A federal judge has rejected a former Wallingford Fire Department captain’s motion to exclude statements he made to police about his involvement in setting close to two dozen wildfires around town in 2008.
In a 15-page decision issued recently, U.S. District Court Judge Christina Reiss denied a motion to suppress statements made by George Allen to Vermont State Police investigators in 2008.
Allen, the son of former Wallingford Fire Chief Warren Allen, faces a federal charge of conspiring to set fires on federal public lands — a charge that carries a potential five-year prison term.
Two other former members of the fire department have already been sentenced for their roles in starting grass fires on portions of the Green Mountain National Forest in town — including three areas on the Long Trail, the Appalachian Trail parking lot and the White Rocks trail head.
Allen isn’t charged with setting any of the fires but prosecutors say he directed other members of the department to do so — and they say they have tape-recorded acknowledgements from Allen, who talked to state police investigators in May 2008.
But in a motion filed earlier this year, Allen’s lawyer argued that the statements made to police were inadmissible as evidence because Allen didn’t realize his statements could be used against him in part because of a lack of interaction with law enforcement and in part because of lower than normal cognitive abilities.
As part of the motion to suppress, Allen’s defense attorney submitted the findings of forensic psychologist Eric Drogin who examined Allen earlier this year and determined that he had “a level of abstract reasoning so deficient that it would normally be ascribed either to a child of approximately eight years of age or to a person of (Allen’s) age with mental retardation.”
In her decision, Reiss said she found that diagnosis unbelievable based on his level of education and years of experience as an officer at the fire department.
Reiss said Drogin’s findings were “Simply incredible in light of (Allen’s) academic and professional career which contains no evidence that would support that conclusion.”
Noting that with the exception of a repeat of the second grade, Allen had completed high school, vocational and technical training and held a supervisory role at the fire department for more than a decade, the judge wrote “Dr. Drogin does not even attempt to explain why the level of impairment he ascribes to (Allen) could remain undetected until his forensic examination notwithstanding these numerous settings in which such deficiencies would likely be revealed and impair (Allen’s) progress.”
Turning to arguments about whether police violated Allen’s rights by obtaining an involuntary confession, Reiss said that while Allen was never read his Miranda rights during questioning he was never in a state of arrest or police custody.
Instead, she said he was interviewed at the Wallingford fire station by plain-clothed, unarmed detectives who asked twice if he was willing to speak to them before the interview began.
The judge’s decision was issued about a month before Allen’s case is set to go to trial on July 23.
Other members of the department already convicted of charges related to the grass fires include Matthew D. Burnahm, who pleaded guilty to a federal charge in 2011 and was sentenced to six months of home confinement
In 2009, Burnham was given a one- to two-year suspended sentence after he pleaded guilty to a state charge of fourth-degree arson.
Another former firefighter, Charles Woods, who was charged with felony accessory after the fact, eventually settled his case and was ordered to pay a $2,000 fine.
Allen was one of six Wallingford firefighters cited by investigators to answer to criminal charges five years ago in Rutland criminal court.
But retired Rutland County State’s Attorney James Mongeon decided only to bring criminal charges against Burnham and Woods.
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