Aid untapped on night of Thrift crimes

After fiasco, select board nixed and tried to dilute cops’ discipline.

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Fellow officers were at hand across the Vineyard on the night of July 23 and the early morning of July 24, 2011, when two Tisbury Police officers searched for domestic battery and sexual assault suspect David Thrift, recently released Dukes County Communications Center audio records reveal. Executive session minutes show that following numerous and consequential police failures that night, Tisbury’s select board completely overturned discipline handed down to one officer from the police chief, and offered to water down the discipline of another officer. 

That night Tisbury Police searched the vicinity of a home for the man who’d beaten his wife and sexually assaulted the family’s nanny. They didn’t find him, and decided to give up and leave the scene. In doing so, Sgt. Robert Fiske and Officer Scott Ogden left the 15-year-old nanny and the children, 8, 3, and 2, unprotected. In the absence of a police presence, Thrift returned to the house and raped the nanny at knifepoint. The third officer who initially responded to the scene and hadn’t participated in the search, Michael Gately, left about 50 minutes ahead of Sgt. Fiske and Officer Ogden to go to the hospital with the battered mother and to issue a GBC (general broadcast) for Thrift. Following an internal investigation, town labor counsel Brian Maser concluded police gave assurances to the battered mother that they would not leave the nanny and the kids home by themselves with Thrift at large. In his 17-page report to former Tisbury Police Chief Dan Hanavan, Maser also concluded the nanny was raped because Tisbury Police left the scene, and leaving the scene was “inexcusable.”

For reasons that remain unclear, Tisbury Police opted to muster none of the available police in neighboring towns. Doing so might have led to locating Thrift before he could return to the crime scene. Even summoning another officer to simply guard the nanny and the children might have prevented the the girl’s violent rape. A review by The Times of 2011 audio recordings obtained from the Dukes County Sheriff’s Office revealed at least five different police officers were available in other towns to assist in the search for Thrift. A GBC for Thrift issued by Tisbury Police was acknowledged individually by police officers in Chilmark, Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, West Tisbury, and by a Massachusetts State Police trooper. The GBC was issued shortly after midnight, July 24, 2011, via the Dukes County Communications Center. However, that GBC only instructed other officers to be on the lookout for Thrift; it did not include a request for mutual aid, nor was any other audio provided that showed a request for mutual aid was made. Tisbury Police also had additional law enforcement personnel at their own station who weren’t summoned. Two other Tisbury Police officers were available at the Tisbury Police Station because they were just coming in for a shift starting at midnight — Officers Joseph Ballotte and Jason Marathas. Despite seven officers in total who could have potentially assisted, only Sgt. Fiske and Officer Ogden searched. In his report, attorney Maser stated Sgt. Fiske, as the leader that night, could have done much more to keep the nanny from being “re-victimized” by Thrift.

“As the sergeant and officer in charge of the 4-12 shift, he could have contacted the chief to request that he be authorized to order in additional staff to watch the residence,” Maser wrote. “Sergeant Fiske could have ordered Officer Ballotte or Officer Marathas to post up at the house and oversee [the nanny] and the children. Sergeant Fiske made no effort to determine whether the State Police were available to assist, and he inquired of no surrounding departments to determine their availability.” Maser went on to state Fiske could have ordered other officers to remain at the residence, or could have stayed himself. 

“The fact that Sergeant Fiske did not inquire of these options demonstrates that he did not take this incident seriously,” Maser wrote in part. 

Fiske couldn’t be reached for comment.

The three officers who initially responded to the scene that night were dealt disparate discipline by the town. Sgt. Fiske was fired, Officer Ogden was suspended, and Officer Gately was issued a letter of reprimand. 

Minutes show the select board was concerned about police department unity, and didn’t have an appetite for a protracted fight with the police union over disciplinary matters — a fight they nonetheless got. The minutes also show the board turned a blind eye to Ogden’s previously tarnished record. 

On Jan. 24, 2012, Tisbury’s select board held grievance hearings for Ogden and Gately. These hearings were part of the process between the town and the union to address certain labor disagreements. Neither Gately nor Ogden responded to calls by The Times for comment on the grievance process or their roles in the Thrift case. 

Chief Hanavan suspended Officer Ogden without pay for what an arbitrator would later describe as “considerable lack of judgment” and “neglect of duty.” Chief Havanan issued Officer Gately a reprimand letter that underscored “Gately’s lack of judgment, failure to gather evidence and follow-up at the scene,” minutes state. The letter also cited Gately’s “disrespectful attitude when questioned during the subsequent investigation into the incident.”

At the hearings, John Becker, attorney for the Massachusetts Coalition of Police (MASSCOPS), argued that Sgt. Fiske was the officer in charge that night, and that to punish Ogden and Gately would be “to misunderstand the chain-of-command in a paramilitary organization such as the Tisbury Police Department,” minutes state. Becker argued Ogden and Gately were doing what they were told to do by Fiske. 

