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Stonington to investigate police handling of Quality Inn assault

Stonington — The town has hired an independent investigator to review how police handled the investigation of a June 26 incident at the Quality Inn in Mystic, in which surveillance video shows a Black hotel clerk being beaten by a white couple who allegedly shouted racial slurs at her.

Police have been criticized at rallies — including one hosted Saturday by We Won't Stand Down — and on social media for not arresting the two suspects before they were able to return to the hotel and drive back to New York after leaving Lawrence + Memorial Hospital. The suspects, whom police identified as Philip Sarner, 39, and Emily Orbay, 27, remain at large. The New London State’s Attorney’s office has issued warrants charging Sarner with second-degree assault, third-degree assault and Orbay with third-degree assault. They also have been charged with intimidation based on bigotry or bias, the state’s hate crime statute.

First Selectwoman Danielle Chesebrough announced the investigation on the town’s Facebook page late Friday. She wrote that over “the past two weeks many people have been diligently working to better understand the events that took place on June 26, 2020 when the appalling assault of a Mystic hotel employee occurred.”

"The decision to conduct an external review was made in partnership in order to ensure that our community retains the confidence in our officers that they need to carry out the important work they do every day," she said.

She wrote that in the “interest of transparency” police Chief J. Darren Stewart, with support from the Board of Police Commissioners, requested an external review of the investigation. It is unclear when the police commissioners made the decision to support the investigation, as it canceled its meeting last Thursday. It has scheduled a special virtual meeting for 5 p.m. Monday to hear a "status report on Quality Inn incident."

Chesebrough wrote that through the office of Conway, Londregan, Sheehan & Monaco, which serves as the town attorney, she has retained attorney Frank E. Rudewicz of the Boston firm of blumshapiro to conduct an external review of the hotel incident and the police department’s policies and procedures.

She said Rudewicz has "extensive experience in the investigation of police related matters and in the review of police department policies and procedures." Rudewicz's resume shows he worked 14 years for the Hartford Police Department as a patrolman and detective, rising to be commander of its intelligence division before leaving after earning his law degree from the University of Connecticut in 1992.   

She said Rudewicz will soon be providing a confidential email address for the public to provide input. The findings from the review will be made public.

Chesebrough said the cost of the investigation, which began Friday, is not to exceed $15,000. As for when it will be complete, she said there is no anticipated end date but Rudewicz is aware that the review "is time sensitive."

Chesebrough said she expects all police officers to cooperate with the investigation. She added the police union has been apprised of the town's intention to conduct the probe. 

Sarner and Orbay allegedly attacked 59-year-old Crystal Caldwell at the Quality Inn on the morning of June 26. The couple was staying at the hotel, where Caldwell works part time at the front desk.

Sarner, who has a long criminal history in New York and has lived at various addresses on Long Island, allegedly called the desk to complain about an issue with hot water in their room and then went downstairs to the desk where he confronted Caldwell, pummeling her in the head, she said.

Shortly after, Caldwell was assaulted a second time in a hotel hallway while trying to get ice for her swelling head and face. A surveillance video from the hotel shows a man police say is Sarner punching, stomping and body-slamming Caldwell to the floor. She suffered a concussion and injuries to her eye, face, head, wrist, ribs and back, she said.

Caldwell, Orbay and Sarner all requested medical treatment. Caldwell went to Pequot Treatment Center and Sarner and Orbay to L+M.

Capt. Todd Olson has said police called L+M and said a suspect in an assault was being treated in the emergency room and officers would like to come over to interview him and place him under arrest. Olson said police were told they should not come to the hospital due to COVID-19 precautions.

Police said they intended to apprehend Orbay and Sarner after they left the hospital and returned to the hotel to collect their belongings, but they were able to return and drove off in their car.

In a statement issued Monday, L+M spokeswoman Fiona Phelan said that “consistent with all patient privacy laws, it is the policy of L+M Hospital to cooperate with law enforcement in performing their duties at the hospital.”

Phelan has said the hospital’s policies about allowing police into the facility haven’t changed due to COVID-19 other than requiring officers to be screened for the disease. She declined to comment on the exact conversation that took place between Stonington police and hospital staff on June 26.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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