The boy sat alone in his bedroom and considered the best way to go about killing three cops.
He thought about the weapon he’d use, mulled the 1962 Belgium Browning 16-gauge shotgun his father, Big Phil, had passed on to him. It was a beautiful piece of steel and polished wood, a cannon of a weapon.
Yeah, that could be the one.
It was 1988, just a couple months into the new year, when 18-year-old Phillip Tavares found himself pondering revenge. For weeks, he had done what everyone told him: be patient, wait for the prosecutor’s investigation of his father’s death to run its course. The truth will come out, son. There will be consequences.
But four months had passed and he understood now that none of that was coming — no charges, no trials, no convictions. No recourse at all for what happened the night three cops responded to a domestic disturbance call at his father’s home in Carver and beat his father so severely, the boy was sure, that it killed him.
Big Phil was pulled from his home crying out in pain, and booked into jail as welts and bruises bloomed across his body. A sergeant who stumbled upon him in a holding cell the following morning would recall a “whipped man” who should have gotten immediate medical attention. Days later, his father was dead, an autopsy revealing an extensive array of internal injuries.
Now, after learning that the district attorney had declined to prosecute the officers, the boy sat in the dark, plotting. If he couldn’t get justice in his father’s small town, then he’d take it himself.
Thirty-three years later, the same boy — a man now — sat in an office and reflected on the decisions, large and small, that shape a life. On a nearby shelf, his father’s framed mug shot sat, a daily reminder of what was taken from him.
And on his desk was a nameplate.
Phillip A. Tavares, it read.
Chief of Police.
The 51-year-old Marshfield police chief steered his department SUV past ice cream shops and beachfront businesses on a recent afternoon, taking stock of the relative peace and quiet in this South Shore town of 26,000.
He likes it out here on the streets, among the residents who refer to him simply as “Phil.” Out here, he can drop in on his pals over at the marina to find out how the fish are biting or pop in as kids shoot baskets at the community center. And today he stumbled onto an incident by accident — a pair of motorists involved in a minor fender-bender.
“Everyone OK?” Tavares asked, before digging into the backseat and emerging with a couple bottles of water. “Here,” he said, “take this.”
He is a former Marshfield Citizen of the Year, an officer so well respected that, when the chief’s job came open in 2012, the department’s five other eligible candidates wrote to town officials, urging them to give the job to Tavares.
But the accomplishments and optimistic demeanor mask a long-ago family tragedy, one that has left him — in this national season of reckoning for police — straddling two worlds: The proud cop who wears his Marshfield Police T-shirt on family vacations to Florida and holds tightly to the old adage that police represent the thin line between order and chaos. And the still grieving son who believes in his bones that his father’s death was the result of a vicious beating by police.
For more than 30 years, Tavares has never stopped working to secure justice for his father. He has hired lawyers and a private investigator, amassed hundreds of pages of decades-old documents. Every few months, his wife finds him poring over police reports and medical records from his father’s case, in search of some new clue or missed detail that might help answer the questions that still consume him, three decades on.
What happened that night inside his father’s home? Who did what? And why was no one ever held accountable?
For three decades, it was a solitary pursuit, the details known only to a small circle of family and friends.
Then last December, as national protests roiled and lawmakers pushed through sweeping police reforms, came an unexpected development. After Tavares began sharing his story more widely, investigators from the Plymouth district attorney’s office, having heard some of the details, wanted to learn more. On the phone, they’d been clear: If his father’s case warranted another look, that’s what it would receive.
And so, on a frigid morning just before Christmas, Tavares pulled into the parking lot of the Plymouth DA’s office in Brockton. He made his way inside, past security, and down a stretch of hallway to a conference room. He took a seat and, as three investigators scribbled notes, he began to tell the story of his father, and a cold night 33 years earlier.
Barrel-chested and thick-armed, with a black caterpillar of a mustache, Big Phil Tavares was the guy you called when your carburetor crapped out or your refrigerator needed moving. He took his coffee black and didn’t much believe in the concept of a sick day. But his perpetually calloused hands belied a gentle spirit. He raised rabbits in his backyard, checked in daily on his aging parents. And when his wife, Madeleine, gave birth to a baby boy in 1969, he bestowed upon the child his most prized possession: his name.
Big Phil and Little Phil, the family called them.
Tavares remembers his father as a constant, doting presence. He would take the boy to the beach for the day or spend hours tossing him batting practice at the park. They hunted deer out in the woods of Plymouth County and chased trout over at Mooney’s Pond.
