A Vermont Department for Children and Families worker was shot and killed in Barre City on Friday afternoon by a mother unhappy with losing custody of her child, city and state officials said.
Lara Sobel died from two gunshot wounds as she left the DCF office at the Barre City Place, 219 North Main St., at about 4:45 p.m., Barre City Police Chief Tim Bombardier said.
The suspect, Jody Herring, was tackled by eyewitnesses and held until police arrived, the chief said.
A rifle with a scope lay under a window of City Place, which houses some state offices. The weapon was described by the chief as a “fairly high caliber hunting rifle.”
Sobel, who was “shot in close proximity,” was a resident of Washington County, the police said. The ages and specific hometowns of the victim and the suspect were not immediately released by the authorities.
Herring lost custody of her 9-year-old child July 10, Bombardier said at a news conference about four hours after the shooting. The child remains in state custody.
Herring is expected to be arraigned Monday on a homicide charge in Vermont Superior Court in Barre.
Sobel, who worked for more than 14 years at DCF, is survived by a husband and two daughters.
The police were interviewing about 10 witnesses Friday night. Investigators also were checking to see if Herring and Sobel knew each other beyond the July 10 case, Bombardier said.
“We’re doing the best we can to support our staff,” DCF Commissioner Ken Schatz said at the news conference after Bombardier spoke.
“Any sort of death is a tragedy. In this situation, we lost one of our own,” he said.
“We remain committed to supporting families. There are tensions, and we will continue to do the best we can,” the commissioner said.
Gov. Peter Shumlin ordered extra precautions for state workers in the coming days.
“Until we know more about this incident, DCF staff have been directed to only go out on emergency calls this weekend accompanied by law enforcement,” Shumlin said in a statement.
“This is a tragedy for Vermont,” longtime Barre City Mayor Thom Lauzon said. He said the tragedy affects more than just Barre.
“My heart goes out to the victim and the victim’s family,” said Lauzon, who had been briefed by city police.
At the scene Friday evening, the body lay under a white sheet near a light pole at the edge of a parking lot. A shoe could be seen in the parking lot, several feet from the body.
Crime-scene tape blocked the site and the street as police officers worked. Onlookers gathered.
The Vermont Attorney General’s Office is expected to handle the prosecution, because Washington County State’s Attorney Scott Williams, who took office in February, was among the witnesses to the shooting, according to investigators.
Two Barre women at the scene said they were headed to a church dinner when two gunshots rang out late Friday afternoon.
Judy Pecore and Linda Devine said they heard there was a dispute involving child custody.
“This won’t be the last time,” said Pecore, who noted Barre has changed in recent years.
“Now she will spend the rest of her life in jail,” Pecore said, referring to the suspect.
Chief Vermont Superior Court Judge Brian Grearson, who lives in Washington County, said he had heard about the shooting and checked to make sure the incident had not happened at court.
“As best as I can tell, there were no Family Court hearings today,” said Grearson, who had talked with a court worker. Pat Gable, the state’s chief court administrator, confirmed there was no court hearing Friday.
The shooting occurred a few hundred yards from the state courthouse, which handles family and criminal court matters.
Shumlin noted the hard work that state social workers are asked to perform.
“They do the work out of their dedication to the children and families of this great state. To lose one of our own in the course of that duty is shocking and heartbreaking,” Shumlin said.
“We feel terrible about the DCF worker who lost her life,” said Gabel, who helps run court statewide as the chief administrator. “They handle very tough cases.”
Vermont Sen. President Pro Tempore John Campbell, D-Windsor agreed.
“I am beside myself. These men and women put their lives on the line each day, and we don’t understand the serious nature of these cases,” said Campbell, who also is a state prosecutor.
“This could happen in any state office or court,” Campbell said. “We do not pay them enough and respect them enough.”
“Social workers — these are on the front line dealing with people with substance-abuse and mental-health issues,” he added.
Social workers often go into some of the worst homes without protection from law enforcement.
“They are priest, psychologist and cop all in one,” Campbell said.
A longtime Barre City legislator was dismayed by the shooting.
“My heart and prayers go out to the victim’s family,” said Rep. Paul Poirier, I-Barre City. “And to me it’s just an indication of how dangerous that particular line of work is.”
The Department for Children and Families has been criticized in recent years, Poirier noted, but sometimes the emotional, difficult nature of the work is overlooked.
House Speaker Shap Smith took to Facebook to offer his thoughts.
“Devastated and heartbroken by the news of the shooting of a DCF employee in Barre City. My thoughts and prayers go out to the employee’s family, friends and colleagues,” he wrote.
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington and an advocate for protecting Vermont children, offered his support.
“My heart goes out to the family and all DCF workers,” Sears told the Free Press.
Shelley Martin, the president of the Vermont State Employees Association, said the union will offer support to members.
“Our prayers and thoughts tonight and in the coming days are with all the employees in Barre, their families and especially the family, friends and co-worker of the employee killed,” Martin said in a statement.
Mayor Lauzon said the Vermont State Police will work hand-in-hand with Barre City Police.
Vermont Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn said his department offered all support needed by Barre City Police. He said the department’s Major Crime Unit and Crime Scene Search Team were dispatched to the shooting scene.
State Police Capt. Kraig LaPorte, director of the major crime squad, said at about 7 p.m. that officers were attempting to sort out details. The Crime Lab arrived about 8:35 p.m.
Flynn said he had briefed both Gov. Shumlin, who is on vacation, and Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, who is the acting governor.
The incident occurred on the final day of work for State Police Director Col. Tom L’Esperance. A retirement dinner was starting to get underway in South Burlington when reports of the shooting arrived, and some troopers had to detour to the scene in Barre, about 40 miles from Burlington in central Vermont.
Gov. Peter Shumlin’s office issued the following statement Friday night in response to the shooting of a DCF worker. The statement reads in full:
Earlier this evening, a Department of Children and Families (DCF) employee was fatally shot outside of a state office building in Barre. While the investigation is ongoing, it appears at this time that the incident is in connection with the employee’s work on behalf of DCF. The identity of the employee is being withheld pending notification of the family. Gov. Shumlin has been briefed on the incident and is receiving updates as they become available. He issued the following statement.
“While we won’t know all the details for some time, the initial reports are horrific and break my heart. I’ve asked the Department of Human Resources to immediately make available crisis and grief counseling services to state employees affected by this incident. I have also asked the Agency of Administration to work with Vermont State Police to support the investigation. While there is no indication of a broader threat, the Agency of Administration will review security procedures in state buildings in light of this tragic event and provide any additional measures immediately. Additionally, until we know more about this incident, DCF staff have been directed to only go out on emergency calls this weekend accompanied by law enforcement.
“The employees at DCF deal with the most challenging family situations that one can imagine. They do the work out of their dedication to the children and families of this great state. To lose one of our own in the course of that duty is shocking and heartbreaking.”