File photo
The Deputy United States Attorney that brought down Boston FBI Agents and local cops for illegal activities with federal informants seems to have turned a blind eye to the questionable appointment of suspended Hartford Police Officer Robert Lawlor (pictured) to the Federal Violent Crimes Impact Team (“VCIT”) in 2005. 

Connecticut’s U.S. Attorney Kevin O’Connor and Deputy U.S. Attorney John Durham remain mum on the topic of Lawlor’s involvement in a Federal Task Force operating in Hartford that led to the death of 18-year-old Jashon Bryant and shooting of Brandon Henry by Lawlor.  Lawlor killed Bryant and seriously wounded Henry while on duty as a deputized United States Marshal working on the VCIT.

VCIT was a joint operation, federally funded, that utilized Federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (“ATF”) agents and Hartford Police officers to get guns off the streets.

Who is John Durham?

Durham, a well renowned federal prosecutor was hand picked in 1998 by Attorney General Janet Reno to investigate allegations that, for decades, FBI agents and police officers had been compromised by the mob.  Durham soon discovered that FBI Special Agent John Connelly had assisted the mob in at least three murders. Durham successfully prosecuted these cases and earned praise from his colleagues for his integrity and perfectionism.

After gangs took over the streets of Hartford in the early 1990, Durham was appointed to a joint Federal, State and local gang task force. As supervising prosecutor for the Federal Northern Violent Crimes Task Force, Durham oversaw numerous federal investigations and prosecutions, crippling the gangs. At various different times Hartford Police Officer Robert Lawlor worked on this task force.

One of the most controversial cases involving Durham’s task force was the murder of Los Solidos enforcer Enrique “Rick the Ruler” Rameriz on June 15, 1997 at the Puerto Rican Day festival in Pope Park.  Durham and his task force, including Hartford Detective Nick Russo, learned quickly who shot Rameriz.  Los Solido Julio Ramos was arrested and charged with the murder by federal authorities within days.  Hartford Police Capers (now Major Crimes) detectives investigated and arrested another man for the same murder.  For months, an unseemly turf war waged, pitting Durham against Hartford State’s Attorney James E. Thomas. Ultimately, Ramos pleaded guilty to the murder and the other man was released from jail.

The other man ultimately settled a federal civil rights case for $600,000.

Lawlor As Task Force Member

On Saturday, May 7, 2005 at approximately 7:15 pm Lawlor and ATF Special Agent Daniel Prather were working together at the corner of Main and Nelson Streets in Hartford. Lawlor approached a Nissan Maxima in which Henry was in the driver’s seat and Bryant was in the front passenger’s seat.  Prather spoke to the driver Henry, while Lawlor spoke to Bryant. A short time later, Lawlor pulled back from the car and fired five rounds from his .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol.  Two shots went through the front passenger seat head rest and into Bryant’s head killing him.  Another shot tore off the tip of Bryant’s thumb.  Henry was shot in the chest by Lawlor. 

Initially Hartford Police began investigating the shooting.  This included a brief interview of Lawlor by Hartford Police Sergeant Mack Hawkins, who supervised the Intelligence Division that oversees VCIT.

On May 9, Prather was interviewed by the ATF Shooting Review Coordinator Robert A. Schmitt., ATF Agent in Charge Dennis Turman, Hartford Police Lt. Achilles Rethis and two other Hartford detectives.  Prather, with his Attorney, James Cowdery, refused to allow the interview to be taped or recorded and did not provide a written statement. There is no other record of any federal investigation into the incident.

Prather has since been transferred from the Hartford area. At the time of the shooting Lawlor was deputized as a United States Marshal. It is a common practice in federal task forces to deputize the local police officers so that they can enforce federal offenses. 

More than a year later, on May 15, 2006, after a state Grand Jury investigation, Lawlor was charged with manslaughter in the first degree for the death of Bryant and assault in the first degree for the wounding of Henry.

How Lawlor came to be a member of this federal task force is unclear. However, it is clear that federal authorities at the United States Attorney’s Office for Connecticut were very familiar with Lawlor’s checkered past.  Despite being described as a “perfectionist” Durham did nothing to prevent Lawlor’s appointment to yet another federal unit in 2005.

What Should He Have Known?

On April 1, 1999, at the Hartford Police Intelligence Division offices a large stash of drugs and drug paraphernalia was discovered by Hartford Police Lt. O’Connell and FBI Agent Kevin Kline.  At that time Lawlor was a Detective and member of that unit.

In a November 19, 2002 deposition in Russo v. City of Hartford, et al, in which Lawlor was a defendant for threatening to injure Russo during the turf war between agencies in the late 1990’s, Durham was questioned about Lawlor’s past. Durham testified he had never been aware of the drug stash and Lawlor’s involvement.  When shown an exhibit from an internal Hartford Police investigation that listed the seized drugs and drug making equipment, Durham testified, “That’s correct.  I don’t recall ever having seen that before.”

