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    Saturday, June 03, 2023

    Lawsuit accusing Groton Town police chief of killing a suicidal man is before state Supreme Court

    In this Sept. 11, 2008, Day file photo, Poquonnock Bridge firefighter Tim Devine, center, salutes the flag as the pledge of allegiance is recited and the national anthem sung as students at Ella Grasso Southeastern Technical High School gather before the start of classes to mark the seventh anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    There has not been a lot of dispute about the facts of the July 24, 2012, death of Timothy Devine, whose estate claims in a still-pending lawsuit that a state police task force, led by Louis Fusaro, now Groton Town police chief, precipitated Devine's shooting himself in the head by firing flash grenades and rounds of painful rubber projectiles at him.

    A standoff occurred during the middle of the night on the water's edge at the University of Connecticut Avery Point campus, where Devine, who had told people he was going to kill himself, had gone by himself with a gun.

    Groton police, working from a description of Devine's car, found him alone near the water and eventually called in the state police task force, under Fusaro's command, which arrived with two dozen officers.

    Devine never threatened to use the gun or pointed it at anyone but himself. Police created a security barrier and no civilians were ever at risk. Police refused to let Devine speak to his family, who were at the scene, to let them try to defuse the situation.

    After some five hours of standoff, as dawn approached, Fusaro ordered the flash grenades and first round of projectiles. After the first round, Devine held the gun to his head and said, "don't make me do this." Police fired more projectiles, the lawsuit said. Devine finally fatally shot himself.

    "The allegations support a claim that the defendants (Fusaro and three other responding State Police officers) committed murder, manslaughter or negligent homicide," attorneys for Devine's estate wrote in a motion in the case.

    "Once the defendants shot the plaintiff, they were not acting in their official capacity," the estate's motion continues. "They then became common criminals and are sued in their individual capacity."

    That distinction between their carrying out official duties as opposed to acting as individuals, is, in essence, the issue now before the state Supreme Court, which took the case after an appellate panel overturned a Superior Court judge's granting of a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

    The appellate panel agreed with lawyers for Devine's estate that the sovereign immunity granted to the state against lawsuits and immunity available for employees carrying out official duties would not apply in this case because Devine's estate specifically says it is suing the officers individually.

    The Devine estate lawyers have further argued that actions of police under Fusaro's command went beyond official duties.

    "If a State Police officer pulled a citizen over for speeding, and after handcuffing him, beat him to death, he was no longer acting in his official capacity. The same is true here," they wrote in one motion. "They assaulted and killed the plaintiff's decedent. They should be arrested for murder, manslaughter or negligent homicide. There is no immunity."

    Attorney General William Tong's office, who is representing the four officers, has refused to comment on the case, saying it is pending litigation. Neither Fusaro nor attorneys for the Devine estate returned phone messages.

    Retired Groton Town Manager Mark Oefinger said at the time he hired Fusaro — retired from state police — as police chief that the lawsuit by Devine's estate should not disqualify him from the post. But the decision was controversial.

    Devine's aunt, Genevieve Cerf, promptly resigned from her position on the Groton Town Council in protest over Fusaro's appointment as chief.

    Devine's estate hired celebrated Connecticut defense lawyer Hubert Santos, who died last year. His Hartford firm, Santos & LaLima, is continuing the litigation. A brief from the estate is due to the Supreme Court on June 9.

    The attorney general already has filed a 120-page brief, asking the court to respect the decisions of other courts asserting immunity in this case.

    Devine, who was a Groton firefighter, owned a health fitness gym and participated in many charitable fundraisers. The lawsuit by his estate says he had become suicidal after police told him they were investigating complaints by teenage boys that he had touched them inappropriately while directing their workouts at the gym.

    Attorney Santos told a reporter in 2020, as the case was pending before the appellate panel, that state police officers who assaulted Devine thought less of him because of the allegations by the teenagers. According to the lawsuit, a witness overheard one of the officers at the standoff saying that Devine shooting himself would be an acceptable outcome.

    "If this were a congressman, or a councilman of the Town of Groton or a successful businessman, this would never have happened," Santos said.

    Meanwhile, if the state Supreme Court agrees with the appellate panel, Groton could face the awkward reality of a trial before judge or jury accusing the town's chief of police, as the lawsuit suggests, of either murder, manslaughter or the negligent homicide of a town resident.

    And if the Supreme Court agrees they are being sued as individuals and not in their official capacity as police officers, will the attorney general continue to represent them?

    This is the opinion of David Collins.


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