His father had always dreamed of becoming a cop. But epilepsy — the result of a childhood head injury — had relegated him to a life of manual labor and security jobs, and he wanted more for his only child. He spent what little extra money he made on the boy — a Mongoose bicycle on Tavares’s 13th birthday, a cherished shotgun on his 16th — and implored his son never to sell himself short.
Even after his parents divorced and his father remarried in 1982 — settling with his new wife in the town of Carver — the two remained close, meeting for weekend movies or to lift weights at his father’s gym in Plymouth.
And he never forgot what his father told him, when he graduated high school and prepared to set out into the world.
We might not have a lot, son, but we’ve got a good name. Don’t ever do anything to tarnish it.
Back then, Carver, Mass., was a town of spaghetti suppers and Sadie Hawkins dances, where the local newspaper ran the school lunch menu alongside recaps of residents’ summer vacations. Situated 40 miles southeast of Boston, the mostly white town of 10,000 was a generally peaceful place, though it wasn’t without racial tension; in 1988, two white brothers pleaded guilty to assaulting four Black teenagers in a racist attack.
On the evening of Nov. 13, 1987, as darkness settled over the town, the police dispatcher relayed a soundtrack of small-town calm: a resident calling to report a low-hanging tree branch; a man complaining of damage done to his driveway by a town snowplow.
At 10:32 p.m., Big Phil called the police station for assistance with a domestic issue.
For much of the past week, he and his second wife, Cindy, had been at odds. According to the Tavares family, he’d been staying alone at the couple’s mobile home recently, but when Cindy stopped by that night, things had quickly deteriorated. At one point, the Tavares family would later tell police, Cindy threw a sneaker, splitting the lip of Big Phil’s elderly mother, who was visiting.
Cindy and Big Phil’s mother left soon after. Big Phil walked next door, using a neighbor’s phone to report Cindy’s alleged assault to police before returning home to wait for an officer to arrive.
A few minutes after Big Phil’s call, Cindy herself walked into the Carver police station. She carried with her a restraining order, issued earlier that day by a Wareham district judge, ordering her husband from the home.
Housed in a single-story, cinder-block building behind the fire station, the Carver Police Department employed only a dozen or so full-time officers. Training was negligible — a sergeant would later recall being handed a gun she didn’t know how to use and told to go patrol the streets — and some officers were happy to handle unruly suspects with a heavy hand.
“There was no deescalation back then,” one former Carver officer recently told the Globe. “You were told to do something, and you either did it, or we made you do it.”
The shift commander that night was Diane Skoog, a 10-year veteran of the department who’d taken an unusual path into law enforcement. A single mother in need of a paycheck, she’d signed up for the state’s civil service exam on something of a whim, she told the Globe years ago, and scored high enough to land a job in Carver, eventually advancing to sergeant.
Skoog took Cindy’s report, then enlisted a pair of officers to help her enforce the order: Roger Hedges, a 30-something patrolman, and Bruce Pollitt, a young cop in the early stages of what would be a checkered career.
Within minutes, the three officers were headed south in a three-cruiser caravan.
Around 10:50 p.m., headlights cut through the fog outside Pine Tree Village, a remote cluster of mobile homes surrounded by towering pines. The cruisers entered the park and turned onto Cheryl Lane, past weathered mobile homes occupied by blue-collar workers, and rolled to a stop outside a home at the end of a narrow dirt road.
The ringing phone woke Tavares, then in his first semester at North Shore Community College.
It was late, after 2 a.m., and on the other line, his uncle’s voice was frazzled: Big Phil was in jail. Something about a restraining order. Apparently, police had roughed him up pretty good.
By the time Tavares and his mother arrived at the Carver police station, Big Phil was in a bad way. He couldn’t walk on his own. A large welt had bloomed under his left eye. He struggled to sign his own release papers.
He’d been charged with violating a restraining order, resisting arrest, and assault and battery on the officers. According to the police report, Big Phil had repeatedly refused to leave the home, then became combative when officers attempted to handcuff him, though details were vague: “As we attempted to place Mr. Tavares under arrest, he began to swing his arms about. ... He pushed or fell to the floor, causing Officer Hedges to fall on top of him.”
To Tavares, the idea that his father fought police was preposterous. The man had never before been in trouble. He didn’t drink or smoke, revered law enforcement and adhered to even the most mundane laws; hell, the ponds of Plymouth County were filled with fish Big Phil had forced his son to toss back when they’d measured a quarter-inch shy of the legal limit.
Even Cindy hadn’t alleged violence; Big Phil had been struggling emotionally for months, she said at the time, and she’d contacted police only after he barricaded himself inside the couple’s home.
From his bed in the Jordan Hospital emergency room, Big Phil told family members a very different story.
