Published 1/9/2011
Brenda Hutchins, a resident at the Shady Lawn Motel who witnessed the Sept. 10 incident involving Monica Therrien, told investigators that Hartford officer Jon Adams “literally smashed” Therrien to the ground. “What we heard is, like, you know a watermelon when it splits open — that pop? That’s what I heard.” (Valley News — James M. Patterson)

Police Probe Called ‘Hocus-Pocus'

By Mark Davis
Valley News Staff Writer

White River Junction -- During the Hartford Police Department's investigation into allegations that an officer injured a woman he had been called to help, three eyewitnesses told police that officer Jon Adams threw the woman headfirst to the pavement for no good reason, according to internal department records obtained by the Valley News.

The eyewitnesses, who were interviewed separately but offered almost identical accounts, told police that Adams grabbed Monica Therrien by the back of the neck and shoved her to the ground outside the Shady Lawn Motel on the night of Sept. 10. One eyewitness said the impact sounded like “a watermelon when it splits open,” the records show.

Therrien was hospitalized for several days with a concussion and other injuries.

After gathering this and other evidence in the past four months, police have not taken action against Adams or any other officer on the scene, although their investigation continues. Hartford Police Chief Glenn Cutting said last month that he hadn't seen any signs of misconduct by his officers.

“On my preliminary review, I didn't see anything wrong,” Cutting said in an interview in December.

Cutting declined to be interviewed for this article, citing the ongoing investigation into police conduct by his agency and one that Vermont State Police, at Cutting's request, launched late last year. He also declined to make any of his officers available for comment.

However, Hartford's inquiry did yield speedy and decisive action against one person -- Therrien's boyfriend, Dennis Kucera, 62, whom police arrested on a domestic abuse charge a few days after a Hartford investigator began conducting interviews at the motel.

The Valley News recently obtained internal department audio recordings of those interviews, along with recordings made by cruiser cameras on Sept. 10. According to those recordings, Hartford Detective Michael Tkac told some residents he was conducting an “internal affairs” investigation into reports of police misconduct, but then spent much of his time gathering evidence against Kucera.

The recordings show that Tkac was at least as aggressive in asking questions about Kucera's conduct as he was about Adams', even when motel residents said they had witnessed Adams’ actions firsthand but had little direct knowledge of any alleged abuse by Kucera.

The initial call to police came after Therrien called 911 for help, saying that Kucera had physically abused her. While some neighbors in the residential motel said they had heard noises from inside the couple's apartment or seen Kucera handling Therrien, 37, roughly, none said they had witnessed him striking her.

On Sept. 24, police arrested Kucera on a misdemeanor charge of domestic assault -- a charge, based in part on the statements of his neighbors, that could land him in prison for up to 18 months.

Several Shady Lawn Motel residents, including three eyewitnesses, now say they are skeptical that authorities will conduct a thorough inquiry into the actions of their own colleague. They say Tkac all but ignored their claims of police misconduct. They fear that Tkac's “internal affairs” investigation was a smokescreen for a quest to gather as much evidence as possible against Kucera -- and, in the process, to deflect attention from Adams.

“It's all a big hocus-pocus,” said Susan Johnson, a motel resident who was interviewed by Tkac and said she witnessed the entire event on Sept. 10. “They think if they do all this stuff with Dennis (Kucera), it's going to go away. They're trying to take all eyes off them and put them on Dennis.

“They're covering up,” she continued, “and it's really sad.”

Windsor County State's Attorney Robert Sand, who is prosecuting the case against Kucera, dismissed any suggestion that police were pursuing Kucera to hide their own troubles.

Sand said he supported a review of Adams' actions -- “that absolutely should be looked at” -- but said concerns about police actions should not overshadow evidence that Kucera assaulted Therrien before police arrived on the scene.

Therrien called 911 claiming that she had been assaulted, Sand said, and told Adams and other officers that she was afraid of Kucera. She later told police that Kucera had caused her pain that rated an “eight” on a scale of one to 10.

“There was a reason police were called there in the first place,” Sand said. “It seems to me that both (lines of inquiry) have to go forward. I think it's important to keep separate the (police) response and whether there was a crime committed before they got there.”

