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Falsely Accused Windsor Grandfather’s 5-Year Fight for Justice



Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, November 04, 2016

Editor’s Note: This story was published in the Valley News on Sept. 20, 2015.

Windsor — In October 2010, Ernie Simuro was arrested on charges of sexually abusing his 7-year-old learning disabled grandson, who lived with him in Windsor. A Vietnam War veteran with no criminal record, Simuro was placed on the state’s child protection registry, forced to move out of his home, and eventually required to wear an electronic ankle bracelet that tracked his whereabouts — all before ever getting his day in court.

His case made front-page news in the Valley News and elsewhere.

And just when it seemed as though things couldn’t get any worse, they did. In June 2011, Simuro was charged with sexually assaulting his daughter, Debra Pitts, the mother of his grandson. 

If convicted, Simuro, who was in his mid-60s at the time, faced the distinct possibility of having to spend the rest of his life in prison. From looking at court records and interviews with key players, it’s clear that in Simuro’s case, the wheels of justice completely fell off. The Vermont Department for Children and Families, Windsor Police and the Windsor County State’s Attorney office share in the blame.

“Ernie woke up every day for more than a year falsely accused of horrendous crimes, facing a life sentence, and separated from his grandson,” said Norwich attorney Wayne Young, who has represented Simuro since shortly after his initial arrest. “If it can happen to Ernie, it can happen to anyone.”

When investigating cases of alleged sexual abuse, police and state social workers hold immense and arbitrary power that requires them to walk a fine line. If they don’t act swiftly, a victim’s life could be in jeopardy. If they get it wrong, they can turn an accused person’s life into a nightmare.

Although justice ultimately prevailed, Simuro’s story is a cautionary tale of what can happen when authorities develop tunnel vision and misuse their power.

It began with a joint DCF-Windsor Police investigation that was carried out over two days. Authorities built their case around an interview with Pitts and what became known in court records as the “bathtub video.”

Simuro, a computer programmer, vehemently denied the allegations made by his daughter, who had been battling him over custody of her son off and on for several years.

DCF and Windsor police knew that Pitts was a longtime heroin addict who had been convicted in 2009 in an unrelated case of providing false information to law enforcement for the purpose of implicating another person, according to a civil rights lawsuit that Young filed in federal court on Simuro’s behalf in January 2014.

Apparently, Pitts’ track record made no difference. 

Based on information provided by DCF and police, the Windsor County State’s Attorney office decided to prosecute Simuro. For months, Young asked the prosecutor assigned to the case to review the evidence — or lack of it. His requests fell on deaf ears.

Simuro and his wife, Laureen, had raised their grandson since birth as their daughter struggled with substance abuse. Laureen died of cancer in 2007.

Around the time of Laureen’s death, Simuro and his daughter were given joint guardianship, but the legal arrangement was short-lived. In October 2007, a Windsor Probate Court judge stripped Pitts of her guardianship rights after police conducted a drug raid at her boyfriend’s home and found her son inside the residence.

From then on, custody was frequently a point of contention between Pitts and her father. Pitts told police that her parents had “drugged her” to gain custody of her son, who is not identified by name in court records, when he was still an infant. 

At an Oct. 18, 2010, meeting with DCF social worker Erin Keefe, Pitts said her father had sexually abused her since childhood. Pitts also showed Keefe a videotape that she had recorded a year or so earlier while her son took a bath. Pitts contended that her son, who was 6 years old at the time, talked in the video about being molested by his grandfather.

The next day, Keefe mentioned the video in a report she wrote about her meeting with Pitts. Without viewing the video, a DCF supervisor instructed Keefe to launch an investigation.

Keefe called Windsor police, and informed Sgt. Linda Shedd about her meeting with Pitts. Shedd was already familiar with her. 

In 2008, while undergoing treatment for heroin addiction in a residential treatment program, Pitts told a clinic employee that Simuro had sexually assaulted her repeatedly when she was between 10 and 20 years old. Her claims were reported to Windsor police. Two officers were dispatched to Valley Vista in Bradford, Vt., to interview her. During the interview, Pitts recanted the accusations. The case was closed.

