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Man accused of attempted murder in Brattleboro pleads not guilty

BRATTLEBORO — The man accused of a July 29 shooting on Elliot Street was arraigned Tuesday and is being held without bail, while one of the people he allegedly shot at is in federal detention on a weapons charge.

In affidavits filed in court, police said Pedro A. Ocasio, 19, shot at three people — his ex-girlfriend, another woman and a 29-year-old man, Michael Samuels — at a bus stop. None was injured.

Brattleboro police previously said Ocasio shot at two people.

“Based on the fact that Ocasio repeatedly told (his ex) that he would shoot Samuels or any boys with her, and messaged her approximately 90 minutes before the shooting saying ‘Hell end up dead soon,’ I see probable cause to charge Ocasio with attempting to murder Samuels,” Brattleboro police Lt. Jeremy Evans wrote in an affidavit.

In the Windham Criminal Division of Vermont Superior Court in Brattleboro Tuesday, Ocasio pleaded not guilty to attempted murder, aggravated first-degree domestic assault and other charges related to the incident.

Court documents list Ocasio as living in East Hartford, Conn., but as having also spent time in the Brattleboro area.

Officers arrived at the intersection of Elliot Street and Elm Street around 7:30 p.m. on July 29 for reports of gunfire, according to Evans’ affidavit.

Surveillance footage shows Ocasio exiting an apartment building on Elliot Street, gesturing at a nearby bus stop, pulling out a handgun and appearing to shoot before running away, the affidavit states. Samuels then stepped out of the bus stop holding a handgun and ran toward Ocasio, according to Evans’ description of the video.

A Brattleboro police officer soon arrived in the area and located Samuels, who ran toward Whetstone Brook and was found hiding under a bridge, according to the affidavit. Evans wrote that police found a 9mm handgun with an “obliterated” serial number on the ground near where Samuels was spotted. He later said he had tossed the gun while running from police, Evans wrote.

Samuels is now in federal custody on a charge of being a felon in possession of a weapon. Samuels has prior felony convictions in Connecticut for forgery, burglary and the sale of drugs, the most recent in 2014, according to an affidavit written by Special Agent Eric Brimo of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Ocasio turned himself in Monday, several days after police obtained an arrest warrant and announced they were looking for him, according to the Brattleboro Police Department.

After the shooting, Ocasio’s ex-girlfriend told police that he had previously threatened to shoot her and Samuels and sent her threatening messages starting less than two hours before the shooting, Evans wrote in the affidavit.

Authorities charged Ocasio with attempting to murder Samuels and attempting to seriously injure the two women.

Earlier this year, Ocasio was sentenced to about 20 days in prison after pleading guilty to a separate assault in Brattleboro.

According to police affidavits filed in that case, Ocasio assaulted a man on Lawrence Street on Jan. 12 while another man, Chyquan Cupe, 21, filmed it.

The video, which was posted to Facebook, showed Ocasio punching and kicking the man, Eric Hurlbert, 26, of Brattleboro, in the face multiple times, Detective Joshua Lynde of the Brattleboro Police Department wrote.

Cupe is awaiting trial in Vermont on federal drug charges.

Michael Moore / Sentinel Staff 

Jason Tardy of Off The Wall: Juggling and Comedy spits out a fireball in front of his audience at the Cheshire Fair in North Swanzey last weekend.

Trump attacks local leaders as he visits two cities grieving from mass shootings

EL PASO, Texas — On a day when President Donald Trump vowed to tone down his rhetoric and help the country heal following two mass slayings, he did the opposite — lacing his visits Wednesday to El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, with a flurry of attacks on local leaders and memorializing his trips with grinning thumbs-up photos.

A traditional role for presidents has been to offer comfort and solace to all Americans at times of national tragedy, but the day provided a fresh testament to Trump’s limitations in striking notes of unity and empathy.

When Trump swooped into the grieving border city of El Paso to offer condolences after the massacre of Latinos, allegedly by a white supremacist, some of the city’s elected leaders and thousands of its residents declared the president unwelcome.

In his only public remarks during the trip, Trump lashed out at Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, both Democrats, over their characterization of his visit with hospital patients in Dayton.

“We had an amazing day,” Trump said in El Paso as he concluded his visit. “As you know, we left Ohio. The love, the respect for the office of the presidency.”

Trump also praised El Paso police officers and other first responders and shook their hands, telling one female officer, “I saw you on television the other day and you were fantastic.”

None of the eight patients still being treated at University Medical Center in El Paso agreed to meet with Trump when he visited the hospital, UMC spokesman Ryan Mielke said. Two victims who already had been discharged returned to the hospital to meet with the president.

“This is a very sensitive time in their lives,” Mielke said. “Some of them said they didn’t want to meet with the president. Some of them didn’t want any visitors.”

Before Trump’s visit Wednesday, however, some of the hospitalized victims accepted visits from a number of city and county elected officials, as well as Reps. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, and Jesús “Chuy” García, D-Ill.

