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When A Mechanic Was Robbed, He Went After A Man With A Gun. Now His Town Is Rallying Behind Him

On a street in Chelsea a few hundred feet from WRC Automotive, a house has a red, white and blue "We stand with Wayland" sign and a neighborhood watch sign on the lawn next to their mailbox. In the background, there are "We stand with Wayland signs" visible on two different properties.
Abagael Giles
Dozens of signs in support of Wayland Childs line the road into Chelsea and neighboring towns.

Steve Thomas sleeps on his front porch most nights. There’s a sofa made up with sheets in the corner of the screened-in room at his home in Chelsea.

Thomas has a young kid at home and expensive farm equipment in the driveway, and he doesn’t feel safe.

"I’m right there every night, because it’s just a matter of time,” he said. “I’m waiting for someone to come rob us, because that’s the way it is around here.”

He didn’t always feel this way. Thomas and his wife, Kate, moved to Chelsea five years ago and started a farm.

“We’ve never used to lock our doors. My keys used to sit in my truck at night,” Thomas said. “We take all our keys out and lock everything, every night now.”

Chelsea has about 1,300 people spread over a river valley. There’s not much cell service, and it’s easy to feel isolated. Recently though, this feeling has gotten worse. Other residents in town have also said they’ve started locking their doors in the last few years.

“There’s a lot of people in our town that are just scared,” Kate Thomas said.

Steve Thomas sits on a black leather recliner made up with a pillow and pink sheets and a comforter. He's wearing jeans with dirt-stained knees and suspenders over a grey t-shirt. Kids toys are scattered in the foreground.
Abagael Giles
Steve Thomas no longer feels safe at his home in Chelsea. He plans to sleep on his porch until winter to keep an eye out for suspicious activity.

For several weeks, crime and policing have been top of mind in Chelsea. That’s when yard signs started appearing all over the region. They’re red, white and blue, like somebody’s campaigning for office. Only they read, “We’re fed up with crime in our Community. We stand with Wayland.”

They’re talking about Wayland Childs. He’s in his mid-30s and grew up in Chelsea. He raced “anything he could get his hands on” since he was a little kid, according to The Herald of Randolph. Friends say he could have gone off and raced cars professionally, but he stayed.

Childs opened an auto shop in the middle of town almost 15 years ago. He has a good reputation.

“Wayland works six days a week, and he works hard,” said Carrie Caouette-De Lallo, a longtime customer who lives in Chelsea. “He's a really honest guy, and a good human being.”

In May, someone broke into Childs’ shop. It wasn’t the first time, according to several people in town. They took an old arrowhead, some money and a car battery reader that looks like a computer, according to an affidavit.

The Vermont State Police were looking into the burglary. They had a suspect named Scott Irish, according to court documents. He’s a familiar face to police officers in the region. He’s 40, from Barre, and has a long record of arrests. He’s been charged with stealing snowmobiles and catalytic converters, and driving with a suspended license — that’s just in the last few months.

Officers checked Irish’s last listed address, but they couldn’t find him and they hadn’t issued an arrest warrant, according to an affidavit. Then things got ugly.

A view of the village of Chelsea from above. A few buildings are visible beneath a thick canopy of trees.
Abagael Giles
Crime and policing are top of mind for many in Chelsea.

Irish was allegedly trying to sell some of the stolen goods at a motel in Barre. He later told officers he was looking for drug money.

Childs found out, and asked the police for help, but they didn’t have officers available at the time. So Childs decided to confront Irish himself, police said.

By the time police arrived, Childs had pinned Irish to the ground of the motel parking lot. He held a loaded handgun against the back of Irish’s neck, according to affidavits.

More from Brave Little State: What Do Vermont Constables Do, Anyway?

At the time, the motel was full of guests through the state’s emergency housing voucher program, according to Barre City Police Chief Tim Bombardier.

“It’s not like it’s out in the middle of nowhere," Bombardier said. "Besides the person involved, they put other people in danger too.”

That night, Childs was arrested. He’s been charged with assault with a deadly weapon, reckless endangerment, and unlawful restraint. He was released and didn’t want to comment for this story.

When word got out about what he did though, lots of people in Chelsea came to his defense. There was a raffle to help pay for his lawyer fees. And those signs all over town, “We stand with Wayland.”

A sign for the Orange County Sheriff's Department above yellow tulips outside a red brick building with bars over the windows.
Abagael Giles
While more people might be aware of suspicious activity, there hasn’t been an increase in reported incidents in Chelsea, according to Orange County Sheriff Bill Bohnyak. The Vermont State Police and Crime Research Group based in Montpelier also have said there’s no new surge in crime.

One reason for this support is that many people in the area feel like they can’t rely on the police. The county sheriff’s office is located in Chelsea, but the town only pays for about five hours of coverage each week, according to the select board.

That means Vermont State Police troopers respond to most incidents, including 911 calls. They can’t always follow up on every one though, especially late at night.

“To some extent we have to triage some of the calls we get,” said state police Cpt. Roger Farmer at a Chelsea Select Board meeting in June. “We have two troopers and a sergeant covering 19 towns and 110 miles of interstate.”

There’s also the feeling that when the police do arrest someone for a low-level crime like burglary, they’re invariably released and back out on the street.

That’s been the pattern with Scott Irish, according to court documents. The police arrested him for burglary and possession of stolen property several days after Childs attacked him. He was caught allegedly selling stolen car parts from Montpelier and released on conditions.

Many law enforcement officials are frustrated by state criminal justice policies according to Orange County State's Attorney Dickson Corbett.

“When we limit the amount of bail, for example, that a judge can impose or the type of conditions or the resources available, we create a situation in which people feel the criminal justice system isn't responding,” he said. “That creates fear.”

However, research has shown that punishment isn’t effective at deterring crimeor addressing underlying issues that fuel criminal activity.

“We know that jail does not help people deal with their issues with substance use,” said Jessie Schmidt, who runs the Orange County Restorative Justice Center, also based in Chelsea. “Jail does not reduce the likelihood that someone is going to commit an offense in the future. It actually increases the likelihood that someone's going to reoffend."

Jessie Schmidt and Kym Anderson stand outside of the Orange County Restorative Justice Center. The center is housed in a historic white building with green shutters.
Abagael Giles
Jessie Schmidt and Kym Anderson work at the Orange County Restorative Justice Center, based in Chelsea. Schmidt said the pandemic has exacerbated long standing shortages of mental health and substance abuse services in Vermont. One of her clients has been waiting for months to get treatment for alcohol use disorder. Others can’t access psychiatric beds or counseling.

Schmidt understands the desire to impose harsher punishments for people who repeatedly come into contact with the criminal justice system.

But ultimately, she says, this doesn’t make communities safer: “The reality is that people return from jail — and often return to even greater barriers to being positive members of the community.”

Instead, Schmidt emphasized the need to invest in the community mental health system to provide substance misuse and mental health services, as well as programming to address harm caused.

More from Brave Little State: Who Oversees Vermont's County Sheriffs?

For many Chelsea residents who read about thefts or suspicious activity nearly every day on social media, however, they don’t feel like they can wait for the types of changes needed to stem crime.

“Everyone is scared, and they’re fed up,” Steve Thomas said. And he thinks what happened with Wayland Childs could happen again.

“The problem now is people are going to take it into their hands, and something bad is going to happen," he said.

Lexi Krupp is a corps member for Report for America, a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and regions.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Lexi Krupp @KruppLexi.

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Lexi covers science and health stories for Vermont Public.
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