Four days later, Pitts told a clinic employee that Simuro had physically assaulted her son. Again, Windsor police were contacted. This time, Shedd handled the investigation. After interviewing the boy at Simuro’s home, Shedd was apparently satisfied that Pitts’ accusations were unfounded.

For the next 21/2 years, Simuro was his grandson’s primary caregiver. “I’d put him on the school bus in the morning, go to work, and pick him at 5 o’clock from his after-school program,” Simuro told me when we talked on the phone last week. “I made sure he got to school. I made sure he got to his doctor’s appointments.”

On the same day that Keefe and Shedd opened their joint investigation, they informed Simuro that they wanted to question his grandson. Simuro arranged for the boy’s therapist to drive him to the child advocacy center in Springfield.

Keefe and Shedd each conducted one-on-one videotaped interviews, portions of which were quoted in Simuro’s 2014 federal lawsuit. The boy repeatedly assured them that his grandfather hadn’t touched him inappropriately and he couldn’t remember what his mother had asked him in the bathtub more than a year earlier.

“Want me to help you remember?” Shedd asked at one point. “I think you were telling Mom that somebody had done something with you that made you feel very uncomfortable?” 

Did he remember now? the officer asked.

“No,” he replied.

During the two interviews, the boy “confirmed 13 separate times that he liked being with his grandfather; that he felt safe with his grandfather; that he was not hurt at home; that no one gives him ‘bad touches’; and that there was nothing else he wanted to disclose,” assert court documents filed by Young, Simuro’s lawyer.

Later in the day, Simuro was summoned to the Windsor police station for questioning. Shedd informed Simuro that his daughter and grandson had made “very serious” allegations against him.

Simuro denied them.

“So your grandson is now a liar?” Shedd asked.

At the end of the videotaped interview, Shedd informed Simuro that he was being booked for sexual assault and lewd conduct with a child. 

Shedd informed Simuro that he couldn’t stay in his house as long as his grandson was there. Police followed him home, where he tossed some clothes into an overnight bag. Before leaving, Simuro said he had a brief conversation with his grandson that went something like this: 

“Where are you going?” the boy asked.

“I have to leave,” replied his grandfather.

“Why do you have to go?”

“I just do.”

Simuro moved into a motel while his 27-year-old son, Steven, looked after the boy. A few days later, DCF placed the boy in a foster home. After a month, DCF determined it was in the boy’s best interest to return to his grandfather’s house, where his Uncle Steven could care for him.

Simuro relocated to a one-bedroom apartment in another part of town. He was prohibited from having any contact with his grandson, but Windsor is a small town with only one supermarket. One day, Simuro came around the corner at Price Chopper to find his grandson in the aisle.

“Grandpa!” the boy exclaimed.

“I’m sorry. I can’t be with you.”

Simuro had no choice. He turned and walked away.

Meanwhile, the police investigation into whether he had sexually assaulted his daughter continued. In a December 2010 interview with Shedd, Pitts claimed her father had engaged in a lifetime of sexual abuse against her, beat her while she was pregnant, and cut her in the stomach with a knife.

In a part of the taped interviewed quoted in Simuro’s lawsuit, Shedd promised Pitts that her father would be brought to justice. “Not only do I want to arrest him — I want him to go to jail,” said the officer.

DCF continued to go full bore as well. In January 2011, DCF supervisor Janet Melke agreed with Keefe that Simuro should be placed on the state’s child protection registry, a database of “substantiated” reports of child abuse and neglect. A substantiated report means DCF has “determined the report is based on accurate and reliable information that would lead a reasonable person to believe the child has been abused or neglected,” according to the agency’s website.

The bottom line: Being listed on the registry can ruin a person, even if, as in Simuro’s case, he hasn’t been convicted of a crime.

Law enforcement and social service agencies from across the country have access to the registry. Employers can use the registry to determine whether to hire or retain someone who works with children or vulnerable adults.

Being placed on the registry was only one of Simuro’s growing legal problems. 

In June 2011, the office of then-Windsor County State’s Attorney Bobby Sand charged Simuro with four counts of sexual assault against his daughter. He was also charged with violating the conditions of release in the case involving his grandson. The charges were based on Pitts’ claim to police that she had twice seen her father in West Lebanon. (Under his conditions of release, Simuro wasn’t allowed to leave Windsor County.) 

