Former University of Maine at Machias student sues police, town officials, says officer broke her nose and groped friend

Posted May 22, 2013, at 12:09 p.m.
Last modified May 22, 2013, at 4 p.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — A long saga of turmoil, termination and lawsuits involving former Machias police Officer Richard Strout, who worked for the town for nearly eight years, continues this week.

A former University of Maine at Machias student has filed a federal civil lawsuit accusing Strout of breaking her nose and groping a friend during an unwarranted arrest in the early morning hours of May 28, 2010.

“This guy’s a bad guy,” Attorney Dale Thistle of Newport said Wednesday. Thistle is representing Gabrielle Rushforth, 24, of Machias in the lawsuit, which refers to Strout’s conduct as “malicious, reckless, deliberate and outrageous as to be beyond all bounds of decency.”

The lawsuit, which names as defendants Strout, Police Chief Grady Dwelley and the town of Machias, was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Bangor. The action claims that Rushforth, then 21, and friend Sarah Cotton, also then 21 and both students at the university, were walking home to their apartment from a nearby tavern around 1 a.m. when Cotton kicked a political sign.

The suit alleges that Strout, who was on routine patrol that morning, watched the women leave the tavern and followed them in his cruiser at a very slow speed, keeping pace with the two women as they walked.

Strout, who saw Cotton kick the sign, warned her not to touch any political signs. The suit further states that after warning the two women, Strout left but returned a second time when he ordered them to approach his cruiser. Strout asked for Rushforth’s name, address and date of birth, at which time Rushforth asked him why he was asking for her personal information.

During this time, Cotton was telling Strout that it was she who had kicked the sign, not Rushforth, according to Thistle.

“With no further provocation, Strout came out of his cruiser and accosted [Rushforth] shouting repeatedly ‘You’re going to jail! You’re going to jail! You’re going to jail’…” the suit states. Strout then allegedly grabbed Rushforth, slammed her into the trunk of his cruiser, all while Cotton witnessed the actions and repeatedly asked Strout to leave her alone.

Strout then reportedly forced Rushforth to face him and he struck her in the face with his fist, breaking her nose. He then pepper-sprayed the women. Both were then forced into his cruiser “and while doing so [Strout] grabbed and fondled Cotton’s breasts.”

According to Thistle, Sarah Cotton is bringing a separate, similar civil lawsuit against Strout, Dwelley and Machias later this week. Cotton’s attorney, Bill Logan of Newport, said Wednesday that he indeed planned to file a similar suit on Thursday on behalf of his client.

Rushforth’s suit further states that Strout did not take her to the nearby hospital for treatment of her injuries, had her clothing washed to destroy evidence of blood and pepper spray, and that “Strout is known as a stalker of young women in Washington County and in Machias particularly.” The suit also accuses Strout of asking a fellow Machias police officer to investigate the incident in an effort to cover up Strout’s assaults.

Rushforth’s suit accuses the town and Chief Grady of failing to adequately train Strout, failing to end Strout’s “violent tendencies, particularly towards women” and cultivating an environment at the Machias Police Department which condones injuries to arrestees.

Rushforth and Cotton were charged by Strout with assault on an officer, assault, refusing to submit to arrest, criminal mischief and failure to give correct name. Kicking a political sign is not an arrestable offense and is a civil infraction, the suit clarifies, not criminal mischief.

Thistle said all charges against both women were later dropped.

The suit is asking for an unspecified amount of money for lost wages, medical expenses, attorney’s fees and punitive damages.

Machias Town Manager Christopher Loughlin said Wednesday that the town had not been served with the lawsuit yet and that he could not comment on ongoing litigation. Dwelley is on long-term medical leave after a two-vehicle accident last winter and could not be reached for comment.

Strout, who could not be reached for comment this week, has an up-and-down history with the town of Machias.

“This guy was hired, then fired, then hired again, made acting chief, then demoted by the town of Machias. There is a long history here,” Thistle said Wednesday.

Strout was originally hired in January 2003 and resigned in January 2009. He then returned to the force in October 2009, according to Loughlin. During his second stint, Strout served as interim chief for a few weeks while Dwelley was out on medical leave.

But Strout was fired in May 2011 and subsequently sued the town, contending wrongful termination.

In his whistleblower lawsuit, filed in January 2012, Strout claimed that he was fired after he informed the police chief and town officials that a reserve officer was working more hours than permitted under state law.

In the suit, Strout maintained that the chief took offense to these comments and told Strout he had a waiver allowing the reservist to work the additional hours. The relationship between Strout and the chief deteriorated, according to Strout’s civil suit, and Strout claimed that the chief manufactured evidence against him including a stalking complaint.

The suit also stated that his termination was based on an evaluation by a Hallowell psychologist who said he was not fit for duty. Strout maintains that Dwelley met ahead of time with the psychologist and provided him with false information that led to that evaluation.

That lawsuit was settled in December 2012 for $50,000. Strout also was allowed to replace the termination notice in his personnel file with a resignation letter. Loughlin said the town’s insurance covered all but $5,500 of the settlement amount.

Other provisions of the settlement included that town officials were banned from discussing Strout or his employment. All Loughlin would say at the time was, “The chapter is closed.”

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