In the days leading up to his hiring at the Essex Police Department last November, Sean Wilson found his brief law enforcement career in jeopardy. Concerns over his job performance in 2017, his first year in Brattleboro, had already led Windham County’s lead prosecutor to threaten to stop accepting any of his cases.

But it wasn’t until last fall, when the Brattleboro Police Department received allegations connecting him to an alleged drug dealer, that Wilson saw himself on the verge of losing the one thing that makes officers like him so valuable to the judicial system: his credibility.

Yet somehow, amid a system designed to ensure the integrity of some of society’s most powerful public agents, Essex apparently remained unaware of the accusations right up through the day it offered him the job.

They eventually caught up to him: Wilson resigned from Essex in March after only three months on the force, unable to shake the Brattleboro allegations even as he remains free of any wrongdoing in the eyes of the law.

But while doubts about Wilson’s character festered behind the scenes, Brattleboro officials offered no reason why Essex shouldn’t hire him, according to Chief Rick Garey, who said neither the county’s state’s attorney nor the Brattleboro police chief shared any concerns about Wilson when asked.

In fact, Garey recently told The Reporter, Brattleboro Chief Michael Fitzgerald didn’t disclose any questions about Wilson’s credibility, nor did he tell Garey that Brattleboro was investigating the officer that very moment. Instead, Fitzgerald told Garey he’d hire Wilson back in a second.

Six months later, it’s Garey’s turn to face questions about Wilson and how Essex could have missed such glaring concerns — ones that could have torpedoed any case Wilson touched, and which ultimately led to the officer’s departure.

The way the chief tells it, Essex did everything it could.

“When you’re not getting all the information, and you’re not getting the truth, it makes it hard to make good decisions,” Garey said. “We can only work with the facts we get.”

ALLEGATIONS

Nearly two months before Essex hired Wilson, the Brattleboro Police Department knew its officer had been accused of criminal behavior, emails obtained in a public records request show.

The allegations, detailed in a September 2018 letter from Windham County State’s Attorney Tracy Shriver to the department, were uncovered by the Brattleboro Reformer earlier this year.

The letter focused on Wilson’s former landlord, Lorenzo Deconnick, who is currently facing federal drug charges in Massachusetts. According to the letter, Deconnick told authorities that Wilson knew he was using drugs and had divulged information about ongoing police cases. He said Wilson had once written “for cocaine” in his rent check memo line.

Even worse, a source whose name was redacted from the letter told authorities that Wilson had become Deconnick’s “fixer” by helping his associates who found themselves in “legal difficulties.”

Wilson, through his attorney, Craig Nolan, declined to be interviewed for this story. Speaking to The Reporter in April, Nolan called the allegations“ false and defamatory.”

To Shriver, who later shared a condensed version of her letter with defense attorneys in the county, the claims were yet another red mark against the Brattleboro cop.

In December 2017, Shriver reported Wilson to his superiors after he asked a judge for a search warrant without first answering her questions about promises made to an informant. Shriver learned through a department press release that police carried out the warrant before she signed off.

A copy of Windham County State’s Attorney Tracy Shriver’s letter to the Brattleboro Police Department in September 2018 that detailed allegations against Wilson made by his former landlord, Lorenzo Deconnick, who claimed Wilson had revealed details about police investigations to him.

Brattleboro Cpt. Mark Carignan, Wilson’s supervisor, accepted responsibility and blamed the incident on a miscommunication, emails show. But Shriver was adamant that Wilson willfully circumvented her authority.

As a result, Shriver implemented two new rules. First, unless Wilson produced written agreements with criminal informants, she would not accept such cases from him. Second, from there on out, Shriver would only discuss Wilson with the department in writing.

“If I have been unclear or veiled in my concerns about Officer Wilson, please allow me to be very explicit now,” Shriver wrote in a Dec. 4, 2017 email. “I am on the verge of refusing to accept any cases from him until further notice.”

Carignan’s emailed response shows he recognized the seriousness of Shriver’s decrees. He urged her to specify her concerns, noting that prosecutors generally only refuse cases when an officer’s “truthfulness or integrity has been called into question.”

