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November 11, 2011

Apparent Suicide at Occupy Burlington Camp - Updated, 11/12 at 8:40 p.m.

Occupy-scene Latest update to Storify: 11/12, 8:40 p.m.

Update, 11/11, 2:26 p.m.: In a briefing this morning, police identified the deceased as Joshua Pfenning, 35, a transient in the Burlington area. Police say Pfenning had consumed a "large quantity of alcohol," and that he pointed the gun at and threatened another person in the tent before the shooting. Police have contacted one witness who was in the tent at the time the shooting occurred and are looking for another, although they did not release the missing witness's name. The handgun used in the incident was apparently stolen from a home in Derby in 2009.

Responding to rumors that the victim was a military veteran, Deputy Chief Andi Higbee said that Pfenning was in the Army at one point, but was discharged after two weeks in boot camp.

Police Chief Michael Schirling says the city is now trying to balance public safety and its own investigation with the rights of Occupy Burlington protesters to assemble. The southern half of City Hall Park, where the Occupy camp is, will remain cordoned off indefinitely while the investigation continues The northern half remains open for all and Occupiers are welcome to continue demonstrations there during the hours the park is open. Police will no longer permit tents in the park, though.

According to court records, Pfenning has a criminal record dating back to 1999. He received a suspended jail sentence and probation following a drunk driving arrest in Orleans County in 2006. In September 2009, he pleaded guilty to DUI and operating with a suspended license in Chittenden County, and paid a fine. He pleaded guilty to DUI #2 and operating with a suspended license in Caledonia County in October 2010. He received a suspended jail sentence and was ordered to complete 40 hours of community service, and attend  alcohol screening, counseling and treatment. He was on probation through October 23, 2012.

Court records also indicate he was born in Middlebury, and that his birthday was Nov. 6 — four days before his apparent suicide.  

Andy Bromage contributed to this report. Click here to download the full text of Police Chief Michael Schirling's statement on the investigation and the future of Occupy Burlington.

Original post: Yesterday evening, police cleared City Hall Park to investigate the shooting death of a man who allegedly shot himself at the Occupy Burlington encampment. Occupiers, Burlington police and Mayor Bob Kiss met in the park and later inside City Hall to discuss how to proceed. The situation became tense after police detained a protester and displayed tear gas guns and other larger weapons. Kiss successfully negotiated the release of the protester, and a pastor from the Unitarian Universalist church invited Occupiers to spend the night there instead.

All night long, police kept the southern half of City Hall Park cordoned off. The northern half of the park remained open, and some Occupiers remained there to keep an eye on the camp. They also held a candlelight vigil after midnight in memory of "Josh" at the northern edge of the City Hall Park fountain.

The southern half of the park, including the Occupy camp, remains cordoned off this morning. Four police cars are stationed at the corners of the scene. This morning the park was largely devoid of Occupiers, but area homeless and other local residents were there, keeping watch.

What follows is a Storify post chronicling the day's events through Tweets, photos and video from local media outlets and community members. The post will be updated as more news comes in. I'm headed off to a Burlington Police briefing at 11:30 a.m., from which I'll post updates on our Twitter account.

(If you're having trouble seeing the embedded version of the Storify post below, click here to view it on


That's pretty opportunistic of the City to stop the Occupation. Exactly how does someone's suicide that already happened endanger the safety of others?

Isn't it a tragedy enough that this happened? Does the City need to manipulate it for political gain.

Rest assured that if the Occupation is ousted, there will be outrage.

Josh -- Chief Schirling said that the camp is being treated as a crime scene until they can 100% rule out criminal activity, and as with any crime scene, it needs to remain clear for the police to complete the investigation.

As for the tents, let me copy and paste directly from Schirling's statement (I'll also update the post with a link to the full statement):

"As you know, the City took a wait and see approach to the occupation of City Hall Park. Yesterday at 2:07 p.m. the safety landscape was altered substantially. Prior to yesterday afternoon there was no way to reasonably foresee that this level of risk would occur in the encampment. Now there is. As a result of this investigation we know that at least one weapon has been present in the encampment and we are now clear that there has been extensive consumption of alcohol and some use of drugs by some of those present in the camp. The presence of structure/tents creates an enhanced risk by virtue of the activity that can and is occurring inside them. This risk simply cannot be managed by the encampment facilitators or police under the current circumstances. These challenges, as underscored by events in other parts of the country, are not unique to Burlington."

Schirling stressed that the city is not trying to shut down the Occupy movement, and that they're welcome to demonstrate in the parts of the park that remain open (sans tents, which makes it not much of an occupation, granted).

