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Scandals, lawsuits leave Fall River Police Department in turmoil

Target 12

FALL RIVER, Mass. (WPRI) – When Fall River police officers Michael Pessoa and William Silvia arrested Aliecer Rodriguez in March 2018, Silvia wrote a report that accused Rodriguez of disorderly conduct, ignoring commands and resisting arrest.

A year later, while testifying under oath before a grand jury, then-Captain Jeffrey Cardoza said the actions described in Silvia’s report did not match video of the arrest he reviewed.

A transcript shows Michael Cahillane, Bristol County assistant district attorney, asked Cardoza: “Did [Silvia] write in his report … ‘after ignoring commands the back-up officer Pessoa instructed Mr. Rodriguez that he was under arrest and was going to pat frisk him when Mr. Rodriguez refused?’”

Cardoza replied, “Yes.”

“And did you see that on the video, sir?” Cahillane asked.

“I did not,” Cardoza replied.

“Did you hear those commands?” Cahillane asked.

“I did not,” Cardoza replied.

The questions and answers came during a closed-door grand jury hearing in June 2019. Grand jury proceedings are typically kept secret, but Target 12 obtained and independently confirmed a transcript of the hearing, which also included testimony from Rodriguez.

Rodriguez, a lifelong Fall River resident, told the grand jury he was taken to the ground and beaten by Pessoa for recording the interaction on his phone.

“I’m not sure if it was a hand or a knee but it was against my neck, and it kept pressing my face in a sense towards the ground,” he said. “And I was like ‘You’re hurting me.’ ‘You’re hurting me.’ And he just kept putting more pressure and more pressure.” 

The charges against Rodriguez have since been thrown out, and Pessoa is facing 15 felony criminal charges for falsifying police reports and beating up suspects, including Rodriguez. Silvia continues to arrest people and write reports for the city’s police force.

Cardoza — who has since been elevated to police chief — declined to comment on the Silvia report or his grand-jury testimony, citing Pessoa’s ongoing criminal case.

“Because this involves a pending criminal matter, it would be inappropriate for me or any other potential witness to comment,” he said in a statement.

Cardoza has spent decades on the city’s police force, but has served as chief for less than two years. His short tenure at the helm has been pockmarked with scandal, but the departmental problems long predate his leadership.

At least nine Fall River officers – including some top-ranking ones – have fallen under legal, departmental and public scrutiny for police misconduct in recent years, spurring internal turmoil and causing ripple effects across the region’s criminal justice system.

“The police are supposed to be doing the right thing,” Fall River defense attorney Sarah Emery told Target 12. “If they’re not, then the whole system doesn’t work the way it should.”

The Pessoa problem

The Pessoa indictment has been among the most problematic for the city, the department and the region’s top prosecutor.

Earlier this year, Emery convinced a judge to toss out drunk driving charges against one of her clients, who was arrested by Silvia in 2019, after the Bristol County District Attorney’s office failed to release documents and video associated with the Rodriguez case.

The grand jury testimony was cited in Emery’s court filing, and she argued Silvia’s history of writing at least one inconsistent police report should serve as evidence in all of his other cases.

“To not be able to trust, for the most part, what is going on is kind of unfortunate,” she said. “I find it disappointing.”

Target 12 reached out to Bristol County District Attorney Thomas Quinn III for comment on the Silvia case. His office declined to discuss the case, but immediately filed a motion in Emery’s now-dismissed drunk driving case, asking the judge to vacate the decision.

Assistant district attorneys Zachary Mercer and Patrick Bomberg argued Emery’s characterization that Silvia falsified the Rodriguez report was “not accurate,” adding that “the inaccuracy was known to counsel.” But the prosecutors didn’t offer any explanation for why it was inaccurate, and instead chastised Emery for publicly discussing grand jury proceedings.  

As for Pessoa himself, the officer pleaded not guilty to all charges against him, and his case is winding its way through the legal system. He’s accused of beating four people, including David Lafrance, another Fall River resident.

A 2019 surveillance video obtained by Target 12 shows Pessoa punching and wrestling Lafrance to the ground after officers removed one of his hands from handcuffs. In the arresting police report, Pessoa described the takedown as an “arm bar.” He’s now accused of falsifying that report.

