Stowe’s fire chief has been fired. At least, for now.
Kyle Walker was dismissed from his post last week nearly a year after he was placed on leave following allegations that he raped a woman several years ago when he was an on-duty Stowe police officer.
He appealed the termination Monday.
Prosecutors declined to file criminal charges against Walker last spring after a woman, Rachel Fisher, told state police Walker had sexually assaulted her over a period of years, However, he admitted to having sex while on duty as a cop and was fired from the police department in April. Despite that first termination, though, he was kept on as town fire chief, despite immense pressure all summer and into the fall for him to step down or be fired.
Last Wednesday, Dec. 15, Stowe town manager Charles Safford dismissed him, saying Walker had been given “performance goals” that included a requirement that he regain public trust in his ability to lead the fire department. Safford felt Walker had not met that requirement.
Walker appealed Safford’s decision to the Stowe Selectboard, this paper learned just before press deadline.
“Please also be advised that my counsel, who will accompany me at the selectboard hearing, is not available until after the New Year, and accordingly I ask that the hearing be scheduled in early January 2022,” Walker’s letter seeking an appeal read.
Safford said in these types of appeals, the selectboard acts as a quasi-jury, and the hearing will not be open to the public.
Walker did not reply to a request for comment.
Safford, when asked why he fired Walker now, after being reluctant to do so all year, said that months of pressure on him and other town leaders calling for Walker’s termination or resignation meant the town had spent too much time dealing with the Walker issue and too little time on the day-to-day business of running the town.
“It certainly took up organizational time and capacity and, at some point, the organization has to look at how much time is being directed toward that,” Safford said. “We’ve been in a holding pattern for a period of time, and we need to move forward.”
Fisher was asked this week if she found peace after coming forward and following Safford’s decision.
“Coming forward hasn’t been about finding peace for myself. I’m sure that part of my journey will take many more years to come,” she said. “Coming forward has been about doing what I wasn’t able to do years ago: warning the town that there was a serious problem within the community involving someone in positions of power and authority.”
Christina Nolan, Fisher’s lawyer and former U.S. attorney for Vermont, previously 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.
This week, Nolan said she was inspired by Fisher coming forward to tell her story — a story that Walker has vociferously denied. She said she was pleased with Safford’s decision.
“I also hope it leads to better government,” Nolan said this week. “I hope that our leaders do a better job going forward of making sure that every decision they make is in the interest of public safety. Because I do not think that having somebody in a position of public trust who has engaged in the kind of conduct he engaged in, I don’t think that leads to community safety.”
Safford said his focus is now on making sure the fire department is suitably staffed and operating. Assistant chief Scott Reeves has been named interim chief, but Safford said Reeves had indicated he doesn’t want the job permanently.
Reeves was also named interim chief when Walker was placed on paid administrative leave last winter while Vermont State Police investigated criminal allegations of rape against Walker.
Safford said Walker was not given a severance but was paid $24,544 for accrued time off — which, in Stowe, is based on how long a person has worked for the town — and $782 for the hours he worked during the pay period prior to his firing. Walker made just over $80,000 a year as the town’s first full-time paid chief, a job he was appointed to in 2019.
He had been with the fire department as a volunteer since he was in high school.
Allegations detailed, refuted
In January, Fisher told state police who were investigating a series of fires in town over the past few years that she thought Walker might be the one who did it. However, that quickly turned into allegations that Walker had sexually assaulted and stalked her over a period of years, between 2009 and 2013.
Some supporters of Walker latched on to the arson claim and dismissed the actual crime the state police were investigating — according to the lengthy and heavily-redacted police report, that crime was rape.
The report was graphic in its detail, with Fisher describing several different violent sexual acts, at least one in a police cruiser. She alleged Walker stalked her at the Swimming Hole gym, where she worked the late-night shift as a housekeeper, and at her home. At one point, she described saving a sample of Walker’s semen and mailing it to her brother with instructions to open it should anything befall her.
Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault was given the case, and three formal charges to consider — sexual assault, lewd and lascivious conduct and neglect of duty. However, he declined to formally charge Walker with any of them.
He said he didn’t think the sexual assault charge would hold up in court, in part because the arson comments would likely be brought up during trial, but mainly because he summed up Fisher’s allegations as “an unhealthy sexual relationship” that fell short of proving a lack of consent on her part or any coercion on Walker’s part.
The latter two charges were timed-out due to statutes of limitations, but Thibault told the Stowe Reporter he likely would have charged Walker with neglect of duty if he could have.
Although Thibault didn’t press charges, Safford fired Walker as a police officer, because Walker admitted to having sex with Fisher on numerous occasions, including while he was on duty as a full-time cop. He maintained the relationship was consensual, though, something Fisher staunchly denies.
Fisher came forward in an interview with the Stowe Reporter after seeing Thibault’s “unhealthy” relationship comments in the paper and told her side of the story. She has since become an advocate for survivors of domestic and sexual violence, something she said she intends to continue doing.
Months of pressure
In the months following Fisher’s allegations, the town has come under immense pressure to get rid of Walker — or for him to resign voluntarily — with domestic and sexual violence survivors writing emails and attending board meetings.
Demonstrators have gathered every week in Stowe village since mid-summer, holding up signs that say, “We believe women,” and other sentiments.
A group calling itself Allies for Accountability took out an ad on public cable TV calling for Walker’s ouster. The 30-second spot superimposes a photo of Walker with his now-familiar handlebar mustache — which he shaved earlier this summer — over foliage scenes of Stowe, intermingled with newspaper headlines reporting on the investigation and allegations against him.
The school superintendent even asked Safford to disallow Walker from being on school grounds for “discretionary” duties like fire drills and safety talks.
There was plenty of support for Walker, too, at least in the spring, when the allegations were still new to the public. Roughly 100 people signed their names to a newspaper ad in the Stowe Reporter supporting Walker, and a public records request showed numerous emails to town officials supporting him.
Most of that vocal public support quieted down as the months ticked by, although some continue to defend Walker in online comments whenever a new newspaper article story comes out. Even more simply lambasted the paper for its coverage, including the graphic language quoted from the Vermont State Police investigation report.
Safford has taken his licks this year from those pressuring him to fire Walker, enough so that some also called for him to step down as town manager or for the selectboard to fire him. He maintained for months that the punishment he meted out — firing Walker as a cop and suspending him as fire chief without pay for 10 days — was among his harshest punishments in his entire career.
He was fully aware of the steady mounting pressure on him, deadpanning that he at least knows his wife and mother still love him, even if no one else does.
“But, in all seriousness, I’ve been at this for 35-plus years, and I don’t think anything has been more challenging than this year, with the pandemic and this … personnel problem,” he said, pausing before those last two words. “We may sometimes take two steps forward and one step back, but we’ve got to make sure it’s always two steps forward.”
Safford praised the town selectboard for refraining from taking sides throughout the debacle. Even during sometimes tense discussions about updating town policies regarding personnel and sexual misconduct, when some made it clear that those discussions were only being undertaken because of Walker’s misconduct, the board maintained an even keel.
“If we lose our civility, we lose our democracy,” Safford said. “I think, throughout this, the selectboard’s tone has reflected that.”