Umm . . . so I guess the suicide victim was not the Iraq/Afghanistan war veteran that he was initially portrayed to be? I guess the indignant outrage that some of the Occupiers expressed about the way we treat our military veterans turned out to be a little off-base in this case, eh?

The guy got kicked out of boot camp at 2 weeks, gets drunk, threatens someone with a stolen gun, and then shoots himself. Sad, but hardly "society's" fault.

Suicides are tragedies, but it's disgraceful to exploit one of them as justification for your anger at "society."

Why are the occupiers above the law? The park closes at 11:00PM. Numerous homeless have been cited, fined and even arrested in the past for violating this ordinance.The situation is clearly compromising public safety They need to find another spot. This is not the only firearm incident at the park this week, although the other one was not reported to police. I personally know someone who witnessed a firarm being brandished a few days ago. This sh*tshow is out of hand. If it was a conservative movement, you can believe that Kiss and city council would not allow it.Your rights end when your actions encroach upon my rights. Period. Shut it down now.

Homelessness is STILL an issue that needs to be addressed by the city, especially with below freezing weather on the way. The Burlington homeless shelters (that are at full capacity) were referring homeless to the occupation, where to they do they house them now? What is the city of Burlington doing for the homeless for whom this camp was a shelter?

"wait and see approach"..."Look the Other way approach"

Well now hindsight is 20/20

Today's BFP: "Police said Pfenning had been drinking heavily in the days before his death and had pointed his weapon at others. They also said he had spent only two weeks in the military before being discharged from boot camp, but the group described him as a veteran, and one man at the vigil held an American flag, at half-staff.

O’Donnell said Pfenning was not a military veteran but had served two weeks in Army basic training before receiving a medical discharge due to asthma."

Occupiers: to hell with facts! He was a veteran!

BTW: @ Simha Bode: COTS has denied that they were referring homeless people to your illegal encampment. COTS has a well-deserved reputation in Burlington for honesty and integrity. Are you calling them a liar? Are you from Burlington?

I'm sorry, but this is a shameful manipulation of an unpreventable tragedy to shut down something for political reasons.

Exactly how are people all of a sudden "unsafe" because someone killed himself? People kill themselves all the time--30,000 people a year, one suicide every 15 minutes. Does that mean we should prevent all camping everywhere? Can't people shoot themselves or do drugs or drink from parked cars? Does that mean we should evacuate all parking lots?

And who knows what's going on behind closed doors, say, buildings overlooking the park. People could be shooting themselves there all the time. Should we condemn all the buildings around the park for "public safety?"

Occupy folks seem to be ok with respecting a crime scene during its investigation--no reason not to respect that--but for the city to demand the encampment disband simply because of an unfortunate incident is opportunistic and shows a lack of respect for free speech.

No integrity.

First off, the idea that Socialist Mayor Kiss wants to shut you down for "political reasons" is simply absurd. Are you from Burlington? Do you know anything about Kiss?

Second, the fact that he (wrongfully, in my view) allowed you to break the city rules by camping overnight in the first place shows that your conclusion is wrong. If he was going to shut you down for "political reasons" he could have simply enforced the rule against overnight camping on the very first night. Or the second. Or the third. Or . . .

Many people don't think he ever should have let you camp in the first place, because he certainly would not have let a conservative group break the rules. He played politics in your favor.

Lastly, your group has taken over and trashed a public space -- a space that doesn't belong exclusively to you. And there has been public consumption of alcohol, foul language, noise at all hours, and public defacation. And now gunplay and a death?!! And you're complaining that the City now wants you out?!! Seriously?!! Are you kidding?!! Do you have no sense of perspective whatsoever? Your politics are not the issue.

Moreover, you've been there 2 weeks and you are now beginning to turn off and even frighten people who have been sympathetic to your views. How long are you planning to occupy our park? Until America simply gives up and does what you want? It's getting pathetic. You should not have been allowed to take over the park in the first place, but now it's certainly time to go.

Do something else for your causes.


I live in Montpelier and am a part of Occupy Central Vermont. It is not my job to judge the occupation of city hall park, its strategy, effectiveness, etc, however I do think that the protestors should be the ones making the decision to clear out or not, not the city.

And let's not go there about the conservatives vs. radicals. We all know how many "leftist" protestors have been kicked out of political meetings for wearing t-shirts or using their words, while tea party folks show up with assault rifles.

This isn't about right vs. left anyway, which is a made up concept to keep us apart. It's about freedom and liberty and this tragedy is just a poor excuse to clear out the Occupation. When I say "political," I mean because Kiss has been getting some blowback from loud people who have opposed the Occupy movement from the start, and seems he is doing this to avoid controversy from those loud people, who probably have a lot more money and influence in the community than us protestors.

