After his arrest by Windsor police in 2010, Ernie Simuro faced criminal charges that could have put him behind bars for the rest of his life.
Simuro, who was 66 years old at the time, drained his retirement savings to defend himself against allegations that he had sexually abused his special-needs grandson.
He spent three days in jail, used $50,000 of his retirement savings to pay a bail bondsman’s fee and racked up sizable legal bills.
It took nine months for Simuro’s attorney, Wayne Young, of Norwich, to get the felony charges dismissed.
It’s taken even longer for Simuro, a Vietnam War veteran with no criminal history, to recover emotionally and financially from what the criminal justice system needlessly put him through.
But after last week, he’s a bit closer.
Simuro, now 73, learned that he’d been awarded $300,000 in damages as the result of a jury’s verdict in his federal lawsuit that went to trial last November.
“After six years, Ernie has been fully vindicated,” Young said. “The jury’s award of money damages will help Ernie provide for his grandson.”
As I’ve written before, Simuro asserted in his lawsuit that former Windsor Police Sgt. Linda Shedd had violated his civil rights by initiating his false arrest and malicious prosecution. Simuro and his wife, Laureen, had raised their grandson, who is not identified by name in court records, almost from birth as their daughter battled heroin addiction and run-ins with the law. In 2007, Laureen succumbed to cancer, leaving Simuro, a high-tech worker, as his grandson’s primary caregiver.
Shedd’s investigation, spurred by a call from a social worker at the state’s Department for Children and Families (DCF) lasted about a day. She relied largely on a 45-second “bathtub video” that Debra Pitts, the Simuros’ daughter, had taken two years earlier when her son was 5 years old.
In the video, Pitts tries unsuccessfully to get her son to say that his grandfather had sexually abused him.
In allowing Simuro’s case against Shedd to go to trial, U.S. District Court Judge William Sessions III wrote, “There was no physical evidence of sexual abuse, there were no other witnesses, and Shedd did not conduct any additional interviews with (the boy’s) doctors, therapists, teachers or family members.”
Former Windsor County State’s Attorney Bobby Sand called the criminal case against Simuro a “miscarriage of justice” when testifying during the two-week federal trial in Burlington last November. Sand later told me that he wasn’t singling out Shedd, but was talking about how the case was handled as a whole.
Shedd’s attorney, Kaveh Shahi, of Rutland, said during the trial that Shedd, who was the Windsor Police Department’s designated officer for reports of sexual abuse, was “trying to protect the child” and “doing the best job she can.”
I understand that cops have a tough job, but they still need to exercise some care before accusing people of committing heinous acts. When they don’t, police must be held accountable, which isn’t easy under the law. Police officers are protected by “qualified immunity,” which makes them virtually immune to civil lawsuits.
The seven-member jury rejected four of Simuro’s five claims, including the false arrest. He prevailed on the malicious prosecution claim, but the nine-page “verdict form” that the jury turned in after two days of deliberation was unclear as to whether “qualified immunity” still applied.
That left it up to Sessions to interpret what the jury had intended. In a 46-page opinion, the judge sided with Simuro.
Shedd’s legal expenses and the $300,000 in damage awards are covered by the town of Windsor’s liability insurance obtained through the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. Shahi, hired by the League of Cities and Towns to represent Shedd, told me this week that no decision has been made about whether to appeal the judge’s ruling.
The League of Cities of Towns, which declined to comment on the case, is known for taking a hard line in civil lawsuits involving Vermont police officers. The organization is fighting a suit filed by Wayne Burwell, an African-American Dartmouth graduate who was beaten by Hartford police after being mistaken for a burglar in his own home. The suit started in 2012, and there’s no end in sight.
So I wouldn’t be surprised if the League continues its attempts to keep Simuro from collecting.
That would be a shame. Along with what Simuro has endured, the public nature of the legal wrangling must have taken a toll on Shedd as well. She left Windsor in 2012, and the last I knew she was a police officer in Wilmington, Vt.
It didn’t have to be this way. In 2015, Simuro and his attorneys (a Los Angeles law firm, Lightfoot Steingard and Sadowsky, is assisting Young), reached a $400,000 out-of-court settlement with DCF for its part in the investigation that led to Simuro’s arrest.
Half of the settlement (after attorneys’ fees were paid), went into a trust fund for Simuro’s grandson. The boy has “significant developmental and emotional challenges,” wrote Sessions, that will continue to be in need of addressing long after Simuro is gone.
Simuro and his grandson, now in eighth grade, have moved to southern Connecticut. When we talked by phone on Monday, Simuro told me that he’s working as an Uber driver.
After his attorneys are paid (attorneys typically receive one-third or so of the awarded damages), Simuro hopes to pay a few bills, recover some of his retirement savings, and put away money for his grandson.
“It’s been a long slog,” he said.
Jim Kenyon can be reached at email@example.com.