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BRATTLEBORO — Capt. Heidi Nelson, former second in command at the Windham County Sheriff's Department, pleaded innocent Thursday to charges that she took one of her law enforcement students on a secret trip to Florida this winter without permission from the teenager's mother.
Nelson, 42, a retired Vermont State Police trooper, made a brief appearance in Brattleboro District Court, accompanied by her attorney, Bettina Buehler of Brattleboro.
Nelson faces a charge of unlawful restraint, a felony that carries a potential five-year prison sentence.
Nelson met the student at Brattleboro Union High School, where the 17-year-old was a student at the technology center and Nelson taught a course in law enforcement.
According to court records, Nelson was also the girl's coach on the school's softball team, and had been friendly with her for about two years.
According to court records, the girl told investigators there was no sexual relationship between them, although Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark told investigators he didn't fully believe the girl when she told him that.
In e-mails between Nelson and the girl contained in the court record, Nelson appears to be coaching the girl on how to deal with investigators.
"'The focus of the investigation maybe the coach, teacher thing," Nelson wrote to the girl, who she called "My Little Sun Shine Morning Baby." "'That is the only criminal charge. They (sic) key is….If we had sex. And I advised her that we haven't so it shouldn't be an issue……..Right?'" Nelson wrote to the girl shortly after the investigation started.
At another point, Nelson, an experienced Vermont State Police trooper, advises the girl by e-mail that she does not have to talk to police.
"It is an ugly game and I think you have learned that in class….You don't HAVE to talk to anyone or do anything they will just make you think that you do!!!!!!There is no law…..it is your choice…."
Both Nelson and the girl, who have spent time together at the girl's home with the knowledge of the girl's mother, lied to her mother about the Florida trip, court records stated.
The girl claimed she was going with a classmate, and Nelson claimed she didn't know who the girl went with, after the mother found out her daughter didn't go with a friend named Sierra.
Wesley ordered Nelson to have no contact with the student, granting a request from Windham County State's Attorney Tracy Kelly Shriver.
Shriver said Buehler and Nelson opposed her request, noting the student continued to want to have contact with her former teacher and coach, and that the teenager turns 18 in about 10 days.
Wesley rejected Buehler's arguments, and ordered that Nelson have no contact with the girl until the case is resolved, regardless of her age, Shriver said.
Nelson was first hired to be the school resource officer by former Windham County Sheriff Sheila Prue, who resigned in 2006 and was charged with misuse of public funds.
An audit of the Sheriff's Department showed that more than $60,000 had either been spent by Prue on personal items such as family trips, cell phones or clothing, or was unaccounted for.
Clark, the Windham County Sheriff, promoted Nelson to captain when he took office. He suspended Nelson with pay in April, when the allegations first came to his attention.
He said Nelson had resigned from the Sheriff's Department in June, but had kept that information quiet because he did not want to influence the criminal investigation.
He said Thursday that once Nelson resigned, he dropped his own investigation into the matter.
Clark, who said he has known Nelson for 17 years, called her a personal friend. He said he was devastated by Thursday's events.
"It's been tough not knowing what the outcome would be. It's certainly disappointing that criminal charges have been brought. It hurts. At this point I've lost a friend," Clark said.
Clark said the charges were correct in his mind, and that as the father of a 17-year-old daughter, he couldn't support someone taking his daughter on a trip without permission.
"A 17-year-old can't consent to that," Clark said.
Judge John Wesley heard the case after Brattleboro District Court, Judge Karen Carroll declined, noting that she and Nelson had worked together on the Southern Vermont Drug Task Force when Carroll was a prosecutor and Nelson was with the state police.
As a result, Nelson's arraignment was held in family court, away from press waiting in a criminal courtroom. Court deputies could be seen hugging Nelson after her arraignment.