By Brent Curtis
A Castleton man charged with killing his daughter’s boyfriend told police he acted in defense of his family after prolonged fighting under his roof created a “living hell.”
Stephen F. Pelletier pleaded innocent to first-degree murder during a brief arraignment in Rutland criminal court Wednesday afternoon. The maple sugar maker, who appeared in court in chains, waved to a handful of supporters before he was ordered jailed without bail.
Pelletier’s only prior criminal charge was drunken driving in 1999.
Friends and family of Michael Wisell, the 25-year-old man Pelletier is charged with killing, filled the benches behind the prosecutors’ table. After the hearing, Wisell’s friends and family members left the courthouse without talking to reporters.
Earlier in the day, Vermont State Police forensic teams carefully dug into a manure pile at Pelletier’s Breezy Pine Farm at 785 Eaton Hill East in Castleton. Pelletier allegedly told investigators he buried Wisell in the pile after shooting him twice Wednesday, May 14.
Police began looking for Wisell on Sunday after family members reported they hadn’t seen him for days. But police said they focused their investigation when they went to Pelletier’s farm, where Wisell lived, and Pelletier said, “I made a mistake.”
Police said Pelletier confessed to killing Wisell to “protect his family,” according to an affidavit by state police Detective Sgt. Douglas Norton.
Pelletier told police Wisell had “torn his family apart” by physically abusing Pelletier’s daughter and verbally abusing the rest of his family.
He also told police that he “didn’t know any other way” to deal with the problems in his home other than to borrow a handgun from a friend and shoot Wisell in the back while the two men were stacking wood inside his sugar house.
Pelletier allegedly told police he fired a second shot into Wisell’s forehead then left his body in the sugar house overnight before burying it in a compost pile next to his barn. He allegedly told police he then added manure to the pile.
Norton wrote that police later found a .38-caliber Taurus handgun in Pelletier’s barn. Two of the five bullets in the gun had been fired, police said.
Asked after the hearing why he pursued a first-degree murder charge — which requires that the defendant planned the killing — State’s Attorney Marc Brierre said all the elements of a first-degree charge were present.
“Based on the affidavit, it was premeditated,” Brierre said.
Other court records shed more light on the case.
While Wisell had no pending charges or convictions for domestic assault on his record, Rutland family court records show that Pelletier’s 23-year-old daughter last year filed for and received a temporary relief-from-abuse order against him.
In a handwritten affidavit filed in August 2013, Jessica Pelletier wrote that Wisell assaulted her during an argument.
“(He) said he hated me and didn’t want to be with me anymore and attempted to strangle me in the passenger seat of my car,” she wrote.
Jessica Pelletier also wrote that Wisell strangled her and punched her in the face during an argument over cleaning the house.
The temporary restraining order lapsed at the end of August when neither Pelletier nor Wisell appeared for a hearing on a permanent restraining order.
Bill Seaman, who lives on a horse farm just up the road from Pelletier’s home, said the problems between his neighbor and Wisell were well known in the area and Castleton police cruisers had been seen at the residence multiple times in the past.
“I think he tried to do everything for his family through proper channels, but sometimes the proper channels fail,” he said.
Castleton Police Chief Bruce Sherwin, reached while off duty late Wednesday afternoon, said he didn’t know how many times police had been called to the Pelletiers’ home.
The restraining order sought by Jessica Pelletier wasn’t the first issued against Wisell.
In 2009, Wisell’s former girlfriend, Jennifer Whitehurst, received a relief-from-abuse order against Wisell after she said he had grown increasingly controlling and threatening toward her and her family.
On May 31, 2009 — the day Whitehurst applied for the restraining order — Wisell punched and broke his girlfriend’s windshield during an incident that led to a criminal charge of unlawful mischief. Wisell pleaded guilty to the offense.
In her handwritten affidavit, Whitehurst wrote that she was “scared” of Wisell.
“I don’t know what he’s going to do next,” she wrote. “(He) threatened to burn our (my family’s) house down to my mother.”
Whitehurst’s restraining order lapsed a week later.
In December 2009, Kevin Mulholland sought and received a restraining order on behalf of his daughter, who he said was being mentally and physically abused by Wisell.
“Samantha has been trying to end this relationship for several months, but Michael will not leave her alone,” Mulholland wrote in an affidavit.
Mulholland wrote that Wisell had also threatened him after he was told not to call his house any more.
“Mike went into a tirade about how he was going to kick my old-man ass and that he can call anytime he wants,” Mulholland wrote. “I hung up on him and he immediately re-called to yell at me again.”