BURLINGTON – A Barre man accused of threatening to burn down the house of a Hispanic family who lived across the street from him is facing the first federal hate crimes prosecution in Vermont’s history.
Stuart Kurt Rollins, 58, was arrested this summer on several state charges in connection with the incident, including some with state hate crime enhancements.
However, early Friday morning an indictment was unsealed now charging him with federal hate crime-related offenses.
Rollins pleaded not guilty late Friday afternoon in federal court in Burlington to two charges relating to allegations he threatened to burn down the house across the street from where he lived.
According to the charge, Rollins threatened to set the residence, and the family members inside, on fire because of their race and national origin.
If convicted, Rollins faces up to 20 years in prison.
U.S. Attorney Christina Nolan, the top federal prosecutor in Vermont, said after Rollins’ arraignment Friday that “to her knowledge” the case is the first federal hate crimes prosecution in the state.
“This is the first one that we’ve found the evidence to be able to prosecute,” she said. “But everyone should know that we will prosecute all of them assuming the evidence is proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Nolan, who took office in late 2017, has made addressing crimes of violence a top priority.
“This is a form of violence, it’s a particularly abhorrent form of violence,” she said. “When I talk about combating violence or use of violence in Vermont everyone should know hate crimes come within that.”
A recent report showed that hate crime incidents reported by law enforcement agencies in Vermont is on the rise, totaling 45 last year, up from 34 reported in 2017.
Nolan said her office has made an effort to let the public know about the federal hate crime law. While federal laws have covered hate crimes since 1968, the standard for such cases is a high bar — proof beyond a reasonable doubt, she said.
“This is the first case we’ve seen in Vermont where we felt that there is a federal hate crime and proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” Nolan said Friday, adding, “and we will do any other ones that come to our attention.”
Steven Barth, a public defender representing Rollins, said during the Friday arraignment that his client had prior mental health issues that he would be looking into as part of the defense. Barth declined to comment after the hearing.
During the arraignment, Rollins told Magistrate Judge John Conroy he was unemployed, though he had previously worked on his own repairing bicycles.
Rollins also told the judge that he has participated in drug and alcohol counseling.
He was ordered detained following Friday’s arraignment pending a hearing Wednesday.
Federal prosecutors are seeking to have Rollins detained until his case is resolved. In a court filing, prosecutors said numerous witnesses said Rollins “terrorized” the family.
All but one of the family members, according to the filing, are Hispanic.
“During the attack, Rollins repeatedly directed racial and ethnic slurs at the family,” the filing stated.
“In addition to threatening to ‘get rid of you people from my street’ and set fire to the home while the family slept,” the filing added, “Rollins yelled at one member of the family, ‘Fucking Spanish bitch. I’m going to set you on fire and watch you burn, bitch.’”
According to court records, the incidents leading to the charges against Rollins took place July 29 — police were called to a residence across the street from where he lived for the report of a smashed mailbox. Rollins was suspected of the vandalism.
Witnesses told police that other incidents involving Rollins had also taken place, escalating throughout the day.
A woman also reported standing in a flower garden outside the home with other family members, including a child, when Rollins dropped his pants and exposed himself to them all.
Some of the witnesses described Rollins as appearing drunk, according to court records.
Federal prosecutors in the filing stated that the family continues to feel unsafe and has installed security cameras.
Footage from those cameras, shows Rollins coming out of the home in the middle of the night looking at their residence.
“During the day, he habitually leaves his house wearing only his underwear and urinates in his front yard, in view of the victim family,” according to the filing.
“The children have been barred from looking out their windows (which are covered with black-out curtains to protect them) or playing in their front yard,” the filing added. “One of the children has had night terrors.”
Rollins has a lengthy criminal record, according to federal prosecutors, including convictions for sexual assault, domestic violence, and sex crimes against children, court records stated.
He has also previously been arrested for witness tampering, according to prosecutors.
“These incidents raise concerns about his ability to refrain from attempting to intimidate the victim-witnesses in this case,” the prosecutors wrote in their filing. “Finally, various individuals have raised concerns about Rollins’s mental health during the investigation into this incident.”
The day after the incidents in late July, Rollins appeared in state criminal court in Barre where he pleaded not guilty to charges of lewd and lascivious conduct as well as four misdemeanor counts of disorderly conduct, and single charges of unlawful mischief and criminal threatening.
Two of those disorderly conduct charges for abusive language included hate crime enhancements that increased the possible maximum penalty for each disorderly conduct charge.
Rollins admitted to police that he knocked down the family’s mailbox, and said he did so because a man in the family had assaulted him.
Rollins had been released after his arraignment in late July on the state charges on conditions, including that he stay away from members of the family.
He was arrested again for an incident Oct. 10 for allegedly coming in contact with one of the family members.
The woman reported that she kept finding cigarette butts by her vehicle and as she was taking photos of them Rollins rode by on his bike and “laughed/smirked” at her, court records stated.
Rollins, when later questioned by police, denied doing anything wrong.
“He said he was test driving a new bicycle up the hill and a gear malfunctioned,” a court filing stated. “He stated he was fixing it and saw (the woman), but had no contact with her. He went along his way.”
Rollins pleaded not guilty to a state charge of violating the conditions of his release stemming from that October incident and was released on conditions.
Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault said Friday that he would still pursue some of the state charges against Rollins.
“There is some overlap between the state and federal charges, however, there remains several counts of state charges that are separate and distinct, namely the alleged lewd and lascivious behavior,” the prosecutor said.
He said his office had worked “collaboratively” with federal prosecutors in Vermont on the case.
“We’re certainly glad to see U.S. Attorney Nolan taking this conduct seriously and use the tools available at the federal level to ensure a just outcome here,” Thibault said.
Stay on top of all of Vermont's criminal justice news. Sign up here to get a weekly email with all of VTDigger's reporting on courts and crime.