Pessoa’s defense attorney, Frank Camera, argues the officer’s use of force was justified. He also blames the Fall River Police Department for turning its back on Pessoa and using him as “a scapegoat” because police departments and their officers have lost political support.

“His indictments are nothing more than a political stunt for which a public servant has been wrongly crucified,” Camera told Target 12.

But Emery’s drunk driving case highlights how police abuse of power affects peripheral cases in ways that are rarely noticed publicly because they play out in low-profile court filings. And in Fall River, Pessoa is hardly the only officer whose actions are causing disruption.

During the grand jury investigation into Pessoa, officers Thomas Roberts, Shawn Aguiar and Andrew DeMelo also admitted to filing false police reports, according to disclosure letters sent out to defense attorneys.

The officers’ involvement was first reported by the Fall River Herald News in 2019 after the newspaper obtained impounded court documents. Aguiar and Roberts were both given immunity in exchange of testifying against Pessoa. DeMelo didn’t testify and later resigned the same day Pessoa was indicted, according to the newspaper.

Since the grand jury investigation, Cahillane has sent letters out to defense attorneys notifying them about the officers involved. The subject line of the letters, obtained by Target 12, described the information as “Potentially Exculpatory Pretrial Discovery.”

In non-legalese terms, exculpatory evidence is information that could help prove the innocence of a defendant. 

The drug problem

The departmental problems don’t begin or end with the Pessoa case.

A Target 12 investigation last year revealed a group of Fall River police officers – including former Police Chief Albert Dupere – for years routinely called it quits around 2:30 p.m. on Fridays to meet for drinks at a downtown pub.

After spending multiple hours drinking, the officers would filter out, hop into cars and drive away. For Dupere, that often meant getting behind the wheel of a city-issued vehicle. He stepped down from his position as chief a day after Target 12 showed him undercover video documenting his activities.

“It doesn’t look good and it’s not proper,” Dupere said at the time about the drinking and driving. “You shouldn’t have even one drink and drive a city vehicle. I admit that.”

Dupere was never reprimanded publicly, and he remains in the department today as deputy chief, one rank below Cardoza. That dynamic has caused bitter infighting between Dupere and Cardoza loyalists inside the department, according to multiple interviews with officers who spoke on the condition of anonymity. And the internal strife in some cases is crippling the department’s ability to police the community effectively, those officers said.

Fast forward to earlier this year: a tip from a confidential informant led to the discovery of an alarming volume of undocumented illegal drugs found inside the desk and safes of a detective in the department’s vice and intelligence unit – which oversees drug investigations.

The detective, Joshua Robillard, was suspended nearly a month without pay, but the internal investigation concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to charge him criminally. The drugs — which included heroin, cocaine and enough fentanyl to kill 2,000 people — were not tagged as evidence in any specific cases, according to a city-commissioned internal investigation.

“I find that the presence of the significant quantity of drugs, particularly with no case nexus, to be very troubling,” wrote former Fall River Police Chief John Souza, who the city hired to run the investigation.

The mishandled drugs cast a cloud over all of Robillard’s investigations, arrests and resulting convictions during his roughly eight years on the vice squad. The former detective, who has since been reassigned to a non-investigatory role inside the department, admitted to storing the undocumented drugs.

When asked why he didn’t submit the drugs into evidence, he told investigators that’s the “way he was taught” inside the vice squad. But he refused to disclose who taught him, saying only it was done by “everyone affiliated with the unit that had years on prior to me.” A second officer in the vice unit, Sgt. Luis Duarte, was also disciplined for mishandling drug evidence.

Quinn said in August his office had to send letters to defense attorneys in more than 50 cases involving Robillard, notifying them of his actions similar to what happened with the Pessoa case. At the time, Quinn said he was skeptical the number would increase by much more.

As of last week, the number had risen at least 40% to more than 70 cases, according to Quinn spokesperson Gregg Miliote. Still, the county’s top prosecutor has stood by the casework coming out of the Fall River Police Department, saying he’s not worried about the ongoing problems.

“I don’t have any concerns,” Quinn told Target 12 in August. “In any walk of life, in any profession, there are issues with individuals. Like anybody, those issues have to be dealt with fairly. That’s what we have done and will continue to do.”