Unfortunately, people who support something are much less likely to voice their opinion than people who oppose. It's just human nature. I feel the City of Burlington is manipulating this incident and pretending its about "public safety" as a smokescreen to just end this "controversial" protest.

"And let's not go there about the conservatives vs. radicals. We all know how many "leftist" protestors have been kicked out of political meetings for wearing t-shirts or using their words, while tea party folks show up with assault rifles."

Sorry, NOT in Vermont. The only ones who get shouted down or kicked out or "uninvited" in Vermont are the conservatives. Ask Ben Stein. That was a shameful episode.

"Kiss getting "blowback from loud people""? Have you lost all sense of reality? Name one person who has protested that you should be out of city hall park? Identify a single protest that's taken place against you. Identify the march that's taken place against you. Who are the "loud" people and what do you mean by loud? You're allowing yourself to engage in conspiracy theories about people who are "against" you. This is the hallmark of movements on the Left or the Right.

"Unfortunately, people who support something are much less likely to voice their opinion than people who oppose." Again, what the hell are you talking about? You Occupiers are the loudest thing in Burlington.

Which is why you're losing the sympathy of people like me (I'm a 99%er) who agree with many of your views. But if you're going to trash a public park, fight with police who are investigating a crime scene, and engage in conspiracy theories against the Kiss Administration (of all people, for chrissake) you're losing your support.

"Kiss getting "blowback from loud people""?

This is in reference to a conversation with police chief I took part in where he said the city was getting complaints to tear down the camp. These "loud" people never supported Occupy to begin with.

"But if you're going to trash a public park, fight with police who are investigating a crime scene, and engage in conspiracy theories against the Kiss Administration (of all people, for chrissake) you're losing your support."

I'm not aware that any of the above happened. 1) Park wasn't trashed that I saw 2) No "Fight" happened with police just some yelling 3) I explained what the "political" opportunism meant. Not "liberal" politics, him using this as an excuse to not have to deal with the controversy of the Occupation anymore.

So you call unknown, unsupported references to calling for the camp to be torn down, "loud people"?

Again, which people?

How many of them?

And, above all, how are they "loud"? Can you cite me a decibel level?

Josh, you're making shit up. C'mon, man. Lay off the booze and the pot, and the conspiracies will go away. They really will.

Josh, I support OWS, but let's be real.
Even if the mayor is listening to certain "loud people," as you put it, these people have a viewpoint, an opinion that's no less valid than yours or mine. In fact, it is the mayor's job to listen to these people, as well as to listen to the occupiers. That's what democracy is, and I thought that's what this movement was about, at least partially.
Try a little perspective. Look at the footage of other cities and their reactions to OWS, then tell me that the city of Burlington is behaving badly.
Your dismissiveness of the loss of a life is also quite staggering. What, somebody killed himself in a public place in the middle of the afternoon? Bah, happens all the time it shouldn't affect *us*. Again, try a little perspective.

RE: Shlossberg:...3) I explained what the "political" opportunism meant. Not "liberal" politics, him using this as an excuse to not have to deal with the controversy of the Occupation anymore.

The only "opportunism" for the Chief is putting Kiss back in his little box of irrelevency where HE can't harm the public anymore until the next election sends him packing. Why do you think Kiss "injected" himself in the middle of a lawful arrest?

I would conjecture all of the ordinarily prudent public officials (if there are any left in Sodom) have been dismayed with Kiss's "Wait and See" attitude and making exceptions for fleabaggers and the other societal parasites, as opposed to enforcing the law that everbody else lives under.

Perhaps Kiss is concerned Shumlin and Rear Admiral Beth's "Look the Other Way" edict on public safety and law enforcement will score more points with the dirty hippy crowd come election time and he is attempting to outdo that "Stupid is as Stupid does" moment?

Thank You Chief Shirling for finally seizing the moment and opportunity to restore a semblance of common sense and rule of law in Burlington.

Anyone who doesn't think that the Occupy Burlington movement isn't a bunch of conspiratorial babies should read the entire Free Press story today that covered their meeting yesterday. Now they want to exclude the media from covering their meetings, or have the right to edit any TV footage before it is broadcast!

@Murphy: I haven't seen anyone "dismiss" this tragic loss of life. There were maybe 100 folks at the vigil for Josh that I attended on Friday and people were very upset.

I am course not shrugging off suicide. I used to work with developmentally disabled people and have talked at least 2 people out of suicide. What I am saying is the City is using this unfortunate incident to shoehorn the Occupation out of the park.

How often do accidents or unfortunate things happen in life? It's inevitable that something unpleasant will happen among the millions of people involved in this movement, it's just a numbers thing. It is dishonest for cities to claim that one thing going wrong--one suicide happens every 15 minutes in the U.S.--means the entire assembly needs to stop for everyone else. That is manipulating tragedy and is true disrespect for the life that was lost.