It’s unknown what, if any, measures BPD took to address Shriver’s concerns from 2017. Shriver didn’t urge the department to investigate, and emails indicate Wilson seemingly fell off her radar until she learned of the Deconnick allegations a year later. But her forceful September 2018 letter spurred Brattleboro PD into action.

On Oct. 27, 2018, Carignan emailed Shriver to say he was leading an internal investigation and asked for more information about Wilson’s alleged wrongdoing. When Shriver didn’t respond for two weeks, Carignan emailed her again.

“Respectfully, your thorough responses to the questions in my original message would significantly increase the timeliness and efficacy of the investigation,” Carignan wrote on Nov. 8, 2018. Five days later, Essex Chief Garey spoke to his counterpart in Brattleboro about Wilson’s job application.

Garey said Fitzgerald never mentioned the internal probe.

The next day, Wilson had a new job.

CREDIBILITY

Essex was not completely unaware of Wilson’s storied past; the officer had disclosed parts of what was detailed in Shriver’s letter during his job interview, according to Garey. It was only when the chief read the letter the day after hiring Wilson, however, that he realized the extent of the allegations.

So Garey set out to see if he’d made a mistake. He called Shriver, who said her previous conflicts with Wilson had been resolved and, more importantly, confirmed that she’d still prosecute Wilson’s cases to this day, Garey said. With similar assurances from the Brattleboro chief, Garey didn’t rescind the offer.

But Wilson’s problems were far from over. A week after he was sworn in at EPD, Wilson’s new state’s attorney, Sarah George, learned of the allegations from Brattleboro. In a Dec. 17, 2018 email, the Chittenden County prosecutor told Garey, “As you can imagine, it is very concerning to me.”

“Happy to chat,” Garey responded. “But just so you know, we talked in-depth to both [Shriver] and [the Brattleboro] chief, who both told us they had no reason to believe he is ‘not credible,’ and it was based on their feedback that we agreed to hire him.”

Essex Police Chief Rick Garey speaks to the selectboard at a meeting last month. Garey says he was not informed of the allegations against Wilson prior to offering him a job last November (Photo by Colin Flanders).

Unable to investigate claims down in Brattleboro, Essex remained on standby for the next few months, Garey said, though the department still needed to decide what to do with its new officer.

Garey said he took “appropriate action,” weighing Wilson’s rights against the safety of citizens, and wouldn’t confirm if he put Wilson on leave. However, a partially redacted letter from Garey to Wilson, dated Jan. 10, 2019, clearly references a section of the police contract that deals with paid leave, suggesting Wilson’s status on the job eventually changed.

Meanwhile, George had her own dilemma: Refuse to bring Wilson’s cases to court and effectively deal a death blow to his tenure at EPD, or risk watching defense attorneys use the allegations to sow doubt in the minds of jurors.

It would be three months until she decided. In a letter to Garey on March 1, 2019, George said she was unsure if the allegations were corroborated but refused to accept Wilson’s cases nonetheless.

It’s unclear what informed George’s decision. She told The Reporter in an email that she felt there were enough questions about Wilson’s credibility to justify it but did not elaborate. And the letter itself provides little help: Half of the two-sentence dispatch was redacted.

Whatever finally forced George’s hand, her decision meant Wilson could no longer fulfill the duties of a police officer. A week later, he resigned.

ACT 56

Given their history of concerns, it’s unknown why Brattleboro officials didn’t mention Shriver’s letter to Garey. Shriver declined to comment on this story, and Chief Fitzgerald did not respond to repeated interview requests.

While Garey didn’t want to speculate, he did acknowledge the dangers of bad-mouthing someone to a prospective employer.

“You can’t talk honestly about it because you may get sued,” Garey said. “To me, that’s a problem. If it’s not a good employee, then you ought to be able to be open about those issues.

“There’s so much damn civil litigation nowadays, it makes people gunshy,” he added.

Situations like this were envisioned by a recent Vermont law, Act 56, that aims to increase accountability for police officers.

The law, which went into effect last July, requires municipal agencies to have an internal affairs program and conduct investigations into complaints regardless of their source.

“We knew from experience that marginal and outright bad officers were hopping from agency to agency, and we were seeing some of the same conduct occurring,” said Richard Gauthier, executive director of the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council. “We’re not talking big numbers, but this is a small state; it doesn’t take big numbers to have a negative impact.”

