PROVIDENCE — A man who was accused — and months later, cleared — in one of the most notorious homicides in Pawtucket’s history is accusing the local police and a forensic scientist at the Health Department of fabricating evidence in order to get publicity for solving a cold-case murder, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court.
Joao Monteiro said he was wrongly accused and framed by Pawtucket detectives for the homicide of Christine Cole, a 10-year-old girl who disappeared on her way home from a local market in January 1988. Her body washed up a month and a half later on a beach in Warwick. The medical examiner at the time determined the cause of death was “asphyxia with submersion.”
Monteiro, a Cape Verdean immigrant, had lived a quiet life in Pawtucket for decades until his arrest in July 2019, when Pawtucket Detective Susan Cormier and Chief Tina Goncalves announced they had DNA evidence proving Monteiro had killed the girl.
On the Pawtucket department for more than 25 years, Cormier had been making a name for herself by forming the Rhode Island cold case task force and promoting with regular appearances on WPRI-TV and at various crime conferences. She also developed playing cards featuring murder victims to drum up tips in unsolved cases. Christine Cole was the Queen of Hearts.
The girl’s homicide was the first of the cold cases — and the first homicide Cormier took the lead in investigating — to end with an arrest.
But the case starting falling apart within hours, and the murder charge was dismissed in months.
The 10-count lawsuit accuses Cormier of being a “media hound” who bypassed state prosecutors when she arrested Monteiro partly because she “wanted publicity for solving ‘cold cases.’” It also accuses Cormier and Goncalves of slander.
The lawsuit also takes aim at the city of Pawtucket, accusing authorities, including Goncalves and Major Daniel Mullen, of failing to properly supervise the officers.
While the police notified the attorney general’s office when they were arresting Monteiro, they hadn’t involved prosecutors in the investigation, which was highly unusual. Once state prosecutors checked with the Department of Health, they found that the DNA evidence from the blood stains on Christine Cole’s pants did not match Monteiro directly.
“The only person that the DNA sample indicated a potential connection to was plaintiff’s son,” according to the suit. “The DNA sample did not directly implicate anyone, and plaintiff’s son was not born until five years after the girl died.”
Health scientist Tamara Wong, who conducted the forensic DNA testing, is also being sued, as the lawyers for Monteiro question whether she or the police misrepresented the results.
The detectives didn’t find other evidence incriminating Monteiro. Some of the statements Cormier made about Monteiro — such as saying he lived above the market when Christine Cole disappeared — turned out to be false, the lawsuit said.
Cormier and Detective Trevor Lefebvre, who handled the arrest, didn’t have an interpreter for Monteiro, who speaks Creole and has trouble with English, the lawsuit said. Instead, the lawsuit alleges, the detectives used the language barrier to either fabricate incriminating admissions from Monteiro, or made up his statements directly.
Cormier’s arrest affidavit made allegations about Monteiro living a “covert” life, because of the routes he drove, where he parked his car, and how he changed his residence 19 times in 30 years. Monteiro’s lawyers said those actions weren’t incriminating, but just Monteiro’s own routine in an ordinary life.
“Mr. Monteiro lives like everyone else does,” said lead lawyer Mark Loevy-Reyes, of Chicago, who is working with Providence lawyer William Devine. “We all have our favorite parking spot, we all have our favorite way of driving … That’s just what ordinary people do.”
Monteiro has steadfastly denied knowing the child or having anything to do with her death.
Within a day of Monteiro’s arrest, the prosecutors moved to have him released on low bail and, seven months later, agreed to dismiss the case without prejudice, citing “insufficient evidence.”
Loevy-Reyes, who has led lawsuits in wrongful conviction cases where evidence was suppressed or destroyed, said he saw one major difference in Monteiro’s case.
“The prosecutors in this case acted properly,” Loevy-Reyes said. “The prosecutors took a critical look at the evidence the police brought forward and voluntarily dismissed the case.”
The lawsuit was filed almost exactly one year after Monteiro’s charge was dismissed. Loevy-Reyes said the case took time to investigate, because the Pawtucket Police Department and the state spurned their requests for information about what led to Monteiro’s arrest.
“All we got were refusals,” Loevy-Reyes said.
Goncalves and Cormier did not respond to messages from The Globe seeking comment on the lawsuit, but in a statement emailed to the Associated Press by a city spokesperson, Goncalves said: “In this particular case, the department met the burden of proof for probable cause with new testing for the DNA sample to administer an arrest.”
“The Attorney General’s Office looked at the findings and stated that they would require more information,” the statement said. “The Pawtucket Police Department is working closely with the assistant attorney general assigned to the case and remains committed to giving the family of 10-year-old Christine Cole closure.”
Monteiro continues to be “a prime suspect,” she said.
The lawyers also looked at the Pawtucket Police Department’s past record of lawsuits over arrests and investigations of people, particularly those of color. The lawsuit alleges that the city of Pawtucket has notice of “a widespread practice by its officers” of people suspected of crimes being subjected to proceedings based on false evidence, deprived of their liberty without probable cause, and implicated in crimes with scant evidence that they were involved.
The lawsuit also noted that the city has been sued for violating the state’s open records law for not releasing information about police misconduct.
Christine Cole’s murder remains unsolved.
Monteiro’s charge was dismissed without prejudice, which means that the police could someday refile charges — and there is no statute of limitations for murder.
Monteiro, meanwhile, lives out of state, and is afraid of the police, his lawyers said.
He worked for 15 years loading trucks at Cintas, until his arrest. Then, he lost his job, his home, and ended up moving in with a relative.
“Obviously, this has had a significant impact on him,” said Providence lawyer William Devine. “One day you’re going to work and it’s fine, the next day you’re accused of killing a 10 year old.”
The lawsuit asks for a jury trial, to determine compensatory damages.
“Really, what other recourse does a gentleman like this have?” Devine said. “This man is accused, he’s not the murderer, so you have two families upside down. It’s tragic.