STOUGHTON — The stories are like plot lines pulled from an over-the-top network crime drama.
A police chief accused of trying to run down a lieutenant in the Town Hall parking lot. Illicit photos of a deputy chief and his mistress passed among officers and their spouses. A local official so unnerved at the state of his town that he felt compelled to carry a gun — not out of fear of any would-be criminal, but of the local police force itself.
Over the past two decades, the 60-member Stoughton Police Department has been the epitome of dysfunction, besieged by scandals that have rocked this unassuming bedroom community south of Boston but garnered little attention outside I-495. Despite its modest size, the agency has weathered state and federal criminal prosecutions, intense infighting that has led to several civil lawsuits, and an FBI probe into public corruption. The troubles are so entrenched that one former Stoughton police chief, upon taking the job, suggested publicly that some of his officers were mentally unfit to carry guns.
“I wouldn’t want to get pulled over by these guys,” said Joseph Saccardo, who previously served as Stoughton’s police chief in the mid-2000s, in a recent interview with the Globe. “It’s incestuous down there. … This is the worst of small-town governments.”
Now, the department finds itself once again mired in scandal, this time sparked by the February 2021 death of Sandra Birchmore, a 23-year-old pregnant woman with extensive ties to Stoughton police.
Three of Birchmore’s friends have told the Globe that Stoughton police officer Matthew Farwell began having sex with Birchmore when she was 15 and part of a police youth explorers program. If true, those actions would be statutory rape; the age of consent is 16. Farwell, 36, has denied breaking the law.
More recently, Birchmore told friends she was pregnant with Farwell’s child, though records show Farwell, who is married with children, told investigators he was not the father.
Farwell, the former patrolmen’s union president, resigned from the department in April amid an ongoing internal investigation connected to a State Police probe of Birchmore’s death. Since the Globe first reported his departure, two more Stoughton officers have been suspended as part of the investigation: Farwell’s twin brother, William, and Robert Devine, a lawyer and the department’s one-time second-in-command. Devine was previously demoted from his deputy chief position in 2016 following a separate sex scandal.
All three officers, records show, were involved with Stoughton’s Police Explorers Program, which Birchmore joined around 2010 as a 13-year-old in search of structure and stability. Stoughton officials have said the suspensions are linked to information uncovered during the investigation into Birchmore’s death but declined to address the specific allegations against the Farwells and Devine. Department records say only that the investigation is examining their “performance of police duties.”
The Police Department has hired an outside firm to assist with the investigation, according to Police Chief Donna McNamara, who has promised a “full and transparent process, insofar as the law allows.”
“The Birchmore family and the public deserve complete answers,” she said in an e-mail.
But even as McNamara and other town officials defend the department’s overall performance, the latest controversy has brought renewed scrutiny to a small town force with an extraordinary track record of misconduct. Even in a state with no shortage of police corruption, Stoughton has managed to distinguish itself.
“In my time in southeast Massachusetts, I’m not aware of any department that’s had the number of scandals and accusations as Stoughton,” said Mitch Librett, a professor of criminal justice at Bridgewater State University and former police lieutenant in New Rochelle, N.Y.
“You have to ask yourself: What’s going on there?”
Troubles at the top
When he first arrived in town in the 1970s, former Stoughton Select Board member Bob Cohn recalls, the running joke was that to tell then-police chief John Donahue you were going on vacation was to ensure you returned to a robbed home. (Donahue would eventually be convicted of knowingly receiving stolen goods.)
In the ‘90s, another Stoughton chief, David Young, was fired after allegations that he used department resources for non-police business and illegally issued a firearms permit to a prominent businessman. A state arbitrator later ruled that only about a third of the charges against Young were warranted, and that he deserved only a suspension.
By the turn of the century, however, under the leadership of chief Manuel “Manny” Cachopa — a former Stoughton High football player known as a backslapper and politician — those improprieties would come to seem almost quaint.
During one stretch in the early 2000s, a Home Depot sought charges against a Stoughton officer for stealing merchandise; a state-sponsored report named the Stoughton department among the state’s worst offenders in targeting minority drivers; and a Norfolk grand jury examined allegations that a sergeant tried to extort a local business owner out of nearly $10,000.
That probe would become part of a sweeping investigation that eventually cast scrutiny on seven Stoughton officers, including Cachopa and both the president and vice president of the local patrolmen’s union.
By 2004, town officials had apparently seen enough. Stoughton’s Select Board replaced Cachopa with Joseph Saccardo, an experienced outsider who had previously worked in internal affairs for the Massachusetts State Police.
Within days of Saccardo’s hiring, the town suspended six Stoughton officers under grand jury investigation and Saccardo, for his part, minced few words in describing the department’s culture.
“We have police officers here who may not be stable and are carrying guns,” he told reporters at the time. “It doesn’t get worse than that.”
The town’s attempt at reform would prove short-lived. Less than a month into Saccardo’s tenure, a revamped Select Board voted to terminate Saccardo’s contract — at a cost of $60,000 to the town — and reinstate Cachopa, who, according to the findings of a 2005 independent report, quickly launched a revenge tour against those he deemed unloyal.
Some officers accused Cachopa of stripping them of their duties, switching their shifts from days to nights, and turning other officers against them. Two officers unsuccessfully sued Cachopa for civil rights violations. A resident who hosted a weekly show on local television said that his criticism of Stoughton police had led to threatening phone calls and smashed windows at his home, according to reports at the time.
One lieutenant found a toy rat in his office mailbox; another lieutenant, who was cooperating with a grand jury investigation into the department, accused Cachopa of attempting to strike him with his SUV in the parking lot of Town Hall.
