By ANDY KIRKALDY
VERGENNES — Vergennes Police Chief Mike Lowe was placed on paid administrative leave Tuesday by City Manager Mel Hawley while Vermont State Police investigate Lowe for driving under the influence of prescription drugs.
Hawley took that action following Sunday afternoon’s incident in which Lowe, 50, was processed by VSP for DUI after the police cruiser he was operating struck a parked car on School Street in a slow-speed accident.
Lowe has yet to be charged with a crime, but according to a VSP press release, Senior Trooper Mark Busier, who responded to the accident at the request of city part-time office Robert Worley, “observed that Chief Lowe was displaying signs of possible impairment. There was no indication of alcohol consumption. Further investigation revealed that the Chief had consumed prescribed prescription medication.”
VSP Captain Donald Patch declined to identify the prescription drugs at a Tuesday afternoon press conference, but said they had been prescribed to Lowe. The release stated that a “drug recognition expert,” identified at the press conference as Trooper Todd Ambrose from the VSP’s Middlesex barracks, conducted “field sobriety tests and evaluation (that) indicated that Chief Lowe was under the influence of drugs.”
Patch also said that Lowe, who he said “has cooperated fully with our investigation,” acknowledged that he had taken prescription drugs.
“That was part of the investigation by the trooper on the scene of the accident ... I believe it was part of the questioning during the process,” Patch said.
Police took a blood sample from Lowe for testing. A Tuesday VSP press release said, “The case is pending the toxicology results,” which Patch said typically takes two to four weeks to process.
Any possible prosecution will be handled by the Executive Director’s Office of the Vermont Department of State’s Attorney’s and Sheriff’s Association, Patch said, noting that the Addison County’s state’s attorney’s office referred the case to that office.
Lowe did not answer cell phone calls seeking comment on Wednesday, and a recording said his phone’s message box had not yet been programmed to receive messages.
Hawley said he spoke on Tuesday with Lowe, who joined the force in 2001, became acting chief in January 2002, and was appointed chief in April 2002.
“Mike is extremely embarrassed about this situation, and Mike really, truly cares about this community,” he said.
Hawley said he considers a potential conviction on DUI charges serious.
“If an officer is convicted of DUI, relative to the statute, to me that is clear conduct unbecoming of an officer. Additionally, he was driving a city vehicle,” he said.
In response to questioning, Hawley added, “Relative to what kind of event constitutes grounds for dismissal, that’s something we would always seek legal advice on.”
Hawley said filing of charges would probably trigger him to reevaluate whether Lowe should remain on paid administrative leave, but said it remained possible he would review Lowe’s standing before then.
“Obviously, we can re-evaluate that situation at any time ... I’m not necessarily waiting for that to occur for Mike’s status to change,” he said.
Hawley also commented on another ongoing Vermont Attorney General’s office investigation of Lowe, one relating to an alleged conflict of interest in the investigation of a bullet found lodged in the side of a city home in March.
Lowe has acknowledged making what he claims was an offhand remark that even his son could have fired the bullet. A complaint was filed that if his relative could be a suspect, Lowe should have handed off the investigation. Lowe and Hawley have confirmed the investigation is ongoing, although the attorney general’s office has refused, as per policy, to confirm or deny the existence of any probe.
Hawley has said he believes Lowe in the matter.
“There is an investigation by the attorney general’s office that was triggered by a complaint to the state’s attorney’s office,” Hawley said. “The allegations have consistently been denied. Mike’s position on this complaint has been consistent. He says it is unfounded ... He has said that from day one.”
MINALL SET TO RETURN
Hawley has acted to shore up his already undermanned department while Lowe’s case is pending. Hawley said on Wednesday morning that he had scheduled a meeting for that afternoon with his officers and former Vergennes chief Ted Minall, who will help oversee the force on a short-term interim basis.
The department’s No. 2 in its chain of command, Sgt. Patrick Greenslet, has been out on an undisclosed medical disability since March 16. Hawley said Greenslet’s return depends on medical clearance and described it as a “month-to-month” decision.
Senior patrolman John Tetreault, the next in seniority in the department of five full-timers, who are supplemented by three officers who work on a as-needed basis, is available on a part-time only basis for the next couple of months because of military obligations.
Minall, a South Burlington resident and former New York City officer, led the Vergennes department in the late 1990s. Hawley said he is no longer certified in Vergennes, but can help with department oversight until Lowe’s situation is resolved.
“He’s certainly fully capable of being, in essence, our public safety consultant,” Hawley said.
Details remain to be worked out.
“We’re analyzing and trying to determine a structure going forward,” Hawley said.