State Trooper Said Man Took Bag From Fentanyl Supplier, But Video Demonstrated That The Deal Never Went Down
Trooper testimony inconsistent with video and misconduct among state and local law enforcement in New Hampshire and Massachusetts have caused at least 15 drug cases to unravel.
On the night of March 7, 2018, Francisco Vicente trailed Paul Aaron on the snowy streets of Lowell, Massachusetts, as Aaron approached a taxi driven by a suspected fentanyl supplier being tracked by a Drug Enforcement Administration task force. Vicente, a New Hampshire state trooper, later said that Aaron, now 32, walked away from the taxi carrying a Puma shopping bag that he suspected contained drugs. When Vicente tried to stop Aaron to question him about the bag, he claimed that Aaron tried to run into his apartment, leading Vicente to tackle Aaron and place him under arrest. Law enforcement seized a bulletproof vest that Aaron was wearing and a kilogram of powder suspected to be illicit fentanyl; cash, another kilogram of fentanyl powder, and firearms were later found in his apartment.
About one month later, Aaron and 44 others were indicted in what federal prosecutors said was a sprawling illicit fentanyl trafficking ring that spanned Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. The case brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Hampshire involved over 100 officers from multiple state and local law enforcement agencies including the Massachusetts State Police, the Lowell Police Department, the Massachusetts attorney general’s office and the Essex County district attorney’s office.
It was hailed as the largest fentanyl bust in New Hampshire history. In 2017, there were 424 drug overdose deaths involving opioids in New Hampshire, which ranks among the top five states with the highest rate of opioid-involved deaths, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Disrupting the supply of illicit fentanyl has become a top priority for federal prosecutors.
A successful motion to suppress
After Vicente testified in federal court on Oct. 9 about Aaron’s bust, defense attorney David Bownes played video surveillance from a nearby store showing his client carrying the shopping bag before he approached the suspected supplier. The video also showed that when Vicente approached Aaron, he did not resist or try to flee into his apartment building, which was farther away from the scene of the arrest than Vicente’s testimony suggested. The footage directly contradicted Vicente’s testimony as well as sworn statements made by Lowell police detectives and a report and search warrant affidavit prepared by detectives from its Special Investigations Section (SIS).
On Aug. 22, Bownes filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained from Aaron’s March arrest and the search of his home in Lowell, a town near the New Hampshire border. On Sept. 13, the U.S. attorney for the District of New Hampshire, Scott W. Murray, filed an objection to the motion, arguing that Lowell detectives had not tainted the search warrant affidavit for Aaron’s apartment.
But after the October hearing where Bownes presented the contradictory video, Assistant U.S. Attorney Seth Aframe agreed to withdraw the government’s objection. “At this point the government is prepared to withdraw its objection and assent to the motion to suppress insofar as it seeks to suppress all of the evidence seized from 193 East Merrimack Street, Apartment 5, pursuant to the search warrant,” Aframe said during the hearing.
Bownes declined to comment about his client’s case. The Lowell Police Department did not respond to requests for comment from The Appeal.
“At times there can be a concerning tendency by prosecutors to become too invested in a case and they do not keep important distance from it,” Miriam Krinsky, executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, an organization that focuses on newly elected prosecutors, told The Appeal. “Past exonerations reveal confirmation bias, where members of the justice system—prosecutors and officers alike—tend to put blinders on and don’t pay attention to evidence or inconsistencies that cast doubt on somebody’s guilt.”
Drug cases come apart
The Middlesex County district attorney has dismissed at least 15 drug and gun cases since January, after the Lowell police’s internal investigation of SIS found detectives filed sworn affidavits littered with false and misleading information. Three detectives from the investigation unit—Nicholas Dokos, Rafael Rivera, and David Lavoie—were put on paid administrative leave as a result of their wrongdoing, which includes providing false information on records and sworn affidavits, as well as “conduct unbecoming of an officer.” All three detectives are back on active duty.
In March, Aaron entered a guilty plea to federal drug conspiracy charges, though the two kilograms of fentanyl, bulletproof vest, and guns found in his March 2018 arrest were not included in his plea. Also in March, a separate drug case against Aaron brought by the Middlesex DA was dropped because of “potential inconsistencies in the evidence” stemming from misconduct by detectives.
The investigation into SIS found further inconsistencies and falsehoods in its detectives’ accounts of Aaron’s arrest. And the police report and search warrant stemming from Aaron’s arrest were “inaccurate to a level that is far beyond simple mistakes,” according to the investigation report, which was obtained by the Lowell Sun. The investigation ultimately led to the disciplining of five officers: three SIS detectives, a lieutenant, and a sergeant.
A troubled police unit
Keren Goldenberg, a criminal defense attorney in Lowell, says this isn’t the first time that SIS, which she described as a vice squad, has “cut corners.” “There is a history of pretty reckless behavior by the SIS unit,” Goldenberg told The Appeal. “They’re kind of an ‘ends justify the means’ group. They’re aggressive. They arrest a lot of people. Some people think very highly of it. But I’ve also found that they cut corners when they need to and probably feel quite justified.”
Goldenberg cited the case of SIS detective Thomas Lafferty, a defendant in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by three men who said he failed to properly screen and supervise confidential informants who may have planted drug evidence. The lawsuit alleged a “systematic failure to document the use of confidential informants, systematic failure to vet confidential informants, and systematically inattentive supervision of officers using confidential informants.”
According to the lawsuit, one SIS informant identified only as “FA” had “arranged for misinformation to be supplied to police” and was so unreliable that a Lowell prosecutor would not work with him. In October 2017, the City of Lowell settled the lawsuit for $750,000. Lafferty is no longer with SIS—he worked in the unit from 2005 to 2013—but he remains employed with the Lowell Police, though he has been demoted to a patrol officer. In 2011, Lafferty was placed on leave after he and Rafael Rivera, one of the SIS detectives from the Aaron case, shot at a vehicle that was fleeing the scene of a drug bust. Goldenberg says such misconduct is emblematic of a troubled culture within SIS.
Goldenberg is currently seeking to have a gun case against one of her clients dropped because the names of the disciplined SIS detectives appear on arrest affidavits and other records. “They showed such outrageous conduct in the Paul Aaron case that I’m trying to either get my case dismissed or have the judge suppress the evidence because the affiants and officers involved have demonstrated they have a disregard for the truth and a history of lying to the courts,” Goldenberg said.
When police misconduct is revealed in court, prosecutors find themselves in an ethical and legal bind. “There have been documented instances of situations where officer misconduct has occurred and a miscarriage of justice results,” Krinsky of Fair and Just Prosecution says. “Prosecutors have an important and unique obligation when that happens to make sure that they stand for the pursuit of justice under all circumstances, and if a wrong has been done, to go back and correct that.”