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January 28, 2014

Parents of Mentally Ill Burlington Man Witnessed Shooting, Don't Blame Cops

I wanted to follow-up with a couple of items that did not make it into last week's story about new details from the investigation into the fatal shooting of a mentally ill man, Wayne Brunette, by police at his New North End home.

The records obtained from the Vermont Attorney General's Office lay bare one of the most tragic aspects of the November 6 incident: Both of Brunette's parents stood on the front steps of their home and witnessed police fatally shooting their son, who was refusing officers' commands to drop a shovel. In fact, after summoning police to their home, Ruthine and Lawrence Brunette were the only two civilians to witness the entire incident, and their statements to investigators were apparently significant factors in the decision to clear officers Brent Navari and Ethan Thibault of criminal wrongdoing.

"They both started shooting, and I don't know how many times they hit him, he went down," Lawrence Brunette told investigators, according to the documents obtained by Seven Days.

Lawrence Brunette said he had often felt powerless to deal with his son, who had started chopping down a tree in their front yard earlier that day and refused to calm down. "When he gets to that state, the only thing you can do is call the police," he told investigators.

"I don't blame the police ... something snaps in him, I don't know what it is," he continued. "I'm not blaming them."

His wife, in separate interviews with investigators, agreed.

When asked whether she thought her son would have hit an officer with the shovel, Ruthine Brunette said, "Yes." She had repeatedly heard the officers tell her son to drop the shovel. "To me, he went towards them, as they were saying that, you know, and he didn't put the shovel down," she said.

(The Brunettes have declined multiple requests to comment on the incident.)

City Councilor Dave Hartnett, a key driver of the resolution adopted by the council urging police to re-examine its protocols for dealing with the mentally ill, is close with the Brunette family. In an interview, Hartnett said the shooting, in a city where the Police Department has seen a 400 percent rise in calls to deal with the mentally ill in the past five years, demonstrated the need for change.

"Unfortunately, it took a tragedy to wake us all us," Hartnett said. "But that doesn't mean we can't hopefully help the next family that makes the next call for help."

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