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Burlington Police Officer Justified In Use Of Deadly Force

CONTACT: John Treadwell, Assistant Attorney General, (802) 828-5512

December 16, 2013

Attorney General William H. Sorrell announced today that his office has completed a review of a shooting that occurred on November 6, 2013, in Burlington, Vermont when an individual was shot by a Burlington police officer. The office concluded, as a matter of law, that Burlington Police Department Corporal Ethan Thibault was legally justified in the use of deadly force when he discharged his firearm at Wayne Brunette. The legal standard for the use of deadly force is whether the officer reasonably believed that he or a third party was in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury, and that deadly force was necessary to respond to that threat.

“Hopefully, the unfortunate death of Mr. Brunette will cause a redoubling of efforts to reduce reliance on law enforcement as the first responders to persons experiencing a mental health crisis,” Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell said, “Further efforts must be made to provide meaningful access to mental health professionals in such circumstances.” The incident began on November 6, 2013, when Ruthine Brunette contacted the Burlington Police Department about her son, Wayne Brunette. She told the police:

I've got a problem here with my son that's upstairs. He's gone berserk, I think. And I mean I've got to do something. He's cut my apple tree down out front just now. And he's violent and he's just mean. We live downstairs. Him and his wife live upstairs over us. And now he says he owns this whole house and the whole property and everything, which he doesn't. And he’s just … he's really bad.

Burlington Police Department: Ok, What is he doing right now ma’am?

Ruthine Brunette: Right now! Chased him upstairs. He's upstairs in the apartment right now. ...He was mad cause his father pulled the cord on the thing and he went upstairs and he's calling us all kinds of names. He says he owns this house and the property and we're going to be out on the front lawn, me and his father.

Dispatcher Whitehouse: Does he have mental health issues ma’am?

Ruthine Brunette: Yes. Yes he does.

The dispatcher advised her to lock her door and indicated that he would be sending the police.

At 4:19 pm, Burlington Police Department Corporals Ethan Thibault and Brent Navari were dispatched to the Brunette residence at 85 Randy Lane in Burlington’s New North End “for a mental health issue.” Dispatch advised the officers that:

The caller lives downstairs owns property advises her son who lives in the upstairs apartment has been threatening, out of control, destroying property. He is now in the apartment upstairs. She's downstairs, was advised to stay inside with the door locked.

Upon arrival, Cpl. Thibault spoke to the parents on a walkway leading to the front door of the house. Cpl. Navari stood in the driveway and saw Wayne Brunette in the garage area, then on an upstairs deck by the door to the second-floor apartment and then again exiting the open garage door. When Navari saw him the third time, Brunette was brandishing a long-handled shovel. Navari asked him to put down the shovel and to speak with them. Brunette responded, “No. You’re going to have to shoot me.”

Brunette then charged at Cpl. Navari while wielding the shovel and ignoring commands to drop it. Navari drew his firearm and retreated towards the street seeking to put distance between himself and Brunette. Brunette closed the distance and was within striking distance. Navari had his finger on the trigger and believed that he was going to have to shoot to protect himself.

Cpl. Thibault saw Brunette charging at Cpl. Navari, drew his firearm, and moved towards Brunette ordering him to drop the shovel. This apparently drew Brunette’s attention away from Navari and towards Thibault. Brunette then focused on Thibault and charged at him continuing to brandish the long handled shovel. When Brunette was within striking distance, Thibault fired two shots. The shots did not stop Brunette so Thibault fired two additional shots. Brunette then fell to the ground and dropped the shovel. At 4:26 pm, Thibault radioed for police and rescue to respond.

Witnesses estimated that the entire incident took place in a matter of minutes.

Brunette was transported to FAHC where he was pronounced dead as the result of four gunshot wounds. Toxicology revealed both alcohol and cannabinoids in his bloodstream. According to the Medical Examiner the location of the entrance wounds and the left to right travel of all the bullets could be consistent with Brunette advancing with his left foot forward and torso turned to the right at the time he was shot. The wounds are also consistent with witness statements indicating Brunette was shot while advancing towards the Burlington Police officers while holding or swinging a shovel in front of him with two hands.

As part of the investigation into this incident interviews were conducted of both Cpl. Thibault and Cpl. Navari and also of the civilian witnesses to the incident including Wayne Brunette’s parents. Additionally, the Vermont State Police Crime Scene Search Team was involved in the investigation. As the investigation progressed, reports and recorded interviews were provided by the Vermont State Police to the Attorney General’s Office. The complete investigation report was received on December 12, 2013.

Under the facts of this case, the Attorney General’s Office concluded that Cpl. Thibault was reasonable in his belief that he was in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury when he fired at Wayne Brunette. Given what reasonably appeared to be a serious threat to his life and to the life of Cpl. Navari, Cpl. Thibault’s response of using deadly force was reasonable and justified. The Chittenden County State’s Attorney’s Office has completed a separate and independent review of the investigation and has reached the same conclusion.

  Website consulting provided by The National Association of Attorneys General.