MIDDLEBURY — The attorney for Vergennes Police Chief Michael Lowe on Monday entered on Lowe’s behalf a plea of innocent to a charge of driving under the influence of prescription drugs at Lowe’s arraignment in Addison County District Court.
According to a Vermont State Police affidavit that became public on Monday, a blood test showed Lowe had traces of six prescription drugs in his system when he was driving a Vergennes police cruiser that hit a parked car on June 7.
Lowe’s lawyer, Richard Goldsborough of South Burlington, said that Lowe — who also faces an Aug. 24 District Court arraignment on five more charges and an Aug. 18 Vergennes City Council disciplinary hearing — has spent most of the summer being treated for addiction to painkillers in Jacksonville, Fla.
On Aug. 7, Assistant Attorney General John Treadwell issued a statement that Lowe would be arraigned on Aug. 24 for embezzlement by a public official; neglect of duty; possession of a depressant, stimulant or narcotic drug; and two counts of obtaining a prescription by fraud or deceit.
Those charges were not addressed on Monday. Officials are still evaluating whether to combine the cases.
Lowe did not attend Monday’s arraignment on a DUI charge that carries a maximum penalty of a $750 fine and two years in jail. Judge Cortland Corsones agreed with Goldsborough’s motion to allow Lowe to remain in treatment a little longer. Lowe is scheduled to return to Vermont late this week.
“It’s going to be no secret in this case that my client has undergone substance abuse treatment at a rehabilitation center in Florida, and he’s still undergoing treatment,” Goldsborough said.
After Lowe’s arraignment, Goldsborough described Lowe as a “dedicated and well-liked public servant for over eight years” in Vergennes who developed an addiction when drugs were prescribed after two neck surgeries.
“If he’s got a problem it comes from a cervical neck injury that he had and serious surgery, and he developed a tolerance and an addiction to the prescribed pain medication,” he said.
Goldsborough said that Lowe “sounds good,” and that it is “a good thing he’s taken this step” to deal with a drug problem.
According to Lowe’s employment records in Vergennes, he missed about two months in 2003 after neck surgery, and eight days in 2007 for a less serious procedure. Lowe, 51, a veteran Florida officer, was hired in Vergennes in 2001 and became chief in 2002.
According to the affidavit, Lowe tested positive for tramadol and O-Desmethyltramadol, which according to drugs.com and drugs-forum.com are “narcotic-like pain relievers”; alprazolam and citaprolam, anti-anxiety and anti-depressant drugs; quetiapine, often prescribed for “bipolar disorder (manic depression)”; and zolpidem, a sedative often sold as Ambien.
According to drugs.com and drugs-forum.com, all six require users to be careful if driving. Tramadol is also described as “habit-forming,” by drugs.com, which warns, “You should not take tramadol if you have ever been addicted to drugs or alcohol.”
Goldsborough was asked after the arraignment if Lowe had experienced prior substance abuse problems.
“I’m not free to comment,” he said.
The full toxicology report on Lowe was not available at the arraignment, and the amount of the drugs in Lowe’s bloodstream has not yet been made public.
Handling Lowe’s DUI prosecution is Stuart Schurr, the traffic safety resource prosecutor for the Vermont Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs. The Addison County state’s attorney’s office called in Schurr because of its conflict of interest.
After the arraignment, Schurr refused comment on the detailed results of a blood test to which Lowe consented after the June 7 accident.
“As far as the toxicology results themselves, which indicate the amount of drugs in his system, I’m not going to elaborate on that at this point,” Schurr said.
The evidence available focused on the accident and its aftermath. According to the affidavit submitted by VSP Trooper Mark Busier, Lowe stated, “he should have waited a little longer” to drive after taking an anti-depressant drug.
Vergennes special officer Robert Worley called VSP to the low-speed accident scene, the affidavit said, because Busier said Worley “raised concern the Chief may be under the influence.”
Busier wrote he noticed Lowe’s “eyes appeared to be glassy, his speech erratic and his balance unstable.” According to the man whose car Lowe struck, Lowe that this “situation had become a matter of self-preservation for his driver’s license and career.”
Busier said Lowe flunked a roadside sobriety test, after which Busier took Lowe to VSP barracks in New Haven. Lowe then “ultimately submitted to an evidentiary blood test” at Porter Hospital, where he was also observed by VSP Drug Recognition Expert Todd Ambroz.
The affidavit states that Ambroz conducted more tests and concluded Lowe “is under the influence of a Central Nervous System Depressant and unable to operate a motor vehicle safely.”
Lowe’s blood test came back on July 2, and the DUI charge was filed on July 13.
Meanwhile, Vergennes City Manager Mel Hawley said investigators from the AG’s office began looking into Lowe. Contrary to statements by Mayor Michael Daniels over the weekend that city officials were surprised by the new charges, Hawley said he knew more was coming, but was not in a position to share information about an ongoing probe.
“It’s not any surprise to me, but I needed to wait until such time as the attorney general’s office concluded its investigation,” Hawley said.
But Hawley said he does not fully understand the nature of the charges, notably the embezzlement, which could mean property, not cash. Hawley noted city police rarely handle money.
“I’m curious what information will be made available to the public on Aug. 24,” he said. “I would like to know about the specifics of that charge.”
Hawley said he is not ready to talk about what he will recommend to aldermen on Aug. 18, when they will decide whether to change Lowe’s status: He is now on paid administrative leave.
Lowe and Hawley also acknowledged this spring that the attorney general’s office was probing Lowe’s handling of a case in which a bullet was found lodged in the side of a city home. At issue was whether Lowe had a conflict of interest in not referring the case to VSP after Lowe made what he said was an offhand remark that even his son could be a suspect.
Cindy Maguire, chief of the criminal division in the attorney general’s office, said she would not comment on whether issues related to that case would be addressed on the 24th.
Meanwhile, Hawley said the city’s police department is “running smoothly,” although the ongoing medical leave of Sgt. Patrick Greenslet and upcoming military leave of Patrolman John Tetreault is stretching the force a little thin.
“We still are shorthanded. Fortunately, we have a good group of specials to fill in, but giving people their due vacations is problematic,” Hawley said.
The return of former chief and longtime New York City police force veteran Ted Minall to act as a department consultant has been helpful, Hawley said.
“He remembers the community, he remembers a lot of people,” Hawley said. “Certainly, Ted brings a wealth of experience here, and the guys all know if anything comes up they can call him 24 hours a day.”