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Update: Vergennes chief quits; patrolman follows suit

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Posted on September 10, 2009 |
By Andy Kirkaldy and John S. McCright



Note: This is an expanded version of a story that appeared online on Saturday, Sept. 5.

VERGENNES — The Vergennes police chief and a junior police officer have resigned in the past week. Chief Mike Lowe resigned on Friday, Sept. 4, and City Manager Mel Hawley on Tuesday received officer Matt Roorda’s official letter of resignation.

Lowe has been battling criminal charges of driving under the influence, embezzlement and prescription drug-related crimes. Roorda allegedly told a state investigator that he was involved in a prescription drug crime. In Lowe’s letter of resignation, he said he was resigning “due to present health issues” effective Sept. 1.

Roorda’s letter of resignation simply stated that he had “elected to terminate my employment with Vergennes Police Department effective Aug. 28.” He also offered thanks for the opportunity to serve the people of Vergennes.

The Vergennes chief for more than seven years, Lowe was suspended after he was charged with driving under the influence of prescription drugs after he crashed a Vergennes police car into a parked car on June 7. He pleaded innocent in Addison County District Court to that charge on Aug. 10.

The state attorney general’s office then brought charges of unlawful possession of a prescription drug; two counts of obtaining prescription drugs by fraud or deceit, including appropriating a city patrolman’s prescription for more than a year; embezzlement because he “fraudulently converted to his own use” a handgun that had been seized as evidence; and neglect of duty by failing to return the handgun to its rightful owners. Lowe pleaded innocent to those charges on Aug. 24.

An affidavit from the attorney general’s investigation and made public after the Aug. 24 arraignment alleged that Lowe persuaded Roorda to regularly turn over his prescription for Adderall, a stimulant, between the fall of 2007 and May 2009. Roorda told Thomas Howell, and investigator from the attorney general’s office, that he was not using the drug, for which he had a legitimate prescription, because “he does not like the way it makes him feel.”

At times Roorda gave Lowe the pills, and at times Lowe simply picked up the prescriptions himself, according to the affidavit. Two of the fraud charges stem from Lowe’s dealing with Roorda.

Roorda talked to Howell with the understanding “that the State would not directly use Roorda’s statement’s against him.” Assistant Attorney General John Treadwell, who is handling Lowe’s prosecution on the five charges detailed on Aug. 24, said it remained “conceivable” Roorda could face prosecution, but said he could not comment on whether an investigation is ongoing or even being considered.

Roorda’s statements could theoretically provide the starting point for a probe, Treadwell said.
Hawley put Roorda on administrative leave, with pay, on Aug. 27.

Hawley said he was notified by state officials that Roorda had filed an unemployment claim on Aug. 28. Hawley had been in contact with Roorda’s lawyer.

Mayor Mike Daniels said that Roorda had a “a very unfortunate start. He is a very young person who got off on the wrong foot. We wish him well.”

Hawley acknowledged that he was not surprised by Lowe’s resignation.

“When I served Mike with his first charges it made reference to the fact that we’d serve additional charges after the affidavit was made public,” Hawley said, referring to the affidavit made public after Lowe’s Aug. 24 arraignment.

Hawley never did get a chance to serve the second set of charges from the city.

Daniels said Lowe’s resignation was “probably in everyone’s best interest.”

“We’re very story,” Daniels continued. “We wish (Lowe) the best in everything — in his health and everything else.”

Daniels added: “A lot of people around here say he was very nice as a chief and as a person. At this point the court has to decide his future.”

Although he is no longer a city employee, the city extended Lowe’s medical benefits through the end of next March, Hawley said.

“Mike was in rehab,” Hawley said. “We converted his accrued sick time into the value of medical insurance and then extended that.”

LOWE’S BACKGROUND
Mike Lowe, 51, joined the Vergennes Police Department from a law enforcement job in Florida in 2001. Then City Manager Randy Friday hired Lowe as chief after Chief Joe Anthony left the job in 2002.

The affidavit that became public Aug. 24 stated Lowe had surgery on Nov. 15, 2007, after which he was prescribed Oxycodone, a narcotic painkiller. The affidavit noted that Lowe himself expressed concerns about addiction. On Nov. 27 he told a physician that the Oxycodone was too strong and requested Hydrocodone because he wanted to “taper off the drug,” according to the affidavit.

On Dec. 10, the affidavit, stated Lowe saw a physician’s assistant who “expressed concern about his apparent dependency on Oxycodone and requested Lowe sign a ‘taper agreement,’ which he did.” Records from Dec. 18 and 31 from Fletcher Allen Health Care show Lowe acknowledging feeling addiction to Oxycodone.

MOOD OF THE DEPARTMENT
The rest of the police force knew of Lowe’s resignation by Saturday afternoon, Hawley said, but he declined to speculate on their feelings about it.

Vergennes Police Sgt. Pat Greenslet returned to active duty last week after being on disability leave since March 16.

Daniels at a city council meeting Tuesday evening announced the members of a committee — made up of citizens and a city council member — to search for a new chief.

The search committee will advise Hawley in the process, but it is up to the city manager to make the final recommendation to the city council, which has the final say. Aldermen must approve his choice because it is a statutory appointment, not a simple hire. Hawley agreed to share interesting resumes with Daniels during the process, and he may also let aldermen review the resume of a potential final candidate in advance.

Ads have been placed and will come out this weekend.

The search committee consists of Alderwoman Christine Collette, former mayor Thelma “Kitty” Oxholm, Country Home Products human resources manager Tom Parent, and former Vergennes Police Chief Ted Minall, who is now acting as a consultant and helping lead the city force.

Hawley hopes to move quickly to fill the opening.

“My ambitious goal is to get a chief on board within a month-and-a-half,” he told aldermen on Tuesday night.

Even with Sgt. Patrick Greenslet reporting back to duty on Sept. 1 after missing work since March on medical leave, Hawley said the city must also find two patrolmen in the months to come, one to replace Roorda, and probably another to replace John Tetreault, who Hawley said has been scheduled for deployment to Afghanistan with the National Guard. Hawley said he would look to the ranks of the city's part-timer officers to see if any might be interested in full-time employment.

“We’ll be looking to fill at least one police officer spot,” he said.

Daniels noted that Vergennes police officers continue to perform their jobs.

“The guys are doing really well,” Daniels said of the remaining members of the Vergennes police force. “They are up to serving the city to their fullest extent. In tough times people pull together, and they are pulling together.”

The mayor also applauded aldermen for their patience and helpfulness in the Lowe matter.

“The council has been helpful through this whole process,” Daniels said. “They were asked questions by citizens and they (the councilmen) were not briefed in great detail on this because they were going to be on a board that heard evidence in the case and were going to be asked to make a decision.

“The council was very fair about this process.”

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