Stowe town officials are facing renewed pressure to fire the fire chief accused of stalking, harassing and assaulting a woman over a period of several years while he was a Stowe police officer.
The pressure comes from both his alleged assailant and the high-profile lawyer representing her.
Rachel Fisher, the woman who last winter accused fire chief Kyle Walker of sexually abusing her, appeared before the Stowe selectboard Monday night and appealed to town officials to reverse the decision to keep Walker on as fire chief, despite firing him as a cop because of his actions.
“A person of strong character leads by example and desires to serve a purpose greater than themselves,” Fisher said, referring to Walker’s character. “They must be persons of honesty and integrity. Stowe will survive a change in leadership at the fire station and the community will be safer and stronger for it and will continue to thrive.”
Walker has denied the accusations against him, and Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault declined in April to press charges against Walker, citing a lack of evidence for sexual assault and the fact that the statute of limitations had run out for other charges.
In a heavily redacted report from the Vermont State Police investigation, Fisher described, in often graphic detail, encounters with Walker that include him choking her, ripping her shirt off, pulling her hair, shoving her body into the car’s metal door frame and more.
In one instance, she told police, she collected a sample of Walker’s semen and sent it to a family member as an emergency backup “because she realized she was in a scary situation.”
Her brother was able to produce the unopened package a decade later.
Police investigated the case as an alleged rape, although Fisher has quantified it as years of stalking, harassment and sexual assault. Walker described the sexual encounters as consensual.
He previously told the Stowe Reporter it was an “isolated event,” a descriptor he later backpedaled on after the newspaper received a copy of the police investigation, in which Walker admitted to several encounters with Fisher.
Thibault called the whole thing “an unhealthy sexual relationship.” Fisher, who said she was never in a relationship with Walker, had a simple message for Thibault Monday.
“Do better,” she said. “Do better for all of the victims who have made the excruciatingly difficult decision to come forward. Your words matter.”
Veiled legal threat
Adding pressure to the town to remove Walker is Fisher’s lawyer, Christina Nolan. The former U.S. Attorney for Vermont, who left the post when President Joe Biden took office — a customary turnover of presidential appointments — sent a strongly-worded letter to Stowe town manager Charles Safford and the selectboard on Sept. 2, but the paper did not receive the letter until this week.
Nolan likened the idea of keeping Walker employed as fire chief while firing him as a cop to a schoolteacher who also drove the school bus being fired for sexually assaulting a student but still being allowed to drive the bus.
“If Walker is unfit to be a police officer, he is equally unfit to hold the fire chief post,” Nolan wrote. “Walker has admitted to engaging in misconduct by having sexual contact with Ms. Fisher while on duty, placing Stowe residents and visitors at risk — presumably, this is why you fired him from the police force. But Walker should no longer be allowed to hold any position of authority over the citizenry and visitors of Stowe.”
Safford has cited Thibault’s decision not to press charges and an absence of other formal allegations against Walker as factors in keeping Walker on as fire chief, saying he is good at the job. Walker has been with the fire department since he was a teenager in high school. Safford said in May he would be willing to revisit his decision to keep Walker on as fire chief if any new information surfaced.
Nolan said Safford should “rethink that reliance” on Thibault’s decision not to charge, saying although the statute of limitations had run out for certain crimes, there is no such thing for employment.
“Just because the prosecutor decides he cannot bring a case on a technicality does not mean that Walker should keep his job,” Nolan wrote. “Prosecution decisions turn on a rigorous ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ legal standard. Employment and personnel decisions involve entirely different considerations and standards — and they should be high standards.”
Nolan, now working with law firm Sheehey, Furlong and Behm, said over the phone this week that her letter is not a formal lawsuit. She does hint at one in the future, however.
“We are considering all legal options available to right the extraordinary wrong committed against Ms. Fisher,” Nolan wrote in her letter to the town.
The selectboard Monday adjusted its agenda to allow Fisher to read her statement but did not take any action and there was no public discussion after the statement was read.
Advocating for victims
In addition to urging the town to reconsider Walker’s employment, Fisher’s statement urged abuse victims in all instances to speak out, even while warning them that sticking their neck out can be a perilous proposition.
“To any abuse victims out there who may now be concerned about coming forward due to what has happened in my case, please don’t let the outcome deter you,” she said.
She noted criminal charges won’t always be filed in abuse cases and abusers will often lie under oath and try to destroy victims’ reputations and blame them for their actions “with shocking and disgusting stories crafted to shame you into silence.”
Fisher has, in the five months since coming forward publicly, expressed a desire to become an advocate for sexual and domestic abuse victims, and used the Clarina Howard Nichols Center as an example of where to turn for resources, as she did.
She said, “We are the evidence that will never be erased, myself and the others who have come forward about the town’s fire chief, though they are not yet able to speak out publicly like I have.”