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Suspect In Quadruple Homicide Pleads Not Guilty To Killing DCF Social Worker

Toby Talbot
Jody Herring, the alleged murderer of DCF social worker Lara Sobel, pled not guilty to charges of first degree murder at her arraignment in Barre on Monday. Herring is also suspected of murdering three of her relatives.

As Jody Herring sat shackled and silent in the Washington County Superior Court Monday afternoon, her lawyer entered a not guilty plea for her in response to the charge of the first-degree murder of Department for Children and Families Social Worker Lara Sobel.

Herring allegedly killed Sobel Friday afternoon outside state offices in downtown Barre, just two doors down from the courthouse.

Officials suspect Herring killed Sobel because of the state's involvement in her losing custody of her young daughter.

Herring is also suspected in the deaths of three of her family members in Berlin. The bodies of Regina Herring, 43, Rhonda Herring, 48 and their mother Julie Ann Falzarano, 73, were found Saturday morning in a Berlin home. Rhonda and Regina Herring were Jody Herring’s cousins. Falzarano was her aunt.

One of Herring’s daughters said those killings may also be related to the custody case.

Two shots

Court records show Herring had a history of involvement with police, including a conviction for disorderly conduct in 2006 that stemmed from an alleged domestic assault.

Documents related to the first-degree murder charge provided new details about Friday's shooting.

A police affidavit says a witness on her way to her maintenance job in the office building came face-to-face with Herring just before the shooting while Herring was sitting in her car.

“When [the witness] got out of the car she dropped her cell phone and retrieved it, and as she stood up she was face-to-face with the operator of the vehicle beside her, who was screaming about something,” the affidavit says. “There was no other occupant in the vehicle, and her hands were flailing. [The witness] also noticed something black on the passenger’s seat which, in hindsight, she believes may have been the butt end of the weapon.”

Moments later, after walking by a pair of social workers in the parking lot, the witness heard a shot.

“As they passed by the couple, within seconds [the witness] heard a loud blast which made her ears ring,” the affidavit says. “As they turned around they saw the woman previously sitting in the car next to theirs yelling and saw the victim lying on the ground. They then witnessed the accused shoot the victim a second time as she lay on the ground.”

Credit Taylor Dobbs / VPR
Mourners created an impromptu memorial for Department for Children and Families Social Worker Lara Sobel at the site of her killing.

Herring, according to the documents, was standing over Sobel “shouting something about her 8-year-old daughter being taken by DCF, and was waving a long barrel gun around. [Witnesses] then observed three men approaching who wrested the woman with the gun to the ground.”

When police arrived on the scene Friday, records show, a 66-year-old witness was holding Herring by the wrists. Nearby, Sobel lay dead on the ground. A Remington 700 – a .270 caliber hunting rifle – was on the ground with another witness standing over it, according to Washington County State’s Attorney Scott Williams, who helped subdue Herring after the killing.

“I was able to render the weapon safe and I was able to confront the shooter until people got ahold of her,” Williams said outside the courthouse Monday.

Williams is not prosecuting the case because he is a witness, officials said. Attorney General Bill Sorrell's office is prosecuting the case instead.

Barre Police Sergeant Hal Hayden said in an affidavit that Herring turned over a sleeve of .270 caliber bullets when she was being processed at the police department.

As she handed the bullets to officers, the affidavit says, “she said something to the effect of ‘You might want these. I don’t need them anymore.’”

Hayden’s affidavit also says Herring wasn’t acting upset after her arrest.

“It should be noted that while on scene the female [Herring] was laughing about the incident and very calm,” the affidavit says. “During transportation the female continued to laugh and talk about the victim. Prior to placing the female into the cell she was still laughing and making small talk about the incident like it was no big deal.”

Documents show that when police tried to interview her, though, Herring’s mood was different.

“From the onset of asking if we may speak with her the Herring [sic] was quite agitated, and became increasingly so as we walked to the second floor interview room,” Hayden’s affidavit says.

"Herring was ranting about how the police never did anything for her, about how she had been beaten by a former boyfriend and nothing was done about the injustices she suffered at the hands of DCF." - Police affidavit

“Herring was ranting about how the police never did anything for her, about how she had been beaten by a former boyfriend and nothing was done about the injustices she suffered at the hands of DCF,” the affidavit says.