Hell, Occupy Burlington might decide to leave on its own accord, and if so, I'll shut up. But if the orders remain after the crime scene is cleared, I'm afraid my opinion is not altered. I have lost a great deal of respect for the leadership of the City of Burlington.

Of course everyone has a viewpoint. But a minority of people who disagree politically from the start shouldn't be able to stop others' expression of free speech. Sorry if I didn't make that clear.

I enjoy dialogue with those who disagree, but two things that make me lose respect for debaters and unwilling to continue dialogue with them: 1) Putting words (and thoughts) in my mouth (or mind) 2) Personal attacks.

My suggestion is to write comments as if you were speaking to me in person. Would you speak like that to me in person? I'm always willing to discuss matters in person.

@ Josh:

First, I didn't say you dismissed Josh Pfenning's suicide. That would be the comment by David C. But I do think that you have absolutely no sense of perspective if you're complaining that the Occupiers should be allowed to continue (not start, but continue) violating city ordinances despite a shooting fatality within your group.

You're upset that the city is shutting down your already-illegal encampment after there was a shooting death in one of the tents? Gee. And that shocking incident comes on the heels of reports of two weeks of chronic illegal behavior in our park: chronic public consumption of alcohol, drugs, loud noise 24 hours, foul language, and defacation.

And I'd like to know which one of you good citizens did your civic duty -- not to mention your moral duty to Mr. Pfenning -- to report to authorities that he was drinking all day long and had a gun. I have read that people knew he was drinking all day long, and that people knew he had a gun. But I haven't read that anyone made any attempt to intervene or to alert any authorities. Not only was he a danger to himself, but he could have killed other people. Yet apparently no one did or said a thing before the incident? Perhaps if just one of you had spoken up, he'd be alive. But nevermind that. Just keep complaining that your group is being treated unfairly.

Lastly, you say, "I have lost a great deal of respect for the leadership of the City of Burlington." I lost that respect much earlier: when they decided it was okay for a left-wing political group to break laws that they surely would have enforced against a conservative group.

funny how josh is described as a transient. besides the last week that he was alive he got to work at 5 in the morning every morning (except for the last week he was alive) at labor ready and worked his ass off all day for 30-40 bucks. the is not a crime scene, the police took the tent he shot himself in, there is no more evidence to take, they are using this as an excuse to try to shut down the camping. his death is being politicized and this is wrong. it had nothing to do with occupy burlington, he had problems way before the protest, if it didnt happen there it would have happened somewhere else.

the drinking and drugging has been in issue in the park for years! only now is it being brought to attention! we all know this lets not be blind or ignorant and blame it on the protesters.


In this case the drinking and drugging-- not to mention fatal shooting -- occurred in at least one Occupy tent. Can you tell me the last time there was a fatal shooting in City Hall Park?

So apparently there was a murder in Bethel, VT the other day. I wonder if Bethel police will shut down the entire town, keep people off the streets and sidewalks and parks, and prevent people from practicing their first amendment because of "public safety."

Oh wait, the murderer is on the loose and police tell the public there is no concern for harm and no changes are being made.


No, but I can see someone who can't tell the difference between: a) an illegal occupation of a public park, full of alcohol, drugs, and at least one gun, where a fatal shooting occurred, and b) a standard homicide investigation.

A more apt analogy would be this: not letting a party or a meeting continue going on at the house where the murder took place. Are you saying that police shouldn't be able to evacuate the murder house because the people in the house have First Amendment rights? Really? Are you saying that the partiers in the house have First Amendment rights that trump the police's right to evacuate and investigate the murder scene? Really?

Jesus. Get a clue.

More evidence that the City of Burlington just used the tragic death as an excuse to silence free speech.

"Oakland Mayor Jean Quan Admits Cities Coordinated Crackdown on Occupy Movement"

Oh my lord, Josh, your speech hasn't been silenced. When the police are done with their work, you'll still be able to protest there. And until then, there's always everywhere else downtown. You just can't live in the public park anymore. You have not been silenced. Of course, whether or not people are still listening is another story; speaking as a pretty-liberal liberal, I can tell you that Occupy Burlington has done a remarkable job alienating me from the movement.

All of you, stop. Please. Stop with the conspiracy theories. The City of Burlington allowed the occupation to go on as long as possible, and it became unsafe.

At the same time, there is no basis to conclude that a conservative occupation would have been forcibly cleared out by police earlier than this one. A political base consisting of millionaires and the workers who love them doesn't need to sleep in a park to get attention. Lobbying and advertising are far more effective if you have the money.

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