Crime and Justice

Former North End Studios leader Ben Bergstein avoids jail time with plea deal

Ben Bergstein at the North End Studios in Winooski
Ben Bergstein at the North End Studios' Winooski location in January 2019. Photo by Oliver Parini

The former president of Burlington’s North End Studios who was accused last year of sexual misconduct and assault pleaded guilty to lewd and lascivious conduct in a plea deal over the summer, court records show.

Ben Bergstein was arrested in August 2021 on a charge of sexual assault. In July, the Burlington resident pleaded to the lesser charge and received a sentence of six years of probation. 

Additionally, court documents show that Bergstein is required to register as a sex offender, though his name did not appear in a search of the Vermont registry on Wednesday. Bergstein said in an interview that he had registered after pleading guilty. Calls to the registry’s administrator were not immediately returned.

Bergstein’s plea deal was first reported by Seven Days.

The felony charge against Bergstein stems from April 2021, when a woman called the Burlington Police Department to report a sexual assault she said occured at Bergstein’s residence two months earlier, according to a police affidavit from the Chittenden Unit for Special Investigations. The victim told police that she had been drinking with Bergstein and his wife, April Werner, when Bergstein offered to give the victim a massage. The victim told police she fell asleep and awoke to Bergstein vaginally penetrating her with his fingers, court records show.

His arrest followed a series of allegations revealed by VTDigger in April 2021. That reporting was based on accusations from at least eight women, including multiple former employees of Bergstein’s Performing Arts League, which ran North End Studios. 

The women reported a history of sexual misconduct involving Bergstein. A different case related to those allegations was investigated by the Chittenden Unit for Special Investigations, but no charges were filed. After the allegations were publicized in 2021, the arts organization’s leases were terminated in Burlington and Winooski.

In an emailed statement to VTDigger, Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George said the plea deal with Bergstein came after “detailed and thorough conversations” with the victim in the February 2021 assault case. The state also had input from a psychosexual evaluation of Bergstein that George said supported the deal. One of the conditions of his probation allows the state to revoke the deal if future evaluations deem him at a higher risk to reoffend, George said.

One of the women who made previous accusations against Bergstein, Mellisa Cain, said in an interview she respects the plea deal if the victim agreed to it.

“I fully support her decision,” Cain said. Cain said that she feels that not enough was done to hold Bergstein accountable in the wake of the series of allegations that arose in VTDigger’s reporting.

“I’m angry that people did not come out in support of us enough,” she said. “People said thank you and that was it. And people moved on. And we didn’t.”

On Wednesday, Bergstein said he viewed the plea deal as the “best outcome.”

“Whatever happened was an error in judgment on my part, a misreading of what I thought were the signals of consent,” Bergstein said. The 78-year old also said the plea deal allowed him to avoid a “he-said-she-said” jury trial.

“I just agreed to accept responsibility,” he said.

While he attends mandated counseling and complies with the conditions of his sentence, Bergstein said that he hopes to continue with personal projects that he and his wife are involved in, as well as with work that they do with recent immigrants in the Burlington area.

Bergstein said that the immigrant communities they work with are aware of the charges and the plea deal, and are not concerned. “They know about all this,” he said. “The first word out of their mouth is ‘some people are jealous of you because of all the things that you do.’”

Cain reacted to Bergstein’s intention of continuing community work with frustration.

“I think there's an awareness in some communities about what happened, but not all communities,” Cain said. “I don't think people are safe.”

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Patrick Crowley

About Patrick

Patrick Crowley is VTDigger's Burlington Reporter. Previously, he has worked for the Brattleboro Reformer and wrote as a freelance reporter in Ventura County, California. Patrick is a musician and volunteers as a firefighter and advanced EMT.

Email: pcrowley@vtdigger.org

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