Updated at 6:31 p.m.
A man charged with the killing of Fern Feather, a transgender woman from Hinesburg, pled not guilty to a second-degree murder charge on Thursday.
At an arraignment in Lamoille County Superior Court, an attorney for Seth Brunell entered a plea of not guilty in the April 12 stabbing of Feather. The charge carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Brunell, 43, is being held without bail at the Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury. David Sleigh, the attorney assigned to represent Brunell, said he would not contest prosecutors’ request to hold his client without bail.
Court documents released Thursday morning provided the clearest picture yet of the incidents before and after the killing in Morristown, which has drawn statewide attention and condemnation.
According to people interviewed by police, Feather, 29, had picked up Brunell while he was hitchhiking several days earlier. The two had been spending time together since then.
Feather told a friend, Jennifer Thoma, that Brunell seemed “like a good guy” and referred to him as a “special friend,” according to a police record of an interview with Thoma.
Around 8 a.m. on the morning of April 12, the Lamoille North Supervisory Union called the county sheriff’s department to report that a car had been “parked in their lot for some time and that there was someone in it smoking a cigarette,” according to an affidavit written by Vermont State Police Detective Sgt. Isaac Merriam.
Two deputy sheriffs arrived at the parking lot and found Brunell and Feather, who said they were looking for a place to walk their dogs.
Brunell told officers that he had recently been released from the state-run Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital in Berlin and had previously received a citation from the Vermont State Police for stealing a vehicle.
At about 9:15 a.m., Feather spoke with a friend, Eliza Curtis, on the phone. Curtis invited Feather and Brunell to get coffee or tea, but they declined, according to a police summary of an interview with Curtis.
That conversation “seemed normal, and nothing stood out of the ordinary,” Curtis told police, according to the affidavit.
About an hour later, Brunell called Curtis on Feather’s cell phone and said that he had killed Feather. Feather “had come on to me and was going crazy,” Brunell told Curtis, police said.
As that conversation was taking place, a woman who was driving by, Karen Cleary, pulled over her car to check on the scene. Curtis asked Brunell to hand the phone to Cleary, and when he did, Curtis told Cleary to call 911.
Morristown police officers arrived seven minutes later to find Feather lying face up and bloody on the side of the road and Brunell sitting in the car. Two dogs were lying next to Feather.
According to the affidavit, Brunell told officers that Feather had “attacked him” after making a sexual advance, which Brunell said he had rejected because “I wasn’t gay.”
“I was just protecting myself,” Brunell reportedly told police.
Officers noted at the time that Brunell had no injuries nor “indications of an altercation.” While processing the scene later, officers found a bloody 12-inch knife.
Vermont State Police did not appear to initially recognize that Feather was a trans woman. Brunell and other people interviewed by police used he/him pronouns to describe Feather, according to the affidavit, which used the name on Feather’s driver’s license.
Feather had written publicly about identifying as a trans woman in a recent Facebook post.
In a state that prides itself on its LGBTQ+-friendly image, the killing has drawn an outpouring of anger and grief. Advocacy groups and top officials have condemned it and called for an end to transphobic rhetoric.
“Fern brought such joy to so many who were honored to know them and we grieve the loss of their light in this world,” the Pride Center of Vermont wrote in a Facebook post.
Gov. Phil Scott condemned the practice of “exploiting fear and targeting divisive rhetoric at people who are just trying to be who they are.”
At Thursday’s arraignment, which took place remotely before Lamoille County Superior Court Judge Michael Harris, prosecutors asked that Brunell be barred from contacting Feather’s family or anyone else involved in the case.
Nearly 20 years ago, Brunell faced an aggravated assault charge after he allegedly stabbed an acquaintance in Waterbury, according to news reports.
Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault said records show Brunell pleaded no contest to a charge of aggravated assault with a weapon in 2004 and was sentenced to 11-12 months to serve.
Aliena Gerhard, the Lamoille County deputy state’s attorney, said in an interview that prosecutors were not considering hate crime charges on Thursday.
“The evidence is not sufficient to sustain a hate crime conviction,” Gerhard said. However, she noted that the case was still in its early stages.
“A murder investigation unfolds and unfolds and unfolds,” Gerhard said. “And (we’re) less than 72 hours into this case. So if we do discover enough evidence to sustain a hate crime conviction, we will certainly pursue that.”
The next hearing in the case is scheduled for April 28.
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