Conn. cop alleges retaliation after he helped FBI probe department
Officer Vincent Ferrara claimed a former sergeant once put a gun to Ferrara’s chest and said “I wonder if your vest can stop this bullet"
By Ken Dixon
EAST HAVEN, Conn. — East Haven Police Officer Vincent Ferrara is a local hero who stepped up when federal investigators asked him to expose illegal activity in his agency.
Now he’s a marked man, paying a high price for detailing the systemic profiling, harassment and assault of Latinos that sent four other cops to federal prison.
He’s also a victim, according to his federal lawsuit claiming an orchestrated attempt by the town — led by controversial Mayor Joseph Maturo Jr. — to ostracize, intimidate and now fire Ferrara.
Maturo, who as the mayor is the direct and only supervisor of Police Chief Edward Lennon, denies knowing anything about the alleged campaign against Ferrara that could culminate this week week in a termination hearing.
During a recent sworn deposition Maturo used the terms “I don’t remember,” or “I don’t recall” 86 times in the sometimes combative two-hour interview focused on Ferrara’s treatment by East Haven officials, and the fallout from the federal investigation that uncovered a blue wall of silence - and retribution - in the Police Department.
“I’m the policy maker, I guess, and make sure all the rules and regulations are followed,” said Maturo, early in the 103-page transcript of the deposition. Asked whether he discussed the issue of retaliation with Leonard Gallo, a close friend of Maturo’s who retired as police chief shortly after the arrests of the four officers in January, 2012, Maturo said “I didn’t say I didn’t and I didn’t say I did.”
FBI asks for help
Ferrara, who describes himself as an honest cop, could not see into the future back in December of 2010, when the FBI asked for his assistance in exposing the misconduct that eventually rocked the town of 29,000 on Long Island Sound. A few months later, he testified before a federal grand jury in New Haven.
Now, sitting in the kitchen of his Branford home, the 53-year-old father of two and the grandfather of a toddler, pauses when asked if he regrets it.
“I know it was the right thing to do,” he said. “I couldn’t sit and watch that happen. Do I wish things were different? Maybe, but what kind of cowardice does it take to hit someone who’s handcuffed?”
He couldn’t predict the reaction of the co-workers he once called brothers: the abandonment of requested back-up officers during late-night vehicular stops; the allegedly trumped-up internal investigations and disciplinary decisions; the whispers that he was “a rat” for exposing the department’s dirty secrets; the gun pointed at his chest by an officer who ended up in prison for beating a handcuffed suspect.
At union meetings in 2011, months before the criminal indictments of the four officers, Ferrara was allegedly confronted by East Haven Police personnel, who told him not to testify.
Three current police officers are named as defendants in Ferrara’s civil lawsuit, which claims that on March 29, 2016, then-Police Chief Brent Larrabee suspended him after “maliciously made material misstatements” were included in reports prepared by fellow officers who had engaged in threatening behavior. Other internal investigations followed, culminating in a paid suspension ordered on Dec. 15, 2017, following an interview in which Ferrara was ill, suffering from an extreme headache.
The next day he was hospitalized at Yale-New Haven Hospital and diagnosed with glioblastoma, the type of brain cancer that killed U.S. Sen. John McCain.
When he was put on paid administrative, Ferrara was shut out of the computerized payroll system and could not monitor his pay and benefits. Four months later, at the end of April, he asked for coverage under the Family Medical Leave Act.
That was around the time that officials allegedly began depleting his sick and vacation days with no notice. At the end of August, Town Hall officials warned him that his pay and health benefits would end Sept. 1, essentially firing him, even though Ferrara and Brewer understand that he remains on paid suspension.
Ferrara is now paying out of pocket for insurance costs that he describes as devastating.
“They’ve destroyed us financially,” he said. “I’m an employee of East Haven and they just cut me off.”
He says he’s received no phone calls from supervisors or even co-workers during the time he’s been out on leave.
Ready to go back to work, Ferrara feels abandoned by the town he helped protect for 10 years following seven years on the Wallingford Police Department. He’s worried about what might be a continuance of the culture that led to the federal investigation, and its effect on new hires.
“They’re dealing with him in a malicious and sneaky way,” said James S. Brewer, one of Ferrara’s lawyers. “They fraudulently used up his sick time and vacation when he was on paid suspension. So now they’re trying to go back and fire him. It’s like whack-a-mole. They took the fact that the guy is gravely ill from cancer and are using it against him. It makes no sense to me other than they’re playing games with someone’s life.”
Police links to Town Hall
Chief Lennon’s lone supervisor, according to town charter, is Maturo, who infamously said he “might eat tacos” in reaction to the 2012 arrests of four police officers for abusing Latinos.
During the recent sworn deposition when Brewer asked Maturo to recall the “taco” remark, which was videotaped and made national news at the time, Maturo said that incident was taken out of context. Pressed further by Brewer, Maturo replied: “I’m not going to answer that question. Have me arrested.”
The four officers, John Miller, David Cari, Dennis Spaulding and Jason Zullo, were found guilty of civil rights violations — including beating a handcuffed prisoner -- and were sentenced to prison terms ranging from four months for Miller, to 60 months for Spaulding.
They’re all out of prison now. Miller, a former sergeant who allegedly once put a gun to Ferrara’s chest and said “I wonder if your vest can stop this bullet,” now works for a police union.
As part of the federal settlement, Maturo promised not to retaliate against law enforcement personnel who might have assisted in building the cases against the town and police.
The agreement, however, expired at the end of 2017. Ferrara’s lawsuit alleges that days after he filed his lawsuit in March of 2017, a series of retaliatory acts escalated.
Ferrara said that federal law enforcement did little to shield his identity during the investigation, and they’re doing nothing to help now.
“They didn’t protect me at all,” Ferrara said.
Kelly Laco, in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Unit in Washington, last week declined to comment on Ferrara’s case against Maturo and the town. The suit was filed in March, and on Tuesday, Brewer appeared before U.S. District Judge Janet C. Hall in a pretrial scheduling argument.
At the other table were Hugh Keefe and Matthew D. Popilowski, the town attorneys.
Because of the withdrawal of health benefits, Brewer asked that Joseph Coppola, the city’s assistant director of administration and management, added to the list of defendants in the allegations of retaliation, along with Sal Brancati, Maturo’s human resources director and the entire East Haven Board of Police Commissioners.
“It’s unclear who made the decision as of April this year to stop paying him while on paid leave,” Brewer told Hall. Popilowski then stood and began to make a case for why the lawsuit should be rejected. Hall interrupted. “Let’s not try the issue right now,” she said. “I will see you in a couple months.”
Meanwhile, the town’s administrative hearing, in which Ferrara’s job is on the line, is scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 29. Maturo on Friday declined to talk about Ferrara. “This is a very delicate case and I don’t want to make a comment on it until it’s adjudicated,” he said.