City police chief pleads innocent in court
MIDDLEBURY — Vergennes Police Chief Michael Lowe, already facing a count of driving under the influence of prescription drugs, on Monday pleaded innocent in Addison County District Court to three more drug-related charges as well as one of embezzlement of public property and another of neglect of duty.
The charges against Lowe detailed for the first time in court included unlawful possession of a prescription drug; two counts of obtaining prescription drugs by fraud or deceit, including appropriating a city patrolman’s prescription for more than a year; embezzlement because he “fraudulently converted to his own use” a handgun that had been seized as evidence; and neglect of duty by failing to return the handgun to its rightful owners.
Court documents released on Monday also showed that the Vermont Attorney General’s office was already investigating Lowe for prescription drug abuse when on June 7 a Vergennes police car he was driving struck a parked car. That accident led to the DUI charge, to which he pleaded innocent in District Court on Aug. 10. The next step in both cases is a joint status conference set for Sept. 21.
Meanwhile, Lowe’s disciplinary hearing before the Vergennes City Council has been tentatively rescheduled for Sept. 14. Mayor Michael Daniels said he at that point expects at least some resolution with Lowe, who is now on administrative leave without pay after drawing his salary for most of the summer.
“We’re sticking to due process, not to violate anybody’s rights in any way, shape or manner, and we hope to have some form of closure at the Sept. 14th hearing,” Daniels said. “By closure, I don’t necessarily mean him losing his job, but we will be able to move on with our lives.”
City Manager Mel Hawley said aldermen’s choices for action include either suspending Lowe for up to 60 days or terminating his employment. Hawley said city officials agreed to postpone earlier scheduled disciplinary hearings at the request of Lowe and his attorney, Richard Goldsborough of South Burlington. Their request to postpone included an offer to change Lowe’s status from paid to unpaid, Hawley said.
The affidavit made public for the first time on Monday also detailed some of Lowe’s alleged problems with prescription drugs. It stated Lowe had surgery on Nov. 15, 2007, after which he was prescribed Oxycodone, a narcotic painkiller. The affidavit noted that Lowe himself expressed concerns about addiction. On Nov. 27 he told a physician that the Oxycodone was too strong and requested Hydrocodone because he wanted to “taper off the drug,” according to the affidavit.
On Dec. 10 the affidavit stated Lowe saw a physician’s assistant who “expressed concern about his apparent dependency on Oxycodone and requested Lowe sign a ‘taper agreement,’ which he did.” Records from Dec. 18 and 31 from Fletcher Allen Health Care show Lowe acknowledging feeling addiction to Oxycodone.
According to Lowe’s employment records in Vergennes, he also missed about two months in 2003 for an earlier neck surgery. Lowe, 51, a veteran Florida officer, was hired in Vergennes in 2001 and became chief in 2002.
By this spring, Lowe’s problems had been noticed by law enforcement officials, according to the affidavit. Earlier this year, Addison County State’s Attorney John Quinn’s office fielded a citizen complaint that Lowe had mishandled a case in which a bullet was found lodged in the side of a city home.
Lowe acknowledged making what he said was an offhand remark that even his son could be a suspect in that case. The citizen said he should have disqualified himself from the investigation because of a potential conflict of interest.
According to the affidavit, the attorney general’s office began investigating that complaint at Quinn’s request. The affidavit then stated, “Quinn also indicated that he had heard concerns regarding the abuse of prescription medications by Lowe. As the investigation continued the concern about abuse of prescription medication was echoed by other members of the law enforcement community as well as an area pharmacist and other medical personnel.”
Details on the fraud charges in the affidavit included that Lowe persuaded Vergennes Patrolman Matthew Roorda to regularly turn over his prescription for Adderall, a stimulant, between the fall of 2007 and May 2009. Roorda told Thomas Howell, and investigator from the attorney general’s office, that he was not using the drug, for which he had a legitimate prescription, because “he does not like the way it makes him feel.”
At times Roorda gave Lowe the pills, and at times Lowe simply picked up the prescriptions himself, according to the affidavit. Two of the fraud charges stem from Lowe’s dealing with Roorda.
Roorda talked to Howell with the understanding “that the State would not directly use Roorda’s statement’s against him.” Assistant Attorney General John Treadwell, who is handling Lowe’s prosecution on the five charges detailed on Monday, said it remained “conceivable” Roorda could face prosecution, but said he could not comment on whether an investigation is ongoing or even being considered.
Roorda’s statements could theoretically provide the starting point for a probe, Treadwell said.
“They could be used as the basis to initiate another investigation,” he said.
Roorda remained on the job this week.
Hawley said city officials would study Roorda’s situation, however, and he would discuss it with city attorney Jim Runcie. Hawley also said he planned to meet with Roorda this week.
“I am very concerned with what is written in the affidavit as it concerns Roorda,” Hawley said.
Roorda, contacted at the station this week, declined comment.
According to the affidavit, Lowe also was given two pain pills by part-time patrolman Robert Worley, an act leading to the third fraud charge. Worley’s wife was home after surgery in September, and Lowe said he needed to borrow some pain pills and he “had a doctor’s appointment the next day.” Worley agreed to provide two pills, which Roorda picked up and delivered to Lowe.
Later, Lowe asked again for pills, but Worley “told him no and told Lowe that he needed to see his own doctor.” It was Worley who came on the scene of the June 7 accident, determined Lowe might be under the influence, and called in Vermont State Police to investigate.
The embezzlement and neglect of duty charges both tie into Lowe’s handling of the gun used by a Vergennes resident to take his own life in December 2007. Lowe is alleged to have persuaded Vergennes part-time officer Brent Newton to buy $264 of supplements at Vites & Herbs Shoppe in Middlebury in exchange for the Smith and Wesson handgun.
Lowe is alleged to have told Newton “that the Attorney General’s office had said it was OK to dispose of the seized handgun in this manner,” a statement contradicted by investigator Howell, author of the affidavit. The law requires the return of the property to the family, something the affidavit stated Lowe did only after the fact while not reimbursing Newton for the purchase. The neglect of duty charge derives from Lowe’s failure to promptly return the gun.
Treadwell said that for the time being the two cases against Lowe would proceed separately, although the Sept. 21 status conference and discovery proceedings would be held jointly. He said “no steps have been taken yet” to combine them and would not comment further on the possibility.
In a court action filed in Addison County District Court on Monday morning, Goldsborough also sought to have the testimony of VSP drug recognition expert Todd Ambroz excluded from Lowe’s DUI case “on the basis that the opinions offered are unreliable and that data and methods used do not meet threshold requirements of proper application of scientific procedures” pursuant to precedent set in a 1993 case involving Merrill Dow Pharmaceuticals.
CITY POLICE ISSUES
Earlier this week, Daniels and Hawley also took pains to assure city residents that their police department was still, in Hawley’s words, “functioning very well” under the leadership of former city chief Ted Minall, who is serving as a consultant and de facto department head.
“These are troubled times for the department, but the guys are working well together, and the public is being served well … because we have a good group of full and part-time people filling in shifts,” Hawley said, adding, “The guys have really stepped to the plate and are really taking care of the city.”
Hawley also noted that help is on the way: Sgt. Patrick Greenslet, who has been out on medical leave since March, is expected back on the job next week.
Daniels also said he hoped those who may feel they have not gotten a fair shake from the city’s department would step forward and speak with Hawley.
“If anyone has had a problem with the department, officials want to hear about it. We’ve taken the opportunity to address some of the issues,” Daniels said. “The present officers would really like to see everything done according to the law … Don’t hold back. The correct channel is to go through the city manager.”