Hanavan didn’t see it that way. 

“Chief Hanavan reported that years of training and department policy were disregarded, adding that after conferring with Special Counsel Jack Collins, a five-day suspension was recommended and implemented,” minutes state. “Chief Hanavan also pointed out that Officer Ogden’s own statement, that ‘he left on his own,’ was important in making the suspension decision.”

Ogden, who was present, stated he didn’t recall saying that, the minutes show.

Former town administrator John Bugbee said Ogden was obliged under state law and department policy to remain at a scene where “there is any reason to believe that a family or household member has been abused or is in danger of being abused,” and that in leaving the scene, Ogden exhibited “a serious lack of judgement.”

When questioned about his failure to collect evidence from the crime scene, Gately said, “We already had the guy who committed the crime,” minutes state — a remark apparently meant to indicate the belief clues or more proof weren’t needed. Gately also said he wasn’t directed by Fiske to do so. In sworn testimony before attorney Maser, Gately claimed the reason he took no photographs of the crime scene was because the department camera didn’t have charged batteries, a transcript shows. The transcript also shows Gately was specially trained in crime scene photography. No questions appear to have been posed later by the select board as to why Gately, if he had a dead camera, didn’t seek another camera from one of the Vineyard’s five other police departments, or why he didn’t employ a phone camera. 

Fiske, whose hearing was held separately on a different date, wasn’t present to share his thoughts. 

Select board member Jeff Kristal noted Gately had 24 years’ experience, and had been a candidate for chief. He questioned why “Gately did not do something, just because he was not told to do so by a superior officer,” minutes state. 

The board appeared heedless of Ogden’s past issues within the department, even though some of those past issues had been topical in previous executive sessions. 

Internal investigation records regarding Ogden previously obtained by The Times are so heavily redacted it’s difficult to discern what was being investigated. In a portion of those records from 2009, former Tisbury Police Chief John Cashin accused Ogden of exhibiting a pattern of “bullying,” and described his behavior as “unacceptable and unprofessional,” and allegedly the subject of complaints from the courts, town hall, the sheriff’s office, and the general public. 

“Based upon the statements made in interviews with officers, members of the public, and personal experience, I consider Officer Scott Ogden to be one of the most damaging influences on this department’s Island-wide reputation, as well as morale within the department,” Cashin wrote.

Minutes from 2009 and 2010 show Hanavan considered Ogden one of three “problem officers” who presented an impediment to effectively running the police department at a time when Hanavan had just been elevated from patrolman to acting chief. 

By May 2010, minutes show, Hanavan appeared to have clamped down on Ogden.

Tisbury’s police consultant, Robert Wasserman, told the select board that Hanavan had “‘shortened his chain’ considerably.” 

Kristal suggested cutting Ogden’s five-day suspension in half, describing it as “a little harsh,” minutes state.

Former select board chair Geoghan Coogan supported a 2½ day suspension, but only if Ogden didn’t press on with the grievance process.

Select board member Tristan Israel said he supported the five-day suspension.

Attorney Becker declined to take the offer of a halved suspension for Ogden with no appeal.

“He added this is not a situation where everyone acknowledges that they did something wrong, but the question is whether it was reasonable for Officer Ogden to do what he did — anything less would mean that he admits to having done something wrong,” minutes state. 

The board opted to keep the five-day suspension, and the union went on to contest it. It was later upheld in arbitration. 

Israel recommended purging the reprimand from Gately’s file. The board split on Gately, with Kristal and Israel voting to erase the letter, and Coogan voting to uphold it. 

Kristal said, “These actions are all about the future [of the department],” minutes state. 

Hearings for the grievances came at a fraught time for the Tisbury Police Department and its relationship with the select board — against the backdrop of a contentious union contract negotiation, a lawsuit by a female officer off the foundation of an MCAD complaint, a rare homicide in town (with its crime scene close to town hall), a recently failed attempt to merge Tisbury’s Police Department with neighboring Oak Bluffs, and a history of departmental dysfunction and strife that since 2002 had burned through three chiefs and an interim chief before Hanavan was tapped for the job in 2009.

Asked if he had it to do over again, if he would still make the same decisions on Ogden and Gately, and asked to elaborate on his reasoning for the decision he made at the time, Coogan declined to revisit the decision — in part because questions were posed to him in the context of findings from town documents uncovered by The Times.

“While I have read your articles and don’t have any reason to believe what you have reported to be inaccurate, it would be irresponsible of me to take any position on disciplinary actions made a decade ago, based on that reporting alone,” Coogan emailed. “I have had no involvement with town governance since I finished my term on the BOS. So the short answer is no, I would not take a position on whether or not my opinion would be different now, I simply do not have the facts to make that type of statement.” 

