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7: City police chief under fire

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The story of Vergennes Police Chief Mike Lowe’s legal problems first broke in early June. When off-duty, he drove a police cruiser into a parked car in a low-speed accident. The Vergennes patrolman on the scene called in Vermont State Police, who processed Lowe for driving under the influence — as it turned out the charge was for under the influence of prescription drugs, not alcohol.

When a blood test came back in July, it showed a number of painkillers and anti-depressants in Lowe’s system, as well as other prescription drugs, and officials filed charges. Just before Lowe was to be arraigned in August, the state attorney general’s office (which handled the prosecution) announced other charges would soon be filed, including neglect of duty, obtaining drugs by fraudulent means, and embezzlement, and a second arraignment was set.

At the first arraignment, Lowe’s attorney entered a plea of innocent to the DUI charges and acknowledged that Lowe, who was not present, was still in Florida at a drug treatment facility. No details on the new charges were released, and Lowe remained on paid administrative leave.

At about that time, City Manager Mel Hawley acknowledged publicly that Lowe was under investigation for an alleged conflict of interest in handling an earlier case in which a bullet was found lodged in the side of a city home.

At the second August arraignment, Lowe showed up to face and plead innocent to the additional charges: That he regularly persuaded a young officer to turn over his prescription drugs to him; that he improperly traded a gun from the police evidence locker to another officer in exchange for a purchase of prescription drugs, the act that constituted embezzlement; and that Lowe once persuaded a third officer to give him his wife’s prescription pain pills.

Soon afterward, both Lowe and the officer who gave him prescription drugs on a regular basis resigned. Court documents released after the second arraignment then revealed the first investigation all along had focused on Lowe’s alleged drug problems as well as the specifics of the conflict-of-interest case. The cases against Lowe were still pending as the year closed.

In his absence, the city’s full-time officers worked extra, and part-time officers filled in. Former city chief Ted Minall worked as a consultant to coordinate the city police department, and also served on the committee that selected longtime Middlebury police officer George Merkel as the city’s new police chief, effective Dec. 1.

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