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Behind the Shield | Inside the Boston Police Department

The story behind a Boston police detective who benefited from two police coverups

Retired Boston police detective Robert Tully left the Harmon Golf Course clubhouse.
Retired Boston police detective Robert Tully left the Harmon Golf Course clubhouse.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Third in an occasional series. Read part one and part two.

It seemed like a clear-cut case of drunken driving: The motorist almost hit an MBTA Transit Police car on Route 3 and sped away. When the transit cop caught him, the driver allegedly smelled of liquor, acted belligerently, and threatened to sue.

But as the officer wrestled the suspect out of his car and cuffed him, a police badge fell out of the man’s pocket. The handcuffs came off. Boston police Detective Robert Tully was going to get away with it.

Boston police sent three officers 15 miles south of the city to collect their man, who on that night in 2009 had recklessly and dangerously driven a department car, antagonized a transit cop, and tried to evade arrest, according to documents obtained by the Globe.

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Later, the police report on the incident would be sealed. Potential criminal charges disappeared in a secret court hearing. There was no investigation, no discipline, no paperwork. Officially, it never happened.

And so Tully was free to drink and drive and endanger again.

Almost five years later, just before Christmas in 2013, he was once again behind the wheel of an unmarked cruiser with alcohol on his breath when he crashed into a nurse driving home from work. The nurse, Danielle Coughlin, spent four days in the ICU with a broken sternum, a lacerated liver, and a head injury.

Again, Tully got away with it, thanks to Boston police, Boston City Hall, and the Rockland police, a coverup detailed in a Globe investigation published last month. He faced no consequences, remained on duty, and retired, in 2014, on his own timetable and with pension intact.

Now, long-buried documents recently unearthed by the Globe detail the concealed 2009 case, making it clear that Tully has benefited from two police coverups, in 2009 and 2013. The documents illustrate how quickly law enforcement can close ranks, and just how broad — and lasting — the blue wall of silence can be.

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“Who’s he going to hit next week? A family of four coming home?” asked Coughlin, the nurse, when the Globe told her of Tully’s 2009 brush with the law. “It’s just disheartening. It’s disgusting.”

Tully declined through his attorney to comment.

The Globe report last month on how Boston police officers accused of crimes are often shielded from criminal or professional consequences drew expressions of concern but no sweeping action from Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston and his police commissioner, William Gross; both said officers should be held to the highest standards.

The tone shifted somewhat when the Globe asked this week about the 2009 incident and coverup. Gross said the department would immediately launch an investigation into the case and its handling.

“Every person, regardless of their job, must be treated the same under the law,” Gross said in a statement. “The alleged actions of Mr. Tully do not represent the Boston Police Department, and are unacceptable and unbecoming of an individual whose duty is to protect and serve.”

Gross declined to be interviewed, as did the mayor. Walsh issued a statement, which did not mention Tully by name but said “any officer who breaks the law and breaks their community’s trust must be met with swift and thorough action.”

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The latest revelations about Tully drew outrage from Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins, who has long pushed for greater police accountability and oversight.

“Why are police officers allowed to be above the law? Because it is other police officers that make the decision as to whether or not they get arrested,” Rollins said in a statement. “It is almost beyond belief that Boston police allegedly knew about this 2009 incident with Detective Tully and did nothing. But even more insulting and infuriating is that in 2013, in yet another driving episode, Detective Tully’s BPD-issued vehicle crossed the center line and he seriously injured a woman.”

Others said the findings underscore some of the systemic problems within policing across the nation.

“The culture of that blue wall of silence actually damages communal trust,” said the Rev. Willie Bodrick II, senior pastor elect at the Twelfth Baptist Church. “To the community, it seems like there is a different code and a different law and a different status of citizenship for those who are police officers.”

The BPD declined to make Captain Wayne Lanchester, who as a lieutenant was the highest-ranking supervisor notified when Tully was stopped in 2009, available for an interview. The department and the city declined to answer specific questions about the case, and noted that it occurred under the previous administration. Former police commissioner Edward F. Davis said he did not remember this case, but said his administration did things “by the book,” and nobody got a pass.

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Transit Police Chief Kenneth Green, whose agency’s officers chased Tully in 2009, called the case concerning. He noted that because the officers involved have retired, the department is limited in its ability to conduct an investigation. Nonetheless, he ordered a review.

“Transit Police officers are expected to treat all citizens with the same discretion and fairness regardless of one’s status or position,” Green said.

Because Tully faced no consequences, he’s a prime example of the high public cost — in pain and suffering, broken trust, and lifetime pension payments for offending officers — of a police culture that protects troubled cops.

If Tully had been treated like an ordinary citizen, and had been convicted in the 2009 case and the 2013 case, he could have lost his taxpayer-subsidized retirement. Instead, his record is clean. He has already collected more than $430,000, and the monthly checks will continue for the rest of his life.

