Crime and Justice

'I'm still the sheriff’: Peter Newton rejects calls to resign Addison County post following arrest on sex assault charges

Peter Newton at podium
Addison County Sheriff Peter Newton speaks at a press conference at the department's headquarters in Middlebury on August 4, 2021. Photo by Alan Keays/VTDigger

Updated at 9:06 p.m.

BURLINGTON — Addison County Sheriff Peter Newton, who has been under investigation for months for a reported “domestic disturbance” at his home in February, was arrested Tuesday, according to Vermont State Police spokesperson Adam Silverman. 

He was charged with two counts of sexual assault, one count of domestic violence and one count of unlawful restraint, according to the state police. Newton has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Newton, 50, was taken into custody Tuesday morning while “conducting contractor work at a construction job site in Middlebury,” according to a state police press release. 

VTDigger first reported in April that the Vermont State Police were investigating Newton’s involvement in a reported “domestic disturbance” at his Middlebury home during the early morning hours of Feb. 26. 

An affidavit filed by Detective Sgt. Angela Baker of the Vermont State Police in support of the charges provided additional details into the investigation. It was made public Tuesday following Newton’s arrest.

The 10-page filing outlined the allegations against Newton and described the woman he is charged with assaulting as fearful of coming forward because of his high-ranking law enforcement position.

‘He’s above anyone’

“He’s the sheriff. If he wanted to knock on my door and come in, he can. No one can stop him,” the woman told police, according to the affidavit. 

“He’s above anyone, I’m afraid. He has access to these guns. He’s a predator,” the woman said in her statement to police. “This is someone who abuses their power, their position, It’s not just him, it’s the entire sheriff’s department because they knew he used his position to get women. They knew that.”

The woman reported she met Newton around May 2021 when she was having problems with an abusive man. She sought out his help in his role as sheriff, and he said he would protect her and her children, the affidavit stated.

Eventually, Newton became controlling of her, the woman stated in the filing, and he would often serve her alcoholic drinks, getting her intoxicated and having sex with her when she told him no or was too impaired to consent.

Middlebury Police Chief Thomas Hanley told VTDigger in April that his department responded to a call just after midnight for a reported “dispute'' between Newton and a woman at Newton’s Middlebury home on Feb. 26.

Hanley said responding officers didn’t find sufficient evidence to make any arrests. “This was a dispute between two people over some personal things,” the police chief said.

Hanley said he asked then-Addison County State’s Attorney Dennis Wygmans to look over the case and provide a “third-party” review, since Newton at one time worked for the Middlebury Police Department.

The case was referred to Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault to avoid a conflict with the Addison County state’s attorney’s office handling the matter. 

‘I’m still the sheriff’

Newton appeared Tuesday afternoon in handcuffs in Chittenden County Superior criminal court in Burlington for an arraignment on the charges.

Dressed in a dark T-shirt and dirty blue jeans, Newton stood at the defense table and, through his attorney, pleaded not guilty to the four criminal charges.

He was released on a $100,000 unsecured appearance bond as well as several conditions, including that he not possess any firearms and not engage in any law enforcement activities. 

Attorney Jason Sawyer, representing Newton, told Judge John Pacht that he did not object to the condition that his client not possess firearms because he said he rarely possessed one while on duty.

However, Sawyer said his client was a “duly elected” sheriff in Addison County and wanted to continue serving in that role even if just carrying out administrative functions of that office. 

The judge did grant the request from Thibault, the prosecutor in the case, that Newton be barred from carrying out law enforcement duties as well as accessing law enforcement databases.

Newton, as he walked away from reporters following his hearing, said that despite that order, he had no intentions of resigning his position. Asked how he intended to continue serving in that role, Newton smiled and waved at reporters as he boarded an elevator and the doors closed.

“I’m still the sheriff,” Newton told reporters.   

‘Unfit to continue’

Moments earlier, in the courtroom, Newton was served with a temporary Extreme Risk Protection Order prohibiting him from possessing dangerous weapons. 

An Extreme Risk Protection Order allows a prosecutor to petition a court to keep dangerous weapons away from a person who poses a risk to themselves or others. 

Thibault said Tuesday afternoon following Newton’s arraignment that he opted to move forward with Vermont’s version of a “red flag law” because he believed Newton posed a potential risk of harm to himself or others.

An affidavit filed in support of that order referenced a Youtube video that Newton posted online after VTDigger reported in April that Newton was under criminal investigation. In that video, Newton talked about being “suicidal,” but he was also “good at always putting up a good front.” 

Days after posting that video online, the affidavit in support of the Extreme Risk Protection Order stated, an unnamed deputy with the Addison County Sheriff’s Department reached out by email to Michael Schirling, commissioner of the state Department of Public Safety. 

“It is my opinion that due to his current behavior he is mentally/emotionally unfit to continue to serve in his role as Sheriff or to even continue to serve in any capacity in law enforcement,” the deputy wrote in an email to the public safety commissioner. 

“I firmly believe that if he isn’t removed from office immediately,” the deputy added in the email, “and doesn’t get the help that he greatly needs there will be dire and tragic consequences for the community.” 

Dave Silberman, the high bailiff in Addison County, released a statement Tuesday calling on Newton to resign. 

“Like all people charged with crimes, Sheriff Newton deserves a presumption of innocence

pending trial and conviction,” Silberman wrote. 

“However,” he said, “it is simply impossible for Sheriff Newton to continue serving the community in a law enforcement capacity under the cloud of these very serious charges.”

The high bailiff is a post that has limited duties in modern times. If a sheriff leaves office, the high bailiff can be called on to fill the position until a new one is found.

Newton was elected sheriff in 2018. He finished first in a three-person race to succeed outgoing longtime Sheriff Don Keeler. 

Since becoming sheriff, Newton has been involved in several public controversies, including one in which he alleged fraudulent conduct by Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel regarding timesheet reports. Attorney General TJ Donovan later announced that he had not found evidence of fraud.

Shortly after VTDigger reported on the criminal probe into Newton in April, the sheriff announced he would not be seeking reelection.

Newton has repeatedly posted on his Facebook page in recent weeks about a contracting business he started and planned to continue operating after his term as sheriff expires at the end of January 2023.

If convicted of the charges against him, Newton faces up to life in prison.

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Alan J. Keays

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