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TEWKSBURY

Lawsuit alleges police coercion

Assault victim names town, chief

Email|Print| Text size + By Connie Paige
Globe Correspondent / December 16, 2007

A Tewksbury woman has sued the town, its police chief, and a former police dispatcher alleging that the local police tried to intimidate her to keep her from pursuing a criminal complaint against the dispatcher following his drunken sexual assault on her four years ago.

The dispatcher, Neil McLaughlin, 53, was found guilty of indecent assault and was fired in August from his police job. McLaughlin, who is a relative of the woman, is serving a 2 1/2-year term at the Billerica House of Correction.

In the lawsuit filed in Middlesex Superior Court, the woman alleges police tried to dissuade her from making a criminal complaint against her attacker since early on in the case and later arrested and charged her with overly serious offenses following a domestic dispute with relatives. Prosecutors later dropped the charges.

The woman, whose name is being withheld because the Globe does not identify victims of sex crimes unless they request it, is seeking unspecified monetary damages in her lawsuit. She could not be reached for comment.

Her lawyer, Mark Itzkowitz, declined to comment for this story, as did town officials. Leonard Kesten, an attorney for the town, said he is in discussions with Itzkowitz to see whether they can reach a resolution on the lawsuit.

"It's a very sad story," Kesten said, declining to comment further.

Jeffrey Higgins, McLaughlin's lawyer in his criminal trial, said he believes the jury convicted his client largely because of a taped conversation between McLaughlin and the victim's mother, in which he acknowledged some wrongdoing in the Aug. 31, 2003, incident.

"It was a killer," Higgins said. "Without the tape, he probably would have gotten not guilty on everything."

On the tape, McLaughlin made "a number of incriminating admissions" and told the mother that "the reason [the victim] is even making this complaint is because I did it," according to a press release from the Middlesex County district attorney's office.

Higgins said he believes the tape was recorded illegally and should not have been admitted into evidence at the trial and that it probably will figure in McLaughlin's appeal. Adriana Contartese, McLaughlin's attorney for the appeal, would not comment on either the appeal or the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges negligence by the town, its Police Department, and Police Chief Alfred Donovan for failing to investigate the victim's allegation against McLaughlin and for arresting, jailing, and prosecuting her following the subsequent family dispute. The complaint also cites the town for negligence in hiring, retaining, and supervising Donovan and McLaughlin, who was a temporary civilian dispatcher for the Police Department at the time. McLaughlin, whose sister is married to Donovan, was made a permanent dispatcher in April 2004.

The lawsuit, filed Dec. 7, contends that the town, Donovan, and McLaughlin violated the victim's civil rights; that Donovan and McLaughlin slandered her; and that Donovan interfered with her employment by arresting her at her workplace.

The lawsuit says that, the day after the August 2003 assault, the victim, then 21, agreed to let her mother discuss the incident with McLaughlin and Donovan; the mother then told the victim that they had all agreed to keep the matter "in the family."

The lawsuit says that, during an argument that year at a family Christmas gathering, McLaughlin denied the assault and questioned the victim's credibility, but the victim's mother telephoned McLaughlin and taped the conversation in which he allegedly confirmed some wrongdoing.

The lawsuit alleges that Donovan later tried to "coerce" the victim into not pressing the case against McLaughlin by threatening her mother with arrest if she "produced and/or played the tape."

The Police Department did refer the case to the Middlesex County district attorney's office in January 2004 following an internal investigation, according to the prosecutor's office. But the case stalled when the victim indicated she had second thoughts about testifying against McLaughlin, prosecutors said.

In December 2004, the lawsuit alleges, the Police Department put more pressure on the victim to drop the case by arresting her and charging her with several serious offenses following the family dispute.

The lawsuit says that after a funeral "mercy meal," a fight broke out among the victim, her mother, and two aunts.

McLaughlin dispatched police to the scene, and the victim was charged with assault and battery on her mother.

The next day, according to the lawsuit, Donovan went to the day-care center where the victim worked and arrested her on two additional counts of assault and battery against her aunts and with two counts of mayhem.

The victim was subsequently fired from her job.

Not long afterward, the Middlesex County district attorney's office dismissed all the charges against the victim.

In March 2005, an attorney for the victim revisited the sexual assault case with the district attorney's office, and a grand jury indicted McLaughlin in September 2005.

In July this year, McLaughlin was convicted of one count each of assault with intent to rape and indecent assault and battery on a person over 14. A jury acquitted him of rape. He was sentenced to serve 2 1/2 years in the Billerica House of Correction and was fired from his dispatcher's job the following month.

At the trial, Higgins said, Donovan denied any attempt to suppress the tape containing McLaughlin's admission of wrongdoing.

Town Manager David Cressman said last week he had not seen the woman's lawsuit and could not comment on it. He said Donovan has been instructed by town counsel not to comment.

Connie Paige can be reached at cpaige@globe.com.

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