A Vermont man was ordered held without bail Friday and placed in the custody of the state’s mental health commissioner pending psychiatric screenings, after he pled not guilty to killing his wife.
Investigators believe Aita Gurung, 34, left a Burlington mental health crisis office at the University of Vermont Medical Center Thursday afternoon, headed home to Hyde Street a few blocks away, and within two hours, was hacking Yogeswari Khadka, 32, to death on the sidewalk using a meat cleaver.
Defense attorneys entered not guilty pleas on Gurung’s behalf to the killing of Khadka and to the attempted murder of Gurung’s mother-in-law, Thulsa Rimal, 54, also with that cleaver.
Rimal remains hospitalized at the University of Vermont Medical Center, according to the Burlington Police Department.
Judge Kevin Griffin ordered Gurung, who came to the U.S. as a refugee from Nepal, held without bail. Griffin said he wanted Gurung screened for mental illness and competency at an in-patient facility.
"This is a really tragic situation of domestic violence that met its ultimate end," Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George said, adding she has seen no evidence that indicates a serious mental illness was a factor in the killing.
Chief Brandon del Pozo of the Burlington Police Department told reporters that Gurung sought help for his mental health just last weekend, reporting marital problems.
However, del Pozo said when officers investigated, they found no evidence of violence, with the wife saying at the time that her husband was off his meds, and that no crime happened.
Still, Gurung would go to crisis care at the University of Vermont Medical Center, del Pozo said.
The murder suspect’s father-in-law told police Gurung checked himself out of the voluntary program Thursday.
"The attack was a brutal attack," del Pozo said, noting the victim suffered severe wounds to several body parts including her skull.
The UVM Medical Center declined necn’s request for comment on this case, as well as on its policies about voluntary mental health checks. A hospital spokesman cited federal privacy guidelines.
A neighbor helped keep Gurung at bay using a black powder gun, del Pozo said, though the firearm was incapable of being fired Thursday.
Still, del Pozo said the man’s actions helped buy police some time to arrive and safely make an arrest.
The arrest was made using ballistic shields and specialized training in approaching suspects who may have weapons, but Gurung did not attempt to harm officers, del Pozo said.
"There is a question in psychiatric care in Vermont, and generally, about what threshold is appropriate for holding onto people involuntarily," del Pozo said at a news conference in response to a reporter’s question. "We’ve dealt with that threshold question in many other cases before. I don’t know how this case bears on it, but that’s a discussion that we should have."
Back on Hyde Street, neighbor Jane Dwinell said she was grateful the couple’s daughter was safe at school and didn’t witness anything.
"It was blood-curdling screaming," Dwinell recalled. "It’s nothing a child should have to go through."
That 8-year-old is now with relatives, according to police and the state’s attorney’s office, with one parent gone, and the other facing the possibility of life in prison.
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said Friday his thoughts and sympathy are with the victim’s family and friends.
"No family should have to endure the pain they are going through,"Weinberger said in a written statement. "I am grateful for the bravery of her neighbors, who helped to contain a terrible situation, and the remarkable professionalism, courage and decisiveness of the Burlington Police Department officers who responded to this scene."
Kelly Dougherty, the executive director of Steps to End Domestic Violence, which is headquartered in Burlington, issued the following written statement about the case:
"We at Steps to End Domestic Violence are shocked and saddened by the tragic event that happened right here in our neighborhood. Our thoughts and support are with the family and our community. Incidents like this should remind us of how prevalent domestic violence is."
"This is heartbreaking. We know that many in our community face this threat every day. Anyone triggered by this event or who needs emotional support, can contact us 24 hours/day, 7 days/week at (802) 658-1996."