BENNINGTON >> People with information on serious crimes are afraid to come forward and they should not be, according to a local detective investigating the recent string of armed robberies.
"There's people that come forward with excellent information, excellent, but, 'I don't want to get involved, I don't want my name on anything, I won't go to court.'" said Bennington Police Detective Larry Cole, Wednesday at a Bennington Neighborhood Watch meeting. "They're afraid. When is the last time somebody has had their tires slit, their windows smashed out because they spoke? That's a perception that people have, and I don't think it happens."
He said there is little police can do with information people are not willing to stand behind.
There have been an unusual amount of armed robberies in Bennington over the past year. There were three between Jan. 8 and Jan. 11. First, Subway on North Street was robbed at gunpoint, then Paulin's in North Street, followed by two Martin's Mobile Mini Mart employees making a bank deposit.
Paulin's had been robbed in November, the Subway in July. Police have made arrests in the July Subway robbery and the Martin's Mobil robbery, but others, including an October robbery at Willy's Variety store, remain unsolved.
The robbery at Willy's prompted Mary Ellen Devlin, whose family owns the store, to form the neighborhood watch group, along with Steven Flynn, a Bennington resident. The group has its inaugural meeting in December and is still looking for more members as well as a plan to move forward.
The meeting Wednesday involved about 17 people and included Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette and Economic and Community Development Director Michael Harrington.
Cole said people with information seem to fear those they accuse will come shoot them if they tell police what they know.
"It's TV stuff," he said. "Is it a concern? Certainly. Is it a viable concern? No."
"If you put your name down, I can write in my affidavit, 'I met with a person that said such and such,' Ultimately, if it goes to trial, in theory the defense attorney can require that person come forward. I would say roughly 95 percent of the arrests never go to trial, they get dealt with along the way," he said. "We can't say your name will never be used, but if we had more people putting their hand up and not being afraid to step forward, maybe that's a way to accomplish this."
While many people have been coming forward with information, not all of it is good, Cole said. For example, police spoke to someone who claimed they knew who the recent Subway robber was because they walked with a limp. At the time, only still photos had been released from the surveillance tape.
"But the bigger thing is, when we have people with the information who are not willing to go to the next step," he said, adding that the perpetrators of these crimes are not career criminals. "If they get caught, hopefully they're going to get what they need. They're not going to come out and go looking for you, this is not the city where that's your job is to be a criminal, what we're seeing so far is people with issues."
A $750 reward has been posted for information on the robbery at Willy's. On Jan. 11, the Select Board debated using town funds to offer rewards for information on the other robberies, deciding it would wait to hear from Doucette on the wisdom of this.
"Years ago, we used to have the Crime Stopper line," said Doucette on Wednesday. "We used to give people $25 for information, but, as we all know, paying people doesn't always work. Sometimes we get information from people that are just playing the lottery."
He said people would tell police who they only thought committed a crime, hoping they were right so they could collect the reward. Doucette said it's better to have people come forward who simply want to do the right thing rather than for a reward. If a case does go to trial, a witness who was paid for their information can be problematic.
Prior to the robberies, the town launched the EYES program, which is a hotline people can call with information on suspicious activity. The number is 802-445-3937.
The watch group decided it would meet again and inform people through its Facebook page, "Bennington Neighborhood Watch."