Police commission mum on abuse allegations
BIDDEFORD – Members of the city’s police commission have not returned repeated calls for comment during the last couple weeks, or on Thursday morning, May 7, two days after residents took over council chambers with demands that the police chief and deputy chief be suspended from duties while the Maine Attorney General’s Office investigates claims that two former officers sexually abused young boys while employed by the city.
Police commissioners are Roger Gagnon, Leo Simoneau, Ralph Croteau, Kevin Jacques and Chairman James Emerson. Jacques is brother to city attorney Keith Jacques.
“What is the city administration waiting for to take action? asked Ward 6 resident Bob Provencher at a meeting Tuesday, May 5. “Don’t wait for the police commission to take action because the chief has lined up some of his friends (on the commission). They will not take action, so as a result, we the citizens are not being represented.”
According to city charter, the hiring of the police chief is done by the commission, following a selection process that has been determined by the commission, nominated by the mayor and confirmed by the council. Charter also indicates the commission “is responsible for oversight of the management of the police department.” Charter does not indicate if the police commission has the power to put the chief on leave.
Ward 4 resident and former city councilor Melissa Bednarowski said she served on the personnel committee while a councilor from 2011 to 2013.
“It is within your purview to make this a motion under new business and discuss it. Show your constituents that you care,” she said. “In my experience on the council, I saw many city employees put on paid administrative leave for far less.”
Before the public comment period of the meeting, Mayor Alan Casavant read a statement regarding council rules and Title 16, which indicates there can be no discussion of items that are part of a criminal investigation, including mention of alleged employee misconduct, past or present. Casavant read a similar statement at a council meeting two weeks ago. He also said it was against council rules to name any past or current city employees.
“I and all city councilors are very concerned about recent allegations that two former Biddeford police officers sexually assaulted young boys of our community,” Casavant said. “We take these charges very seriously and we demand a thorough investigation.”
“Yesterday, on camera, in a news report, an individual made the following comment: ‘I totally respect protocol and I totally respect that people are innocent until proven guilty and I totally respect that everybody deserves and should have a fair and objective process and investigation.’”
Casavant was referring to a TV interview with Matt Lauzon, the 30-year-old Biddeford native who alleges that former officer Stephen M. Dodd abused him when he was a teenager. Lauzon approached Biddeford Police Department about the abuse in October and when he felt no progress was being made, took to social media to tell his story. Since then, other alleged victims have come forward, both of Dodd’s and of another former officer, Norman Gaudette.
“That comment is not only the essence of the American criminal justice system, but it is also of paramount importance to the city of Biddeford and the way in which it conducts itself during this process and investigation,” he said. “I can assure you that this council, perhaps more than any I have ever known, has the highest respect for protocol, for the supposition that people are innocent until proven guilty and that any accusation of criminal activity should have a fair and objective process and investigation. The city of Biddeford is intent in insisting that due process be protected, as the rights of the accused and the accusers must be of paramount importance in determining the facts and the issuance of justice.”
Later in the meeting, after an executive session, councilors voted unanimously to direct Sen. David Dutremble (D-Biddeford) to pursue legislation that would modify Title 16, allowing public officials to comment on ongoing criminal investigations.
Councilors also voted unanimously to request the AG’s office complete the ongoing investigation “as fully and promptly as possible;” direct Dutremble to craft legislation that would prohibit registered sex offenders from living 750 feet of schools and playgrounds; institute a local ordinance that would prohibit registered sex offenders from living 750 feet of schools and playgrounds; and hold a municipal officer’s meeting the first Thursday of every month in response to the last two council meetings where residents have used the city council’s public comments section to address concerns about child sex abuse allegations.
Those who want to speak on the abuse allegations, per this measure, will not be allowed to speak at regular council meetings; residents will only be allowed to speak on agenda items, unless a council member makes a motion to suspend the rules. The next meeting where residents would be allowed to speak on the alleged abuse is Thursday, June 4.
Lauzon and others, including Richard Alexander, a South Portland man who alleges Dodd abused him when Dodd was 20, and Larry Ouellette, a lifelong Biddeford resident who alleges that Gaudette, a former police captain, sexually abused him as a teenager, waited for the council to deliberate in executive session.
After the measures were read and voted on, and the meeting adjourned, Lauzon approached Jacques, the city attorney, and threatened a lawsuit on the city.
“Innocent until proven guilty, National Day of Prayer – what a bunch of hypocrites,” said former Mayor Joanne Twomey during public comment. “This is about respect for the people who live in this city. This is about respect for our children. This is about standing up, Alan, and reading the charter, which I’m sure you have – it says that the chief serves at the pleasure of the mayor.”
Twomey, like others, urged Casavant to put Police Chief Roger Beaupre and Deputy Chief Joanne Fisk on leave.
“It’s easy to sit there – the laws, the laws. Let’s get real. The kids are hurting. They were babies. We tell our children to believe in the police – these police handcuffed them,” she said. “It's disgusting what happened to those children and now they’re adults and they’re still crying. They’re still in pain. You can make a motion tonight to say that you put them on suspension. It’s that simple. And I urge you to do that, Alan. I urge you to show that you care about those kids. They were your students, Alan, and all your students love you and you need to show them that you can do something.”
Lauzon, who now lives in Boston, spoke publicly to the council for the first time Tuesday. He referred to rules Casavant told the audience at the beginning of the meeting regarding applause, disruptions or approval/disapproval of any statement made during public comment, and how such remarks could be intimidating to speakers.
“I find it ironic there are so many rules in place at the beginning of this session . . . yet there’s no thought about intimidation when it comes to people who have been sexually abused,” he said.
