By Rachel Goff
On Wednesday, September 10, the Mad River Valley community demonstrated tremendous strength and support for one of its members.
Over 100 people gathered at a forum at Lareau Farm in Waitsfield to discuss how to help Warren resident Sue Russell leading up to the release from prison of the violent sex offender who threatened her life over 20 years ago.
On June 19, 1992, Russell spent over two weeks in the hospital in critical condition after she was attacked by Richard Laws, who was living in Warren at the time. Laws was charged and convicted of kidnapping, aggravated sexual assault and aggravated physical assault. He was sentenced to prison for 25 to 30 years and is scheduled to be released from St. Johnsbury Correctional Facility on April 9, 2015, after maxing out his sentence at 23 years.
In the event that Laws could relocate to The Valley, Russell and her friends and family sought to inform residents on the conditions of his release as well as solicit ways in which the community could help Russell feel secure under unsettling and potentially dangerous circumstances.
"In my mind, the Mad River Valley is a safety net, and I feel safer here than in any other place," Russell said at Wednesday's forum. "I can't imagine how I would feel if I were to walk into a grocery store ... and see the man who almost succeeded in killing me," she said.
Representatives from Vermont State Police, Victim Services of Vermont Department of Corrections and the Sex Offender Registry of the Vermont Crime Information Center attended the forum to explain how Laws will be monitored beginning this April.
While in prison, Laws was given the opportunity to undergo treatment, but he refused it. Upon his release, the state employees explained, Laws will be required to register on the sex offender registry in the state in which he chooses to relocate, where the local law enforcement will be notified of his relocation. There, troopers will have access to basic information about Laws, including a current photo of him, his address, his vehicle type, make and license plate number, as well as his place of employment.
Via the sex offender registry, which is accessible online, anyone will be able to view a current photo of Laws as well as the town and state in which he resides. If Laws fails to provide Department of Corrections with any of the required information, he will be considered "non-compliant" with the conditions of his release and could be re-arrested.
While it will be important for the public to know of Laws' whereabouts, Wednesday's forum "is about Sue and how we can support Sue," facilitator Karen Vastine from the Burlington Community Justice Center said.
According to Amy Holloway of Vermont Department of Corrections, "The role that victim services plays in normal releases is actually to do things like this and safety planning," she said of the forum. "This is the largest one we've ever done," Holloway said, "so for us this is a huge testament to this community."
Following the information panel, attendees split into small groups to brainstorm ideas about how they can help Russell continue to feel safe in her home following Laws' release. Those ideas included forming neighborhood watch groups, email chains and utilizing other technology to share information and create some sort of rapid response system in case of an emergency.