Wrongful Convictions: The Other Police Misconduct
Mar 24 Written By Fr. Gordon J. MacRae
A new article by Ryan MacDonald spotlights the work of police detective James F. McLaughlin who orchestrated the wrongful conviction of Father Gordon MacRae.
I read somewhere that the State of New Hampshire — the “Live Free or Die” State — has this nation’s second highest percentage of prisoners over the age of 55, second only to West Virginia. To be certain, the offenses that put most of them in prison did not occur at age 55, however. New Hampshire is also one of only three states with a “Truth in Sentencing” law. In effect it means there is no avenue to reduce a prison sentence based on rehabilitation.
I admit that I do have a vested interest in this subject. I will be 68 years old on April 9th. I was 29 when my fictitious crimes were claimed to have taken place. I was 41 when I was sent to prison for them. I could have been set free at age 43 had I actually been guilty or willing to pretend so.
I have already learned the hard way that growing older in prison is its own special cross. I severely sprained my right knee early this month. I’m not exactly sure how or why it happened. I awoke one morning with a painful knee. At almost age 68 in my 27th year in prison, that is not at all unusual. But me being me, I just ignored it. Later that morning I had to go to the commissary to pick up food and hygiene supplies that I ordered a week earlier.
The pickup process can be a little daunting. After 23 years in a place with very little “outside,” I love living on the top floor in a place where I can step out onto a walkway and see beyond prison walls into the forests and hills beyond. But this also involves stairs. Lots of them. Among the items I had ordered that day were a supply of bottled water because I had become a little dehydrated. My net bag was substantially heavier than usual.
Leaving the commissary, the walk across the long walled prison yard was no problem. The series of ramps to the upper levels left me huffing and puffing just a bit. But the final leg involve carrying the heavy bag up eight flights of stairs — 48 in all. Just a few steps from the top that day, my knee exploded. Now I use a cane — temporary, I hope — and a knee brace and lots of ice.
Police Brutality Is Overblown, but Not This
I have read that one of the common traits of the wrongfully convicted in prison is that they simply cannot let go of the injustice that befell them. For me, this injustice is as vividly felt today as it was on September 23, 1994.
But there comes a point at which it is no longer even about freedom. When freedom suddenly comes to a man who has spent more than a quarter century in prison, then freedom itself becomes an intimidating affair. We have seen this faced head-on in some recent posts about my friend, Pornchai Moontri. His imprisonment came to an abrupt end after 29 years on February 24, 2021.
Pornchai went to prison at age 18 after years forced into homelessness. Freedom brings lots of firsts for him. He has never driven a car, for instance, and has no frame of reference for how that would feel except to feel scary. I told him that driving became second nature to me as it will one day for him as well.
If I ever regain my freedom, I will likely find it to be less new and intimidating than Pornchai did at first, but I try not to set myself up for disappointment by thinking about it too much. However, being deprived of justice still remains a gnawing insult to both my psyche and my soul. I cannot help but ponder this and it has never relented. After 27 years it still leaves me fending off bitterness and resentment. Justice and freedom were stolen from me by a dishonest police officer.
I find it strange, but just and merciful, that even after more than 26 years unjustly in prison, people are still writing about it. In a thoughtful pair of posts written in France, Catholic writer Marie Meaney arrived at some boldly incisive conclusions after doing substantial research. Both are available in English at her blog, Cheminons avec Marie qui défait les nœuds (“Let Us Walk with Mary Who Unties the Knots”). Marie’s first article published in June 2019 was “Untying the Knots of Sin in Prison.” It was mostly about my friend, Pornchai Moontri, and how the knots of abuse were untied for him through a team effort.
Marie Meaney’s second article, published in November 2020, was a model of thoughtful, honest research. Its understated title was simply, “A Priest Unjustly Imprisoned.” It strikes me as highly ironic that most American Catholic writers — with the bold exception of Catholic League President Bill Donohue — go to great lengths to avoid any mention of this story lest they be targeted by the cancel culture crowd for whom questioning a claim of victimhood is a mortal sin. Meanwhile in France, a nation known for its anticlerical Catholic culture, my story is told with guns of truth blazing. Here is an excerpt from her excellent post:
“This same man had been accusing so many people of sexually abusing him ‘that he appeared to be going for some sort of sexual abuse victim world record’ according to (Thomas) Grover’s former counselor, Ms. Debbie Collet, who said that Grover never mentioned Fr. MacRae during their sessions — though pressure had been put on her by the Keene (NH) police to alter her testimony. This small, 2,000 inhabitant town had been assigned a detective, James F. McLaughlin, to uncover sex abuse cases.”
— “A Priest Unjustly Imprisoned,” by Marie Meaney
Please do not misunderstand me here. I am very much pro-law enforcement. I do not at all subscribe to the left’s notion that police brutality has been rampant in America. Hyped-up exceptions must not overcome the rule of law. You may be surprised to learn that most prisoners believe this as well. In the heat of the political left’s promotion of anti-police policies in 2020, I wrote of the danger this represents in “Don’t Defund Police. Defund Unions that Cover Up Corruption.”
Detective James F. McLaughlin
Marie Meaney was correct in her assertion that between 1988 and 1993, the time in which much older claims against me were probed, the City of Keene, New Hampshire, with a population of about 22,000 then, had a full-time sex crimes detective named James F. McLaughlin. He is now mercifully retired. A 2003 Boston Sunday Globe article by Carlene Hempel (“Hot Pursuit,” Nov. 23, 2003) described him as a detective who “focuses specifically on men interested in boys.” The news media, especially The Boston Globe, has since then gone to great lengths to separate the homosexual abuse narrative from having anything to do with Homosexuality.
