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When Big Brother Ran Vermont 

Inside Track

Bernie Sanders

Published July 27, 2005 at 4:00 p.m.

The old-fashioned, customized bus was parked by Burlington City Hall last Thursday, and a few dozen country folk descended into City Hall Park. The bearded men, long-haired women and clean, well-behaved children may have blended in with the bustling tourist crowd, but they were not tourists. They were on a mission to shed light on one of the darkest days in Vermont history.

The folks on the bus came to town to remind us of that ugly, Big Brother-style police raid on June 22, 1984, when the Vermont State Police rounded up all the children at the Northeast Kingdom Community Church in Island Pond.

Fortunately, sanity and the rule of law prevailed, thanks to the courage and wisdom of Judge Frank Mahady. He had the backbone to throw out the state's extraordinarily vague search warrants. The 112 church children were freed later that night. Some of them were present at City Hall last week, recounting their memories of the day the police came to take them away.

"It's hard not to see it as a black mark on the state of Vermont," said church member Jean Swantko. An Orleans County public defender back in the early 1980s, Swantko represented church leader Ed Wiseman. About a year after the raid, she joined the community and married Wiseman.

The main reason for the church group -- now known as the Twelve Tribes -- to visit Burlington was to show a new documentary, produced by Swantko, that revisits the raid and its aftermath. The film is called The Children of the Island Pond Raid: An Emerging Culture. Talk about a trip down memory lane!

After the mass suicide of the Jonestown "cult" in 1978, America got cult-conscious, and cautious. The newly sprouted Northeast Kingdom Community Church provided a target for public concerns.

Allegations flew in the public press that church members viciously beat their children with wooden sticks, and that they ignored modern medical treatment. The fact that church kids were home-schooled only added fuel to the fire.

The Burlington Free Press ran a scary, five-part series starting in 1983 called "The Kingdom & the Cult," written by John Donnelly (now with the Boston Globe) It sent shivers down people's spines. Of course, the series was based on the unsubstantiated allegations of church defectors and cult "experts," but, hey, so what?

The following June, Republican Gov. Richard Snelling, bowing to public pressure, gave the green light, and the largest government-sanctioned kidnapping in U.S. history was launched. But the bright stars of the Snelling administration simply didn't do their homework. They and the politically ambitious Orleans Court State's Attorney Philip White had treated the Island Pond Christians as guilty until proven innocent. As it turned out, the only thing they were guilty of was being different.

"A broader warrant can scarcely be imagined," wrote Judge Mahady. "It is for 20 separate buildings, most of which are residences. The authorization to seize 'any and all children under the age of 18 years old' is broader in scope (though admittedly less Draconian in purpose) than that of Herod the Great."

Swantko's 75-minute documentary includes interviews with former State Trooper Mike LeClair and former reporter Jack Hoffman, both of whom were on the scene that day.

Expecting to find victims of child abuse, LeClair was surprised to find "very outgoing, respectful children, and I never saw a bruise on anybody."

The church-produced documentary is well worth watching, even with the heavy proselytizing at the end. It'll be shown next Thursday in Montpelier at the Unitarian Church at 7 p.m., followed by discussion.

In the Burlington area, cable TV subscribers can see it on Adelphia Ch. 17 on Saturday night at 10 p.m., and on Sunday at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. For more on the church, check out http://www.twelvetribes.com.

On the War Front -- On Monday, Rep. Bernie Sanders, long a champion of veterans' issues, was flanked by top officials from the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Milt Willis, from the Legion, belongs to the generation that will never forget the Vietnam War. He said his major concern with returning soldiers from Iraq is not just the shrapnel wounds from exploding roadside bombs shattering their Humvees, but rather the scars invisible to the naked eye.

"We're going to have a bigger increase with a mental condition called PTSD," said Willis. That's post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition suffered by thousands of Vietnam vets.

"There's got to be money in that budget to cover the care for these vets, both female and male," said Willis. "They're being scarred for life with what's going on over there, with the roadside bombs and so on and so forth."

