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Windsor Grandfather Sues Police

Windsor — A 69-year-old grandfather has sued Windsor police and the Vermont Department of Children and Families, claiming that investigators made false allegations and ignored credibility problems with a key witness while bringing sex assault charges that were dropped only after he had lost custody of his grandson.

Ernest Simuro, an Air Force veteran with no criminal record, was placed on a child protection registry, forced to move out of his home, subjected to house arrest and incurred thousands of dollars of expenses because of allegations that were ultimately found baseless and fueled by inaccurate statements provided by a Windsor police officer and a Vermont DCF investigator, according to a civil rights lawsuit that Simuro recently filed in federal court.

After the year-long ordeal, the Windsor County State’s Attorney’s Office quietly dropped its prosecution of Simuro, DCF retracted its findings and a judge allowed Simuro to be re-united with his grandson, now 9. Simuro had raised the boy until Vermont DCF placed him in foster care during the case, the lawsuit asserted.

In the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Burlington, Simuro made 14 claims, including false arrest and malicious prosecution, unlawful seizure and gross negligence. He is seeking unspecified punitive and compensatory damages.

“They are about the most horrendous crimes you can be accused of, and he had to live in the community where everyone knew what he had been accused of and assumed they were true because they were made by police and DCF,” his attorney, Wayne Young, said in an interview. “It was emotionally, financially and every which way devastating to him.”

The initial allegations that caught the attention of authorities came from Simuro’s daughter Debra Pitts, the boy’s mother. Pitts had been previously convicted of lying to police, made allegations against Simuro that were not deemed credible and was trying to regain custody of the boy, who has special needs, according to the lawsuit. She was also, according to the lawsuit, addicted to heroin. Last week, Pitts was arrested for allegedly helping a man try to steal prescription medication from a West Lebanon pharmacy by strapping a fake bomb to his chest. She is being held in the Grafton County jail and could not be reached for comment.

The defendants named in the lawsuit are the town of Windsor, former Windsor police officer Linda Shedd and former DCF investigator Erin Keefe. None of the parties had filed responses to the lawsuit in court as of Friday. Shedd and Keefe, who have both left their departments, could not be reached for comment.

Windsor Police Chief Steve Soares declined to comment on the lawsuit and Vermont DCF referred questions to the Vermont Attorney General’s Office. Assistant Vermont Attorney Meghan Shafritz declined to comment on the case.

Simuro, through Young, declined to comment, but the attorney said that the grandson, who has since been formally adopted by Simuro, is doing well.

“They’re doing good. He’s thriving again now that he’s back with his grandfather.”

The 35-page lawsuit tells a story of a life turned upside down.

Simuro and his late wife, Laureen, raised the child since his birth because Debra Pitts had “addiction issues,” according to the lawsuit. When Laureen died of breast cancer in 2007, Simuro assumed sole responsibility for the child, taking him to and from school and therapy appointments, making sure he took his medication and providing him a stable home.

In May 2007, Pitts was awarded joint guardianship of the boy, but five months later, police raided the home of Debra’s boyfriend, a convicted felon, searching for drugs. The boy was inside the home, and as a result, DCF “substantiated” Pitts as a risk of harm, stripped her of legal rights, and reappointed Simuro as sole guardian, the lawsuit said.

Thereafter, Simuro and his daughter repeatedly argued about custody, according to the lawsuit.

In February 2008, Pitts received treatment for a heroin addiction at Valley Vista in Bradford, Vt., according to the lawsuit, and told an employee that, from 1995 to 2005, Simuro had repeatedly sexually assaulted her. Valley Vista reported the claims to Windsor police, but Pitts recanted her allegations, and the case was dropped, according to the lawsuit.

Four days later, Pitts told an employee that Simuro had assaulted the boy. The clinic again reported the claim to Windsor police. Shedd was appointed to investigate,visited the home, questioned the boy, found no evidence of abuse and dropped the matter.

Roughly one year later, Pitts recorded a video of the boy, then 6, while he was taking a bath. She repeatedly asked “leading” questions, according to the lawsuit, asking if Simuro had performed a lewd act with the boy. The boy laughed the first few times she asked the question. When she asked a fourth time, he laughed and said, “Yeah.”