Though he admitted to initially refusing to leave the home, he said he’d agreed to depart when one of the officers produced a copy of the restraining order, according to family members. But when he’d tried to retrieve his epilepsy medication from the bedroom — medicine he took twice a day to ward off the grand mal seizures he’d suffered since childhood — one of the officers tackled him from behind. They kicked him repeatedly, he said, in the stomach and face, struck him again and again with batons. At one point, he told his family, one of the officers grabbed him by the hair and slammed his head into a heater.
His story seemed borne out, at least in part, by his injuries. At the hospital, his eye was patched and his wrist fitted with a splint.
Twice over the next two days he was hurried back to the hospital when his condition worsened, according to family. At his arraignment a few days after the arrest, he had to be carried to the front of the courtroom by his attorney and a court officer, unable to walk on his own.
Five days after the incident, things were bad enough that Tavares returned from college to sit at his father’s bedside. Though clearly in pain, Big Phil did his best to ease his son’s concern.
“Everything’s going to be fine,” he said. “Don’t worry.”
Around dusk that evening, Tavares kissed his father goodbye, and the two made plans to see each other that weekend.
Less than an hour later, Big Phil pulled himself from bed, staggered into the kitchen of his parents’ home, and sank to the linoleum floor, begging for help.
He was dead before the ambulance reached the hospital.
The death garnered front-page headlines from Carver to Boston, and questions quickly arose about the police version of events. In an interview at the time, John C. Angley, Plymouth County’s longtime medical examiner, didn’t mince words.
“Someone had to really beat that man up in the belly — enough to kill him,” said Angley, who reported that an autopsy showed the cause of death to be massive pulmonary emboli — blood clots in the lung — the result of a ruptured spleen.
The Tavares family channeled their grief into protests outside the Carver Police Station, hoisting signs and demanding justice. It was, on a small scale, a foreshadowing of demonstrations decades later, calling out police injustices in cities and towns across the country.
But this was 1987. Four years before Rodney King. Decades before cellphone and body cameras could close the gap between a police department’s version of events and reality.
In 1987, police were widely viewed as heroes and a patrolman’s word was gold.
Within days of Big Phil’s death, Plymouth District Attorney William O’Malley said that a state pathologist had determined Tavares’s spleen had ruptured within 24 hours of his death. This, O’Malley incorrectly claimed, was evidence that the injury that killed Big Phil likely didn’t occur while he was in police custody.
Then-Carver police chief Thomas Orr told reporters that he’d looked into the incident and determined there was no misconduct. “I don’t see any wrongdoing,” said Orr, who accused the Tavares family of using the media to disparage police. “The case is over as far as I’m concerned.”
Meanwhile, Carver officers started to share details of the arrest that weren’t captured in their initial reports. In a supplemental statement filed five days after the death, Pollitt said that Big Phil tried to bite the officers, and that both he and Hedges had sustained injuries during the scuffle. Pollitt’s initial report made no mention of any officer injuries.
Officials also acknowledged that the camera in the station’s booking area, which would have captured Big Phil’s condition, wasn’t recording at the time — a breach in department policy.
The final affront came a few months after the funeral.
Robert Kilpeck, a State Police corporal who led the investigation into the death, submitted his findings to the Plymouth DA’s office. Kilpeck never interviewed any of the three officers involved, nor did he speak to neighbors who might’ve witnessed the arrest — including two who would tell a private investigator that they saw Big Phil crying out in pain as he was led to a police cruiser that night. Still, Kilpeck was confident there was no crime committed. And his report would be good enough for O’Malley, who officially cleared the three officers of any wrongdoing.
While it was clear there’d been a “scuffle,” Stephen Snyder, an assistant in O’Malley’s office, said at the time, “there is no injury consistent with allegations that excessive force was applied, that he was beaten, or that anything that happened during the course of his arrest was in any way responsible for his death.”
Tavares, who’d been clinging to the prosecutor’s investigation as a last hope for justice, spiraled.
He sat alone in his bedroom, dark thoughts swirling. He read and reread the list of goals he’d scribbled in loopy blue cursive shortly after his father’s death: Family will be taken care of; Find answers for all questions. And finally: Get even. And he almost did, coming so close one night that his childhood friend Kimberly Brown threw herself on the hood of his car to keep him from driving off to enact vengeance.
“I wanted them to die just like my father died,” Tavares said in an interview. “And I wanted to be the one who did it.”
In the end, several things that kept him from going through with it — friends’ support, an unwillingness to put his family through more pain. And his father’s words, still lodged in his mind: Never tarnish our good name, son.