El Paso and Dayton were not merely the latest in the multiplying series of American mass shootings. The carnage in El Paso is being investigated as an act of domestic terrorism, with parallels between a racist manifesto posted minutes before the shooting and the president’s own anti-immigration rhetoric.

This has thrust Trump into the center of a roiling political and societal debate, with some Democratic leaders saying the president has emboldened white supremacy and is a threat to the nation.

Former vice president Joe Biden, who is running to unseat Trump in 2020, said in a speech Wednesday, “We have a president with a toxic tongue who has publicly and unapologetically embraced a political strategy of hate, racism and division.”

Both in Dayton and El Paso, Trump kept almost entirely out of public view, a marked break with tradition, as presidents visiting grieving communities typically offer public condolences.

Trump avoided the Oregon district where the shooting in Dayton took place, and just a short drive from Miami Valley Hospital, which he did visit. Whaley said he would not have been welcome in the Oregon district, where scores of demonstrators congregated holding anti-Trump signs and chanting, “Do something!” a call for stricter gun laws.

Brown and Whaley described the visit by the president and first lady Melania Trump in favorable terms.

“They were hurting. He was comforting. He did the right things. Melania did the right things,” Brown told reporters. “And it’s his job in part to comfort people. I’m glad he did it in those hospital rooms.”

Whaley added: “I think the victims and the first responders were grateful that the president of the United States came to Dayton.”

Brown and Whaley, however, were also sharply critical of Trump’s divisive rhetoric and Republican resistance to gun-control legislation.

Whaley later responded to Trump’s comments about her and Brown by calling him “a bully and a coward.” She said on CNN, “It’s fine that he wants to bully me and Senator Brown. We’re OK. We can take it.”

The traveling press corps was not allowed to observe Trump’s visit with three victims who remained hospitalized. It fell to White House aide Dan Scavino to proclaim in a tweet that Trump “was treated like a Rock Star inside the hospital.”

Trump and the first lady also met with police officers, fire officials, trauma surgeons and nurses at the facility, which treated 23 victims of the shooting. The hospital invited victims who had already been released to come back and meet with the president and first lady.

“It was an authentic visit,” hospital president Mike Uhl said, praising Trump as “attentive, present and extremely accommodating.”

Trump offered his own affirmation on Twitter: “It was a warm & wonderful visit. Tremendous enthusiasm & even Love.”

White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said journalists were kept out of the hospital visit because staffers did not want it to devolve into “a photo op” and overwhelm the victims with media.

The White House, however, distributed its own photos of Trump smiling for pictures with first responders, along with a slickly produced video, helping make the president the center of attention.

Trump’s reception in El Paso was less hospitable, and not only because so many local leaders have said they believe his rhetoric inspired Saturday’s slayings at a shopping center near the U.S.-Mexico border. Although he won the state of Texas in the 2016 election, Trump captured just 25.7 percent of the vote in El Paso County, the worst performance recorded here by a major-party presidential candidate in at least two decades.

An ever-growing makeshift memorial has sprouted near the shooting scene that features piles of colorful flowers, a row of white crosses, a line of prayer candles as well as messages to the president. “Mr. T, Respect our sorrow and grief. Do not ‘invade’ our city,” reads one note, a reference to Trump’s repeated warnings of a migrant “invasion” at the border.

Just before Trump arrived in El Paso — where he and the first lady met with first victims and their families at University Medical Center and with law enforcement personnel at an emergency operations center — several hundred people gathered in opposition to his visit.

Congregating under the hot midday sun in a baseball field for an “El Paso Strong” event, some held homemade signs. “Go home! You are NOT welcome here!” read one. “This was Trump-inspired terrorism,” read another. “Trump repent,” read a third.

At one point, the crowd chanted, “Send him back!” — a nod to the incendiary “Send her back!” chant about the Somali-born Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., at one of Trump’s campaign rallies last month.

“We feel like right now we should be in mourning, and we feel like we should be collecting our thoughts, we should be doing vigils and we should be gathering together as a community. We believe it is an insult that the president is coming here,” said one of the organizers, Jaime Candelaria, a 37-year-old singer and songwriter.

Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, said onstage, “In this moment, someone is visiting ... I felt it was important that we come together and not focus on the visitor, but focus on El Paso.” She added, “We will not stop resisting the hate! Resisting the bigotry! Resisting the racism!”

In the crowd at the El Paso Strong event was Shawn Nixon, 20, a Walmart employee who was restocking the school supplies area when the gunman opened fire Saturday morning. At the sound of the shots, Nixon said he fell to the ground, pulling with him a young child who had been shopping with his mother.

“All I’m just asking for Donald Trump, for the president, to do is to say ‘sorry,’ “ Nixon said. “He created this crime. He created it because of his words. Every time that he’s on TV, that’s what he’s doing.”

During his flight home from El Paso, Trump attacked Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, the twin brother of presidential candidate Julián Castro, tweeting that he “makes a fool of himself every time he opens his mouth.” The congressman has come under scrutiny for publicizing a list of San Antonio donors who have contributed to Trump and accusing them for “fueling a campaign of hate.”