Hitting a Rough Patch

Rusted scaffolding holds a sign high above the roof of the Shady Lawn Motel, catching the eye of drivers cruising down Interstate 91, which runs directly overhead. But many of the people who answer the doors at the two-story building aren't just passing through. Some have been there for years, and the motel is a regular stop for the yellow buses ferrying the town's children to school.

Kucera, a Vietnam War veteran with no ties to the Upper Valley, ended up at the motel two years ago when doctors in Florida told him that he should move near the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in White River Junction to get treatment for his post-traumatic stress disorder.

Most days he makes the two-mile trip to the hospital on foot.

After moving into the motel, he met Therrien, who grew up in Bradford, Vt. She ended up at the motel after a drinking problem left her estranged from her boyfriend and three young daughters, whom she rarely sees, she said in an interview.

Therrien and Kucera acknowledged that they have had their rough patches along the way.

One of those rough patches came at around 11 p.m. on Sept. 10, when Hartford police were summoned to the Shady Lawn by Therrien, who reported that Kucera had hit her. According to the police recordings, Adams and two other officers interviewed Kucera inside the couple's room, and brought Therrien into the parking lot outside to get her version of events.

According to the recordings:

Kucera denied that he had done anything wrong, and said that Therrien was drunk and confused. Therrien told officers that her boyfriend had grabbed her by the arms and pushed her against the wall.

Adams' conversation with Therrien quickly grew heated. Therrien, who was slurring her words and difficult to understand, complained that she had bruises on her arms from abuse by Kucera. The officers told Therrien they did not see any bruises, and she grew agitated.

“Don't you yell at me or you will go to jail,” Adams said.

“Fine, take me to jail,” said Therrien.

The conversation continued for few more minutes, with both Therrien and Adams becoming audibly frustrated. Then Therrien, her voice rising, uttered a profanity.

“Don't you swear out here, you'll get arrested for disorderly conduct,” one of the officers said.

Adams and another officer then told Therrien, who was trying to show them bruises on her arms, that they did not see any bruises.

“Oh, you don't see any marks?” Therrien said.

“You don't see any?” she repeatedly asked.

“Get your finger out of my face, you understand me,” Adams said. “You don't put your finger in my face.”

What happened next is the subject of much dispute, and the police recordings capture sounds but not a picture.

At one point, Adams told Therrien, “Get over here.” About four seconds later, tapes record the sound of someone falling to the ground. Adams then called for an ambulance.

How did Therrien come to fall on the parking lot tarmac with such force that she needed to be hospitalized for more than three days at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center with a concussion and bruises on her back?

According to Cutting, the Hartford chief, Therrien was trying to walk away from Adams when she stumbled. The officer made a quick motion to stabilize her that inadvertently caused her to fall, he said.

“She had turned to run away from him, he reached out to grab her from behind her,” Cutting told the Valley News last year. “She fell and hit her head on the pavement.”

The eyewitnesses, in interviews with both police and the Valley News, told a different story: That when Therrien took several steps away from Adams, he followed her and shoved her headfirst to the ground.

‘Internal Affairs'

When police were called to the Shady Lawn on Sept. 10, the recordings show, Adams and other officers initially dismissed Therrien's complaints about her boyfriend and declined to arrest him. (See related story, page A7.)

However, about a week later, after the Valley News began inquiring about reports of police misconduct, Hartford police launched a new investigation, headed by Tkac, who was not involved in the initial encounter.

Sometimes identifying himself as an “internal affairs” officer, Tkac interviewed several motel residents, including three eyewitnesses who say they saw the entire incident: Johnson, Brenda Hutchins and Charles Stickney.

All three witnesses provided Tkac with similar, detailed accounts: That, after a frustrated exchange with Therrien, Adams walked up behind her, grabbed her near the back of her neck and slammed her to the ground.

According to a recording taken by Tkac, Hutchins, 47, said that Therrien was visibly drunk and grew upset when Adams didn't seem to accept her story of Kucera being abusive to her and leaving her with bruises on her arms.

Therrien “turned around and realized she wasn't getting nowhere with him … and she just started walking, but she was kind of like wobbly,” Hutchins told Tkac. “(Adams) turned around and … grabbed her by the neck and dropped her to the ground. I mean, literally smashed her to the ground. What we heard is, like, you know a watermelon when it splits open -- that pop? That's what I heard.”

At that point, Tkac did not ask Hutchins any questions to clarify his understanding or generate further details of that event. Instead, he asked if Hutchins could help him debunk a rumor that officers had beaten Therrien with a flashlight.