Carlene Hempel reported that McLaughlin separated himself from his initial involvement with ICAC, the “Internet Crimes Against Children” Task Force. Instead, he decided to go it alone, but Hempel avoided writing about why. She infers something, however, in an interview with a former ICAC police trainer who spoke of McLaughlin more generically:
“Cops who … operate outside the ICAC system put some people at risk. … You can’t be posing as a 15-year-old and throw something out like, ‘I’m really questioning my sexual orientation and I wonder if someone out there can help me with that.’ That’s really leading, and in my opinion, entrapment.”
— Police ICAC trainer
It was some time after my 1994 trial that McLaughlin took up the cause of Internet crimes. He made 1,000 arrests luring men to Keene, NH from other states in a process that many described as entrapment. In The Boston Globe article, McLaughlin said in his own defense that no judge has ever said that he has gone too far. That did not remain entirely true. In 2005, a federal judge reprimanded McLaughlin for sending child pornography to an online subject of his entrapment effort. At the time, McLaughlin’s supervisor said one of the scariest things I have ever heard from law enforcement. He told a reporter for The Concord Monitor, in an article that has since disappeared from the Internet, that, “It’s our job to ferret the criminal element out of society.”
Detective McLaughlin’s focus on Internet crimes involving men and teenage boys came well after the case he built against me. It is interesting that in her article from France, Marie Meaney mentioned my accuser at trial, Thomas Grover, who in the end was awarded close to $200,000 from the Diocese of Manchester for his easily identifiable lies. The problem with an accuser’s lies in the hands of a crusading sex crimes detective, however, is that they are easily covered up by finding witnesses willing to corroborate the accuser’s story. There were none here to be found, however. Consider this excerpt from a sworn statement of accuser Thomas Grover’s therapist, Debbie Collett:
“Thomas Grover never revealed to me that Gordon MacRae perpetrated against him. Mr. Grover spent a great deal of time being confronted (in therapy) for his dishonesty, misrepresentations, and unwillingness to be honest about his problems. Thomas Grover did reveal that he had been sexually abused, but named no specific person except his foster father. When asked if he meant Mr. Grover, he responded ‘yes, among others …’ He accused so many people of sexual abuse that we thought he was going for some sort of sexual abuse victim world record. But he never accused Fr. MacRae.”
— Sworn statement of Debbie Collett
Of her experience with Detective James McLaughlin and his pre-trial investigation, Ms. Collett wrote:
“I was contacted by Keene Police detectives McLaughlin and Clarke … I was uncomfortable with (the) repeated starting and stopping of the tape recorder when my answers to their questions were not the answers they wanted to hear … I confronted them about this and their treatment of me which included coersion, intimidation, veiled and more forward threats of arrest … McLaughlin said that he would personally come to my home, drag me out of it bodily if necesary, and force me to testify despite my information to him … They presented as argumentative, manipulative, and threatening me via use of police power to get me to say what they wanted to hear.”
— Sworn statement of Debbie Collett
Perhaps the more important part of Debbie Collett’s statement is her assertion that it was recorded. Under court rules, the prosecution was required to turn over to the defense all material including any recorded interviews. Despite repeated references to tapes in police reports, however, none were ever provided. The recording of McLaughlin’s interviews with Debbie Collett simply disappeared.
In the article linked at the end of this post, Ryan MacDonald raises the issue of recorded interviews.
“Unlike his protocols in nearly all other cases, Detective McLaughlin recorded none of his interviews with claimants in the MacRae case. A reason for the absence of recorded interviews may become clear from a statement of Steven Wollschlager, a young man who accused MacRae during one of McLaughlin’s interviews, and then recanted, refusing to repeat his accusations to a grand jury. From his sworn statement:
’In 1994 before [MacRae] was to go on trial, I was contacted again by McLaughlin. I was aware at the time of the [MacRae] trial, knowing full well that it was all bogus and having heard all the talk of the lawsuits and money involved, and also the reputations of those making the accusations. … During this meeting I just listened to the scenarios being presented to me. The lawsuits and money were of great discussion and I was left feeling that if I would just go along with the story I could reap the rewards as well.
’McLaughlin asked me three times if [MacRae] ever came on to me sexually or offered me money for sexual favors. [He] had me believing that all I had to do was make up a story about [MacRae] and I could reap a large sum of money as others already had. McLaughlin … referenced that life could be easier with a large sum of money … I was at the time using drugs and could have been influenced to say anything they wanted for money. A short time later after being subpoenaed to court, I had a different feeling about the situation.’ ”
— “Police Investigative Misconduct Railroaded an Innocent Priest,” by Ryan MacDonald
Neither Steven Wollschlager nor Debbie Collett have even been allowed to present their testimony in any appeal before the appeals were dismissed without hearings in State or Federal Courts.
In the photograph atop this post, Detective McLaughlin was honored by unknown entities for his 350th arrest while posing as a male teenager luring adults online to their arrest in Keene, New Hampshire. Less than one percent of these cases ever went to trial. The other 99 percent were resolved through lenient plea deal offers that defense attorneys urged their clients to take — even the ones whom they knew were not guilty.
I was never a part of McLaughlin’s Internet predator obsession, but his tactics and dishonesty leading up to that endeavor were very much a part of his case against me. Recently, journalist Ryan MacDonald was invited to submit an article on police and prosecutor misconduct for SaveServices.org. His February 20, 2021 article has since been republished at multiple other justice sites, including the National Center for Reason and Justice which continues to advocate for justice for me.
Ryan’s article is an eye-opener. Don’t miss “Police Investigative Misconduct Railroaded an Innocent Catholic Priest.”
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