Editor’s note: an earlier version of this story incorrectly credited another publication for first uncovering the emails. It was actually VTDigger that first published a report on the topic.
The police chief in Vermont’s largest city said he was simply looking out for the best interests of Burlington—and was not meddling—when he pushed back on the medical findings into a man’s death.
“There wasn’t pressure to change it,” Chief Brandon del Pozo of the Burlington Police Department said of an autopsy report.
Del Pozo insists he merely wanted to understand the findings of Vermont’s chief medical examiner when he reached out to the forensic pathologist’s boss to ask about a recent autopsy.
In mid-March, investigators said Douglas Kilburn of Burlington was acting unruly inside the UVM Medical Center’s emergency room—later punching a responding Burlington police officer. The officer hit back.
Kilburn was treated for an injury and within a few days, was found dead at home.
The medical examiner ruled the death a homicide, but was unable pinpoint a cause. The report lists a skull fracture, and also notes serious health conditions like obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes.
A journalist with the news website VTDigger then discovered an email to the medical examiner’s boss, in which the chief argued, “It does not seems [sic] possible to rule [Kilburn’s] death a homicide,” and writing, “The need to clarify this is urgent and acute, because it will bear greatly on the career and life of a police officer who was attacked by the decedent.”
Dr. Mark Levine, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health—the department under which the state medical examiner works—said in an interview Friday with necn that he did not feel pressured or influenced by that email from Chief del Pozo.
“Not influence as much as challenge,” Levine said in response to a question about how he interpreted the email. “[An intellectual] challenge to really make sure we could stand by what we said and that it had a firm foundation of science to back it up.”
Levine said he believes the finding of the manner of death as a homicide is, indeed, firmly rooted in science. The health commissioner noted that he has a positive relationship with Chief del Pozo, and that the two have often spoken or had friendly debates about complex issues before.
Levine said he would allow readers to decide for themselves the tone of the chief’s email, which necn has published as a part of this article.
“That’s democracy, it’s not meddling,” del Pozo said of his email to the health department. “We have a responsibility here in Burlington to make sure if something impacts our city and our community and our police department that it’s done right, and that we understand that it’s done right.”
VTDigger, the online news source that first uncovered this story, reported the office of Gov. Phil Scott, R-Vermont, also had concerns about the way Burlington leaders acted.
The investigative journalism nonprofit, which obtained additional internal email communications, learned the governor’s chief of staff said the request “does not feel right to [him], at any level,” referring to a request from the mayor’s office for state leadership to step in and delay the autopsy’s release until the city could learn more about it.
Jason Gibbs, Gov. Scott’s chief of staff, added a warning to Burlington that the move could be misconstrued as the city interfering in the case, VTDigger reported.
An aide to Mayor Miro Weinberger, D-Burlington, sent this written statement from the mayor in response to a request by NBC 5 News, an necn affiliate:
"It's my job as Mayor to ensure that anything that has a significant impact on our broader community as well a police officer of ours is done properly and makes sense. I am confident that when this investigation is over, and I can discuss in more detail our questions about the medical examiner's report, any reasonable person will understand why I thought it was urgent to ask them. At the same time, the broader context of this report is a tragic situation: A man lost his life, and even as we continue to seek to understand how that happened, I express my deep condolences to Douglas Kilburn's family.”
As for Kilburn’s death, investigators with Vermont State Police are still looking into that emergency room scuffle with the officer that preceded it.