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Dalton taps outside investigator to probe Police Department handling of a rape case

Dalton Town Hall (copy)

An outside investigator from Boston has been hired to examine how the Dalton Police Department handled a 2018 rape case investigation under the leadership of former Chief Jeffrey E. Coe. 

DALTON — A former investigator for the Massachusetts State Police will lead a probe into how the Dalton Police Department, under former Chief Jeffrey E. Coe, handled a rape case that was dropped last month by prosecutors.

Outside help is needed because Police Chief Deanna Strout opted to recuse herself from the investigation. The probe is expected to include a wider review of the department’s past investigative practices.

Town Manager Thomas Hutcheson said Dalton will pay a Boston investigator, Steven P. Fennessy, up to $10,000 to conduct the inquiry. Fennessy is a former deputy division commander for the Division of Investigative Services for the state police. He runs Colando Investigative Services, at 36 Granville St. in Boston.

On Nov. 15, the Berkshire District Attorney’s Office filed court papers to discontinue prosecution in a 2018 rape case involving a 13-year-old alleged victim. The office acted after learning the weekend before that exculpatory information intentionally was left out of a police report.

According to the officer involved, he removed material recovered from the alleged victim’s cellphone at Coe’s request.

“It was a purposeful destruction of evidence,” Andrea Harrington, the Berkshire district attorney, said in an earlier interview. “We no longer have the phone. We no longer have the evidence, which is really the key for us in having to dismiss this charge.”

Harrington said her office believes that Coe, who left his post in 2020, told an officer to remove information from a report related to the phone’s web search history. Attempts to reach Coe for comment have been unsuccessful.

Strout initially began an internal probe, but decided, on Nov. 16, to seek permission from the town manager to have an outside party run the investigation. She said Thursday that while she believes she could have conducted the inquiry, she wanted to ensure that it is viewed as impartial.

“I felt it was best for an outside person who had no bias,” she said. “I felt that with everything that had gone on, that would be our best option for transparency and fairness,” she said, citing current litigation.

The town is being sued in U.S. District Court by the mother of a Dalton woman who died by suicide in late 2019; the complaint alleges that police failed to properly respond to a concerns that the woman, Sherilyn Hayes, planned to kill herself.

Strout said she has turned over initial work on the matter of the 2018 rape investigation to Fennessy.

“We need to get to the bottom of the concerns,” Strout said. “Let him do his job.”

Harrington’s office asked that the review examine whether evidence was withheld from other cases handled by the department, beyond the 2018 rape case. Strout was sworn in as chief in February. She had been out because of an injury at the time the rape was reported in 2018.

“They want to know whether this is more than a one-time event. There’s a little more to it,” Strout said in a Nov. 15 interview.

The missing material was exculpatory because it could have helped lead a judge or jury to find the defendant not guilty. Exculpatory evidence must be shared with defense attorneys. It was not, in this case, leading the DA’s office to drop charges, according to Harrington’s office.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com and 413-588-8341.

Managing editor for innovation

Larry Parnass joined The Eagle in 2016 from the Daily Hampshire Gazette, where he was editor in chief. His freelance work has appeared in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Hartford Courant, CommonWealth Magazine and with the Reuters news service.

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