Testimony from Durham’s sworn testimony indicates he knew or should have known of Lawlor’s history:

Q.  (By Mr. Brewer) Were you ever told that in April, April Fools Day, which is April 1, 1999,  a large quantity of drugs and drug paraphernalia was found in the Criminal Intelligence Division at the Hartford Police Department?  Anyone ever tell you that?

A.  (By Mr. Durham) Not that I recall.

Q   Even to this day, you haven’t been told that?

A   No

Q.  Jim Glasser didn’t tell you that?

A   No.

Q.  Jim Glasser didn’t tell you that I wrote him a letter and gave him a report and inventory and testimony regarding that?

A.  I don’t believe so, no.

Q.  And that the persons that testified about possessing these narcotics and drug paraphernalia were detectives that were at some point assigned to the gang task force.  You never learned that?

A   Run that by me.

Q.  I’ll break it down.  Do you know who Detective Robert Lawlor is?

A   Yes.

Q.  Did he ever work for the Federal Task Force?

A.  Yes.

Q.  Did he work after 1995 for any federal taskforce?

A.  You know, I think that Detective Lawlor worked with the I guess what you’re referring to is the Hartford Federal Gang Task Force before June of 1995

Q.  Yes.  I think he worked there twice.  I’m not sure.

A.  He worked there prior to that time.  Lawlor had; worked there prior to that time and we did some of the initial investigations relating to drug trafficking activities and other matters.  And then I think there was an overlap for some short period of time when Lawlor was. . . And Lawlor left.

Q.  Wasn’t he removed?

A.  I don’t remember the exact circumstances which resulted in Detective Lawlor leaving, but I do remember there was some issue that had come up.  I just don’t recall what it was.

Q.  Do you recall ever learning that now Judge, then Assistant State’s Attorney for Hartford Carl Taylor accused Lawlor of committing perjury—in a criminal drug case that Taylor was prosecuting?

A.  I have a recollection that there were issues raised about Detective Lawlor’s testimony in a number of cases, but I don’t have a specific recollection of Carl Taylor as opposed to somebody else.

Q.  Did you—I know—I think you were up in Boston at the time, but did you ever learn that inexplicably Lawlor was reassigned to a Federal Task Force sometime in April 1999?

A.  I know that at some point in time Detective Lawlor started working with some people I think in our Hartford office.  I don’t remember if there was a taskforce there or not or he was just working on some investigations.  I remember he was reassigned.

Q.  Do you know if Lawlor, …(omitted other names) of the Hartford Police Department were ever accused of corruption?

A.  You know, I don’t know.  Nicky may have said something about that, but I don’t have a clear recollection of that.

Q.  Do you know who—let me show you this, what we marked as Exhibit 91.  For the record, it’s a May 22, 2000, there’s two memos.  They’re both dated the same date, one from Lieutenant Robert Carlson, Commander Internal Affairs—I’m sorry.  “From Deborah Barrows, Acting Chief of Police to Lieutenant Carlson.  Subject:  Request for 1 file found narcotics.”  And then the next memo is “From Deborah Barrows to Lieutenant O’Connell, Commander Intelligence Division request for I file found narcotics” and then the 1 file is identified as 00, which I believe is the year 2000-10 is the report that follows. And I just wanted to see if you were ever made aware of this internal investigation conducted by the Hartford Police Department in which the defendants Lawlor and [omitted] were at issue?

A.  This does not look familiar to me.

Q.  If you look at the first memos in the body of it, the very brief body of it first page, it refers to narcotics that were found on April 1, 1999.
A.  Yes.

Q.  Did anyone tell you that—if you look at the tab, I put a tab in there, there’s an inventory that was according to that report taken by Lieutenant O’Connell of what was found.  Were you ever made aware of either the investigation or the drugs that were found at the Intelligence Division on that date?

A.  You know, this does not ring a bell with me.  I   don’t know.  Is this April 1 of 1999 some April Fool’s joke?

Q.  No, no.  There’s no joke in here.

A   No, I don’t recall. I don’t believe that I was aware of this.

Q.  Do you know if Detectives Lawlor, …were involved in any
drug prosecutions from 1995 until the present?

A.  Well, Detective Lawlor worked I know from personal knowledge in the Hartford Gang Task Force.

Q.  That’s drug investigations, right?

A.  Yes.  There were underlying drug trafficking charges in some of those matters.  Who were the other people? 

Q.  As you sit here today, do you think you would want to know at the time these individuals were working for you that they had what I showed you in Exhibit 91. This quantity of drugs, not in evidence but simply in a box stashed in their office?  Would you want to know that?

A.  I can tell you as a general proposition, the United States Attorneys’ Office request of federal, state, or local law enforcement agencies that their personnel records be checked before they testify, so if there’s anything in an individual police officer’s or agent’s file which reflects on their veracity that’s disclosed to the prosecutor because the prosecutor has an obligation to disclose that to the defense.

I’ve obviously not read through the lengthy memorandum there, but if there were information about, I guess in this instance you’re talking about Lawlor that would relate to his credibility or veracity, they’d want to know about it because they’d have an obligation to disclose it.

