Second coed sues Machias police, town over officer’s ‘malicious, reckless’ conduct

Posted May 28, 2013, at 11:19 a.m.
Last modified May 29, 2013, at 8:09 a.m.
Richard Strout of the Machias Police
Richard Strout of the Machias Police

MACHIAS, Maine — For the second time in less than two weeks, a former University of Maine coed has filed a federal lawsuit against the town of Machias, its police chief and former police officer Richard Strout.

Sarah Cotton, 24, of Columbia Falls alleges Strout violated her rights in May 2010 when he arrested her for a civil infraction that does not permit arrest, maced her and fondled her breasts during the arrest. Last week, Gabrielle Rushforth, 24 of Machias, filed a similar suit, in which she alleged her nose was broken by the officer during the same arrest.

The women, who were 21 at the time, were originally charged with assault on an officer, assault, refusing to submit to arrest and criminal mischief. All of the charges against both women were subsequently dropped in Washington County Superior Court.

According to both civil lawsuits, filed in U.S. District Court in Bangor, the women were stalked by Strout and arrested after Cotton kicked a political sign while they were walking home from a tavern on May 28, 2010. The lawsuits characterize Strout’s behavior during that event as “malicious, reckless, deliberate and outrageous.”

The Cotton 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 pair as they walked. He observed Cotton kick the sign and warned the women about such behavior. Cotton attempted to reset the sign and apologized to Strout, according to her attorney, William Logan of Newport.

The suit alleges that after leaving, Strout returned to continue following the women. He asked them to step to his cruiser and requested their names and addresses. Cotton provided her information but Rushforth questioned why she was required to provide it. Both suits allege that Strout exited his cruiser shouting, “You’re going to jail!” and that he grabbed Rushforth and slammed her into the cruiser. Cotton’s suit said she witnessed Strout then turn Rushforth around and punch her in the face, breaking her nose. Cotton’s attorney said she was attempting to tell Strout that she was the one who had kicked the sign, not Rushforth. Both women were maced and placed in the cruiser.

Cotton’s suit alleges that Strout then removed her from his cruiser, fondled her breasts and took her purse before transporting both Cotton and Rushforth to Washington County Jail. Rushforth was not taken to the hospital for medical treatment of her broken nose. Both suits maintain that Strout had the women’s clothing washed to remove traces of mace and blood in an attempt to cover up his actions.

“Strout’s conduct was so extreme and outrageous as to exceed all possible bounds of decency and must be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable,” Logan wrote in Cotton’s suit.

Both suits also characterize Strout as a “known stalker of young women.” Rushforth’s suit accuses the town and Police Chief Grady Dwelley 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.

Both lawsuits name as defendants Strout, Dwelley and the town of Machias. Both women have requested jury trials and an unspecified amount of damages. The first suit was filed Tuesday, May 21, and the second was filed Wednesday, May 23. Town officials will not comment on ongoing litigation.

The suits are asking for an unspecified amount of money for lost wages, attorney’s fees and punitive damages. Rushforth also is asking for medical expenses. Logan could not be reached for comment Tuesday morning.

Strout, who could not be reached for comment on either suit, has a decadelong history with the town of Machias.

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

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