“I'm like, ‘That did not happen,' ” Tkac told her of the rumor.

Hutchins agreed. “I don't recall that,” Hutchins said. “But I do recall the part (about Therrien) going down.”

Tkac told Hutchins that he understood what had happened up to the point where Therrien fell to the ground. He began asking about reports of rib bruises that Therrien had told people she suffered when Adams knelt in her back and handcuffed her.

Tkac then called on another motel resident, Johnson. The investigator heard an account almost identical to that of Hutchins.

“She couldn't run, she was drunk,” Johnson said of Therrien. “If she ran she would have tripped herself. Then he just ran up behind her and slammed her right down to the ground. Her head bled out instantly. … We all thought she was dead because she was just laying there and she was just bleeding everywhere.”

As with Hutchins, Tkac then asked whether Therrien had been struck with a flashlight. “I honestly did not see that,” Johnson replied. “I saw a hand go up and a woman go to the ground, which was needless.”

Tkac then asked about Therrien's complaint that the officer had bruised her ribs. Johnson said she believed that Adams could have caused those injuries when he kneeled on her back and handcuffed her, then told Tkac that she had taken pictures of Therrien's injuries, showing large bruises around the back of her neck and lower back.

Tkac asked for copies of those pictures, which Johnson provided. Rather than serving as evidence of police misconduct, however, the pictures turned up in the public court file containing the domestic assault charge filed against Kucera.

Tkac also interviewed a third eyewitness, Stickney -- but not for long. When Tkac visited the nursing home where he is employed, Stickney said he told the investigator he could only spare a few minutes.

There is no recording of that interview, but Stickney told the Valley News he gave a quick account similar to those given by Hutchins and Johnson, and even re-enacted Adams taking several steps to catch up to Therrien after she had walked away. Stickney said he offered to make himself available later for a longer interview, and that he was willing to go to the police station to do so. But he said he never heard from Tkac again.

“I figured they would be back around, because I know something,” Stickney said. “He probably didn't want to come back because what I had to say doesn't corroborate with their version.”

‘That Didn't Happen'

The recordings show Tkac spent a great deal of time asking questions about Kucera.

While only three Shady Lawn residents told police that they witnessed the entire encounter between police and Therrien, many others say they saw part of the encounter, or heard accounts of the incident from the eyewitnesses, or simply know Kucera and Therrien.

Tkac interviewed many of these people, the internal recordings show. When some residents tried to tell him of reports that Adams had shoved Therrien to the ground, Tkac told some of them they were mistaken.

Tkac interviewed Bethany Duval, who said she did not personally witness the events, but was aware of several eyewitnesses who saw everything. Duval said that she had talked to Therrien afterward.

“All she could tell me was that they took her head and smashed it,” Duval said.

Tkac didn't ask any questions: He told Duval that she was wrong.

“I'll tell you, the videotapes don't show anything like that,” Tkac said. “Yeah, the cruisers have videotapes. It's like, ‘No, that didn’t happen.’ ”

(In fact, as Cutting has previously said, none of the cruiser cameras captured any video footage of Adams' encounter with Therrien, although the cameras were able to record audio. The cruisers were parked in a way that pointed the cameras in the opposite direction.)

Tkac then changed the topic.

“Have you ever seen Dennis smack her?” he asked, referring to Therrien's boyfriend, Kucera.

“He tends to get a little rough with her when she's outside and she drinks a lot, but he doesn't hit her,” Duval said. “He just grabs her.” (Kucera and Therrien have both acknowledged such behavior in interviews with the Valley News.)

Another motel resident interviewed by Tkac was Michael Hackney, who had lived in the motel months earlier, moved away for a time and returned after the night when Therrien summoned police to the hotel.

“Did something happen to them?” Hackney asked the detective, referring to Therrien and Kucera.

“Well, she's in the hospital now; she's saying she got hurt,” Tkac said. “You know, it's kind of weird. It might be a domestic (assault).” Tkac later went on, “It sounds like he (Kucera) broke her ribs, you know, beat her up, and (is) trying to blame somebody else.”

“How well do you know him?” Tkac continued. “Would he do something like that?” Tkac then conducted a lengthy interview with Hackney, asking several follow-up questions.

