SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (AP) — A total of 14 current and former Springfield police officers now face charges in an attack on a group of civilians that followed a barroom argument almost four years ago.
The new charges announced Wednesday by state Attorney General Maura Healeys office and the FBIs Boston office involve an altercation outside Nathan Bills bar on April 8, 2015, and accusations that there was a subsequent attempt to cover it up.
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Six of the officers had previously been charged with assault and battery. Another seven current officers, one former officer and a bar manager were charged Wednesday with misleading investigators, filing false police reports and perjury.
Wednesdays indictments stem from an April 2015 confrontation that began inside Nathan Bills Bar & Restaurant, when one of the black men whistled at a bartender to get her attention. One off-duty officer thought the man was whistling at his girlfriend, an officer who was also off duty at the time, according to a federal civil rights lawsuit brought by the four black men
Investigators say the off-duty officers had a dispute with four other bar patrons. Authorities say the officers later attacked the men in a nearby parking lot. The bar owner was also charged.
Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno said he and Acting Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood would continue to root out bad police officers.
Needless to say, this is not a good day for our Springfield Police Department, Sarno said in a statement. Police officers are held to a higher standard.
All officers will be placed on unpaid suspension, according to Marian Sullivan, Sarnos spokeswoman.
Last year, Springfield agreed to pay $885,000 to settle federal civil rights lawsuits brought by the victims in the attack.
Healeys office has said the victims sustained significant injuries from the attack and that a number of the officers had used weapons.
The attorney general said that one bar owner misled the F.B.I. during the investigation, and that many of the officers filed false police reports while the investigation was ongoing. They then lied in their testimony to the state grand jury, the attorney general said.
Gallery: Springfield police officers indicted in alleged off-duty beating of civilians after barroom argument
Wednesdays indictment of 14 current and former Springfield Police officers in connection with the alleged 2015 beating of four men near Nathan Bills Bar and Restaurant left many questions unanswered.
Among the most pressing: How did the Office of Attorney General Maura Healey secure those indictments nearly four years after the incident, when local investigations had not produced any criminal charges?
The exact evidence collected by the AGs Office remains unknown, shrouded by the secrecy of its year-long grand jury and obscured by the vague criminal complaints the office has used to charge several officers with assault and conspiracy.
But in a statement responding to criticism from Springfield City Council President Justin Hurst, the Office of Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni said it had deliberately referred the case to state and federal investigators in October of 2016.
In September, the City of Springfield agreed to pay $885,000 to settle the federal civil rights lawsuits brought by the four black men. The city of 155,000 people has about 480 police officers.
The District Attorney found the victims to be credible and to have suffered serious injury. The facts known at the time as relayed by the victims themselves did not offer clarity as to who perpetrated the attacks and therefore charges could not be brought,” spokesman James Leydon said of Gullunis decision not to bring charges in February of 2017.
This office then referred the case to both the U.S. Attorneys Office and the Massachusetts Attorney Generals Office in October of 2016 for a review of the larger circumstances of the incident, Leydon continued. “These agencies have the scope and available resources to investigate a matter of this kind and, in fact, subsequently discovered evidence with which the Hampden District Attorneys Office was not furnished and now forms the basis of the indictments issued yesterday.
And that subsequently discovered evidence includes video footage from a Bank of America near the bar that was not obtained by the Springfield Police investigators or the DAs Office during the initial investigation, MassLive has learned.
Fourteen Springfield police officers indicted in alleged off-duty beating of civilians after 2015 barroom argument
The officers are accused of participating in or covering up an attack on four Springfield men following a dispute at Nathan Bills Bar and Restaurant.
After one of the alleged victims filed a civilian complaint, the department launched both internal and criminal investigations of the incident. Internal Investigations Unit Sgt. William Andrew was the first investigator to canvass the area for video footage, from the strip mall that houses Nathan Bills to the nearby parking lot where the fight took place, he told MassLive in an interview.
He found that a Bank of America adjacent to the bar had a camera pointed at the parking lot and requested a copy of relevant footage from the bank, he said. He received one angle of video from the banks ATM, which would become the sole video evidence relied on by IIU, the departments Major Crimes Unit and the DAs Office during its review of whether to press charges.
Andrew, who is now retired, said he could not remember whether he asked for all video possessed by the bank, or just from the one camera he noticed, he told MassLive.
In his IIU report, Andrew noted a timeline of the video, writing that while it showed people leaving the bar shortly before the fight the footage was too fuzzy to make out any faces.
A source familiar with the departments criminal investigation told MassLive that the Major Crimes Unit got its copy of the video from Andrew and did not send an additional request to Bank of America, believing the bank had already provided all the footage it had. Major Crimes Unit investigators sent the video to the FBI to see if it could be enhanced to aid identifications but did not get results, the source said.
It was not until late 2017 that Andrew was called in for an interview with the FBI, he said — and learned that there were other angles of video from the banks drive-thru lanes that he had not obtained during his investigation. An agent asked him why he had not obtained the other videos, which he did not know existed at the time, he told MassLive.
From the location of the Bank of America, even the additional footage would not show footage of the fight itself. But it could show clearer images of who walked toward the group of civilians in the moments before the altercation.
The decision to refer the case came in October 2016, around the same time that the public first learned about the Nathan Bills case and the abusive interrogation by Springfield Police Det. Gregg Bigda, who has since been federally indicted in a separate case. The DAs Office said the referral stemmed from internal discussions about the Bigda and Nathan Bills cases and was not a response to media coverage.
In an interview in February 2017, when Gulluni announced that he would not bring charges in the case, he told MassLive that while his office had interviewed the alleged victims it had not conducted its own fact-finding investigation. Rather, it relied on the investigation and evidence provided by Springfield police — including the ATM video — which did not provide clear enough identifications to support charges, he said at the time.
In April of 2017, FBI agents spoke to the alleged victims and showed them video footage of the Nathan Bills parking lot, said Jackie Ligon, one of the men allegedly beaten in the 2015 fight.
In addition to Wednesdays indictments, six officers and Nathan Bills co-owner John Sullivan have already been charged with assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and conspiracy in Springfield District Court.
In those criminal complaints, the AGs Office has said the evidence against them includes victim statements, witness statements, cellular records and video tape evidence.
All the officers charged so far have pleaded not guilty, with the attorney for Officer Daniel Billingsley saying that the alleged victims were actually the aggressors in the attack.
And after Sullivans district court arraignment last month, Sullivans attorney questioned the length of time it has taken for the case to result in charges.
This incident was investigated by multiple agencies – including the U.S. Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Hampden County District Attorney – and each one declined to prosecute, attorney Jared Olanoff said. “To think that after four years the state attorney general has some better knowledge or understanding of the facts of this case than the DOJ or FBI is unrealistic.
Hampden DA Anthony Gullunis decision not to charge Springfield cops before indictments was a dereliction of duties, council president Justin Hurst says
Justin Hurst, the council president, issued the scathing statement one day after the state attorney generals office secured indictments against one dozen Springfield police officers, a trooper who formerly worked for Springfield police and a retired Springfield police sergeant in connection with the alleged attack on a group of men outside Nathan Bills Bar and Restaurant in April 2015.