At Herring’s arraignment Monday afternoon, prosecutors sought an evaluation of Herring’s competency to stand trial, but her attorney, David Sleigh, succeeded in having that assessment delayed.

“Clearly there are some facts that at least give rise to a concern as to whether competency might be an issue,” said Attorney General Bill Sorrell after the hearing. “So we thought we would be proactive in seeking a competency evaluation sooner than later.”

So far, officials have refused to say how Herring got the rifle. According to a recent court documents, Herring has never been convicted of a felony but is disqualified under federal law from purchasing a firearm.

A history with DCF

Outside the courthouse, Jody Herring’s adult daughter, Desiree Herring, says her mother was likely reeling from the loss of custody of her daughter.  Herring said the three victims in Berlin also had concerns about Jody Herring’s mothering.

She said her mother had a long history with the Department for Children and Families, which she says took both Desiree and her older sister from their mother’s custody when they were younger.

“My mom, having lost two other kids, was very adamant on keeping her [the 9-year-old daughter],” she said.

Leaders defend social workers

Gov. Peter Shumlin strongly condemned criticism of DCF social workers, defending them as good people trying to protect Vermont’s vulnerable children.

Credit Taylor Dobbs / VPR
After speaking with DCF employees in Barre, Gov. Peter Shumlin (center), DCF Commissioner Ken Schatz (left) and Human Services Secretary Hal Cohen (right) briefed the press.

“Because of the changing attitude towards DCF workers, it has been my concern generally that the hateful language that’s used in talking about their heroic work leads to an environment of disrespect, and disrespect often leads to hateful actions,” he said.

DCF Commissioner Ken Schatz said the department will review its policies around worker safety in the wake of the Friday killing.

“We do have some training and things we’re going to be reviewing to make sure social workers have appropriate guidance to know when they need to call upon law enforcement or when they need to have another social worker so they’re not going into an unknown situation by themselves,” he said. “We obviously have those kinds of guidance in place now, but we’ll be reviewing them to make sure that they’re consistent with best practice and the advice of experts.”

Schatz and Human Services Secretary Hal Cohen said the state is offering support to workers at all district offices around the state. Schatz said that while some workers likely stayed home Monday – either to mourn their colleague or out of fear of danger – others returned to work.

“Certainly many employees did [return to work Monday],” Schatz said, perhaps because they “felt that the best way to remember Lara was to do the good work.”

Related deaths

Prosecutors haven’t yet filed charges in the deaths of Herring’s three relatives in Berlin. Affidavits in the first-degree murder charge filed Monday however link her to the crime.

Police interviewed Jody Herring’s brother, Dwayne, Saturday afternoon, when he told them about consecutive phone messages he’d received from her on Friday afternoon.

In the first message, left at 2:56 p.m., according to police, Jody Herring told her brother, “If you think anything of your sister, you’ll get ahold of me now or ASAP.” In a second message left four minutes later, according to police, a “hysterical” sounding Jody Herring said, “Watch the news and you’ll wish you got ahold of me earlier.”

The Sobel shooting occurred shortly before 4:45 p.m. that same day, and authorities believe Herring killed her three relatives before driving to Barre to kill Sobel.

The home where the bodies were found, on Airport Road in Berlin, was still an active crime scene Monday afternoon, with Berlin Police guarding the site. A pink balloon placed under the police tape said “Love you always.”

Shumlin meets victims' families

Shumlin met with close members of the family of Regina and Rhonda Herring and their mother, Falzarano, Monday afternoon. A Shumlin spokesperson said the family has asked media to respect their privacy.

The governor’s office also says the family is urging people to avoid social media fundraising sites set up to pay for funeral other expenses related to the killings. According to the governor, the family said no legitimate fund-raising sites have been set up.

Correction 8:48 p.m. This post has been corrected to reflect the fact that so far, officials have refused to say how Herring, not Sobel, got the rifle.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
Taylor was VPR's digital reporter from 2013 until 2017. After growing up in Vermont, he graduated with at BA in Journalism from Northeastern University in 2013.
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