Act 56 makes it difficult for officers to spend a career ducking judgment as municipal agencies are now required to continue investigations even if the officer resigns. Agencies must then report their results to the council, which keeps a public register, giving police chiefs insight into officers’ previous complaints without relying on an employer to share those details, Gauthier said.

As long as chiefs check in with the council, that is. Garey never did.

Explaining the oversight, Garey said the register was not well advertised by the time it went into effect (The academy offered a training on the topic last month, and EPD’s background process now includes the check, Garey said.)

The council has done its best to explain the “intricacies” of Act 56, Gauthier said. But he has still heard from numerous police chiefs unaware of the new reporting requirements.

With Brattleboro police unwilling to discuss Wilson, it’s difficult to know when their investigation wrapped up. Carignan, the BPD captain, declined to tell the Brattleboro Reformer the outcome of the investigation when asked in April. Nor did he respond to a request for comment this week.

But even if Garey did check the register last fall, it wouldn’t have made a difference.

According to the chief, the council has no reports on Wilson to date. And Gauthier was unaware of any reports from Brattleboro within the last year.

 

‘A FAIR SHAKE’

Wilson managed to stay employed in law enforcement.

He now works as a traffic control officer under Franklin County Sheriff Roger Langevin, who told The Reporter last week he was well aware of the officer’s backstory: Wilson was upfront about the allegations and arrived with a “great” recommendation from Brattleboro, the sheriff said.

The job marks the third time in a year that a Vermont state’s attorney has had to confront the Deconnick allegations. In Franklin County, that duty rests in the hands of state’s attorney James Hughes, who first heard Wilson’s name when the sheriff called him several months ago.

Hughes said Langevin described the allegations as a silly mistake that “didn’t hurt anybody.” The state’s attorney only knew of the rent check anecdote;  it wasn’t until speaking with The Reporter on Monday that he learned the breadth of the allegations.

The fuller picture helped Hughes understand why there may have been a more substantial investigation, because according to the prosecutor, the Federal Bureau of Investigations had looked into Wilson.

But neither the FBI nor the U.S. Attorney’s office indicated they still had a pending case against him, Hughes said, adding it’s not unusual for federal agencies to never announce that a case is closed.“Because maybe, in somebody’s mind, it never is,” he said.

Given what Hughes learned through his digging, he saw no problem with Wilson fulfilling non-court-related duties – shifts along roadside construction and the occasional escort –  or, as the state’s attorney put it, “pothole guarding.”

 

This was welcome news to Langevin, who said he did his homework, too, and like the prosecutor, came up empty. Some of the sheriff’s federal contacts hadn’t even heard of Wilson, he said.

A spokesman for the federal prosecutor told The Reporter its office does not publicly confirm or deny the existence of investigations, but Langevin said federal authorities have always disclosed they’re investigating someone when he’s asked.

“More and more, this meant to me that this guy was either not getting a fair shake, or someone was out to get him,” Langevin said.

Indeed, the way Langevin sees it, Wilson hasn’t been treated fairly in his brief career. The sheriff noted Wilson is not the first officer he’s seen face unsubstantiated allegations, and said he believes Essex took the “easy way out.”

“It’s part of our job to have that thicker skin,” Langevin said.

Why should Wilson, a military veteran, have his law enforcement career stalled out due to allegations that no one can prove and, as far as anyone can tell, are not even being investigated? Faced with that question, Langevin felt he had no choice.

“I couldn’t find a reason to say no,” he said.

In traffic control, Wilson will likely have no involvement in criminal cases, especially drug-related ones, Langevin said. He expects to keep Wilson on that duty for the foreseeable future, partly because his patrol division is full. But he didn’t rule out moving Wilson into the law enforcement side down the road.

“I think he has the ability,” Langevin said.

Hughes, the Franklin County state’s attorney, had a more measured take. Until he receives information that exonerates – or condemns – the officer, he can’t say for sure when he’ll be comfortable bringing Wilson’s cases to court.

For now, Hughes said, he’s still “looking for answers.”

“I haven’t gotten a full story yet,” he said.