EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 4, 2013

Judge blames police for 'travesty' in case of student left disfigured

Staff Writer

---- — BEVERLY — A victim got no justice yesterday. A judge said so.

Judge Robert Brennan pointed to several reasons for that, including, he suggested, a “code of silence” among Endicott College athletes who attended the same party where the victim, a 22-year-old Northeastern University student, was left disfigured.

But Brennan said another portion of blame falls at the feet of the Beverly Police Department, for its “utter lack of follow-up” in December 2011, when the victim, during an off-campus party attended by many Endicott College lacrosse players, was slashed across the face.

The wound was deep enough to reveal his lower jaw and teeth in photos and to leave a dark red scar that curves across one side of his face, starting next to his mouth and up toward his cheek.

That, the judge said, is a travesty.

“It is to me another travesty that (the victim) walks out of court feeling there was no justice in this case,” Brennan said.

“It would be equally as much a travesty to convict Mr. (Brendan) Eppley of a felony,” the judge said, based on the somewhat-equivocal evidence he heard during a two-day, jury-waived trial in Salem District Court.

A proper investigation by police “could have produced some physical evidence or statements,” said Brennan, that might have bolstered the case against Eppley. Instead, Brennan said he was forced to find Eppley, 22, of Darien, Conn., not guilty of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon.

The case has already led to the demotion of a high-ranking state police lieutenant, Kenneth Martin, who was removed from his position as commander of the state’s crime scene services last week as a result of his work for Eppley’s defense team.

Yesterday, it raised questions about the performance of Beverly police at what started out as a routine call for a loud party but turned into a felony investigation.

Witnesses testified that the responding officers ordered potential witnesses at the party to leave — sending many college students who had been drinking to their cars, according to the students themselves — and failed to take down the names of any of the partygoers besides the victim, the suspect (Eppley), the victim’s cousin Nicholas Tagnieri, and a fourth man, Harry Holden, Eppley’s best friend.

The officers, identified in a police report as David Grimes, Edward Hathorn and Sgt. John Vitale, relied solely on the victim’s identification of Eppley, whom he had seen in a darkened, strobe-lit kitchen in the 9 Mason St. apartment and then again outside the house in the early morning hours of Dec. 11, 2011.

The victim testified that he and Eppley exchanged words after he told Eppley to leave because police were on their way. The victim said he thought Tagnieri, who was hosting the party, wanted everyone out.

Eppley, a lacrosse teammate of Tagnieri, allegedly refused and swore at the victim, who was up from Northeastern that night visiting his cousin.

The victim testified that he grabbed Eppley’s arm, but then Eppley pulled away and swung around, his fist raised. The victim said he closed his eyes, anticipating a blow. The next thing he felt was blood pouring out of his face, he said.

The victim acknowledged that he didn’t see what hit him. He, and later police, surmised that it was a bottle. But no broken bottle was ever found by officers.

The officers told two party guests who were cleaning blood and broken glass off the floor to just keep cleaning up, never securing the crime scene or returning to look for whatever it was that sliced the victim’s face open, the witnesses testified.

When police saw the blood-covered kitchen floor, one officer yelled, “Hey, who spilled the jungle juice?” Ryan Sutherland, an Endicott student who attended the party, testified.

“Are you serious?” Sutherland recalled asking the officer, who responded by telling him to leave.

When a blood-covered Lauren Sleeper tried to ask an officer to call an ambulance for the victim, the officer allegedly snapped, “Don’t touch me!”

Outside the party, Grimes interviewed the victim, according to his police report. “I asked him if he knew his attacker,” the officer wrote in a 11/2-page report. “He said that he did not know his name, but knew him as a lacrosse teammate of Mr. Tagnieri.

“I also asked others as they passed or stood in the crowd that had gathered if they had seen the fight or knew who had struck the victim. All said no,” Grimes wrote.

Soon after that, however, the victim pointed to Eppley as his assailant, then walked over to him, kicking at him.

At the hospital, the victim mentioned Holden as a possible second assailant. But after Holden denied striking him, he was not charged.

Defense lawyer Hugh Curran blasted the Police Department for “a complete and utter lack of any investigation,” suggesting that the officers had rushed to judgment.

Even a prosecutor, Patrick Collins, admitted during his closing argument that, “There are no perfect cases, there are no perfect investigations, and there are some that are worse — and you see that here.” Collins and fellow prosecutor Michelle DeCourcey opted not to call any of the Beverly police officers to the witness stand.

Instead, the prosecutors, who argued that the victim’s identification ought to be sufficient, called several students, including some who were identified by the defense investigator as potential witnesses. None of them testified that they saw who caused the injury.

A frustrated Collins also alluded in his closing argument to the “code of silence,” pointing to a “secret handshake” one student described on the stand.

The defense lawyer put the officers on his witness list but later decided not to call any witnesses at all.

Beverly police Chief Mark Ray did not respond to messages left at his office and on his cellphone late yesterday afternoon.

The victim, who has asked not to be identified, said yesterday that the outcome of the case was “really upsetting.”

The victim said he believes the prosecutors did “an amazing job” with the case they were handed, and that Brennan, the judge, was fair.

“I felt the judge believed me and wishes he could have found (Eppley) guilty,” the victim said.

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.