‘This Downtown Needs to be Safe:' Gun Incidents Rattle Vermont City

Burlington Police say the nation has seen a rise in violent incidents during the pandemic

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A series of three violent incidents this weekend involving guns — within just nine hours — rattled Burlington, Vermont, a community generally known for its laid-back lifestyle and peaceful vibe.

Investigators said a man who was mad he was getting kicked out of a bar for hassling other customers Saturday night pulled a gun on staff outside of Ruben James, getting right up in one worker’s face with the pistol.

Jahi Bennett-Gooden, 25, of Williston, denied accusations related to the bar incident.

"We enter pleas of not guilty," defense attorney Sarah Reed told Vermont Superior Court Judge John Pacht.

According to the Burlington Police Department, officers have arrested Bennett-Gooden before, both for drugs and gun violence.

"We believe that it is appropriate, for public safety reasons, to ask to hold somebody without bail," Deputy Chittenden County State’s Attorney Andrew McFarlin argued Monday, noting that some of Bennett-Goodman’s prior charges were being handled through a specialized court program for people facing charges related to their substance use disorders or mental health struggles.

Regarding the latest accusation stemming from the incident at Ruben James, Judge Pacht ordered Bennett-Gooden held without bail pending another hearing.

Six hours after that bar altercation, Burlington Police responded to an unrelated shooting near Pine and Maple Streets, involving a fleeing car. 

Three hours after that, there was more gunfire, in the vicinity of King and Pine, police said. No one was hurt in either case, and investigators are still searching for the shooters — as well as trying to determine if those incidents were related.

The Burlington Police Department asked anyone who heard or saw anything that could be helpful to the investigation to contact BPD at (802) 658-2704.

The Burlington Business Association told NECN & NBC10 Boston Monday it is now considering possible private sector responses — like perhaps hiring downtown safety ambassadors.

"This downtown needs to be safe and available to everyone," BBA president Kelly Devine said.

Last month, Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George called a shooting recorded by surveillance cameras inside a parking garage “completely unprovoked.” That shooting injured three, one critically.

George pushed to have that suspected gunman, Roderick Hudson, held without bail while the case against him proceeds. As NBC 5 News reported in late March, a judge granted George’s request after Hudson pleaded not guilty.

"People are reporting that actually, no they don’t feel safe here," Devine lamented. "And so that’s a real issue that we, as a community, need to tackle."

Burlington’s acting police chief insisted Burlington remains a vibrant and positive place, despite recent headlines of gun-related violence. He pointed to local food, cultural events, arts celebrations, and the beauty of Lake Champlain to highlight many positive qualities of the city that will be increasingly enjoyed in the summer months.

However, Deputy Chief John Murad pointed out Vermont is not immune from a wave of pandemic-era problems with violence, which NBC News covered last year.

"I don’t think this is a city in decline," the acting chief said in an interview Monday with NECN & NBC10 Boston. "We are part of a national phenomena which is an increase in gun violence across the country. We’re seeing it in almost every major urban area across America."

Murad, who noted he was already dealing with department understaffing, said an officer suffered a leg injury while arresting Bennett-Gooden. That injury will keep the officer from doing their normal job for several weeks or a few months, Murad said.

The general manager of Ruben James, Zach Ward, reached by phone Monday, said following the gun threat, he is weighing a range of new safety measures for his staff and customers. Those may include close attention paid to bag searches or bringing in added security for late-night shifts, Ward said, explaining the topic would be the subject of staff meetings later this week.

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