On Saturday in El Paso, authorities said, a man opened fire inside a Walmart, killing 22 people and injuring 26 others. At 1:05 a.m. Sunday, a gunman killed nine people and injured 27 others outside a bar in Dayton, police said.

All week, Trump has zigzagged between two competing instincts: Unite and divide.

In the immediate aftermath of the shootings, Trump remained cloistered at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, issuing only short statements on Twitter. Back at the White House on Monday, the president delivered a scripted speech in which he preached harmony.

“Now is the time to set destructive partisanship aside — so destructive — and find the courage to answer hatred with unity, devotion and love,” Trump said, reading from Teleprompters.

The president did not heed his own advice, however. Late Tuesday night, he took to Twitter to attack Beto O’Rourke, the former El Paso congressman running for president who has said Trump bears some responsibility for the shooting there because of his demonization of Latino immigrants.

Trump tweeted: “Beto (phony name to indicate Hispanic heritage) O’Rourke, who is embarrassed by my last visit to the Great State of Texas, where I trounced him, and is now even more embarrassed by polling at 1% in the Democrat Primary, should respect the victims & law enforcement — & be quiet!”

Then, as he departed the White House on Wednesday morning en route to Ohio, Trump told reporters he would refrain from attacking his adversaries during the trip.

“I would like to stay out of the political fray,” the president said. Asked about his rhetoric, he said he thinks it “brings people together” and added, “I think we have toned it down.”

That detente lasted only a few minutes. Answering a reporter’s question about Biden, Trump pounced. “Joe is a pretty incompetent guy,” the president said. “Joe Biden has truly lost his fastball, that I can tell you.”

By the time the president had left Dayton, he was back on Twitter and sniping at Democrats, a tirade triggered by his consumption of cable television news aboard Air Force One.

“Watching Sleepy Joe Biden making a speech. Sooo Boring! The LameStream Media will die in the ratings and clicks with this guy,” the president wrote.

Then he lashed out at Brown and Whaley, falsely accusing them of “totally misrepresenting” the reception he received at Miami Valley Hospital. He alleged that their news conference immediately after the president’s visit “was a fraud.”

But neither Brown nor Whaley said Trump received a poor reception at the hospital.

When Whaley first saw Trump’s tweets criticizing her and Brown, she paused for a moment to read them on a cellphone and said, “I don’t — I mean, I’m really confused. We said he was treated, like, very well. So, I don’t know why they’re talking about ‘misrepresenting.’ “

“Oh, well, you know,” the mayor added with a shrug. “He lives in his world of Twitter.”

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Marlboro College looks to join with Connecticut university

MARLBORO, Vt. — Marlboro College and the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut plan to merge, the institutions recently announced.

The Vermont liberal arts college began looking for a “strategic partner” through the work of a task force that started exploring ways to address declining enrollment and financial challenges roughly a year ago. The college considered more than 100 potential partners before moving forward with the University of Bridgeport, according to Marlboro College’s website.

Small liberal arts colleges across New England and the country, including Keene State College, have also been grappling with enrollment challenges. According to a report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, the estimated number of undergraduates enrolled in liberal arts, general studies or humanities programs at four-year institutions dropped by about 7 percent between spring 2018 and spring 2019.

In a news release posted on its website, Marlboro College President Kevin Quigley described the planned merger as an opportunity to join the strengths of both institutions. The University of Bridgeport is known for its STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and health sciences programs, according to the release, and Marlboro College offers a self-directed liberal arts curriculum for undergraduates and graduate students.

“It links our beautiful campuses in the Green Mountains and on Long Island Sound in innovative ways that will expand educational opportunities for all of our students, better preparing them for meaningful work and lives of purpose,” Quigley said in the release.

Marlboro College has fewer than 500 students, while the University of Bridgeport has more than 5,000. Following the merger, students from both institutions would have access to programs and facilities on the two campuses, Marlboro College’s website says.

A merger would also bridge rural and urban settings, according to the release. At Marlboro College, students participate in weekly New England-style “town meetings” to vote on college-wide issues, while the University of Bridgeport is the “most diverse private, secular university in the Northeast,” the release says.

“At a time of hyper-competition and swift change in higher education, our two unique institutions are demonstrating a new paradigm for colleges and universities of the future,” said Laura Skandera Trombley, president of the University of Bridgeport, in the release. “In strategically combining the shared values, strengths, and resources of the University of Bridgeport and Marlboro College, we are proactively ensuring an extraordinarily enriched academic experience for current and future generations of students.”

To make sure each institution has an equal voice going forward, five members of the Marlboro College Board of Trustees will join the University of Bridgeport’s Board of Trustees, the Vermont college’s website says. A Marlboro College committee will also be created and led by a Marlboro trustee.

The merger must be approved by both institutions’ boards of trustees, according to Marlboro College, and there is currently no set timeline for its completion. But the release says students could “benefit from the merger” as early as spring 2020.