn't be a news story?
Chief del Pozo: Well, there was going to come a time where it would definitely be a news story. And, I mean, let's be clear. The fact that that it happened in a courthouse, you know, it's sensational. And it makes the crime even more egregious. But that doesn't mean that we now have an obligation to deviate from some good investigative practices that were arrived at by experience detectives. And the other thing is, we're reexamining what is or isn't submitted under seal, in an affidavit. Vermont state law makes it clear, and this legislation's recent, that police and the government can withhold information that would interfere with an enforcement proceeding. That's almost the exact language of the statute. So this is a good case for us to figure out collectively with judges and prosecutors what that means for arrest warrants and the supporting paperwork.
Alex Keefe: It's not up to the police to decide whether a warrants under seal, but certainly prosecutors would listen to what the police would have to say. So is that something you see yourself pushing for more frequently in the future?
Chief del Pozo: We've already started the conversation this morning as a result of what happened last night. I don't begrudge the press in any way for exercising their right to obtain information under the Freedom of Information laws we have here. But we do need to make sure that we also exercise our judgment in withholding some of that information in the public interest as well. And to be clear, the law provides for some of that.
Alex Keefe: Last night you sent an e-mail to reporters [that] was later published by the Burlington Free Press, in which you lamented that this name was released, of Rosario, and said it may have hurt your search because he may have left the state. Do you have any reason to believe that the news story prompted him to leave or was he gone before this became public?
Chief del Pozo: I will say this, regardless of his whereabouts prior to the article: The result of the article was, he has the knowledge that he's wanted on a very serious felony sexual assault charge. He has the knowledge that if he's apprehended will be facing a quarter million dollars bail. He has the knowledge that his photograph is everywhere. And he also knows what evidence we've collected against him that was entered into probable cause. So with that knowledge if he doesn't want to be captured I can only imagine how he'd act. And in my opinion he did run further and faster.
Alex Keefe: You also said that Rosario knew the victim he allegedly assaulted. There didn't appear to be a danger to the public, in your words. Can you safely say someone who is accused of a crime so brazen – to sexually assault somebody in a courthouse – how is that person not a danger to the public?
Chief del Pozo: We can never make those those guarantees. I mean, I can't say for certain whether someone is or isn't a danger. It's always a balancing act. He was lewd to and did harass other women in the courthouse but ultimately when he chose to act he acted against somebody he knew, somebody he had a demonstrated history with. And that fact pattern in the experience of the investigators who are making these decisions and leading this case lead them to believe that he wasn't a person we could categorize as a stranger-rapist, rather an acquaintance-rapist. Both things are rape. Both things are horrible crimes. But you investigate them differently. There are different best practices for both types of crime. One of them, you go much more public with the other one, you investigate more quietly.
Alex Keefe: In this particular case, how do you balance between the fact that, you know, maybe he did know this woman whom he allegedly raped ... but it happened in a very public and supposedly secure place? How do you balance trying to investigate this strange mix of a crime?
Chief del Pozo: I think when you call it a strange mix, that's right. There's very little precedent for this. I've been doing this job for almost two decades. And an acquaintance-rape in a courthouse or a government building or such a public place is exceedingly rare. You know, the officers were dealing with what you can kind of call almost a hybrid type of crime but, you know, ultimately we empower the Chittenden Unit for Special Investigations to analyze these crimes and make these decisions and recommend the strategies. And you know, as a police chief, I can go over there and override them by bullying them or throwing my stars around, but ultimately these are very experienced detectives and and we overwhelmingly defer to their approaches to investigating these crimes.
Alex Keefe: This information is now out in the public about this crime. What's next in the investigation?
Chief del Pozo: Well, you know, it is widely distributed, so we might as well just go for the Hail Mary and distribute as widely as possible. I urge citizens everywhere in the listening region and beyond to be out on the lookout for him. If you see him immediately notify local law enforcement. And we have a multi-agency effort to find him now and it even includes elements of the federal government. So there's a wide scale search going on in the region for this gentleman.