As the months passed, the rage began to subside, and ever so slowly, his lust for vengeance eased.
In its place, a new idea began to take shape.
How else to describe it, when, in the months after his father’s death, Tavares transferred to Salem State University, switched his major from general studies to criminal justice, and began telling close friends and family about his new plan: The boy who once dreamed of hurting cops now wanted to become one.
Not just a cop — a police chief.
It seemed even crazier given his other experiences with law enforcement. Quincy police approached him inside a video store a year and a half after his father’s death and asked him to stop by the station to chat. He showed up shortly after, and before he realized what was happening, they were collecting his fingerprints and snapping his mug shot and leading him into an interrogation room, telling him he’d been identified as the prime suspect in a string of murders of young women.
“As soon as we put you in that cell and the door shuts, you’re front page news everywhere,” he remembers a detective saying.
He broke down in tears when they finally released him, hours later, then spent weeks on edge before authorities cleared him as a suspect.
But rather than turn him off, it only reinforced his new dream.
‘So you set a goal, and distract yourself with having to achieve it, instead of going through the dark feelings that you were going through.’
Jeanine Tavares, middle school administrator
He took his first job in law enforcement in the summer of ‘88, chasing down loose dogs and clearing bats from chimneys as an assistant animal control officer for the Town of Marshfield, while still in school. Two years later, he was bumped up to assistant harbor master. By 1994, he was a full-time officer with the Marshfield Police Department.
Becoming a police chief became his obsession. He gobbled up every overtime shift he could get, immersed himself in police policy and organizational leadership books during the overnight shift. He filled hundreds of notecards with questions to test himself, then tape-recorded himself reading through each one. Day after day, he patrolled the town’s streets as his own voice spilled from the car’s stereo. At night he pulled on headphones, convinced that some of the teachings would stick as he slept.
He rose fast. Sergeant in ‘99, lieutenant a few years later, juggling police work with marriage, and the birth of a son. During each promotional exam, he carried a photo of his father in his shirt pocket.
There were sacrifices, of course. He worked nights and weekends, missed holidays. He’d volunteer to coach his son’s Little League team, then hand the lineup card to an assistant when his work phone inevitably buzzed in the second inning. He flinched when his wife told him he was married to the job.
A middle school administrator with a doctoral degree in psychotherapy, Jeanine Tavares saw her husband’s frenzied pursuit for what it was — an escape.
“What [teenage] boy knows how to grieve?” she said in an interview. “So you set a goal, and distract yourself with having to achieve it, instead of going through the dark feelings that you were going through.”
A master’s degree. That’s what he needed. He enrolled in the criminal justice program at Western New England College, strode into class on the first day, and felt his stomach drop as the instructor called roll.
Right there, in the seat beside him, was Diane Skoog — one of the three officers he believed killed his father.
For years, he’d imagined this moment. The things he might say. The things he might do.
Instead, he said nothing, stewing in silence through the semester.
Seven hundred people turned out to see him sworn in as Marshfield’s police chief. Tavares smiled big that day in 2012, shook hand after hand, then settled into a seat behind the desk he’d spent his entire adult life coveting.
All around him was evidence of his success. The graduation certificate from the FBI’s prestigious National Academy. The binder full of thank you letters from town residents.
And yet, no matter how much he’d accomplished, he still felt a hole.
Tavares had never abandoned the hope that, through some unforeseen turn of events, his father’s case might get another look. In a bedroom closet, he kept a tattered accordion file stuffed with documents from his father’s case. A couple times each year, sparked by some nagging question or missed milestone, he’d jump from bed, pluck the file from the closet, and spend the next day or two hunched over the kitchen counter or basement pool table, reading and rereading the dozens of yellowed police reports and medical files.
But a few years ago, his trips through the documents became more frequent.
With the help of an attorney, he managed to get a copy of the original medical examiner’s report, which detailed his father’s internal injuries: busted blood vessels in the bowel, flanks, and diaphragm; more than a pint of blood in his chest cavity.
He reached out to an old friend from the Police Academy, a guy who’d recently been named chief in Carver, and asked for copies of the old case files. The chief obliged.
For the first time, Tavares read the statement of Paul Correia, a sergeant who’d replaced Skoog as shift commander the morning after Big Phil’s arrest. Correia had expressed shock at the condition of the man in the holding cell.
“I could see that he was a whipped man,” Correia wrote in a statement, shortly after Big Phil’s death. “I don’t know how a shift commandor could let a man set in a cell all night with out getting medical attention for him. The man was in agony.”
Tavares had never doubted that his father’s death was the direct result of a beating he’d sustained during his arrest. But these files — the medical examiner’s report, Correia’s statement — seemed to confirm it.
