BENNINGTON — The chief of the Bennington Rural Fire Department pleaded guilty on Tuesday to a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct after police said he threw a flashlight at a car June 3 while he was at a fire scene, but it’s likely he’ll avoid having a criminal record.
Joseph T. Hayes, 43, of North Bennington, was arraigned in Bennington criminal court in July on the charge of disorderly conduct and a misdemeanor charge of unlawful mischief.
Under the agreement reached on Tuesday, Hayes pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct but the charge of unlawful mischief has been dismissed.
In addition, Hayes’ sentence for the charge was deferred for four months. He will appear before the reparative board and, if he complies with whatever the board requires of him and stays out of further legal trouble, the case will be dismissed and Hayes’ conviction will be sealed.
William D. Wright, the attorney who represented Hayes, continued to maintain that his client had only been doing his duty as a fire chief at the scene of an emergency. He said it had been a “troubling” case for him and his client.
According to Wright, Hayes was on North Bennington Road, handling a situation involving arcing power lines in a tree on June 3 around 10:20 p.m. Wright said Frederick Grant drove through the scene, past the fire police, without slowing down.
Wright said the car drove toward Hayes “rapidly” and Hayes had to move quickly out of the way to avoid being hit.
“As he did so, he sort of instinctively underhanded the flashlight towards the vehicle. I don’t want the impression that he kind of wound-up and was off to the side of the road and threw it because that’s simply not accurate,” Wright said.
However, Bennington Police Officer Andy Hunt, who was called to the scene by Hayes reporting that he had almost been run over, said Grant told him that he hadn’t seen Hayes because he wasn’t wearing the proper reflective gear.
Grant also insisted that he was driving slowly, in part because there were other vehicles in front of him, and said Hayes yelled obscenities at him.
Hunt said Grant told him later that the flashlight thrown at his vehicle caused $1,000 in damage.
On Tuesday, Wright said Hayes decided to enter a guilty plea after multiple trips to court.
“This system has a way of simply wearing people down,” he said.
Wright said Hayes was happy to be done with the case and had no intention of stepping down as chief or from the fire department.
However, Wright said the Bennington Rural Fire Department would be changing its policy toward handling emergency scenes as a result of the incident and the decision to charge Hayes.
Wright said they would no longer be making an effort to keep the highways open and traffic moving while they were doing their work.
“They don’t feel protected and they’re shutting the roads down,” he said.
Hayes faced another criminal charge in 2007 when he was accused of embezzling from his own fire department. The case was referred to the diversion program and resolved, which kept Hayes from having a criminal record in that case as well.
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