Unfortunately, neither our president nor the Republican-controlled U.S. House has shown any interest in ponying up the money to meet the need. Tax cuts for millionaires dominate the current Bush fiscal priority. A showdown between House and Senate lies ahead. The gap is more than $500 million-plus.

Sanders and the vets were trying to walk a very narrow line on Monday. They were not pleased when we asked about the bankrupt policy creating a new generation of crippled, blinded and mentally scarred veterans.

But, excuse me. One Vietnam lesson surely is that we should never be afraid to question the politics behind a war. Free speech is, after all, one of the rights American soldiers put their lives on the line to preserve. Use it or lose it.

After pointing out for the third time that the "purpose of the press conference" was to speak about the Bush administration's shortfall in funding veterans programs, Sanders finally gave in.

"We have helped the Iraqi government establish a fledgling democracy," said the Vermont Independent.

So fledgling that, just the other day, after two more Sunni representatives in that new government were assassinated, the entire delegation withdrew.

"We are building their military," said Bernie, without noting that Bush's decision to disband Saddam's Hussein's army after taking Baghdad was one of the dumbest and costliest decisions the White House made.

"We can't walk away tomorrow," said Vermont's lone congressman. "But I don't want to see this discussion going on five years or 10 years from now. I think the president's got to give us an exit strategy, and I think we've got to begin bringing home our troops. That's my view."

Exit strategy, eh?

Where have we heard that before?

Vets Coverage? --When Vermont's congressman and veterans' group leaders hold a press conference and note that the Bush administration has shirked responsibility for war veterans, some might think it's newsworthy.

Think again.

Only Vermont Public Radio, Ch. 5 and yours truly attended. The Big Boys, i.e. The Burlington Free Press and "Vermont's Own," WCAX-TV, were missing in action.

Instead, Ch. 3 led its news Monday evening with taped comments from Vermont Guard soldiers in Kuwait.

We learned that Kuwait is blistering-hot and that blowing sand is no fun. We also learned the soldiers have access to Subway, Pizza Hut and McDonald's.

Very informative.

The segment was produced by Ch. 3's assistant news director, George Wilson. The former Vermont National Guard flight instructor is also the WCAX News assignment editor.

Ch. 3 News' biggest and longest story Monday was a live report from University Mall. Bet you had no idea back-to-school shopping season was just around the corner.


Leahy in the Spotlight -- The pending televised hearings over President Bush's nomination of Judge John Roberts Jr., a "conservative," to the U.S. Supreme Court is on a lot of people's minds. Vermont's senior senator, Patrick J. Leahy, is at the center of the storm as the Democratic Party's point man on the judiciary committee.

The early betting indicates Roberts is a brilliant choice. Not only does he have a scant record after just two years as an appeals court judge, but he comes off as moderate and mild-mannered.

Under the surface, though, many realize a Justice Roberts will change the balance of power on the most important court in the land. A great deal is at stake, from the environment to a woman's right to choose. This will be St. Patrick's biggest test in a long, long time.

Let's face it, America is sadly under the control of a radical, right-wing regime that is leading us into a new age of endless war, national bankruptcy and a rollback of individual freedoms.

At least the Roberts nomination will give the opposition an opportunity to make a stand.

O'Connor's Back! -- You just can't keep a good woman down, especially if she's a seasoned political operative.

Inside Track has learned that former Gov. Howard Dean's right-hand political gal Friday, Kate O'Connor, is back in the game working for Democratic congressional hopeful Peter Shumlin of Putney. Kiss Me Kate was spotted with Shummy at Saturday's Democracy for America event in Rutland and an evening Demo-cratic gathering in Lamoille County.

Since Dean was Lite-Gov way back in the late 1980s, Kate O'Connor was his ever-present political bodyguard. Many were surprised when Dean dropped her after his dismal primary defeats, indicating that everyone, including Kate, would have to apply for positions in the new Dean organization, Democracy for America. The fact that he didn't get her a job in Washington when he became chairman of the Democratic National Committee suggested their breakup was permanent.

Over the years, as regular readers know, we've had our little tiffs with Ms. O'Connor. Poor communication was always at the root. Let's hope, for Shumlin's sake, she's learned from past mistakes. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, Kate did not return our call seeking comment.