In a letter to the town manager detailing the department’s dysfunction, then-Stoughton police Lieutenant Francis Wohlgemuth wrote that tensions among the department’s factions had grown so intense that he’d begun to fear for his life.
Cachopa’s chaotic reign came to an end in 2009, when he was convicted of being an accessory after the fact to attempted extortion. He was sentenced to three years probation and 1,000 hours of community service, and, in a move fitting his bombastic tenure, later attempted to bill the town for his $549,000 in legal fees.
For a while, things settled down. But it didn’t last.
There was the highly publicized resignation of an officer found to have left his patrol in order to be photographed, in uniform, with a porn star. And in 2014, the department was thrown into turmoil when graphic photos of Robert Devine — the second-in-command to then-chief Paul Shastany — and a mistress were e-mailed to members of the department and their spouses.
An investigator, in determining that Devine had been untruthful about his relationship with the mistress and improperly used department resources in the matter, remarked that ”no police department could operate in this fashion and certainly no police department management could be effective or fair if operated in this cavalier manner.”
It was into this dysfunction that a young Sandra Birchmore arrived.
A search for connection
For much of her young life, Birchmore sought out the kind of close connections that often eluded her at home. Her father was never a part of her life, friends say, and her mother and grandmother — both of whom raised her — died when she was a teenager.
In the absence of close family, say those who knew her, she turned to a fraternity of local police officers.
Having joined the Stoughton Police’s Youth Explorers program at 13, Birchmore was enamored with the world of law enforcement. She outfitted herself in Stoughton police apparel and spoke glowingly about its officers. On Facebook, she shared photos of herself alongside members of the department, including Devine and Shastany, gushing about the “amazing” explorers program and making no secret of her dream to one day become a Stoughton officer herself.
“I think [Birchmore] sought out the police as some type of family that she didn’t have,” said a man who later dated her and asked that his name not be used. “She saw them as a way to get away from her home life and try to make a new one.”
After a brief stint in the US Army Reserves, records show, Birchmore took the Massachusetts civil service exam in 2019 and was placed on the eligibility list for the Stoughton police force.
By late 2020, friends said, Birchmore was pregnant.
The father, she told friends, was Matthew Farwell. On Birchmore’s phone, investigators later discovered thousands of text messages between the two, making clear the relationship’s sexual nature, according to a State Police report.
Birchmore was eager to become a mother, friends and family members said. Her Canton apartment was filled with baby gear, and she spoke with a relative about day care. In her apartment, she kept a sonogram photo.
But on the night of Feb. 1, 2021, as Farwell entered Birchmore’s Canton apartment, the relationship had apparently soured.
Only Farwell’s account of the meeting survives. He later told State Police investigators that he went to the apartment to end things with Birchmore, saying the two argued after he denied being the child’s father. Surveillance footage obtained by State Police shows Farwell leaving the complex at 9:43 p.m., 28 minutes after arriving.
A friend who’d been texting with Birchmore that night told the Globe that Birchmore’s texts suddenly stopped.
The following morning, less than 12 hours after Farwell left Birchmore’s apartment, his wife gave birth to a boy in Newton, according to a birth certificate obtained by the Globe.
Two days later, police responding to a well-being check entered Birchmore’s apartment and discovered her body in the bedroom.
An investigation by the Norfolk district attorney, Michael W. Morrissey, concluded Birchmore’s death was a suicide.
In a department once again mired in controversy, few involved have any interest in talking about it.
Messages left with Matthew and William Farwell, who became a Stoughton officer in 2017, and Shastany — the former police chief now serving as the interim head of the Bourne Police Department — went unreturned. Reached by phone, Devine hung up on a reporter.
In a 2012 local newspaper story about the brothers, Devine said the twins “grew up right before my eyes.” All were involved in the explorers program.
In a brief phone interview, Joseph Mokrisky, a member of the town’s five-person Select Board, warned the Globe against publishing a story critical of the department.
“If this story goes negative,” said Mokrisky, the father of a Stoughton officer, “I’m going to do what I’ve got to do.”
Though some in town have praised the strides made by the department in recent years — citing its statewide certification and partnerships with respected government and police institutions, and the work of current chief McNamara — controversy has continued to pile up.
In 2020, one of McNamara’s officers, Kevin Lima, was charged with operating under the influence after he crashed his department-issued vehicle into a car stopped at a red light. (Lima, who refused to submit to a breathlyzer at the scene, was later acquitted of the charge). That same year, police Sergeant Paul Williams stood trial for vehicular homicide after a 2018 incident in which he drove off the road and ran over a 74-year-old Canton resident, reportedly dragging the man 40 feet beneath his truck. Williams — who police said didn’t appear intoxicated but was never tested for alcohol impairment — told officers at the scene he’d been choking on a lemon seed from his iced tea prior to the crash, records show. He was acquitted at trial and has resumed his job with Stoughton police.
Today, meanwhile, infighting within the department has regularly spilled into public view. A police lieutenant is suing a sergeant for defamation, while another lieutenant filed a separate lawsuit alleging he faced retaliation for performing his duties as president of the superior officers’ union. In 2019, two officers got in a fight during roll call; last year, department union leaders publicly aired their grievances at a Select Board meeting.
Despite it all, McNamara has remained steadfast in her defense of the department and its direction.
While acknowledging the misconduct in the department’s history, she also said that the past decade has brought “a significant shift toward the positive.”
“It has been my mission and the mission of our dedicated members, to shed both the perception and the reality of ‘old ways’ of our department,” she said. “We have brought this agency into the modern era, though we must be mindful of the future and much work remains.”