A week after Stowe Fire Department chief Kyle Walker returned to the job, 19 people have signed onto a letter asking for him to be removed from his position.
Walker had been on a three-month paid administrative leave following sex crime allegations.
Walker admitted to having sex in his police car about a decade ago — and the woman involved accused him of sexual assaulting her, according to Washington County State’s attorney Rory Thibault.
As reported last week, Thibault said he was unable to prosecute Walker because of a lack of evidence.
Walker was fired from his other job, as a part-time police officer in Stowe.
“We call on Kyle Walker to do as he should have done when the incident occurred: resign immediately, apologize to those harmed and allow our community to move forward, rebuilding trust in our public safety leadership, town officials and emergency responders,” the letter reads. “If he fails to do so, we call on the town of Stowe to immediately remove him.”
Sarah Henshaw, of Stowe, helped write the letter and read it aloud during Monday’s Stowe Selectboard meeting.
Henshaw disclosed at the meeting that she had experienced sexual assault.
“Fewer than 20 percent of sexual assaults that occur are reported to police. Of those that are reported, only 1 in every 1,000 will lead to a conviction,” Henshaw read. “This gross failure of our criminal justice system is built on a history of women not being believed when they come forward, being revictimized by law enforcement if they do report their assault, and rarely receiving even a modicum of justice.”
Town manager Charles Safford placed Walker on paid administrative leave in mid-January when the original allegations — sexual assault, lewd and lascivious conduct and neglect of duty — were made.
This led to a Vermont State Police investigation.
Safford said he felt police chief Donald Hull acted swiftly on the allegations and it would likely still be possible to reopen the investigation if other people or more information comes forth.
“I do want people to know that I take these matters very seriously, and this one in particular,” Safford said. “We did not try to bury the matter when it came to our attention.”
Safford said short of firing employees — “and I have fired many over my 34-year career,” he said — this was the “most substantive corrective action” he has taken.
He said he suspended Walker for 10 days without pay and the penalty is noted in Walker’s permanent employment file, so that future town managers will be aware of the infraction.
Safford also used stronger language regarding Walker’s dismissal as a part-time cop than he had previously, when he called it a “mutual decision” to leave the department.
“He was fired as a police officer,” Safford said. “He will never carry a gun and badge again.”
Safford said because Stowe has a town manager form of government, he has hiring and firing power for town employees.
Walker declined comment on the letter.
Although Safford said the police could re-open the investigation, Lisa Senecal, one of the letter writers, said allowing Walker to stay on the job creates a “chilling effect” for anyone else who might come forward.
“While a 10-day unpaid suspension in the world of public employees might seem severe, it is such a slap on the wrist, and does not make it appear as though the situation was taken as seriously as it should have been,” she said, adding that, for others who might be victims of sexual assault in Stowe, “It does not feel like a safe place.”
Emily Rosenbaum, another letter signatory, said a police car is a symbol of power, and people are taught at an early age to trust that power.
“Consent cannot exist in power-differentiated relationships,” she said.
“This is the oldest story in the book. A powerful man who gets a slap on the wrist and gets to stay a pillar of our community, because he’s been a pillar of our community,” Rosenbaum said. “And we all gather around him, while the woman is — from what I understand — shamed, silenced, told her story isn’t true. Told she’s not reliable, told she’s crazy. I mean, I don’t know any woman who hits the age of 40 without being told she’s crazy.”
Rosenbaum added she doesn’t know the woman who complained about Walker, but addressed her if she was watching the selectboard meeting: “When I say I believe women, that includes you.”
‘Benefit of the doubt’
Walker, too, had his defenders Monday night.
Stefi Clymer said she was concerned how quick peoples’ reactions in lieu of not knowing all the facts — which is true; the Vermont State Police would not release its investigation to this newspaper, even when asked via a public records request.
Clymer said she also thinks women should be believed, but added “not all women do the right thing, either.”
“I do hold Kyle in the highest regard,” she said. “I think he has worked very, very hard for this community. And I’m not even going to make a judgement.”
Kerry Sedutto said Walker has been with the fire department since he was a teenage volunteer still in high school.
She said he has a family, which means he misses holidays and birthdays when a fire call comes, and he stepped up to the plate when the pandemic hit.
“It is an unfortunate situation, but I think we need to give Kyle the benefit of the doubt, because there were no criminal charges that were found,” Sedutto said.
The submitted letter calls for improving and upgrading the town’s public safety systems and town employee manual, which it calls “out of date, especially sections on identifying, reporting and investigating sexual assault and misconduct.”
Safford said he and Hull would look at police department and town policies, and make sure Walker gets some new training.
“We will continue to do training with this individual and throughout our workforce to re-emphasize the importance of treating people with dignity, respect and understanding power-differentiated relationships,” Safford said. “We have done those trainings in the past. We’ll continue to do those trainings. And we’ll continue to try to do what we can.”