Simuro pleaded not guilty to all charges. His bail was set at $500,000. He spent three days in jail before coming up with $50,000 to pay a bail bondsman’s fee. Simuro withdrew the cash — money he would not see again — from his retirement savings account. 

Rumors spread in Windsor that he had confessed to some of the charges. Looking back, Simuro said he understands why neighbors and acquaintances assumed his guilt. If police said he did it, the story must be true.

“To be perfectly honest, that’s the way I used to think when I heard things like this,” he said. “A police officer wouldn’t totally make up something.”

Simuro was spared people’s dirty looks and under-their-breath comments when in the checkout line at the hardware store or sitting in a booth at the pizza parlor. The judge had placed him under house arrest. From that point on, his movements around Windsor, where he had lived for 10 years after moving from Norwich, were severely limited.

“My son had to do my grocery shopping and laundry,” he said. “I couldn’t leave the apartment, except for medical appointments and to go to court.”

Young, Simuro’s lawyer, spent hours reviewing the evidence. To him, nothing in the “bathtub video” or the two interviews with the boy hinted at unlawful behavior. The boy’s school and medical records included no mention of signs of possible abuse. No hospital records existed to support Pitts’ claim that her father had cut her in the stomach.

Young repeatedly asked the lawyer in Sand’s office who was handling the two cases to watch the bathtub video and the videotaped interviews with the boy. But apparently the cases weren’t a high priority. (The lawyer who handled the cases no longer works for the office.) 

The cases against Simuro finally began to unravel in the summer of 2011 when he exercised his legal right to have an independent reviewer look over the information that led to his placement on the child protection registry. 

The reviewer determined the “bathtub video” was insufficient to incriminate Simuro and the boy’s interviews with DCF and police “provided no indication of abuse.” 

Another key piece of information emerged from the reviewer’s investigation as well. “No indicators of abuse had been reported by (the boy’s) therapist, despite her frequent and long-term contact with him.”

Nine months after Simuro was arrested and forced to leave his grandson and their home, Young asked the Superior Court judge in the case to dismiss the child molestation charges. Prosecutors didn’t object. 

On Nov. 14, 2011, the state’s attorney office notified the court that it was dismissing all remaining charges against Simuro, including that he had sexually abused his daughter and violated his conditions of release.

Still, his ordeal wasn’t quite over.

Nearly three more months passed before Simuro could see his grandson. “Family Court in Vermont moves excruciatingly slow,” he said. After being kept apart for 16 months, they met for a short visit at DCF’s office in Springfield.

His grandson was a “little tentative and quiet at first,” recalled Simuro. “I think it was because of our chance meeting at the grocery store when I told him that I couldn’t talk with him. He didn’t know if that was going to happen again.”

But after a few minutes, they hugged. Simuro brought out a new set of Lego blocks that they played with at a table. “It was something we had done a lot of,” said Simuro. “He’s always liked his Legos.” 

After an hour or so, Simuro said he had to go.

“Why aren’t you coming home, now?” the boy asked.

“I wanted to reassure him, but I couldn’t,” said Simuro. “I didn’t have a timetable. The court had a slow and methodical process that we had to follow.”

In May 2012, Simuro was finally able to come home. DCF also said it would support Simuro’s legal efforts to adopt his grandson. In July 2012, the adoption became official.

But Simuro wasn’t ready to put what had happened behind him. In 2013, he sued DCF and the town of Windsor in U.S. District Court in Burlington for false arrest and malicious prosecution. The federal lawsuit named Shedd, Keefe and Melke, the DCF supervisor who approved placing him on the child protection registry, as defendants.

The suit maintained that Shedd and Keefe had acted “negligently, recklessly, intentionally and in bad faith.” Simuro had been arrested — a violation of his constitutional rights — “despite the lack of probable cause,” it asserted. 

Young, with the help of two attorneys from Los Angeles, where he previously had practiced, continues to represent Simuro. Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell’s office was put in charge of defending the two DCF employees. 

