Monday, June 14, 2010

Middletown pays $125,000 to settle abuse case that resulted in officer's suicide

Middletown pays $125,000 to settle abuse case that resulted in officer's suicide

On December 11, 2009, the Township of Middletown (Monmouth County) agreed to pay $125,000 to the family of Middletown Auxiliary Police Officer who sued the Middletown Police Department, particularly Police Lieutenant Robert Morrell for the officer's wrongful death.

In her suit suit, Kathleen Prevost, the wife of the late Robert Prevost, said that her husband, then age 39, committed suicide on November 2, 2005 after having been berated and arrested by Morrell and other members of the Middletown Police Department.

Prevost alleged that her husband Robert, who had Attention Deficit Disorder, was a cocaine addict who overcame his addiction in 1998. While clean and sober, he allegedly reinvented himself and dedicated himself to his family and community. In 2004, he "realized his dream of becoming an auxiliary police officer" with Middletown Township.

The complaint further alleges that unlike most others in the police department, Lieutenant Morrell "harbored a sinister dislike of" Prevost because he was a recovering drug addict. Morrell's contempt for Prevost was allegedly well known throughout the department and Prevost "became intimidated and fearful of Lt. Morrell and sought to avoid personal contact with him whenever possible." Morrell is alleged to have also abused other officers and reportedly "sent boxes filled with horse manure" to the homes of four officers he had a dispute with. Despite complaints from others and questions arising as to Morrell's emotional and mental stability, Police Chief Robert Oches and others in the administration "were deliberately indifferent to numerous recurring complaints about Lt. Morrell and his increasingly obvious emotional problems."

On the day of his suicide, Prevost was assigned to traffic control detail at a funeral. Allegedly fearful of running into Morrell, Prevost reportedly took his own licensed B92-5 Beretta pistol with him instead of retrieving his identical, department issued pistol from the police station. When Morrell learned that Prevost was carrying his personal pistol, he allegedly "became enraged." Even though Morrell's direct supervisor allegedly ordered him to handle the issue as a minor disciplinary matter, Morrell "issued an all points bulletin ordering that [Prevost] be arrested and brought to the the Police Department headquarters."

After officers arrested Prevost and brought him in, he was locked in "the cage" and Morrell allegedly went into a "an ear-splitting, hysterical rage that could be overheard throughout headquarters." He allegedly "mercilessly berated, cursed and threatened [Prevost] in a vile, malevolent manner. Morrell then allegedly charged Prevost with unlawful possession of a hand gun and bail was set at $7,500. After making bail, Prevost went home, "wrote two poignant notes, one to his wife and one to Morrell [and] ended his life with a single rifle shot to the head."

$75,000 of the $125,000 was paid to Prevost's estate to settle the federal civil lawsuit and the other $50,000 was paid because of a dependency claim filed with the New Jersey Division of Worker's Compensation.

The case is captioned Prevost v. Middletown, Federal Case No. 3:07-cv-5260 and Prevost's attorney was Robert F. Vardy of Union. The lawsuit and settlement agreement are on-line here.

None of Prevost's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $125,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Middletown or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Middletown or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Prevost $125,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants' decision to settle was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases settle before trial--it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.