Efforts fell through to resolve a court case Friday, Jan. 3, against a well-known South Burlington businessperson, accused of committing lewd conduct on a vulnerable adult woman on her deathbed.
Stephen J. Edwards, 72, appeared in Vermont Superior Court for a proposed change of plea hearing and expected sentencing, but the sex abuse case went off the tracks before the judge even reached the bench.
Edwards, the longtime owner of Vermont Coins and Jewelry in the Blue Mall on Dorset Street, is charged with committing a lewd act on his 93-year-old mother-in-law in July 2018. She died a few days later on July 10, 2018.
The victim, Marjorie Schumann Haggarty, could not communicate and was confined to her deathbed at the Burlington Health and Rehab on Pearl Street, police and family said.
Shelburne News received permission from Haggarty’s family to print her name.
Defense lawyer Chandler Matson of Stowe told the judge that he wants the court to consider some evidence during the sentencing but hopes to be able to file it under seal.
That could mean the public would be unable to know certain details or the reason for any sentence imposed.
Judge Sam Hoar agreed to postpone Friday’s hearing in order to sort out the request, because highly sensitive issues might be involved in the filing, he said.
The judge apologized to members of the victim’s family, some of them traveling from South Carolina to attend. The hearing also started about 45 minutes late.
Hoar told Matson if he wants information withheld from the public he should file a motion immediately so the court can schedule a hearing on his request within two weeks.
Deputy State’s Attorney Dana DiSano said she also wanted time to file a written response if a defense motion is filed.
Shelburne News told the judge the newspaper expects it will want to be heard on keeping the records public to allow people to understand the reason for any sentencing in the high-profile case.
Edwards initially pleaded guilty to the felony charge on Feb. 28, 2019, and Judge Martin Maley ordered a psychosexual evaluation as part of a pre-sentence investigation.
The prosecution agreed to seek no more than a 2- to 5-year prison term for Edwards, who would have to register with the state as a sex offender under the plea deal. A contested sentencing hearing was expected, then-defense lawyer Harley Brown said.
Edwards formerly changed defense lawyers on May 10, 2019, to Matson, who told Shelburne News after the court hearing Friday he believes there is a legal basis for withholding certain information at the sentencing.
Burlington Police have said they have a recorded phone call with Edwards admitting to the conduct, court records show. Police also said they secured surveillance video from Burlington Health and Rehab showing Edwards there the evening of the incident.
Edwards maintained he was checking to see if the woman was still breathing, Burlington Officer Kyle Yeh said in court papers.
Edwards moved his coin and metal business to South Burlington several years ago after having operated his shop next to Shelburne Bay Plaza on U.S. 7. The defendant, also known as John Edwards, lived for many years on Mount Philo Road in Charlotte.
David Haggarty, the victim’s son, told news reporters after the hearing the delay was just the latest disappointment for the family members seeking justice. He said he was part of the family that came from South Carolina seeking closure.
He said some members of the victim’s family are disappointed the office of Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George is not taking what they believe is a solid case to a jury. If no trial, they believe the state should try to get Edwards to restore the guilty plea that he voluntarily entered to the felony charge in February 2019.
Haggarty, one of his two sisters and other family members sat on one side of the courtroom behind the prosecutor’s table.
His other sister, Martha Edwards, who is married to the defendant, sat with a few supporters on the defense side of the courtroom.
Hoar met with lawyers in private in chambers for about 15 minutes before the case was called in the open courtroom. That is apparently when the issue of sealing some information surfaced.
Hoar is now the fifth judge assigned to preside over the case since it was filed about 16 months ago.
Mrs. Haggarty had worked at City Drug and lived in Shelburne for much of her adult life, moving to South Burlington in retirement.
Burlington Police say Edwards was visiting his mother-in-law, who was in hospice care and unable to communicate.
Officer Yeh said in a court affidavit a nurse walked in to provide morphine and found Edwards committing a lewd act on the bedridden elderly woman.
The nurse ordered Edwards to leave the room, court records show. Police said they later obtained evidence off the victim.
Other legal jam
This marks the second major criminal case for Edwards in the past year. He was sentenced in February 2019 to 3-6 months in prison, all of which was suspended, and was placed on probation for two years for failing to keep proper anti-theft records for precious metals and other items received at his South Burlington store.
Edwards pleaded guilty to the charge and also was assessed $147 in fines and surcharges.
Vermont State Police said they arrested Edwards in connection with a group of burglars and thieves that would hit homes, businesses and other locations to steal jewelry, precious metals and other valuables. The burglars would go to Edwards to sell him the stolen goods at a low price, records show.
Edwards and the others were prosecuted under a new Vermont law designed to discourage those experiencing addiction from stealing valuables and selling them to feed their habits, Vermont State Police said.
One frequent home burglar told detectives that when he visited Vermont Coin and Jewelry for the fifth or sixth time to sell stolen property, Edwards followed him outside to warn him state police “were asking about him and he needed to ‘slow down’ bringing jewelry there,” police said in court papers.
Police, using subpoenas, bank and business records, believe Edwards had conducted $137,547 worth of undocumented transactions in August 2017 and $97,666 in September 2017, State Trooper James Vooris said in a court affidavit.
The items included gold, silver, platinum, palladium, jewelry and coins that sold for more than face value, Vooris said.