April 5, 2013

Gardiner officials dispute town's involvement in sting operation

By Susan McMillan smcmillan@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

GARDINER -- City officials are taking issue with Winthrop Police Chief Joe Young's comments laying ownership of a controversial sting operation at the feet of the Gardiner Police Department, with the city manager saying the remarks "threw us under the bus."

When questioned about the operation at a Winthrop Town Council meeting this week, Young said the investigation into stolen golf clubs "was clearly Gardiner's case," not Winthrop's, and Gardiner police were "included in on the whole thing."

Gardiner Mayor Thomas Harnett said at the Gardiner City Council meeting Wednesday night that he was surprised to read about Young's characterization of the case because it was "simply not accurate."

City Manager Scott Morelli also disputed Young's statement.

"This didn't involve Gardiner property, Gardiner residents, anything to do with Gardiner other than the fact that it took place here," Morelli said in an interview. "Had it been a case that Gardiner Police Department had been working on, I suspect it would have been set up differently."

Morelli also sent an email this week to Gardiner Police Chief Jim Toman, copying the city councilors, about his comments to a reporter.

"This may cause some blowback for you/GPD from Chief Young, but I find it important that we clarify this was not a GPD case as the chief's comments threw us under the bus in some respects," Morelli wrote.

Young's comments came the same night that Winthrop councilors decided not to change the town policy granting its officers statewide arrest powers, a policy that some residents questioned in the wake of Kennebec Journal articles about the controversial sting operation.

The operation, in which Young pulled his gun on an unarmed man who had committed no crime, took place in the parking lot of the Hannaford supermarket in Gardiner at about 5:30 p.m. on Aug. 27.

It was part of Young's investigation into the theft of a set of golf clubs from the car of Manchester resident Ross Bragg in Oxford County. Bragg, who is the son of Winthrop town attorney Lee Bragg, found the clubs listed for sale online and then reported them stolen -- more than a month later.

According to Young, Lee Bragg called him seeking advice after not being satisfied that the Oxford County Sheriff's Office would find the stolen clubs. Young suggested arranging a meeting with the seller to recover them.

Young called Toman sometime on Aug. 27 to say he wanted to set up the meeting in Gardiner and asked for the assistance of two Gardiner officers to arrest and question the suspect if needed. The officers received about 90 minutes notice, but didn't learn where and when until about 10 minutes beforehand.

With the two Gardiner officers posted nearby, Bragg and Young -- who dressed in plain clothes and posed as Bragg's father -- approached the seller, and Bragg identified the clubs as his.

Young ordered the seller, Joel Coon of Dresden, to the ground. Coon says he was frozen in confusion, and he did not comply until Young pulled out his gun and pointed it at him.

The two Gardiner officers who had been watching moved in and questioned Coon, who was released when he explained that his brother had bought the golf clubs at a pawn shop. He later provided a receipt and was cleared.

Coon filed a complaint with the town of Winthrop. Town Manager Jeff Woolston investigated the incident and concluded that Young had not violated any policies or laws.

On Thursday, Young said that although he initiated the investigation and planned the sting operation, it became Gardiner's case because Gardiner officers cleared the operation with a prosecutor, seized evidence, questioned Coon, returned the clubs to Bragg and wrote the only police report of record.

"Unquestionably, it was Gardiner's case," Young said Thursday.

Toman said Thursday it's debatable whose case it is because his officers and Young each had their role.

"I think people can formulate their own opinion as to whose case it ultimately is," Toman said. "Chief Young played a part, Gardiner Police Department played a part. You have a beginning, a middle and an end. We were involved in the end part."

Young has publicly disputed the Kennebec Journal's reporting about the incident. But asked for specifics, Young declined to detail his objections or answer any further questions.

Susan McMillan -- 621-5645

smcmillan@mainetoday.com

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