Coogan was willing to weigh in generally. “I remember that incident vividly,” he wrote. “That was a horrific and sad event for not just Tisbury, but the Island. We never anticipate those types of incidents happening here, and that was just shockingly sad. The board of selectmen and town administrator worked through that episode with the assistance of town counsel. Members of the Tisbury Police Department personnel involved in the situation were reviewed individually and held accountable for their actions.”

Coogan also wrote that decisions involving discipline are collective in nature. “The board of selectmen, along with town counsel and often union representation, review every disciplinary action involving town personnel brought to the board, together. Discipline is not the judgment call of one individual. The incident was reviewed, and discipline was agreed upon by the town.”

When posed similar questions, Israel wrote, “I believe I acted responsibly at that time, and some of your description of events I was not aware of, although I was totally aware of the gravity of the situation. I also was dismayed at that time at the lack of support services by the department for counseling and safety of victims.”

Kristal, who is presently chair of the select board, didn’t respond to emailed questions.

In an interview with The Times, Wasserman said he believed one of the reasons behind grievance and disciplinary friction in the Tisbury Police Department was the lack of standardized penalties for offenses.

“What we push departments to do,” Wasserman said, “and we had mentioned it here, is to have a disciplinary matrix that lists the types of offenses, and what the normal discipline is for [them] … and that would eliminate most of the disciplinary issues that there are. I don’t think they have adopted it. I mean, that’s really an important thing to do, because it takes away the uncertainty.”

Wasserman didn’t touch upon Gately, but in order to shed more light on his remarks about Ogden in the minutes, he said, “He appeared to want a more aggressive way of policing than was necessarily appropriate for Tisbury.”

Wasserman said he felt it was fair to say the same of Fiske. 

Wasserman also said Ogden blossomed when he was assigned to the Tisbury School as school resource officer. “From what I heard, he really excelled at that,” he said.

Former Tisbury Police Chief Mark Saloio previously described Ogden as “reliable, extremely proficient, and a very, very competent police officer.” Chief Saloio said Ogden “does everything he’s asked to do. He’s well-liked in the school, and he performs all his responsibilities at a very high level.” 

When asked what will prevent the events that happened in the Thrift case from repeating in some way, Tisbury Police Chief Chris Habekost said his department exercises extreme caution on domestic calls, and in a similar situation his officers would call for mutual aid and would take vulnerable members of a household to the police station, a safe house, or the hospital. Chief Habekost said his officers would not leave vulnerable people by themselves.

“No one here is going to make that mistake, because it’s seared into their memory,” he said. 

The Times obtained the audio used for this story, including radio traffic and telephone calls, after repeated refusals for release by the Dukes County Sheriff’s Office. After four determinations by the state’s Supervisor of Records, which included an in camera review of a portion of the requested material, the sheriff’s office released the records. In preparation for this story, the Times obtained more than 40 sets of previously unreleased Tisbury select board executive session minutes related to the Tisbury Police Department, following requests made pursuant to open meeting law and records law. The minutes spanned from 2009 to 2013.

3 COMMENTS

  1. What the ————. The public deserves answers. Why is this information just coming to light now. Wandering off and leaving a victim unattended to be assaulted by the assailant AGAIN?! No batteries in the camera for evidentiary photos? The SAME selectman Kristal still on the BOS TODAY that allowed all those inept officers to stay on the force. It makes perfect sense that they just made the interim TPD Chief the permanent Chief… now that everyone knows exactly how dysfunctional the department is, not a single self-respecting police officer would ever apply for a Chief position in that pathetic department. Those officers involved need to resign immediately before something even worse happens. In reality, they should be locked up for allowing a tragedy like that to occur.

  2. Sooo….we are finally getting to the roots of the problems in Tisbury, and surprise, the common denominators are Kristal, Wasserman, and Ogden.
    What the Times fails to point out is that these same individuals are the guidance of the police department. Add on top of that Sgt Maximum Settlements, Sgt. Gobble-gait, and a rather sleepy looking ‘new’ Chief (who apparently at best sat on the sidelines and has offered nothing in terms of actual leadership) and you have a recipe for an extreme disaster. There is nothing that Cheese Habekost could ever promise that would make me believe that an incident like this couldn’t happen again! It is clear to me if you go to Tisbury you place yourself in severe jeopardy from a ‘gang’ masquerading as officers of the law. They have clearly lost their way beyond all redemption. Time to clean house, top to bottom, the GRANDE, Kristal, Gomez and the police department need to be shown the ferry dock, given reservations, and loaded onto one of those special vessels only utilized for hazardous materials, just like their latest patsy, Sally-ho!

  3. I am a big fan of `Rich Saltzberg` and actually subscribed to the online MV Times because of Rich! ==> “He’s diligent in the use of public records to keep those in authority accountable, and is a living example of the ideals of journalism to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”.

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