Jason Lawton, right, with his attorney, Rebecca Otey
St. Albans Police Chief Gary Taylor has repeatedly said that he didn't know a sergeant in his department had punched a handcuffed woman in the face until months after the March incident.
But a recently retired St. Albans cop told investigators conducting a criminal probe into the matter that he'd alerted Taylor about the altercation the day after it happened.
“I have no reason to lie about this. I know what I did,” Paul Morits told Seven Days in an interview Monday. “Whether [Taylor] wants to admit it or not, that will be on his conscience.”
Morits, a corporal, provided the alternate timeline in sworn testimony to the Vermont State Police, who began investigating former sergeant Jason Lawton in August, at Taylor's request. Lawton was arrested last week and charged with simple assault; he pleaded not guilty to the charge in Franklin County Superior Court on Monday.
The charge stems from a March 14 incident during which Lawton slugged a handcuffed and intoxicated Amy Connelly inside a holding cell at the St. Albans Police Department. Connelly, who'd been arrested earlier that night at a local bar, was taken to the hospital.
She submitted sworn, written testimony about the altercation in August to state police investigators, who noted that "her right eye still appeared to be discolored" about five months after Lawton punched her. One doctor determined that Connelly suffered nerve damage to her face, which could take up to a year to fully heal, court documents show.
Connelly's account of the incident is included in a seven-page criminal affidavit that was made public Monday.
"It was the most extreme pain I have felt and I gave birth to my daughter without any drugs," she told investigators of the punch.
Sasha Goldstein/Court file
Taylor has said departmental brass didn’t know about the altercation until after the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont requested video of the incident in late May. Taylor says he ordered an internal investigation on June 3 and fired Lawton on July 1, though the affidavit says Lawton was terminated July 17.
Lawton has appealed his firing.
In an interview with Seven Days Monday evening, Taylor denied Morits' version of events, saying he has “absolutely no independent recollection” of being told in March.
Ignoring such a report would be “completely inconsistent with who I am and the way that I do business and the way that I’ve done business all along,” Taylor said.
Morits told state investigators in August that he walked into work around 6 a.m. the March morning after the incident and saw a couple of officers watching a video in Lawton’s office. As he walked closer, Morits could see footage of Lawton pushing Connelly inside of her cell, causing her head to hit the wall.
Morits didn't stick around to watch the rest, missing the part where Lawton punched her. But Morits said he felt Lawton's push was unnecessary enough, and he went to Taylor’s office later that day to tell the chief that he needed to review the case.
Five months later, Morits saw his chief tell media outlets that it was the ACLU of Vermont's request that alerted him to the incident.
“I was stunned to hear that, knowing that I had told him that he needed to watch it,” Morits said.
“I felt discouraged, I guess," Morits continued. "That’s the best way to put it."
Morits said he called the Franklin County State’s Attorney’s Office the next day to seek legal advice. He declined to share the nature of the conversation but said he was told he had handled the incident correctly.
Taylor publicly repeated his version of events to his bosses on the St. Albans City Council, who summoned him to learn more about his handling of the case. Councilors, however, asked no questions of their chief before affirming their support of him.
Jay Diaz, the ACLU of Vermont staff attorney who initially sought the footage after hearing from Connelly, said Morits’ claims should make a “reasonable person” question the chief’s timeline.
“It would seem to me that [city officials] should be very interested in finding out the truth and whether their chief is giving them accurate information,” Diaz said.
Taylor could not say why Morits would lie about telling him to watch the video. But he described the former officer as “fairly disgruntled for a while now,” and said Morits “randomly wandered around the office and complained about different things or people.”
The chief went on to say that he found it “disturbing” that Morits never told other St. Albans officials that he thought there was a problem.
“That’s not my job,” Morits responded. “My job was to bring it to my supervisor, which I did.”
Morits retired from the department last Friday in what he called a "spur of the moment" decision. Asked if the Lawton case played into it, he replied, “I don’t really want to comment on that.”