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East Lyme investigator Jean Cavanaugh gives voice to victims of sexual assault

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East Lyme - Police officer Jean Cavanaugh was appalled to learn that a boy had come forward in 2004 to report being sexually assaulted 50 times, but the suspected rapist was not charged after investigations by police and the Department of Children and Families.

"I felt like we let him down," Cavanaugh, 56, said during an interview in her tiny office at police headquarters on Main Street in Niantic. She is an investigator/youth officer for the town police department, where she has worked for 21 years.

The boy was removed from his home for "acting out," and Frank McAlpine continued to molest children until another victim disclosed the crimes to a school psychologist a decade later. Cavanaugh launched a new investigation, and with her colleagues built a strong case against McAlpine, who pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting four children over a 10-year period. In December 2014, Cavanaugh went to court to watch a judge sentence McAlpine to 12 years in prison, followed by 10 years of strict probation and registry as a sexual offender. During the sentencing hearing, prosecutor Theresa Anne Ferryman praised Cavanaugh's work on the case. 

Cavanaugh is a member of a regional multi-disciplinary team of professionals that collaborates on child sexual assault cases. She is a certified forensic interviewer and is sometimes called by other police agencies to conduct the interviews required when children say they have been sexually assaulted.

Her work is heartbreaking, but rewarding.

"it's like putting together a puzzle," she said. "There's so many pieces, and it's challenging. And these children need a voice. I can't help them rebuild their lives, but maybe I can help them get a little justice."

As the closest thing her small department has to a school resource officer, Cavanaugh handles crimes involving juveniles and teaches the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program in the elementary schools. She said she hopes to work on a follow-up program for older kids that is more specific to the town's needs.

Two resident troopers recognized Cavanaugh as the town's Officer of the Year in 2000 and 2009, and in 2008 she received a meritorious service award from the state police for identifying and arresting a man who robbed several convenience stores. She is a recipient of the Mothers Against Drunk Driving law enforcement award.

Cavanaugh took the promotion exam recently to become a sergeant. She got the second-highest score but said she ended up turning down the promotion because she wanted to continue doing what she loves.

She grew up in East Lyme, attended Central Connecticut State University, and worked at the Millstone Nuclear Power Station and United Nucler Corp. after college. But the lure of a law enforcement career was strong for both Cavanaugh and her brother, Robert Pickett, who is a sergeant with the New London Police Department. Their father had been a part-time police officer in East Lyme and New London, and their uncle and cousin, Edward and Ned Pickett, were state troopers. Cavanaugh was married, at the time, to Russ Cavanaugh, who is a sergeant at the New London Police Department. They have since divorced, and their two grown children, ages 26 and 27, live with their mother.

She and her brother took the test together to become Stonington police officers, and Cavanaugh remembers Pickett saying "I'm out of here," and racing ahead as they ran the required 1 1/2 miles around Masons Island. Both were offered jobs. Cavanaugh accepted a part-time position, but Pickett was already working for another department. When Cavanaugh heard of a full-time position available in her hometown of East Lyme, she said she jumped at it.

Cavanaugh worked the midnight shift for years because it enabled her to be with her kids during the day.

"I went to football, baseball and cheerleading," she said. "I was kind of lucky."

Her best friend, Laurie Lewis, is a dispatcher in Waterford. They met when Cavanaugh was working as a "matron" for the town police department. Matrons were called in to search women prisoners when female officers were unavailable.

"I have watched Jean work up the ranks," Lewis said during a phone interview. "She really did work twice as hard as anyone else.  She didn't take shortcuts. She didn't make excuses. She was out there running and lifting weights. She kind of led by example. She proved that a female can do this job. She paved the way for other females."

Cavanaugh said she learned the art of talking to people and diffusing tense situations during the midnight shift, when she dealt with a lot of drunken drivers. She said she has never felt more vulnerable on the job than anyone else.

"I tell the kids in DARE, if you have a math test and you study, you're going to feel less anxious," she said. "I tell them we train all the time. As long as you're prepared, you feel better."

East Lyme resident trooper Sgt. Bill Blanchette said Cavanaugh uses her motherly skills on the job.

"She takes care of her brood, her children," Blanchette said. "She's very involved in the schools and DARE and just has that, 'I need to take care of my kids' attitude.'''

Cavanaugh is, after all, a big kid at heart.

"I go to Disney every year to decompress," she said.

Twitter: @KFLORIN 


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