ST. ALBANS — A former officer with the St. Albans Police Dept. (SAPD) pleaded not guilty to a charge of simple assault Tuesday in Franklin County Superior Court.
Joel Daugreilh, 34, of Fairfax, is accused of using pepper spray on Nathan Willey, 21, of St. Albans, while Willey was in handcuffs and in a holding cell at the SAPD offices on Nov. 26, 2017.
Daugreilh was placed on administrative leave by the SAPD following the incident. He resigned within days, and the SAPD referred the case to the Vermont State Police for a criminal investigation.
The Attorney General’s Office initially chose not to bring charges against Daugreilh after an outside expert on use of force told the AG’s office Daugreilh’s actions were reasonable, according to Attorney General T.J. Donovan.
When reporters inquired about the case in 2019, following a separate incident involving an SAPD officer, Sgt. Jason Lawton, striking a woman in a cell, Donovan’s office revisited the case.
Donovan said that when they spoke with the expert again, “he equivocated on his earlier opinion.”
Donovan reopened the case in January.
“I got it wrong the first time,” Donovan said. The case, he added, “troubled me at the outset.”
In an affidavit filed with the court, VSP Det. Sgt. Karl Gardner wrote that he as assigned to investigate the incident on Nov. 30, 2017, after VSP received a referral from the SAPD. He met with the SAPD’s Lt. Benjamin Couture the next day. Couture provided Gardner with video recordings from both cameras in the SAPD building and Daugreilh’s body camera.
Gardner also met with Willey, who was 18 at the time of the incident, at the Northwest State Correctional Facility. Willey was being held on charges of first degree aggravated domestic assault, unlawful restraint and interference with access to emergency services.
According to Gardner, Willey said he was “insulting” to the officers while in the cell at the SAPD, but did not make any threats.
He also complained about the tightness of his handcuffs. Willey said Sgt. Paul Talley checked on the cuffs and told Willey they were fine. Willey was also shackled to a bench while in the cell.
In frustration over the cuffs, Willey began kicking the cell door, causing it to open, reported Gardner.
According to Willey, Daugreilh appeared in the door to the cell, said he was going to “mace him,” then entered the cell, pulled Willey’s hands away from his face and sprayed him with pepper spray.
Willey said he remained in the cell yelling for help for about 20 minutes before emergency medical staff arrived.
Gardner said Willey showed him marks on his hand and wrist which may have been from the handcuffs or from Daugreilh’s fingernail when he pulled Willey’s hands down.
According to Willey, Daugreilh returned to speak with him after the incident, saying Willey was only the second person Daugreilh had ever used pepper spray on.
Gardner said he returned to the SAPD where Couture showed him the cell and explained that because the cell door sometimes opened if kicked, prisoners were shackled to the bench by one leg. When he was similarly shackled, he was unable to stand, Gardner wrote.
On Dec. 6, 2017, Gardner interviewed Daugreilh, who had already resigned his position at the SAPD. Daugreilh said Willey had a history of being aggressive with police, so much so that when arresting him that night officers told him he was being taken in on an outstanding warrant and then informed him of the new charges after a judge had set bail.
It was after learning of the new charges that Willey became disruptive, according to Daugreilh, who said Willey’s behavior escalated over the hour and a half he was in custody prior to the incident. During that period, Daugreilh said he went to check on Willey between six and eight times, including escorting him to the bathroom.
At the time he chose to use the pepper spray, Daugreilh said Willey didn’t “show any signs of calming down, especially since he now knew he could break the door open,” Gardner wrote.
Daugreilh told Gardner his decision to use the spray on Willey was because of Willey’s escalating behavior, his past interactions with Daugreilh, and the likelihood Willey would continue to damage police property or become assaultive. According to Daugreilh, other officers had used pepper spray on detainees in similar circumstances.
After spraying Willey, Daugreilh notified dispatch to call emergency medical staff, then cleaned himself of spray which had hit him before contacting Talley and telling him what had occurred.
Daugreilh said he explained to Willey afterward why he believed the use of the pepper spray was justified.
Talley reviewed the incident and did not find Daugreilh had used excessive force, according to Gardner.
However, SAPD command staff chose to conduct an internal investigation and refer the matter to VSP.
In June 2020, Gardner said he received handwritten notes of a May 8, 2018 conversation between Assistant Attorney General Evan Meenan and Drew Bloom of the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council. According to those notes, Bloom initially said he couldn’t determine if Daugreilh’s actions were reasonable then later said he felt they were because of Willey’s “active resistance.”
He was also given a report written by Steven Ijames Police Training and Consulting, which concluded Daugreilh’s decision to use the spray on Willey was “inappropriate and inconsistent with contemporary and professional police training, policy and practice.”
Gardner concludes his affidavit by stating that the lack of any verbal warning to Willey before the use of the spray and the fact that Willey was restrained at the time leads him to conclude Daugreilh committed the crime of simple assault.
If convicted, Daugreilh could be sentenced to one year in prison, a $1,000 fine, or both.
Judge Scot Kline released Daugreilh without bail, but with the conditions that he attend court hearings, notify the court if his address changes, have no contact with Willey and not harass Willey.
Public defender Michael Ledden who represented Daugreilh for the arraignment objected to the conditions concerning Willey on the grounds that he is currently incarcerated, which makes them moot.
Kline said that given the nature of the charges, he needed to protect the complaining witness.
Daugreilh is the third SAPD officer to face a criminal charge in less than a year.
Lawton, who was dismissed from the force, but has challenged that dismissal, was charged by the attorney general’s office with simple assault in November.
Zachary Pigeon, who has also been fired, was charged with kidnapping and assault in April, for an alleged attempt to silence a woman he had reportedly abused when he was a teenager and she was a child.
In response to these incidents, the SAPD made multiple changes to its policies and procedures, including investigation of all uses of force by SAPD officers and a requirement that any officer witnessing an excess use of force intervene to stop it.
Consultants have also been retained to examine the department’s hiring and training practices.
Staff writer Mike Nosek contributed to this report.
Update: This story was updated at 5 p.m. on June 30 to include details from the Det. Sgt. Karl Gardner’s affidavit.