“It was (DCF’s) original report to Windsor police that led to (Simuro’s) arrest and deprived him and his grandson of being together for more than a year,” said Young.

In May, the DCF portion of the suit was settled out of court, with the state agreeing to pay $400,000 to Simuro and his grandson. (In cases such as this, lawyers for the plaintiff typically receive one-third of the payout.) 

Lawsuits against DCF that result in large financial settlements are “relatively rare,” said Assistant Attorney General David Groff, who worked on the case. 

“The workers involved took good faith action based on the information they had received,” said Groff. “In the end, it didn’t seem warranted that (Simuro) had to lose custody of his grandson.” 

The state is self-insured for up to $250,000, leaving Vermont taxpayers are on the hook for that amount. The remaining $150,000 came from Travelers, the state’s insurance carrier.

According to federal court documents, the settlement “represents a compromise to avoid litigation. By making this agreement, no Party makes any admission concerning the strength or weakness of any claim.” 

Keefe and Melke no longer work for DCF. Keefe left DCF of her own volition and Melke has retired, said Groff. 

On Friday, I talked with DCF Commissioner Ken Schatz, who was general counsel for the state Agency of Human Services before taking his new assignment a year ago.

Schatz declined comment on Simuro’s case, but was willing to talk about DCF social workers, in general. “It’s an incredibly challenging role that we ask our social workers to play,” he said. “They’re professionals who are committed and use their expertise to make challenging decisions on a day-to-day basis.”

They are fully aware that “generally speaking, it’s best for children to remain with their families,” he said. 

But they don’t work in a vacuum. Police, prosecutors and judges are also involved in the decisions that lead children to be removed from their homes and in cases that become criminal matters. “There are other eyes on the situation,” said Schatz.

In the end, DCF’s safeguards proved effective in Simuro’s case. The investigation by DCF’s independent reviewer, which Simuro requested, were crucial to exonerating him. 

The portion of the suit against the town of Windsor and Shedd continues to wind its way through the federal court system. Attorneys representing the town and Shedd couldn’t be reached for comment last week. 

Shedd no longer works for Windsor police. The last I heard, she had moved to Massachusetts.

Simuro and his grandson have also left the Upper Valley. They moved to Connecticut in April 2014. “I needed a clean break,” Simuro told me. “Windsor didn’t feel right any more.” 

Since moving, Simuro has reconnected with his daughter, who has had several run-ins with the law. In 2012, Pitts was convicted of giving Suboxone, a prescription medication designed to treat opioid addiction, to an inmate at the Grafton County House of Corrections. She received a six-month deferred sentence, but ended up serving the time after pleading guilty to being an accomplice to an armed robbery involving a fake bomb at the Walgreens in West Lebanon in February 2013.

Pitts received a two- to four-year suspended prison sentence and four years of probation for her role in the robbery. She is scheduled to end her New Hampshire probation in February 2018.

Pitts, 30, lives in Claremont. “She’s getting her life together,” said Simuro. “I’m really happy that she’s off drugs.”

I asked if he’s forgiven her for the hell she put him through.

“That’s a hard question,” he said. “She’s my daughter, and I will love her forever. But it will always be there between us.”

When he visits her in Claremont, he asks his grandson to come along. “He doesn’t want anything to do with her,” said Simuro. “I don’t want to force him to go. He will come around on his own.” 

His grandson, now 12, is a seventh-grader. “He’s getting along OK, considering all the turmoil he’s had in his life,” said Simuro. “He’s had one loss after another, including his mother.”

More than $100,000 of the settlement with the state has been placed in a trust for his grandson. Simuro hopes his grandson will use the money for college, or to start a business some day. “I could see him being a plumber or an electrician.” 

At 71, Simuro is hunting for a new job. The position with the high-tech company that he moved to Connecticut for was recently eliminated.

He’s still picking up his grandson from school, just as he did when they lived in Windsor. They go for walks in the woods and on bike rides.

Looking back, as strange as it sounds, Simuro considers himself fortunate. 

“If I couldn’t have afforded the expense of a decent attorney, I would have been in jail for the rest of my life,” he said. “There’s no doubt in my mind about that.”

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Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.