Cop resigns over stolen $$$
Report: Patrolman stole $600 during drug bust
August 14, 2009
BY GUS STEEVES
NEWS STAFF WRITER
SOUTHBRIDGE — Last month, Police Chief Daniel Charette got the OK to hire an officer to replace Mark Berquist, who resigned two months ago. But nobody at the time was officially discussing why Berquist left.
Records obtained by the Southbridge Evening News last week, however, revealed Berquist had admitted to stealing $600 from an apartment being searched for drugs June 14.
"I applaud the chief that this was something immediately investigated," said Town Manager Chris Clark, who was part of the decision to let Berquist resign rather than face prosecution. "It was done very professionally … and is a sign of good government at work."
Although state law defines larceny over $250 as a felony potentially punishable by five years in prison or two years in jail and a $25,000 fine, Clark said the town opted not to charge him largely because Berquist quickly confessed and returned the money. In a similar investigation in his previous town of Vernon, Conn., he said, he was told the return of such funds would make such a case almost impossible to prosecute. He observed Berquist's loss of a job is a penalty in itself, especially since the case is now part of the public record for potential future employers to see.
In fact, police documents seem to indicate remorse on Berquist's part. Although he initially denied taking the money, both in person to fellow officers and in writing to the chief, Berquist later came forward on his own to admit his actions.
In his report, Lt. Shane Woodson wrote that Berquist "was visibly upset" and "stated, 'I took the money. I'm sorry.'" He was immediately suspended, and "was so upset, he went home to see his wife," before he could be escorted to return the money, keys and other department property, Woodson wrote. Berquist did so a little later by meeting Officer Tom Moriarty on Route 169.
The report does not indicate Berquist's reason for taking the money. That might be in his resignation letter, but Clark said the town's labor counsel opined that it was protected as part of Berquist's personnel file, as opposed to being part of the investigatory record.
"It appears to be an isolated case of significant mistaken judgment," Clark said. "… In any organization, you have some small element of people who become problematic, and to me this is a case of that."
Town Councilor Albert Vecchia, who has been a key player in pushing for release of the documents, objected to such an approach, saying it sends the message that "a police officer can break the law and get a 'Free get out of jail pass' for committing a felony." He claimed there was "talk on the street" about the incident before the department admitted it had happened.
"I feel the police chief handled this matter wrong for several reasons — by not asking the DA's office to charge the police officer with a criminal offense; by informing the state police he did not intend to charge [Berquist]… and by trying to keep this matter out of the public's eye. They have a right to know," Vecchia wrote in brief comments he hand-delivered to the newspaper. "… Police officers should be held to a higher standard, not a lower standard."
Charette was not in the police station Friday and did not return messages left at home or on his cell phone.
According to police records redacted only to obscure the names of the apartment's residents, the incident that sparked the investigation occurred around 10:30 p.m. Sunday, June 14, when eight officers and detectives were serving a search warrant on an apartment implicated in drug distribution. While Detectives Scott Bailey and Carlos Dingui were interviewing the main suspect in one bedroom, Bailey found a wallet containing "several" hundred-dollar bills and other cash on a closet shelf and commented about it. But when the time came a little later to conduct a detailed search and inventory, only $54 was logged as evidence, and Bailey told Detective Mario Marcucci (who was logging the evidence) that he had seen more.
At the time, every officer on the scene denied knowing where the money went, but internal investigation later implicated Berquist, who had been "observed standing in [name redacted] bedroom by himself on his cellular telephone sending text messages prior to the complete search."
The chief requested written statements of the event from all involved, and Berquist's is much shorter, less detailed and, in some specifics, not corroborated by the others. At one point, for example, he claims, "Det. Dingui requested me to take my personal vehicle back to the police station and pick up his unmarked cruiser."
Officer Richard Reddick, however, observed that Berquist and he left the scene together to get Reddick's cruiser "with K9 Mika and go to the scene" so Reddick could conduct a drug sniff search.
Reddick's report indicates the dog did sniff drugs, but none of the paperwork released indicates what the drugs were. Although Bailey's report states someone was arrested, the police log of that day does not indicate any arrests at all.
Returning after his Reddick errand, Berquist's report claimed he entered "the two bedrooms off the kitchen" alone, "briefly search[ing]" one of them and making his phone call from the other. Dingui's report indicates Berquist was not assigned to search any room by himself, however.
Gus Steeves can be reached at 508-909-4135 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
EDITOR'S NOTE: See this story in Monday's Southbridge Evening News