EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 1, 2013

Officer faulted in bee sting death

Report: Man found dead from venom after missing person call mishandled

By Shawn Regan

---- — HAVERHILL — The patrolman’s union president faces a six-month unpaid suspension for allegedly mishandling a missing person report in which the person was later found dead — stung to death by honey bees, according to a report by the state medical examiner’s office.

Police said the mother of Alan Schwartz, 57, of Lawrence called the police station at 2:18 a.m. on June 11 to report her son did not come home that night and was not answering his cell phone.

Ina Schwartz said this was very unusual and that she was concerned about her son’s safety. She told a police dispatcher, Officer Rick Welch, that Schwartz was a beekeeper at Silsby Farm on Salem Street. She asked that a police cruiser be sent to the farm to check for her son and his white Tacoma truck at his last know whereabouts — the end of a dirt road near the farm’s entrance that leads to an area where honey bees are kept.

Welch, a nine-year Haverhill police patrolman and president of the patrolman’s union, occasionally works in the dispatch center where he also trains new dispatchers.

Instead of dispatching a cruiser to the farm, however, Welch sent an email-style message to the specific patrolman assigned to cover the Salem Street part of the city that night.

Welch asked the patrolman to be on the lookout “during his travels” for Schwartz’s white Tacoma truck, according to the message. But Welch did not include other information provided by the caller, such as her son’s last known location at the end of the dirt road at the farm.

Welch, who testified at yesterday’s hearing, said he did not assign a patrol car to go to the farm to look for Schwartz because he did not believe the situation was an emergency.

“This was an adult male who wasn’t hurt and wasn’t disabled,” Welch said. “I didn’t think we had enough information for the call to rise to a priority status.”

Douglas Louison, Welch’s union lawyer, said lots of 50-year-old men don’t immediately return phone calls from their mothers and that Schwartz could have been anywhere, such as at a bar.

Police Chief Alan DeNaro described Welch’s handling of the call as “cavalier and uncaring.”

The chief said Welch should have sent a cruiser to the farm, entered the call into the department’s computerized system so other officers on duty that night would be aware of the situation, and sent out information about the matter over the department’s radio communication system.

Schwartz was found dead by Marlene Stasinos, a Silsby Farm caretaker, around 8 a.m. — six hours after the victim’s mother called police. Stasinos found the body after she received a phone call that morning from Ina Schwartz.

“I went out in my p.j.’s to the bee area and saw his truck and immediately thought “Oh no,’” Stansinos said in a prior police interview that was videotaped and shown yesterday at a discipline hearing for Welch at City Hall.

“I saw him laying face down and I screamed his name, but he didn’t move,” Stansinos said, adding that she discovered Schwartz lying next to an open bee container with his hand on his heart.

A preliminary report by the state medical examiner said Schwartz died from anaphylactic shock caused by an allergic reaction to honey bee stings.

Details about Schwartz’s death and the city’s disciplinary case against Welch were not publicly known until yesterday’s hearing.

The hearing was supposed to be private, but at the last minute Welch asked that it be open so other police officers and dispatchers and members of his family could attend.

“It was unfortunate that Alan Schwartz was located dead lying next to his vehicle the next day by a Silsby Farm volunteer,” DeNaro said in a disciplinary letter to Welch. “The volunteer located the victim by following the same instructions provided to you during your telephone conversation with Mrs. Schwartz at 2:18 a.m. Had you provided this information to the responding units via the Computer Aided Dispatch system, Haverhill police officers would have located the victim.”

The chief’s report notes the medical examiner has not yet determined the time of Schwartz’s death and that the final medical report is due later this year.

DeNaro has already suspended Welch for five days without pay, the maximum penalty the chief can impose on his own. He said at yesterday’s hearing that he was instructed by Mayor James Fiorentini to recommend Welch be suspended without pay for an additional 175 days. The chief said the mayor has shown a special interest in the case, but he did not elaborate.

Louison, Welch’s lawyer, said it is a violation of the law that governs the disciplinary process for the mayor to tell the police chief what to set as the chief’s recommended punishment. The mayor, as the police appointing authority, is supposed to decide if punishment is warranted only after reading the hearing officer’s findings and his recommendations, Louison said.

Louison also said he researched many other cases of Haverhill officers cited for improperly handling calls for police assistance. He said most of those cases resulted in officers receiving warnings. A few officers received one-day suspensions, Louison said.

Welch has no prior record of discipline or reprimands, police said.

“The only difference between those cases and this one is that Officer Welch is president of the union,” Louison told a reporter after the hearing. “You can read into that what you may.”

Yesterday’s hearing is part of the process of disciplining police officers under Civil Service law.

David Connelly, a lawyer who was hired by the city to hear the case, will now make findings and recommendations to Fiorentini, who will decide Welch’s punishment. Either side can appeal the mayor’s ruling to the state Civil Service Commission.