Clearly, what she brings to the former Windham County Senate leader's bench is solid Vermont campaign experience. Kate knows everyone and everyone knows Kate. That's either a plus or a minus, depending on your point of view.

We wanted to talk to Shumlin about his new campaign addition, but he's vacationing in Canada for a month and could not be reached.

P.S. Inside Track has learned that Dr. Dean will be the star host at a big DNC fundraiser August 8 at the Wyndham Hotel in Burlap. Hey, a rare Vermont appearance for Ho-Ho!

Can't wait. Maybe he'll even take questions.

Douglas Kicks Back -- No public-appearance schedule issued by Gov. Jim Douglas' diligent press secretary Jason Gibbs last week. Can't remember the last time that happened. Persistent inquiries finally uncovered that our governor had no public-appearance schedule because he was making no public appearances.

Instead, according to Gibbs, Gov. Scissorhands was kicking back for a few days at his parents' camp in Naples, Maine. And what was he doing?


Just picture it! A statewide, front-page photo opportunity missed!

Douglas was back on duty Monday, kicking off a busy week of public appearances with a ceremonial shovel in hand as he broke ground for the new Lime Kiln bridge in Colchester. Whether it's scissors or a spade, nobody does it better.

Censored? -- One of the lively new features in Vermont political journalism this year has been Darren Allen's online blog, called "Hall Monitor." Darren is the chief of the Vermont Press Bureau, the Montpelier office of the Times Argus and Rutland Herald.

Look, everyone loves political gossip, and "Hall Monitor" was a great read during the legislative session. Unfortunately, the posts have slowed down considerably since.

And last week an Inside Track reader pointed out an apparent case of censorship in Darren's blog.

In a July 12 posting, Mr. Allen apologized for his "paucity" of postings after the legislature closed down, blaming it on an overactive Fourth of July weekend. He closed with this tender morsel: "On a highly personal note, a certain lobbyist I know will celebrate a certain birthday tomorrow . . . all my love, PT."

How sweet! Reporters loving lobbyists in public!

It's a very, very small world under the golden dome. During the session, Statehouse regulars were well aware of the budding romance between Darren the Bureau Chief and "P.T." the AARP lobbyist. Two very nice people.

Everyone also knew that Darren the Bureau Chief had recently separated from the lovely wife with whom he moved to Vermont from Maryland -- Maria Archangelo.

And everyone knew that Maria, like Darren, works in journalism. In fact, she's the current editor of the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, one of the papers Mr. Allen writes for. Small world, isn't it?

So small, in fact, that the bureau chief's "all my love" to the lobbyist blog posting is no longer posted. Apparently the paper has clamped down on soap-opera reporting from under the golden dome.


Mr. Allen was not pleased when contacted on Tuesday. Our report, he said, "will likely get me fired." Darren said he had to "call my publisher and do some damage control."

Live by the printed word, die by the printed word.

Media Notes -- A couple of new faces on our Plattsburgh-based TV News station lately. WPTZ-TV, owned by Hearst-Argyle, has a new morning anchor -- Michelle Mortensen. Her last TV news gig was as the health reporter for KLTV in Tyler, Texas. She's an SMU grad and sure looks like an anchorwoman, eh?

NewsChannel 5's new Vermont reporter is Mia Moran.

You guessed it -- an Irish dad and an Italian mom. Best of both worlds, eh?

Mia grew up in Bowie, Maryland. All her relatives, she said, live in the Washington, D.C., metro area. She majored in broadcast journalism at the University of Maryland. Ms. Moran spent the last two and a half years learning the TV news ropes at KRTV in Great Falls, Montana. She also informed us she did a triathlon while out West.

These days the young TV news people are so damn healthy and fit! But most of the couch potatoes watching probably aren't.

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About The Author

Peter Freyne

Peter Freyne

Peter Freyne, 1949-2009, wrote the weekly political column "Inside Track," which originated in the Vanguard Press in the mid 1980s; he brought it to Seven Days in 1995. He retired it shortly before his death in January, 2009. We all miss him.


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