Holiday video from Big Y aired in Pittsfield officer's assault trial
PITTSFIELD — The fate of an off-duty city police officer and another man accused of assault could hinge on a surveillance video taken on Independence Day in 2016.
The video calls into question the events of the night of July 4 as described by Jason LaBelle. He and Officer Michael McHugh are on trial in Berkshire Superior Court for allegedly assaulting and beating LaBelle's estranged father-in-law, Michael Cebula.
Cebula, 57, of Dalton, spent over a week in a hospital with fractured ribs and a broken vertebrae, and then filed a criminal complaint against the two men.
A large part of Tuesday's testimony focused on the surveillance video that was taken in the Big Y Express store on West Street, which appears to contradict some of the information that LaBelle gave to police.
In a statement to police, LaBelle, 39, described a confrontation at the end of his driveway in which Cebula was the aggressor. He claims that Cebula, who no longer was welcome at his home, drove up to it with the headlights of his truck turned off around 9:15 p.m.
LaBelle was taking out the trash at the time and said Cebula knew where the sensors were in his driveway, and walked around them to avoid setting them off. According to LaBelle, Cebula then took a swing at him, and LaBelle claims that he defended himself and put Cebula on the ground.
LaBelle said that while Cebula was struggling and kicking, he hit him in the right rib cage area two or three times with his knee and described the amount of force he used as a seven on a scale of one to 10. He said he then put Cebula back in his truck and told him to leave.
Around 9:18 p.m., LaBelle called police and gave them the truck's plate number. During that call, LaBelle made no mention of the incident in his driveway. During an interview with police, LaBelle said he also didn't mention the altercation to McHugh when he enlisted his help to keep Cebula away from the neighborhood. He said he didn't want to bother McHugh and his family with more of their business than he already had.
McHugh was off-duty from his job as a Pittsfield Police officer that night. He was placed on unpaid suspension in August 2017, after his indictment and a civil service hearing.
The surveillance video from the Big Y shows Cebula buying cigarettes and leaving around 9:40 p.m. The video was of interest to police because it seemed to dispute LaBelle's characterization of events, according to Pittsfield Police Lt. Jeffrey Bradford, who was part of the initial investigation into Cebula's claims.
Bradford testified Tuesday that the video shows Cebula walking normally.
"He didn't appear to be walking like someone who had received a seven-out-of-ten beating," Bradford said.
Under cross-examination by LaBelle's attorney, Timothy Burke, Bradford acknowledged that Cebula is partially obscured in the video and there was no attempt to see if there was video from any other cameras.
Burke suggested that Cebula might have entered the store looking more like he had been assaulted, as his client had stated, and cleaned himself up in the store's bathroom before coming back into the camera's view.
Cebula returned to LaBelle's neighborhood after that and parked in a driveway near LaBelle's property.
LaBelle contends that he enlisted McHugh's help in dealing with Cebula, who had been exhibiting concerning behavior, including making threatening statements and seeking to purchase a handgun and silencer. LaBelle said Cebula blamed him for problems in his life and LaBelle feared that he was out to kill him.
Cebula testified that, after an afternoon of drinking and feeling like he'd "lost everything in the world," he drove to the neighborhood twice, once before and once after the Big Y stop, in hopes of catching a glimpse of any of his family that might be gathered at LaBelle's home.
LaBelle said Cebula, who had no legitimate reason to be in the area, showed up at least four times that night.
Cebula subsequently was charged with operating under the influence but was acquitted at trial.
Burke and McHugh's attorney, Timothy Shugrue, have used the fact that Cebula lied at that trial about how much he had to drink that day to call into question the validity of his accounts of that night and the events leading up to it.
McHugh has pleaded not guilty to charges of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, assault and battery, misleading a police officer and being a public employee making a false report. Labelle has pleaded not guilty to charges of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, assault and battery, falsely reporting a crime, misleading a judge and misleading a clerk.
Special Prosecutor Steven Gagne might rest his case Wednesday, and jurors might be able to begin their deliberations as early as Thursday.
The case is being heard before Judge John Agostini.
Bob Dunn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @BobDunn413 on Twitter and 413-496-6249.
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