By Jill Harmacinski
NORTH ANDOVER — They sued for $26 million, but family members of a 45-year-old Worcester man who died after he was arrested at a state police checkpoint on Thanksgiving eve three years ago, settled with local, state police and the sheriff’s department for $1.6 million.
After his Nov. 25, 2009 death, Kenneth Howe’s wife and three children filed a wrongful death suit in federal court, naming 33 officers and troopers along with now-retired North Andover Police Chief Richard Stanley, former state police Colonel Mark Delaney and Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins.
The three police agencies agreed to pay varying portions of the settlement, although no police officer or trooper was ever disciplined or faced criminal charges after Howe’s death.
In the wake of Howe’s death and the following lawsuit, state police also reviewed protocols surrounding sobriety checkpoints and “did not find any shortcomings or problems with checkpoint protocol,” a state police spokesman said.
In the suit, the family claimed the physical beating and delay in calling for medical services when Howe was arrested led to his death. Howe was arrested at the checkpoint, set up on Route 114 in front of The Eagle-Tribune offices, at 11:07 p.m. after police saw one of his passengers smoking marijuana.
Howe was in the area with two friends after driving from Worcester to North Andover to buy a speedboat the day before Thanksgiving.
A trooper saw Howe gesturing in the truck and reached inside to grab his hands. Howe then allegedly struck her, prompting a tussle which ended with him outside the truck. Trooper Jodi Gerardi yelled for help and a combination of police officers and troopers “swarmed” Howe, according to the family’s lawyer, Frances King.
Howe was hit with a baton, handcuffed and shackled, according to the suit. Despite saying he couldn’t breathe, King said officers never called for medical help until Howe was lying unresponsive on the floor of the booking area of the Andover state police barracks.
The lawsuit also included 43 photographs taken by Eagle-Tribune photographer Carl Russo, who was leaving the office at the time of the incident. The photos show Howe face-down on the ground, surrounded by police officers, some of whom are on top of him and restraining him.
Forty-six minutes elapsed between Howe’s detention at the checkpoint and his arrival at Lawrence General Hospital, where he pronounced dead on arrival, according to the suit.
“Here we are, three years later and I still say ‘How the hell did this happen?’” King said. “This was a needless and unnecessary death ... Just such an unnecessary tragedy.”
King said the settlement was reached after years of “very long and contentious litigation” followed by an eight-hour mediation session in federal court. Howe’s widow, Margaret, and his three children, “want to move on and it was a reasonable settlement,” she said.
North Andover paid $400,000 of the settlement, leaving the remaining $1.2 million tab to the sheriff’s department and state police.
“North Andover paid a fraction of the settlement and we essentially considered that the cost of the defense, as I was always confident North Andover police acted appropriately in this case,” said Leonard Kesten, the police department’s attorney.
Sheriff Cousins said his officers and state troopers were defended by the same attorney. He stressed that no one was disciplined or charged and that corrections officers continue to routinely work with state police at sobriety checkpoints.
“There was no wrongdoing from our officer’s standpoint, but no one wants to see anyone die,” Cousins said.
State police would not comment on the settlement.
King noted the difficulty of pursuing such a suit, since the person needed most “is dead.”
“People want to believe police. People want to believe they are protected,” she said. “I would like to think and believe that police officers have walked away from this and will address a situation like this much differently again.”
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter under the screename EagleTribJill.