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Boston police Detective Robert Tully's chase by the Transit Police ended in this Home Depot Parking Lot on Jan. 22, 2009.
Boston police Detective Robert Tully's chase by the Transit Police ended in this Home Depot Parking Lot on Jan. 22, 2009. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

At around 10:25 p.m. on the night of Jan. 22, 2009, Transit Police officer Lawrence Culbert was headed south on Route 3 in Hingham in an unmarked Ford Expedition when a black Chevrolet Impala got so hot on his tail that he lost sight of the car’s headlights. Culbert turned his blue lights on, and the Impala almost hit him, then sped off, according to documents obtained by the Globe.

Culbert turned on his siren. The Impala repeatedly slowed down then took off again just as Culbert got close, once getting off the highway and stopping long enough for Culbert to jump out of his car before the other driver hit the gas.

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The Impala then pulled into a Home Depot parking lot. When Culbert caught up, he saw the Impala had turned around and was driving toward him, according to the documents.

Culbert stopped his cruiser and jumped out to confront the other driver, who refused to identify himself. When Culbert told him he would be arrested, the driver allegedly began to drive away and Culbert yanked the man’s arm out of the window and put him in a wrist lock.

It was then, while Culbert was putting the driver in handcuffs, that the police badge fell out of the driver’s pocket. Culbert checked the man’s ID: Detective Robert Tully. And Culbert learned soon enough that the Impala was a BPD vehicle, which had a department-issued Glock pistol in the trunk.

Culbert didn’t conduct a field sobriety test, according to the documents. Instead, he took off the handcuffs, notified his supervisor, and requested assistance from higher-ups from Transit and Boston police.

Transit Police informed a Boston police lieutenant, and a sergeant and two officers responded to the scene, according to the documents.

Culbert turned Tully, his car, and his gun over to the Boston officers, according to the documents. While he waited for his ride home, Tully urinated in the parking lot.

Culbert wrote Tully two citations for a handful of civil and criminal motor vehicle infractions, including failure to stop for police — but nothing for drunken driving. Ultimately, the citations didn’t matter. They disappeared in a clerk magistrate’s hearing in Hingham District Court, according to the clerk’s office, which has no records at all of the incident. No criminal charges were issued. The only entry on Tully’s driving record from the incident is a civil citation for a signal infraction.

Culbert did not respond to a request for comment.

Boston police didn’t open an internal affairs investigation against Tully, who was at the time listed as a director of his union, the Boston Police Detectives Benevolent Society, according to state records. The BPD didn’t even stop Tully from driving a take-home city vehicle in the future.

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The failure to take the first incident seriously would clear the way for the next.

On Dec. 11, 2013, Tully was in his police department Honda when he swerved across the centerline on a residential road in Rockland. As the Globe reported last month, he slammed into Danielle Coughlin as she slowed her car to turn into her driveway, sending them both to the hospital. Medical records obtained by the Globe showed that Tully was slurring his speech and had alcohol on his breath. Nearly three hours after the crash, his blood alcohol level was still almost 2.5 times the legal limit.

The aftermath of a crash Dec 11, 2013, in Rockland that sent Danielle Coughlin to intensive care. Coughlin's Toyota RAV4 was hit just before midnight by a city-owned car driven by off-duty Boston police Detective Robert Tully.
The aftermath of a crash Dec 11, 2013, in Rockland that sent Danielle Coughlin to intensive care. Coughlin's Toyota RAV4 was hit just before midnight by a city-owned car driven by off-duty Boston police Detective Robert Tully.

Rockland police say they didn’t notice. Despite pleas from Coughlin’s father, the agency never tried to get Tully’s blood alcohol test results from the hospital. The Rockland police chief said his department handled the crash correctly, and that only Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz’s office could request blood alcohol results.

Coughlin’s father called and asked the DA to do exactly that.

The Globe obtained e-mails through a records request that show Cruz’s office briefly looked into the case a little more than a year after it happened.

“It sounds like Rockland PD might have let this guy go despite the fact it could have been OUI, bc he’s a Boston cop,” read an internal e-mail sent Jan. 14, 2015. “So, we might get some resistance in getting the file initially.”

But then the e-mails stop. Nothing ever happened.

Cruz’s office redacted the names of the employees that sent and received the e-mails. In a statement, the office said they were powerless because Rockland police had failed to pursue criminal charges.

Tully’s son, Brad Tully, briefly worked as a prosecutor for the Plymouth DA in 2010 and 2015. Brad Tully did not respond to requests for comment; the Plymouth DA did not respond to questions about whether his role in the office had any impact on the case.

For their part, Boston police did not open an internal affairs investigation into the 2013 crash for three years. By then, Tully had retired and was receiving his pension.

The BPD has said it relied on Rockland’s report on the crash, which did not mention alcohol.

When Coughlin tried to sue Tully in civil court, the city’s law department falsely said he had been acting “in the scope of his employment” at the time of the crash. Payroll records show Tully had been off duty for almost eight hours. But the city’s claim had the effect of protecting Tully from civil liability.

Coughlin has tried to put the crash behind her, but she still suffers from chest pain, and anxiety while driving. She now wonders what might have been different if Tully had been charged and prosecuted in 2009. Would he still have hit her? Would she have made it home safely?

She’s not surprised that police protected Tully years before she encountered him.

“It just goes to show,” she said. “They can do no wrong.”


Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @evanmallen. Andrew Ryan can be reached at andrew.ryan@globe.com Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.