The defense lawyer for a Stowe man who police say admitted to starting at least eight fires wants his confession thrown out in U.S. District Court.
Jeffrey M. Nolan, 63, has pleaded not guilty in federal court in Burlington to torching a Stowe Cable Systems building at 172 Thomas Lane on Jan. 7, records show. He is charged with setting only one of the eight fires by maliciously causing damage at the Stowe Cable building.
Federal Magistrate Judge Kevin Doyle agreed in May to allow Nolan out of prison on conditions, including his participation in three out-of-state residential programs for mental health and substance abuse treatment over at least three months.
Assistant federal defender David McColgin, in a newly filed 35-page motion, wants the court to suppress statements offered to Stowe and state police in January. McColgin said he believes the statements were involuntary and taken in violation of Nolan’s right to avoid self-incrimination.
McColgin claims Det. Sgt. Frederick Whitcomb of Stowe Police and Det. Sgt. Todd Ambroz of the Vermont State Police violated his client’s rights.
Ambroz, who was misidentified in court papers as a Stowe Police employee, recently retired from the state police. He is now a private investigator.
Stowe experienced a series of suspicious fires over more than five years with more than $4 million in damage, officials said. Several people lost jobs and the lives of residents and first responders were endangered.
Whitcomb and Ambroz spoke with Nolan on Jan. 8 at his apartment to ask about several recent fires, including the one the day before at Stowe Cable, the motion noted. That interview was not recorded.
The two detectives spoke to him on Jan. 12 for almost three hours and never began recording the conversation until more than 90 minutes into the session, McColgin wrote.
The U.S. Attorney's Office has not filed a written response to the defense motion, but an office spokesman said in an email the prosecutor assigned to the case will file one.
The office did not say if it would dispute or admit the claims. Prosecutors in the office have had an internal gag order in place for almost four years that prevents them from speaking to the media, or even confirming public information.
Attempts to reach Whitcomb, who was off-duty Wednesday, and Ambroz were unsuccessful.
McColgin said Nolan is disabled because of a traumatic brain injury and for about 10 years he has used a service dog named Snoopy.
The defense maintains that Ambroz coerced Nolan’s confession by telling him he’d lose Snoopy if he didn’t confess and promising to take care of the dog. McColgin also claimed Ambroz said the arson case would remain in state court if he confessed and not move to federal court.
“The confession should be suppressed as involuntary,” McColgin wrote.
He said Nolan was never read his rights until more than halfway through the questioning “and only after Mr. Nolan had confessed to being present at the scene.”
He asked for the confession to be suppressed.
Ambroz and Whitcomb plainly followed a two-step strategy, McColgin said.
“The objective evidence establishes that they planned to question Mr. Nolan first to secure a confession. Once they obtained a confession, they planned to arrest him, give him the Miranda warnings, and obtain a second confession,” McColgin wrote.
Nolan was initially arrested on eight state arson charges Jan. 12 following an intensive investigation by Stowe Police, Vermont State Police fire division, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
After Nolan pleaded not guilty in state court, a judge released him on conditions.
Those eight charges included setting fires at the Stowe Free Library and 638 South Main Street on March 30, 2019; a chiropractor’s office at 14 Pond Street on April 18, 2019; a 3-bay garage and storage building at 120 South Main Street on June 1, 2020; a commercial building at 571 South Main Street at the beginning of Aug. 2020; a dumpster on River Road on Aug. 29, 2020; the Stowe Cable building Aug. 30, 2020; and the Stowe Cable building again on Jan. 7.
The suspect in the last fire was caught on video.
The ATF arrested Nolan nine days later on a federal criminal complaint for the Jan. 7.
Then-U.S. Magistrate Judge John M. Conroy eventually ordered Nolan held as a danger to the community. Conroy cited the weight of the evidence and Nolan’s history of alcohol and substance abuse.
Seven other suspicious fires in Stowe remain under criminal investigation.
Nolan, who served as a military police officer in the U.S. Army in West Germany during the late 1970s, has long suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), according to McColgin.
Nolan also has a long history of substance abuse, including opiate and alcohol addiction, the defense lawyer said in earlier court filings.
This story was updated to correct the name of the Stowe Free Library.