Special prosecutor: Officers’ conduct ‘shameful’

STRASBURG – A special prosecutor’s investigation into accusations of abuse, neglect and exploitation of a mentally challenged man by three members of the Strasburg Police Department has cleared the officers of criminal wrongdoing while lambasting their behavior.

Suzanne L. Mackall, the special prosecutor who serves as the Clarke County Commonwealth’s Attorney, described the officers’ actions as “ill-advised, insensitive and unprofessional” in a report obtained Tuesday by The Northern Virginia Daily.

Police Chief Timothy Sutherly said in an interview Wednesday that he saw no reason to discipline or reprimand the officers — Matt Troxell, John Magdinec and Eric Ramey — for their actions in the apartment of Timothy Lam, 54, on the night of Sept. 7.

“We stand by our officers,” Sutherly said.

Mackall launched her investigation in January with the help of the Virginia State Police and released her findings earlier this week. Mackall’s report described Lam as “by all accounts, a friend to the town police department, somewhat of a town celebrity and mentally challenged.”

Mackall’s report states that the incident began when the three officers appeared after 11 p.m. at the door of Lam’s apartment while they were on foot patrol in Massanutten Manor.

“They were all on friendly terms with Mr. Lam and presumed he would enjoy a visit, despite the fact that it was after 11 p.m.,” Mackall wrote, adding that they “knocked on his door, woke him up and said ‘hello.'”

Mackall said the visit was “unannounced” and included activities such as hanging pictures on the wall of Lam’s room and taking “selfie” photos with him.

“None of these activities were within the scope of any official police business,” Mackall wrote.

Her report states a neighbor of Lam’s looked outside her apartment door into the hallway when she heard loud banging coming from his apartment.

“At that time, she saw three uniformed town officers, and one of them instructed her in a serious tone to ‘get back into the apartment, shut [the] door, we are here on official business.'”

The report states that the officers perceived Lam at the time of their departure as in good spirits “and they did not gather that their visit made him upset.”

But Mackall rejected the officers’ characterization of their 40-minute visit.

“The officers’ actions were what I would describe as ill-advised, insensitive and unprofessional,” Mackall wrote.

“After they left,” Mackall added, Mr. Lam, concerned and scared he had done something wrong, went to his neighbors and called his caretaker and reported the situation. Mr. Lam was shaken up. He believed the officers were making nasty comments to him by suggesting he needed some girls in his apartment. The caretaker, obviously concerned for the well-being of Mr. Lam, reported the incident.”

An investigation by the Page County Department of Social Services followed and was completed in October. Mackall was appointed special prosecutor in January and issued her findings earlier this week.

Sutherly accused the caretaker in Mackall’s report of steering Lam toward an adversarial perception of the officers’ actions in the apartment. The Northern Virginia Daily could not independently verify the identity of the caretaker.

Sutherly identified the caretaker as David Mason, a veteran of the Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office. Mackall also identified Mason as the caretaker, along with a woman she said is either his wife or partner.

“Dave took what [Lam] told him and spun it,” Sutherly said.

“Certain people can be convinced of anything,” Sutherly added. “The right person that they trust tells them something was wrong that occurred, they would believe him even if at the time they were fully OK with it.”

In a brief phone interview, Mason denied being Lam’s caretaker and said somebody “needs to get their facts straight.” He refused further comment when asked if he was connected in any way to Lam or the investigation.

Sutherly said Mason was the complainant in the case. The Strasburg officers were accused of illegal search and detainment of Lam.

Asked why Mason would try to turn Lam against the Strasburg officers, Sutherly replied:

“Political reasons. To further his standing with his boss who believed at the time I was running against him.”

Sutherly announced more than a year ago he intended to run as an independent against Carter, but called off those plans earlier this month, citing concerns over health problems afflicting his 5-year-old son.

Carter scoffed at Sutherly’s accusations.

“That’s a ridiculous thing for the chief to say,” Carter said. “I think it’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard, and I think it is inappropriate. Obviously there was a complaint filed, obviously they looked into it and obviously somebody came up with this report.”

Since the incident, Magdinic, one of the three officers who was under investigation, has been promoted to investigator.

Sutherly said his department and the town are prepared to fend off a lawsuit that was threatened in a letter sent by Lam’s attorney in February.

Sutherly conceded that the officers made a mistake in visiting Lam at his apartment after 11 p.m. Sutherly said he cautioned the officers against making any more late hours visits but took no further action.

Mackall concluded her report with a much harsher assessment of the officers’ actions:

“Although I find the officers’ conduct grossly ill-advised and evidencing obvious arrogance, and a disrespect for Mr. Lam, I do not find that criminal charges are appropriate in these circumstances. The officers intended to ‘play’ with Mr. Lam, which is shameful in my mind, but I do not find their behavior criminal.”

Mackall issued a written statement late Wednesday hotly denying that the investigation was politically motivated.

“I think that is so arrogant of anyone to think that this is political,” Mackall said. “It goes to the core issue — wasn’t this conduct wrong? Yes! Wasn’t this undisputed conduct of the officers a form of bullying? How can they think this is conduct that should go undisclosed? Why blame Mason? That is creepy to me.”

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com