HAVERHILL — Midway through the felony trial of former Bristol Police Chief Michael Lewis, the state last week dropped charges that Lewis falsified his hours on grant-funded police details, in exchange for Lewis paying $9,000 to the town of Bristol.
Lewis and his attorney, Eric Wilson, maintain that the agreement was not a “settlement” — which Wilson said implies guilt — but, rather, a business decision.
“He could pay $9,000 and guarantee the case is dismissed, or pay his lawyer $15,000-$20,000 to carry the trial out through the week,” Wilson said, adding that he was confident they would have won at the conclusion of the trial.
Grafton County Attorney Marcie Hornick, who prosecuted the case, had a different perspective on the agreement.
“The charges are on hold,” she said. “They are conditionally nol prossed, on the condition that he pay the $9,000 and remain on good behavior for two years. Technically, the case is still pending. … If, for some reason, Lewis failed to comply with the conditions — which I think is unlikely — we would bring the charges back and start the trial all over again.”
Lewis said, “It came down to simple mathematics. I have no doubt that this trial, just like the trial before, was going to be a swift deliberation.”
He said that, while leaving court, nine of the 15 jurors hearing the case came up to him and shook his hand.
“They made reference to the fact that they did not feel I was guilty by any stretch of the imagination. One of them resides in Bridgewater and said there are serious issues that go on in that community [Bristol] that are concerning.”
Lewis maintains that the charges against him were fabricated to get rid of him.
Saying he has waited two years to be able to speak out, Lewis attributed his problems to a meeting with Bristol selectmen during Motorcycle Week in June 2017. At that meeting, selectmen complained that Bristol’s police department was the only local agency not represented at regional meetings to discuss the drug epidemic, and they asked him or a designee to attend an upcoming session. Lewis responded that he would “skip the danish” and instead put “boots on the ground” in support of his officers as they dealt with the crisis.
“It was crystal clear after that meeting that my fate would be similar to my two predecessors and the fire chief,” Lewis said. “You cross the path of Rick Alpers [then chair of the Bristol Board of Selectmen] and your days are numbered. Less than 90 days later, I was placed on paid administrative leave.”
Lewis resigned as police chief on Oct. 4, 2017, 30 days after he was placed on leave, and Bristol selectmen said they discovered discrepancies in his time sheets while reviewing internal personnel policies after his departure.
A Grafton County Superior Court Grand Jury handed up three felony indictments against Lewis on June 15, 2018, under Hornick’s predecessor, but she nol prossed the charges and refiled the paperwork, leading to two replacement felony indictments against Lewis on Feb. 15 of this year. The indictments alleged that Lewis had claimed overtime hours he had not worked during the period of July 2012 and December 2014, and between January 2016 and December 2017, each time involving more than $1,500.
The overtime patrols in question were paid through New Hampshire Highway Safety Agency grants.
Lewis also was charged with three alternate counts of misdemeanor sexual assault for an alleged incident on Aug. 31, 2017, that led to his being placed on administrative leave.
The sexual assault trial in May led to Lewis’ acquittal on those charges. Audio recordings from that trial show that Wilson elicited testimony from Lt. Timothy Woodward that he and Lt. Kristopher Bean wanted Lewis gone, and that Woodward hoped to get the chief’s job. The alleged victim of sexual assault was Woodward’s wife, Nicole, and it was Bristol Selectman Rick Alpers who filed the complaint.
Among the evidence that Wilson introduced was a text message from Bristol Town Administrator Nik Coates urging Lewis to pursue an opening with the Moultonborough Police Department “before Rick [Alpers] takes you out.” That message was sent shortly before the selectmen placed Lewis on paid administrative leave.
While on the witness stand, Woodward admitted he did not follow municipal procedures calling for him to report the alleged inappropriate touching to either Human Resources or to the town administrator. While Woodward initially testified that he attempted to find them but they weren’t in their offices, he later admitted that he went directly to Alpers at the selectmen’s home on the weekend, and that Alpers advised Woodward and his wife to file written complaints.
The police department's administrative secretary later testified that Woodward and Bean were reviewing the recordings of the witness interviews that had been conducted by Grafton County investigators. Woodward acknowledged that doing so violated police procedures and that, as the department's prosecutor, he was aware of the infraction.
Together, Wilson argued, the missteps proved that there was a plot to oust the chief and that the Woodwards, along with Bean, collaborated with Alpers to achieve that goal.
In her closing arguments, Hornick asked, “What difference does it make whether they like Mike Lewis? Really, what difference does it make if they didn’t follow policy? … The elements of the case are: He placed his hand on her butt. … This is a crime.”
The jury had 10 minutes to deliberate before lunch, and came back 17 minutes after lunch with a not guilty verdict.
On Aug. 26, the first day of the felony trial, Attorney Wilson again introduced Coates’ text message to Lewis, suggesting that he pursue the Moultonborough job “before Rick takes you out.”
The next day, Aug. 27, during Wilson’s cross-examination of police Lt. Kristopher Bean, the attorney introduced paperwork showing that Bean’s accounting of his time on the special highway details also did not match dispatch records, which was the basis for the felony indictment against Lewis.
Officers doing highway safety patrols are supposed to call in to dispatch when they are starting the patrols, and each time they pull over a vehicle. Wilson said that Lewis’ witness list included a former dispatch supervisor from Franklin who was prepared to testify that, on busy weekends, the officers did not always call in their stops so they would not overwhelm the dispatchers.
Wilson produced records showing that Bean had claimed time for work hours that, according to dispatch, he was not on patrol, and that his recorded traffic stops were double the number (four instead of two) he actually reported to the Franklin Police Department, which dispatches for Bristol.
Hornick objected to the line of questioning and the judge ended that day’s session. Before Bean returned to the witness stand the next morning, the attorneys met in the judge’s chambers and reached the agreement to drop the charges in exchange for the $9,000 payment.
Hornick explained her reason for dropping the felony charges: “I think that, in the end, I’m always interested in trying to make a victim whole, so when his attorney offered to pay that amount, I wanted to help Bristol get its money back.”
Hornick said Lewis also pleaded guilty to a breach of bail conditions and contempt of court after having been found to be in possession of guns. He received a suspended $1,000 fine on that charge.
Hornick said there are no pending charges against Woodward and Bean, as any alleged improper conduct on their part would have been outside the scope of Grafton County’s investigation.
“Our investigation was focused on the chief,” she said. “Had there been discrepancies that the town administration asked us to look into, we would follow up with them.”
Wilson said that, if there is an issue with an officer’s credibility, it is the police chief’s obligation to investigate and make a determination whether there is an issue. If there is, the chief places the officer’s name on the Attorney General’s Exculpatory Evidence Schedule, formerly known as the Laurie List. The list currently is confidential, although the American Civil Liberties Union and several news organizations have been pressing to make those names public. The purpose of the list to let defense attorneys know if an officer involved in a case has credibility problems.
Bristol’s current police chief, James McIntire, gave a terse response to an inquiry, writing, “I would not be able to comment, nor would I.”
Hornick commented, “I feel bad for all parties. The criminal justice system is not a perfect system, but it’s time to move on and let the police department do its stuff.”