Q.  Let me read from the interview that Lieutenant O’Connell, his supervisor, took from Detective Lawlor on August 27 [1999].

“Detective Lawlor stated the box was used for training and [other] Detective[s] did the training.  . .  Then he goes on to say, ‘[He] stated the drug box may have been used by the Vice and Narcotics Division for training while he was assigned to the Intelligence.”

Q. Don’t you think that if Detective Lawlor is going to be assigned within a month of the drugs being found on April 1, 1999, that that information should have been provided to the federal authorities?  To the U.S. Attorneys’ Office?

A.  From what you told me so far, I guess if the officer had engaged in some wrongdoing, that should have been disclosed.

Q.  Never mind the conclusion.  What if he was just under investigation for potentially having illegally in his possession among other things 16 zip-lock plastic bags containing a plant like substance, 6 small plastic zip-lock bags with rock cocaine, one small plastic bag with rock cocaine, 147 heat sealed plastic bags or glassine bags containing a white powder substance heroin,  and drug paraphernalia, ink stamp, etc, if you’re under investigation for that in any agency from your training and experience, should you be going out and doing drug investigations?

A.  I can only speak to what concern we would have in the United States Attorneys’ Office.  If a person were under investigation relating to a matter which would have to be disclosed to the defense and might affect their credibility as a witness at trial, we would want to know about that.

Q.  Do you know if Detective Lawlor at any time, I’m not going by April 1, 1999, I’m going by 1995 because that’s when supposedly the box was sitting there since,  this box with all this paraphernalia.  That was apparently never inventoried.  If he had that under his custody and control, he could get things out of the box, put things into the box.  Wouldn’t that be something that needs to be disclosed to defense attorneys if Lawlor’s a witness in a drug case?

A.  I would say that that may be something that we would want disclosed to us so we could at least bring it to the attention of the judge and ask the judge whether we need to disclose that to the defense or not.

Q.  You’ve been a career prosecutor, right?

A.  Yes.  I didn’t get these off-the-rack suits easily, Pal.

Q.  I read that article.  I’m off-the-rack at Filene’s so there’s no problem there.  Even so, you know what defense attorneys like to use as far as to either mitigate or try to defeat a prosecution, right?

A.  Yes.

Q.  One of the things that obviously any defense attorney would salivate for is the fact that one of your investigators has a stash of drugs in his office, isn’t that true?

A.  If I were defense counsel, I might be interested in that information.

Q.  Do you know what investigations Lawlor …and I’m not limiting it to federal, federal
or state, where they were witnesses and conducted drug arrests from 1995 on?

A.  My recollection is Detective Lawlor was very active, an aggressive police officer.  And I think by reputation, I think Detective Lawlor’s sort of nickname was Robocop, right?

Q.  Yup.  That’s what other people call him.

A.  And he was very active in the community.  And I believe, but I don’t know this because I never had occasion to look at his statistical accomplishments but I believe for some period of time, he was actively involved in narcotics investigations.

Q.  Isn’t this worth investigating if you have a corruption probe, the fact that there are drugs found on officers?

Q   (By AUSA. PLOURDE)  We are going beyond the limit of the authorization.

Phone Calls to the Feds Net Few Answers

Almost two years from the date of the incident, federal authorities are still confused about what, if any, investigation was conducted by the United States Department of Justice. Questions about Lawlor’s membership in a federal operation have never been asked or answered.

A request for comment from United States Attorney Kevin O’Connor and Deputy United States Attorney for Connecticut John Durham were unanswered.  Tom Carson, spokesman for the Connecticut U.S. Attorney’s Office replied to inquiries regarding Lawlor and his membership on the VCIT at the time of the May 2005 killing that:

“The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Connecticut is recused from any investigation.  Your question number 1 should be directed to the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.

As to your question number 2, I’m not aware of any documents that exist that detail a “vetting process” for agents and officers that make up the VCIT, or any of the joint law enforcement task forces that exist.  You may want to direct this question to the ATF, which is the lead federal agency in the VCIT program.  Of course, we have to decline to comment on any specific questions related to how officers or agents were chosen to participate on Hartford’s VCIT.”

Numerous phone calls to the United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division last week resulted in a statement from a paralegal, who refused to give his name for attribution, that “there is no record of any investigation regarding the death of Jashon Bryant or the actions of Officer Robert Lawlor.”

This was followed up by a late day phone message from an unidentified person named “Cynthia” from the Justice Department, that, “We do have an open investigation regarding the Bryant death.” 

The Connecticut U.S. Attorney has recused himself and his office and the Civil Rights Division, Criminal Section of the U.S. Department of Justice has provided conflicting answers regarding even if they are conducting an investigation.  Members of the Hartford community have been outraged by this killing and wonder if the federal government has the stomach to investigate their own conduct.

Editor’s note: The reporter who reported this article is a former attorney who represented Hartford Detective and Task Force member Nick Russo after he was arrested by Hartford Police and Thomas for illegally obtaining prescription pain killers for numerous work related injuries. Russo’s civil case was also settled for an undisclosed amount.