His response didn’t play well with the Committee for Public Counsel Services’ Public Defender Division in Boston. The defense attorneys group issued a statement following Quinn’s interview with Target 12, criticizing him for in their view downplaying the legal implications of Robillard’s actions.

The group likened the Robillard issue to the scandals involving Annie Dookhan and Sonja Farak, Massachusetts chemists who tampered with drug evidence. The chemists have since been convicted, and tens of thousands of drug cases have been tossed out across the state.

Quinn’s office has called the characterization unfair and last week claimed no cases have been dismissed or dropped because of Robillard. But defense attorneys interviewed by Target 12 have challenged that, saying Robillard has stopped showing up in court for multiple drug cases in which he was the arresting officer.

Target 12 has reviewed two recent cases that were dismissed after Robillard didn’t show up at hearings in which he was expected to testify, according to multiple interviews with defense attorneys. And the former detective – who was put on desk duty after the drug scandal – has recently stopped coming to work because he was “injured on duty,” or IOD.

“Officer Joshua Robillard is currently out of work due to an on-duty injury (IOD status),” Captain Barden Castro told Target 12 in an email last week. “I was told that he sustained an injury while manipulating a door to one of the cells.”  

Political, money problems

The woes of the police department have extended beyond the legal system and into politics, with city candidates accusing each other of politicizing scandals ahead of local elections earlier this month.

One of the scandals that came into focus on the campaign trail involved Cardoza, after the chief last December removed two boxes of mishandled evidence from the former home of officer Steven Washington.

Washington’s ex-wife and unsuccessful City Council candidate, Laura Washington, alerted Cardoza to the boxes, asking him to come and retrieve them from her home. Police later discovered the boxes contained sexual assault investigative files, along with a bag of crack cocaine and a bag of powder cocaine that had been tagged as evidence but never submitted into the department’s drug locker, according to an internal report reviewed by Target 12.

The internal report concluded the mishandling of evidence was a mistake and that a subsequent “verbal counseling” with Washington “served as proper discipline.”

“I believe the transparent nature and evidence steps take by all command staff were all lawful and in accordance with the rules/regulations and policies of the Fall River Police Department,” Captain Paul Gauvin wrote in a report. “They were also in accordance with the orders, direct and implied, given by the Chief of Police.”

Mayor Paul Coogan appointed Cardoza as chief after Dupere stepped down last year. The second-term mayor, a Democrat who just won re-election, said he’s concerned by some of his officers’ actions and how they are affecting legal cases. But he described himself as a “very forgiving” person who believes in second chances.

“People make mistakes,” he said. “You can either throw them to the side and move on, or you look at their faults and you address them.”

Coogan also offered praise for Cardoza, saying the chief stepped into a tough situation – both because of the department’s pre-existing problems and the coronavirus pandemic that emerged almost immediately after he took the helm.

“You do have some bad actors and some people get themselves in positions that they shouldn’t be,” he told Target 12. “But to clean that up in a year and a half or two years is near impossible. People have to just keep working, go forward and do the best they can.”

However, the alleged beatings, false police reports and mishandling of drug evidence is costing city taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in civil rights lawsuits.

In one case, the city agreed to pay $225,000 in a 2019 settlement to Carlos Roldan, who filed a civil rights lawsuit accusing Pessoa and DeMelo of using excessive force and breaking his leg during an arrest.

Last November, Kimberly Vieira filed a federal lawsuit against the city, Pessoa and a second officer. According to the lawsuit, she was put into handcuffs after Pessoa got mad at her for recording him on her cell phone.

After stuffing Vieira into a police vehicle, Pessoa grabbed the back of her head and started “repeatedly slamming her face down to hit hard against her knee, slamming her against the seat of the vehicle and choking her with his hands and/or arm around her neck and throat,” according to the complaint. 

When Vieira was booked at the police department, according to the lawsuit, she asked another police officer to protect her from Pessoa.

According to the lawsuit, that officer replied: “If you don’t shut up, [expletive], I’m going to assault you next.”

The lawsuit settled in April.

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 managing editor and chief investigative reporter at 12 News, and the host of Newsmakers. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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