Former Bellows Falls dispatcher sues police department, chief

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BELLOWS FALLS — A former long-time police dispatcher is suing the Bellows Falls Police Department, its former chief and a sergeant, saying she was sexually molested and harassed by the chief, who also texted her sexually explicit photos. She said she was constantly harassed — including sexually — by the sergeant.

In a federal lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court on Monday, former dispatcher Alisha Beam of Acworth, N.H., also filed suit against the village of Bellows Falls and the town of Rockingham, as well as former Police Chief Ron Lake and current BFPD Sgt. Mario Checchi.

Beam resigned two weeks ago after 17 years on the job. The suit says she resigned on the advice of her physician because of serious health problems. The lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount in damages "in excess of $100,000."

Beam's lawsuit offers a possible explanation for Lake's four-month medical/personal leave, which ended with his resignation effective on March 1. Checchi was the subject of an investigation by the Vermont State Police last year, but the Vermont attorney general's office declined to bring charges against him. That complaint was filed by Windham County State's Attorney Tracy Shriver, who said she received information that Checchi had illegally tipped off the target of a search warrant.

The lawsuit paints a grim picture of a dysfunctional police department, which has been short-staffed for more than a year. The Bellows Falls Village Board of Trustees recently took action to permanently shrink the department's staffing in an effort to save money.

Beam's lawsuit said she was "sexually assaulted" and that Lake forced his hand between her thighs while she was on the job on at least one occasion, and texted her sexually explicit photographs numerous times. She said Lake made numerous sexual comments to her on the job, and showed her nude photographs of women while he was on the job.

She said Checchi reported false police information to her, and repeatedly refused to sign in to his shift with her, making it impossible for her to perform her functions as the police department's dispatcher and administrator.

The suit said Checchi gave her "false information about criminal cases" and was guilty of "dereliction of duty." She said his actions not only affected her, but "endangered community enforcement and safety." The suit said she started raising issues in 2018.

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She alleged in the suit that the two police officers made it impossible for her to do her job.

The suit says Beam first complained about Checchi to Lake, who told her "he would handle it." When Lake did nothing, she brought her concerns about both Lake and Checchi to Municipal Manager Wendy Harrison, who she said promised to do something about their treatment of her but did nothing effective. The lawsuit said Harrison only "admonished" the police officers and "took only weak measures to protect" Beam.

Norman Watts of Woodstock, Beam's attorney, declined to comment about the specifics of the lawsuit, but said he used the term "sexual assault" because what Lake allegedly did met the legal definition. He said that Beam was unavailable for comment. Legal service of the suit has not been completed, he said, although the lawsuit was posted on the federal court system's website. (To see a copy of the lawsuit, go to https://adobe.ly/3amSZm2).

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Acting Police Chief David Bemis, who took over the department on March 1, said he was unable to comment on the lawsuit. Bemis is a longtime veteran of the department.

Harrison said she could not comment "on advice of counsel" about the police department lawsuit. Harrison's job performance, which was sharply criticized in the lawsuit, was the subject of action Tuesday night by both the Rockingham Select Board and the Bellows Falls village trustees, who opted not to renew her contract, which expires at the end of June.

Deborah Wright, the Bellows Falls village president, said she and the other trustees had no knowledge of the lawsuit, or the allegations contained in the lawsuit.

She said she and her board repeatedly asked Harrison what was behind Lake's personal/medical leave and later resignation, and never got an answer.

Wright said the board in February approved hiring an independent lawyer to investigate allegations about the police department, but the board has not heard back about the investigation.

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She said she questioned why the village's human resource director, Shannon Burbela, couldn't conduct the investigation.

The board didn't receive details about the allegations because the board has to act in a quasi-judicial role to resolve the allegations. Wright said she understood the allegations came from Beam.

"There's very little I can say," said Wright, who voted against renewing Harrison's contract. "This is another blindside by management," she said.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or at 802 556-2147.

Related coverage:

-- Harrison's contract not renewed


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