A fatal hit-and-run incident in Tinmouth last year has the community frustrated over what some are calling lack of accountability and punishment for the alleged offender.
As criminals go, Thomas H. Velde, Jr., a 41-year-old from Tinmouth, legally qualified as a habitual offender.
Velde’s crimes include eight felony convictions, more than 30 misdemeanors and enough DUIs that his driver’s license had been suspended for life.
“It’s a long, long litany of trouble,” says Tinmouth resident Michael Fannin. “You can look at his arrest record, and that’ll give you an idea there, just what he’s been up to. And these are things he’s been caught doing."
Nonetheless, people often saw Velde behind the wheel.
“That’s the issue,” says Fannin angrily. “Why hasn’t he been put away? After all of his felonies and misdemeanors, why wasn’t he in jail? Why have we had to let it get to the point where someone had to die?”
Fannin points down the dirt road to where his next-door neighbor, Leo Branchaud, was struck and killed one year ago.
It was a Friday, April 22, just after 8 p.m., and Branchaud, a 57-year-old dairy farmer, had just finished milking and was walking in the road near his driveway.
A few minutes later, a 1996 Chevy pick struck and killed him.
Lisa Velde, Thomas Velde’s mother, called 911 and in a sworn statement told police she was the driver.
The victim’s wife, Tami Carboni Branchaud, wasn’t at home. But court documents indicate that when she did talk to police later that night, she forgot to mention the surveillance cameras on the couple’s barn, which had captured the incident.
When police saw the footage the next day, they arrested Lisa Velde for lying and arrested her son Thomas for driving without a license and leaving the scene of a fatal accident.
But because of the delay, police weren’t able to test him for drugs or alcohol.
Jodi Carboni, Tami’s sister, lives in Rhode Island, but keeps a camper on her sister’s property and visits often.
“Everybody knew he was an accident waiting to happen,” she says of Thomas Velde, Jr. “Everybody knew he was driving without a license.”
Carboni says many people told her they called the County Sheriff to report seeing Velde speeding through town. But she says nothing ever happened.
Her eyes go from anger to tears as she recalls a morning when she was visiting a few years ago.
“I was having my coffee and a car came flying by, and later that night, while we were in the living room watching TV, I asked who the idiot was who comes by here doing about 80 miles an hour.
“And Leo looked at me, and his exact words was, 'That’s Tommy Velde that lives down the street, and he will kill somebody someday.’ And that conversation haunts me to this day,” she says, wiping her eyes.
Frustration and anger over Leo Branchaud’s death spurred residents to organize a community meeting in Tinmouth to discuss repeat offenders.
Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan and Rutland County State’s Attorney Rose Kennedy, who’s prosecuting Velde’s case, were invited, as were local lawmakers.
Despite being held on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, more than 150 people packed the Tinmouth community center.
Kennedy wouldn’t discuss specifics of the Velde case. But she explained that in Vermont, the first two DUIs are considered misdemeanors, and even someone charged with multiple DUIs is considered a nonviolent offender if no one is injured.
That nonviolent classification can be problematic, she said, because it can be associated with a broad array of crimes, such as breaking into a car or someone’s home — crimes that while not violent can nonetheless traumatize a community.
“I know there are great costs associated with putting nonviolent offenders in jail. And I think that’s what you as voters need to decide. When do you want to spend your money and how do you want to spend your money? We have many many cases with people who are nonviolent offenders multiple times and don’t go to jail, because we’ve decided that that’s not how we’re spending our money."
According to the Vermont Department of Corrections, annual incarceration costs averaged $62,224 per inmate in 2015.
Kennedy said it’s important for prosecutors to hold offenders accountable and seek the appropriate punishment, but she admitted doing that well takes time.
“I am in constant conversations with the chiefs of police in this county. Sometimes they call me and they’ll say, ‘You’re gong to get a silly retail theft come across your desk. Please don’t ignore it, because this person has been causing so much havoc in the community for years and I’ve finally caught them on a retail theft.’ Now, I’m not using that to send them to jail,” says Kennedy, “I’m using that to figure out what the problem is.”
But Rutland County handles about 950 cases a year, she says, and it has the highest per-prosecutor caseload in the state.
With drivers caught under the influence, Vermont has a three strikes law. Drivers lose their licenses for life after their third DUI conviction. But prison times can vary from a few days to five years.
Kennedy explained that even though she asks for jail time for repeat offenders, it’s typically not until a fourth DUI offense that any significant prison sentence is ordered.
“I think the reason why judges are reluctant to send DUI offenders and even DUI repeat offenders to prison is there is a hope that rehabilitation will work on the outside," she says.
Vermont’s Chief Superior Judge Brian Grearson agrees rehabilitation is vital. But he disagrees with Kennedy’s claim that judges are not imposing strong enough sentences.
“I think it’s too easy to sit back and to say that the sentence that I [the prosecutor] want is the only correct one. If that’s the case, you don’t need judges, you don’t need someone to exercise discretion.”
But Amy Quenneville of Leicester believes that repeat offenders, even those getting treatment, get too much leeway in Vermont.
She was at the Tinmouth meeting because her son, Bryan Greene, was struck and killed while riding his motorcycle to work in 2015. The driver at fault was taking methadone for an opiate addiction. The case is being handled by a deputy state’s attorney in Bennington.
“The person who hit my son had four prior felony convictions,” says Quenneville, “so that qualified him as a habitual offender at the time he killed my son. But he was never prosecuted that way.”
In Vermont, someone can be tried as a habitual offender if they have three prior felony convictions. It's a punishment enhancement that allows prosecutors to seek a life sentence. The state’s corrections department doesn’t track the number of prisoners sentenced under the law, but legal experts say it’s rarely used and typically saved for the most egregious offenders.
TJ Donovan says jail has its place, but he believes more and varied substance abuse treatment has to be part of the mix as well, because most offenders eventually get out and reenter the community.
“Addiction’s not going to magically go away in a jail cell,” he told those at the meeting. “And we've got to have assets available on the front end of our system and on the back end of the system in order to truly protect our collective public safety.”
Rose Kennedy said when it comes to repeat offenders, one thing concerned citizens can do is come to the courthouse during sentencing to tell the judge how a particular crime or offender has affected them.
While no trial date has been set, Kennedy says she will be prosecuting Thomas Velde, Jr., as a habitual offender, which will allow her to seek a life sentence. It’s a designation she’s used with five other repeat offenders since taking office in 2015.