A television news crew Monday night captured the arrest of a man who allegedly tried to steal a wheelbarrow from a Johnson hardware and farm store.
What the news crew didn’t document was the storeowner pinning the man to the ground, waiting for sheriff’s deputies to arrive, or the man reportedly needling the owner that he was just going to walk free later that night.
As he predicted, he did walk free, after being cited to appear in court in June to answer to his latest alleged crime.
Tyler Foster, 25, alternately listed by police as homeless or from Morristown, is what police call a “frequent flier” in the criminal justice system. According to Detective Scott Kirkpatrick of the Lamoille County Sheriff’s Department, Foster has been arrested 16 times in the past 13 months.
Allen and Lynn Lehouillier, the owners of Johnson Hardware Rental, Farm and Garden, allege that Foster victimized them three times in the past eight weeks. On March 20, Foster was accused of stealing several items from their store and jumping into the Lamoille River to avoid police.
Kirkpatrick said police have a tough time keeping tabs on some of those who are “known to law enforcement,” because they often have substance use problems, mental illness or are homeless. It’s like whack-a-mole, he said; police know they’re out there, but, since they often couch surf and hitchhike, it’s not clear when and where — or if — they’ll pop up next.
He said Vermont inordinately favors rehabilitative efforts over jail time. Mix into that a coronavirus pandemic that has all but shut down the court system, and he thinks repeat offenders are getting more emboldened.
“We’re always concerned that a crime might escalate into something else,” Kirkpatrick said.
On Monday, Lynn was alone in the store after it had closed; she said she watched as Foster allegedly took the wheelbarrow. Allen worried about his wife’s safety.
“When’s this gonna end? When he burns my place down?” Allen said.
Lynn said — and Kirkpatrick echoed — the problem isn’t solely with the cops or the courts. Rather, she said it’s baked into state laws, and she wants those laws changed so repeat offenders can be punished accordingly.
“The laws are protecting the offenders more than the victims,” she said.
Lamoille County State’s Attorney Todd Shove said “people are still getting in trouble” during the pandemic, but arraignments for nonviolent crimes have been pushed back until June. Shove said arraignments for some violent crimes have been held during the court shutdown, such as domestic assaults, but the Lamoille County court isn’t set up for remote hearings.
The big difference: Almost no one’s being held for lack of bail, not as the Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans reported a COVID-19 outbreak.
One alleged offender, Jar Orost, accused in October 2017 of sexually assaulting a teenager and held at Northwest since then, has filed a motion to be moved out. Shove said Orost claims his emphysema qualifies him for release, even though he has not tested positive for the coronavirus.
As it stands now, Foster will have a busy day in court on June 29. He has hearings on nine different criminal cases that day, and those don’t count the half-dozen misdeeds he’s accused of committing since mid-March.
“Let’s face it, it’s really hard to get somebody put in jail in the state of Vermont,” Kirkpatrick said.