Hackney, 22, said that, several months ago, he witnessed Kucera get into a profanity-laced conversation with Therrien. He had seen Therrien become intoxicated and fall down. And months earlier, he said, he saw Therrien with bruises -- but did know how she got them.

“I've seen her have bruises all over her arms,” Hackney said. “I would guess from a grab. I mean, I'm not sure, but the way it looked, it looked like somebody grabbed her.”

“Yeah, apparently Dennis (has) some anger management (issues),” Tkac said.

Eyewitnesses Hutchins, Stickney and Johnson told the Valley News they were never asked to provide written statements, or invited to the police station for follow-up questioning. But there was at least one person who was: David Nestle.

Nestle lives next to Kucera and Therrien; their rooms share a wall. Unlike the eyewitnesses, Nestle was invited to Hartford police station to tell his story at length. Inside the station, the police recordings show, Nestle spent an hour with an unidentified police officer and the department's second-in-command, Deputy Police Chief Leonard Roberts, who became personally involved in the misdemeanor case against Kucera.

According to the recordings, Nestle told police he was home the night of the incident, and said he heard banging noises coming from the couple's room before police arrived. When he was told that Therrien's initial 911 call indicated that Kucera had assaulted her, Nestle said, “I wouldn’t doubt it. Not by seeing, but by hearing.”

However, Nestle repeatedly told police that he wasn't certain what had caused the noise coming from the couple's room, the recordings show. Someone could have been moving furniture, he said, or someone could have fallen down.

Nestle didn't need to write his statement himself: Also in the room was the police department's administrative assistant, Wanda Daniels, who sat at a keyboard and typed up the information that she, Roberts and the other officer drew out of Nestle.

“Have you ever seen them have a spat?” Roberts asked.

“No, I've never seen them fight,” Nestle said. He later added: “They get along great.”

For the better part of an hour, Nestle answered questions, with Daniels typing up the information. When it was done, they printed out the statement that Daniels had typed. Nestle signed his name, and a copy was made and tucked into a file in Windsor Superior Court -- a piece of the evidence in the case of State of Vermont vs. Dennis Kucera.

An Affidavit in Support

Having completed several hours of interviews with witnesses, Hartford police took action within days -- against Kucera. Police arrested him on Friday, Sept. 24, exactly two weeks after they had been summoned to the Shady Lawn Motel, and several days after the Valley News began inquiring about the incident.

The affidavit supporting the charge was written by Tkac. Included in the affidavit is the account of the three officers, in which they say that Therrien told them “she doesn't deserve to be beaten or hurt” and later tried to show them bruises on her arms that she said were caused by Kucera.

Many of the people interviewed by Tkac -- including two of the eyewitnesses -- were also quoted in the affidavit.

Hackney, who wasn't living at the motel during the incident, was quoted as saying he had previously seen Therrien with bruises on her arms. Duval, whom Tkac dismissed when she tried to tell him about Adams' conduct, is quoted as well, saying “she is aware of instances where Kucera has grabbed Therrien by the upper arms and shaken her.”

The file includes Nestle's statement that he heard banging in Kucera and Therrien's room. Hutchins and Johnson are briefly quoted, saying they had seen Therrien attempting to show officers on the scene her bruises.

Also included in the file are the pictures of Therrien's injuries that Johnson turned over to Tkac. In an interview with the Valley News, Johnson said that came as a surprise. “It was intended for the police who caused that damage to get reprimanded,” Johnson said.

In court, Kucera pleaded not guilty to a misdemeanor charge of domestic assault, which carries a maximum 18-month sentence. He is free while awaiting trial.

Kucera and Therrien have repeatedly told the Valley News that he stands wrongly accused, and they will fight the charge. They assert that the case against Kucera was designed to help the Hartford Police Department cover up the fact that they had caused Therrien's injuries.

Therrien now says she was mistaken about Kucera harming her, and has told Sand she wants the charges dropped and will not cooperate with the prosecution against Kucera.

Kucera's attorney, Christopher Dall, of Norwich, has filed a motion asking Judge Patricia Zimmerman to dismiss the charge for lack of evidence. Dall declined to comment for this story.

A hearing has been scheduled for later this month, and both Kucera and Therrien say they will not abandon their fight against the police.

“They're trying to wear both of us down,” Kucera said. “I'm not going to let them get away with what they did. I'm not going to let them make me their scapegoat.”