In October 2010, several months after the video was made, Pitts, who was pregnant, had moved into Simuro’s home. He caught her stealing the boy’s medication, kicked her out, called DCF and reported Pitts’ actions. Pitts then tested positive for opiates, the lawsuit alleges.

A few days later, Pitts showed Keefe, the DCF investigator, a copy of the video, and repeated her earlier allegations that Simuro had also sexually abused her as a child.

Keefe filed a report with DCF officials describing her meeting with Pitts and the video. Her report, according to the lawsuit, made significant errors in describing the video.

While the boy had only responded “yeah,” when Pitts asked a question, for the fourth time, about an alleged act, Keefe wrote that the boy made a direct statement that “grandpa (committed an act.)”

Upon reviewing Keefe’s report, a supervisor opened an investigation and assigned it to Keefe, who reported the case to Windsor police.

Keefe returned to Simuro’s home and told him he could not have any contact with the boy until the investigation was over. She then interviewed the boy, who “consistently and unequivocally denied that any abuse had occurred, despite the leading nature of many of Keefe’s questions,” according to the lawsuit. The boy said that no one had touched him in appropriately, and that he felt safe with Simuro.

Shedd then videotaped an interview with the boy that was “replete with aggressive, leading questions clearly designed to induce (the boy) into revealing incrimination information against his father.” However, the boy continued to deny any sex abuse.

Later that day, the investigators interviewed Simuro at the Windsor police station, and Shedd said that the boy had made statements about things “that have happened between the two of you that I’m very concerned about.”

Simuro said the allegations were probably coming from his daughter, and told the story of kicking her out after he found her stealing medication.

Shedd repeatedly told Simuro that the child had claimed he had sexually molested him. “That’s coming straight from your grandson,” Shedd allegedly said. In fact, the boy had made no such statement, according to the lawsuit.

On 27 separate occasions during the interview, Simuro denied assaulting the boy. Nonetheless, Shedd arrested Simuro. As is standard in sex assault cases, Simuro was ordered not to have contact with the boy while the case was pending. Simuro’s son Steven took temporary care of the boy, and Simuro moved out of the home so the boy would not have to leave. Steven told investigators that he did not believe his father had done anything wrong, and that Pitts “was constantly lying.”

To support criminal charges, Shedd filed an affidavit in which Simuro alleges that she made numerous misstatements and omissions, according to the lawsuit: She said that the boy had made a direct statement alleging Simuro of sex assault. The boy had told her that Simuro sometimes spanked him while the boy wore clothes. In the affidavit, Shedd claimed that the boy had said that Simuro pulled his pants down “often” and penetrated him. All of those statements were untrue, the lawsuit asserts.

Additionally, Shedd failed to mention in the affidavit that the boy repeatedly said Simuro had done nothing wrong, and that Pitts has a history of drug abuse and lying to police.

Nonetheless, prosecutors continued with the case from October 2010 until they dropped it in August 2011, after Young filed several motions challenging the strength of their case in Windsor Superior Court.

In an interview, Windsor County State’s Attorney Robert Sand said his office initially relied on sworn statements from investigators, and, when it became aware of inconsistencies in the documents, dropped the case. Prosecutors reviewed the tape shortly before dropping the charge, Sand said. Investigators did not turn it over until several months after the arrest. Sand said he is not seeking any recourse against Shedd or Keefe for inaccurate statements contained in their affidavits.

“We were presented with a case, there was probable cause for the charge based on the information presented. We thought the ends of justice would be served by filing a charge,” Sand said.

“When additional evidence was presented to us, we no longer thought the ends of justice (were served) by the charge. At a time I became aware of the full scope of the evidence, I made a decision on behalf of this office that it was not appropriate for this office to pursue criminal charges.”

Young said he urged prosecutors for many months to review the videotape of the boy’s initial conversation with Pitts, which touched off the entire matter.

“There was no new evidence. There was just their evidence,” Young said. “We (said), ‘This doesn’t say what you say it says.’ We didn’t come up with new evidence. The core of the case was in the video … that’s the possession of the state. We tried to persuade them that their video had no evidence.”

Mark Davis can be reached at mcdavis@vnews.com or 603-727-3304.