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Year In Review: Police Department Changes, A New Hook & Ladder Firehouse, And Criminal Probes



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The year 2016 saw major changes in leadership at the Newtown Police Department, the 45-member municipal law enforcement agency that was organized in 1971.

In January, town resident James Viadero assumed the position of police chief, replacing the retiring Michael Kehoe, who had joined the police department in 1978 and had headed it since 1999.

Chief Viadero, who has lived in town for more than 20 years, was well known to local officials, having served as a Newtown Police Commission member for almost five years, from 2009 to 2014. After retiring from Bridgeport Police Department, Mr Viadero became Middlebury's police chief in mid-2014, serving in that role until becoming Newtown's police chief.

In September, the police department's second-in-command, Joe Rios, retired as the captain to take a civilian post in the area of preparedness/security with the Norwalk public school system. Mr Rios, who joined the police department in 1990, had been the second-in-command there since 1999.

Late in the year, the Police Commission promoted Lieutenant Christopher Vanghele to the captain's position. The commission also promoted School Resource Officer Liam Seabrook to a sergeant's post. In early 2017, the commission is expected to promote one of several competing sergeants to a vacant lieutenant's position. Those three promotions will take effect in January.

In November, longtime Newtown Fire Marshal Bill Halstead retired from that post, which he had held since 2001. Deputy Fire Marshal Rich Frampton is serving as acting fire marshal. The Board of Fire Commissioners is expected to select a permanent fire marshal soon. Mr Halstead continues to serve as the town's emergency management director and as chief of Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire & Rescue Company.

Newtown Hook & Ladder, one of the town's five volunteer fire companies, in September held dedication ceremonies for its new firehouse at 12 Church Hill Road.

The construction of the firehouse, which is owned by Hook & Ladder, follows the group's decades-long drive for new quarters to replace an antiquated, structurally-unsound town-owned firehouse that it had long used at 45 Main Street, behind Edmond Town Hall. Adjacent to the new firehouse is a new pumphouse owned by Aquarion Water Company, that is used to regulate water pressure in its public water supply system. The pumphouse replaces outdated underground Aquarion facilities near the police station.

In May, a major fire in the Hook & Ladder fire district saw the destruction of a vacant old mansion. The suspicious blaze, believed to be arson, destroyed the house at 20 Castle Hill Road. Mr Halstead has said he expects that someone intentionally set the fire that destroyed the 1908 house at the 66-acre site owned by Castle Hill Real Estate Holdings, LLC. There were no injuries. No arrests have been made in the case.

Criminal Investigations

In September, a former town police sergeant, Steven Santucci of Waterbury was sentenced to a 16-month federal prison term, plus other penalties, on convictions for having manufactured and sold anabolic steroids while heading a 12-man drug trafficking ring. Santucci pleaded guilty to a drug charge and a money laundering charge. Federal officials said Santucci had been involved in the drug activity for six years. He joined the police department in 2000.

Early in the year, a federal judge sentenced former emergency services dispatcher Jason Chickos of Bridgeport to probation, community service, and a fine for having worked as part of that drug ring, selling anabolic steroids to body builders.

In September, a federal judge sentenced Alex Garcia of Danbury to a 30-year prison sentence for having murdered Mark Rebong of Newtown in January 2000, while Mr Rebong was traveling at night on Interstate 84 in Danbury, while on his way to work. A lengthy police investigation found that Garcia, a member of the Latin Kings crime gang, had shot and killed Mr Rebong in a case of mistaken identity.

Among other criminal investigations, police spent the month of June excavating terrain at the end of the dead-end Whippoorwill Hill Road in seeking clues in their ongoing investigation into the apparent death of flight attendant Regina Brown. Ms Brown's husband, Willis Brown, an airline pilot, had reported Ms Brown, 35, missing to police in 1987. Ms Brown's body has never been found. The excavation project, in which police used cadaver dogs, has not yet translated to an arrest in the longstanding cold case, which police categorize as a homicide.

In April, police arrested Jason Adams, an Newtown Middle School eighth-grade science teacher, for possessing a loaded pistol while inside the school, in violation of state law. Mr Adams later resigned as teacher. In Danbury Superior Court, he sought and received a special form of pretrial probation on the felony charge. If he successfully completes that probation, the charge would be dismissed.

The Sandy Hook School shooting incident of December 2012, in which a gunman killed 20 first graders and six adults, has heightened local sensitivity to the issue of guns in schools.

Among court cases in 2016, the Connecticut Supreme Court has agreed to review on appeal a lawsuit on the Sandy Hook School shooting incident that was dismissed in Superior Court.

In that civil suit, the estates of nine people who were killed in the incident and one survivor are challenging the legality of selling the semiautomatic military-style rifle used in the shooting to the general public. The gun's manufacturer is one of multiple defendants. The suit seeks damages and injunctive relief.

Traffic In Newtown

During 2016, the Police Commission, which is the local traffic authority, continued discussions on measures that could be taken to improve traffic safety and reduce the accident rate at the flagpole intersection of Main Street, Church Hill Road, and West Street. The junction has the second-highest accident rate in town. Police Commission members have been in talks with state Department of Transportation (DOT) officials on incremental steps that could be taken to improve travel safety there.

In October, workers installed a set of traffic signals at the hazardous intersection of Church Hill Road and The Boulevard. The long-awaited signals will be activated to regulate traffic flow at that intersection generated by the presence of The Village at Lexington Gardens, a retail under construction at 30 Church Hill Road.

In 2016, the DOT also approved the installation of a four-way traffic signal at the hazardous intersection of Berkshire Road, Bennetts Bridge Road, and Grays Plain Road in Sandy Hook. Signal installation, however, is not expected to occur for several years.

After a lengthy review, Police Commission members opted against installing speed tables on Pearl Street, a residential connector road that links Washington Avenue to Philo Curtis Road. Some Pearl Street residents had strongly pushed to have the speed deterrents installed, but commission members decided that speed tables would not be the best solution for a speeding problem in that neighborhood.

Police Chief James Viadero speaks at ceremonies honoring his becoming Newtown's top law enforcement official. (Bee Photo, Gorosko)
The volunteer members of Newtown Hook & Ladder stood outside their new firehouse in dedication ceremonies in September. (Bee Photo, Gorosko)
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