Lauzon said since he first starting posting about his alleged abuse in February, on average, one person a day contacts him about their story of abuse.
“A lot of them have drug, drinking, criminal problems. I consider myself fortunate to be a person who has a lot of resources and support and this has been absolute torture,” Lauzon said. “I hope . . . you understand what it’s like to have people call you and say they’re on the verge of suicide.”
Lauzon said it’s important for the council to understand why he is pushing for Beaupre and Fisk to be put on leave, adding that it's intimidating for victims to come forward because Beaupre was chief when periods of alleged abuse occurred.
“While I apparently left a good taste in Stephen Dodd’s mouth when he sexually abused me – and I’ll never forget him telling me that – I believe what you guys are doing is leaving a bad taste in mine,” he said.
Biddeford resident Matthew Mills, 24, said he was speaking in support of his uncle, Robert Kalex, who told his story to the Courier of alleged abuse at the hands of Gaudette, who was the focus of an AG’s office investigation in the 1990s for “sexual misconduct,” according to published reports. After several months Gaudette was cleared and went back to work at Biddeford Police Department.
Mills said he was sexually abused as a child, but not by one of the officers in question.
“(Biddeford) is where I learned to play basketball, where I learned how to ride a bike, ice skate. This is the town I grew up in. It's been a nightmare,” he said after the meeting.
Mills said he's made poor decisions in his past “that will affect me for the rest of my life – and I've barely even started my life.”
“I guess if you get a badge on your chest it demands a certain amount of respect,” he said, crying. “I don't have a career. I've been set back so much by that. I've sat there in interviews, dressed as nice as the kid who grew up in the nice neighborhood and been told, 'No, I'm sorry, but your name will always pop up on Google.' I was found innocent but those charges are there for the rest of my life – and we can't sit here and say their name in a public place,” he said of Dodd and Gaudette.
“I'm ashamed of what has happened in my life, but what I'm ashamed of even more is that (Dodd and Gaudette) get to walk down the street, unnoticed,” Mills said.
During public comment he told the mayor and councilors that they don't know what it's like to live with the stigma of sexual abuse.
“To live with that every day is one of the hardest things . . . you haven't been in that position and haven't had that taken away from you – literally taken by a disgusting and horrible, evil person. And to know that the people put in the position to protect us and to keep us away from those evil people are the same people committing the crimes, is a nightmare,” Mills said through tears.
Mills said he fears having children in Biddeford who will be before a different council, decades from now, having the same conversation.
“I don't want to read in the newspaper that these guys have been able to live happily ever after with their fat pensions when they have destroyed lives, absolutely destroyed lives.”
Bednarowski, the former Ward 4 councilor, said, “the strength it takes for these men to speak up and tell of their abuse is beyond a strength that any of us could ever imagine,” gesturing to the audience.
“I'm 40 years old. I made it to 38 years without being sexually abused,” she said. “I commend these men, beyond measure, and I appeal to you to show them your strength, because it doesn't take as much to make a motion as it does to plead and to be heartfelt and to say, 'this man abused me.'”
“I can't imagine what that would feel like as a child,” she continued. “I only know what it felt like as an adult and I know I didn't have the courage to come forward. All of you, I commend you. I commend you beyond words.”
Biddeford resident David Hussey said he was “really, really hurt.”
“I'm sorry that it's been frustrating for you guys, that you can't speak up,” he said, referring to the mayor, councilors and police chief. “I want to tell you guys something. You're not the victims here. The city of Biddeford is the victim here, and all of its children.”
Mellisa Luedke, who led an effort this week to collect signatures to force the council to hear her and others at a public meeting before June 4, said she was a student of Mayor Casavant's.
“People change. We age, we grow, we evolved as people. The mayor was once a teacher, and a very respected one at that,” she said. “He taught us about Tiger Pride and having pride in our community. In my opinion, the mayor has changed. He is now a politician. We need to stop saying he is a teacher. As mayor, he has shown me lack of support for his citizens.”
Luedke said she finds it hard to believe that the police chief, in his 34-year tenure, didn't know about the allegations of sexual abuse.
As of Thursday, Luedke and others had collected the nearly 100 signatures needed to force the council to address the allegations by Wednesday, May 13, instead of waiting until June 4.
It's her hope that this emergency meeting will give the council another opportunity to suspend the chief and deputy chief.
Greg Blouin, who recently moved to Ward 3 in Biddeford, helped Luedke collect signatures and even went to the city clerk's office Thursday for voter registration cards to give to passersby who weren't registered voters.
Blouin yelled from the audience at Tuesday's council meeting when one speaker was cut off for apparently ignoring council rules.
Samantha Rocray was speaking on behalf of Mike Grover, a former Biddeford firefighter and former husband of Fisk, the city's deputy police chief. Grover's letter said Fisk should be suspended of her duties during the current investigation because she “is too close to the situation.”
“She cannot effectively do her job based on the fact that she did know that young boys were guests of the accused.”
Casavant ruled Rocray out of order to which she replied that she didn't use Fisk's name.
“We said the Pledge of Allegiance and justice for all. Where is the justice for all? These men over here were sexually abused, what are you doing about it?” she asked, crying.
The council took one of two recesses of the night after Rocray's comments.
Provencher, who was the first to speak during public comment, said he realizes officials are in the process of attracting new businesses to the city.
“Attracting new businesses to town is good for the city and we need new businesses. This deep black mark is not going to help that process,” he said. “We are concerned about naming the new walking bridge over the Saco River, between the two cities. This bridge should have the name relating back to mill workers, who were the backbone of Biddeford. It should temporarily be named, the bridge over troubled waters because right now, we have troubled waters.”