Still, what could he do? Thirty years after his father’s death, the world had seemingly moved on, even if he hadn’t.
He watched the grim images spilling from his TV last summer — of rioting and tear gas, of protesters and police doing nightly battle in cities across the country — and felt 33 years fall away. He recognized the red in the protesters’ eyes, the venom in their words.
It had once been his.
As nationwide demonstrations surged in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, Tavares felt more keenly aware than ever of the two worlds he straddled.
At a Floyd vigil in Marshfield last June, he dropped to a knee in his police uniform alongside hundreds of strangers. He said a silent prayer for his father, unaware that a newspaper photographer was snapping photos. A few days later, a childhood friend from Quincy called, incredulous.
What are you doing kneeling at a Black Lives Matter rally? the friend grumbled.
When he showed up at a Back the Blue event not long after, Tavares looked across the street to see some of the same people he’d knelt with a month earlier, deriding police as brutes and racists.
He understood their rage. But he also wanted them to come to the same understanding that he, as a police officer, had: Most cops were trying to do good.
For more than 30 years, he’d kept his story — his transformation — tucked away, the details known only to a small collection of family and friends. Even his own son, Anthony, had grown up with only a vague notion of what happened to his grandfather.
But now, for the first time, he wondered what it would mean to share it.
Detailing publicly his own complicated history with police wouldn’t bring closure, of course, but maybe it could bring understanding. Maybe it could compel those on both sides to look at things differently.
Maybe, in some roundabout way, there was justice in that.
For weeks, he wrestled with the idea, flip-flopped, spent hours talking it through with those closest to him — then decided late last year to film a five-minute video for the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, which launched a public relations campaign defending police amid public pushback and proposed legislative reforms. In the video, he retraced his unlikely path from a teenager who loathed police to a man who became one. He also gave a brief interview to the Boston Herald and the local daily, noting that police misdeeds shouldn’t overshadow the work that officers do each day. Still, he kept most of his story to himself.
Shortly before the video was scheduled to be posted online, Tavares called the Plymouth DA’s office and offered a courtesy heads up.
What came in response was an invitation: Would you be interested in coming in and telling us more about the case?
On a recent weekday afternoon, Tavares sat in his office — amid the novelty police mugs and the departmental use-of-force reports — and pored over, once again, the collection of old files he hopes will help rewrite history.
Since his meeting last December with Plymouth DA investigators, word had come back: Thirty-three years later, the investigation into his father’s death was being reopened.
Nothing within the case files has changed in those 33 years. Everything investigators currently have to work with — the statement from Correia, the medical examiner’s report — was available in 1987.
It wasn’t enough back then, when a patrolman’s badge shined pure.
Will it be now?
Many of those involved in the original case are dead: O’Malley, the Plymouth district attorney who’d declined to pursue charges against the officers; Angley, the medical examiner; Correia, the former Carver police sergeant.
But the three officers who were in the house that night are still around.
Hedges has retired to Florida, where he lives just a short drive from the Gulf of Mexico. Pollitt, too, is out of law enforcement, his 14-year policing career having sputtered to a close in 2002, after Carver’s Select Board reportedly voted to fire him for allegedly lying about a work injury. (He was eventually allowed to retire.)
Neither responded to repeated messages seeking comment.
Skoog — the sergeant who took Cindy’s report that night and later shared a college classroom with Tavares — lives in Marshfield now, of all places, in a modest home not far from the police station. When a reporter rang the bell not long ago, she appeared, after a few moments, at the door.
It had been nearly two decades since Skoog last worked for Carver police, eventually working her way up to chief. And she had no interest in discussing the death of Big Phil Tavares, shaking her head before quickly shutting the door.
Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Despite all he has lost, Phil Tavares is a proud police officer. He still believes deeply in the work, still supports the badge, the mission, and all the trappings of contemporary law enforcement. It’s ironic, he acknowledged, how the same national reckoning over policing that he bristles against has brought him closer to justice in his father’s case, closer than he’s ever felt before
He thinks back often about his teenage self, the boy who hated and despised police.
Tavares’s own son is 16 now. He sees a lot of his father in the boy. Same thick black hair, same sinewy frame. They hunt turkey together out in the woods of Plymouth County and chase trout in the same ponds he and his father once fished.
Not long ago, on the boy’s 16th birthday, Tavares sat him down and told him his grandfather’s story.
And then he gave the boy one more gift: the 1962 Belgium Browning 16-gauge shotgun, a gun he’d once vowed to fire, but never did.
Dugan Arnett can be reached at email@example.com.