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Investigation continues into off-duty Providence officer who assaulted his political opponent at abortion rights rally

Jeann Lugo, who used right-wing messaging to attract voters prior to dropping out of state Senate race, says there is ‘far more’ to the story.

The Rhode Island State Police, Capitol Police and K-9 unit monitor the crowd at an abortion rights rally in Providence on Friday, June 24, 2022.Carlos Muñoz

PROVIDENCE — Jeann Lugo, the off-duty Providence police patrolman and now former Republican state Senate candidate accused of punching progressive political opponent Jennifer Rourke in the face, said there is “far more” to what occurred Friday night than what has been reported.

“We are working diligently to identify and speak to witnesses and we continue to obtain and analyze other video footage taken that night,” said Dan Griffin, a criminal defense attorney, who said he is representing Lugo. “Unfortunately, our approach is in direct contrast to the one taken by the media, which, as usual, was to hastily publish a story and condemn Officer Lugo based on seconds of edited video devoid of any context.”

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Griffin said in a statement sent to members of the press that Lugo and his family have been threatened by “extremists” on social media.

Lugo, 35, was arrested by Rhode Island State Police on Saturday afternoon on the charges of simple assault and disorderly conduct. A spokesperson for Rourke said she was treated at the hospital over the weekend for a concussion.

The assault was caught on video by a Globe reporter and local reporter Bill Bartholomew, who works for WPRO and has his own podcast. The videos, which have been posted on Twitter, have received national coverage and have been viewed by millions.

State leaders, including Governor Dan McKee, have voiced their outrage over the incident.

“Everyone should be held accountable for their behavior,” McKee told reporters on Monday morning. “It doesn’t matter what position they’re in. If what we’re being told turns out to be true, he should be severely disciplined and I would say the man should lose his job, in fact.

“In this day and age, to actually, potentially, to have struck a woman in public... At the people’s house... That’s just unacceptable,” the governor said.

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Lugo, who was running as a Republican candidate in the state Senate race to replace Senator Michael J. McCaffrey, had used right-wing messaging to appeal to voters. Lugo, who was originally running for lieutenant governor, suspended his campaign Saturday in a simple tweet. His Twitter account has been deactivated.

Recently, he spoke to members of Citizens Organized to Restore Rights in May, which is a group who claims the “government is out of control.” The group has posted stances such as calling masks in school “child abuse,” that gun control legislation is “unconstitutional,” and the phrase “Let’s Go Brandon.” At the meeting, in front of individuals that dub themselves “Freedom Fighters,” Lugo mentioned the line “the bombs bursting in air” from the Star-Spangled Banner, which references War of 1812, where he said individuals “went all out to protect our freedoms.”

During that same meeting, he said Republican candidates and politicians had not fought hard enough.

“But now, seeing you guys, seeing other groups go out [to] the State House, getting in front of people’s faces, it’s bringing a lot of hope,” Lugo said. “It’s bringing a lot of hope to Rhode Island, which is the Rhode Island motto.”

Lugo had never ran for public office before, but previously told the Globe the “current atmosphere of politics” motivated him to enter the race. For example, he said when he announced his campaign that he responded to the June 2020 riot in downtown Providence in which people broke into the Providence Place mall, set a police car on fire, and looted stores. He claimed those who committed crimes that night were emboldened by Providence City Council members who called for defunding the police after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd.

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A screenshot of the tweet posted by Jeann Lugo on Saturday, June 25, 2022, suspending his campaign for State Senate District 29.Screenshot via Twitter

Lugo, who was born in Puerto Rico and entered the foster system after moving to Providence as a child, also challenged Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos, who was born in the Dominican Republic, asking if she agreed with the Biden administration on immigration issues. He noted that Matos has talked about the importance of counting immigrants and other to hard-to-reach populations in the 2020 Census, which allowed Rhode Island to hold onto two seats in the House of Representatives.

“Do you believe the citizens in RI can take on the tax burden and housing shortage with our current fragile economy or would you help improve our state tax system to retain current residents? Stand for something or fall for anything,” Lugo said in a statement at the time.

Lugo said he does not believe that undocumented immigrants should be counted in the census. He said Rhode Island residents, especially retirees, are moving to other states, such as Florida and Texas, because they have “better economic development and lower taxes.”

State Police Lieutenant Colonel Robert Creamer said Lugo turned himself into the Lincoln Woods Barracks where he was arraigned and pleaded not guilty in front of a Justice of the Peace and released on personal recognizance. Lugo is scheduled to appear in Sixth District Court on July 8 for a re-arraignment.

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He was suspended with pay from the Providence Police Department. Under the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, known as LEOBOR, being placed on paid administrative leave is the normal procedure when an officer commits a misdemeanor, such as assault. Lindsay Lague, a spokeswoman for Providence Police, said Lugo had not been named in “any any civilian complaints since he was hired” three years ago.

As previously reported by The Boston Globe, Lugo was off-duty at the time of the alleged assault. Hundreds of abortion rights advocates had gathered on the plaza at the bottom of the Rhode Island State House steps Friday night for a rally after the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. A man live-streaming the rally on his phone shouted something and was surrounded by protestors. The man, who was later identified as Josh Mello of Cranston, was asked to leave but was later assaulted by an unidentified man in a green- and white-striped jacket. As of Monday afternoon, the man had not been identified and Mello said he was physically hurt.

Rourke — a board member of The Womxn Project (and demonstration organizer) and candidate for a State Senate District 29 seat in Warwick — had rushed over to try to defuse the situation. “This (conflict) is not what this is about,” Rourke, who is also a co-founder of the R.I. Political Cooperative, told the Globe.

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But as Mello was being assaulted, and Rourke said she screamed, “Don’t hit him” and then video shows that someone struck her in the face. “I was hit multiple times,” she told the Globe.

Rourke immediately identified the person who attacked her as Lugo, her Republican opponent for the State Senate District 29 seat. Shortly after the incident, she went to the police station to file a report and said she wanted to press charges. Rourke said she and Lugo never had a conversation in person, but knew him from social media.

“Why attack me? I was the one trying to prevent this. It’s disappointing,” she said in the phone interview over the weekend. “I am a survivor of domestic violence and I just froze.”

McCaffrey, who Rourke was challenging in her campaign, announced on Monday he was retiring from public office. Over the weekend, he said he was “repulsed and saddened by the violent events” that took place at the State House.

“For the second campaign in a row, [Rourke] has been subject to abuse — this time physical,” he tweeted. “Violence of any kind has no place in our democracy.”

In response to questions from the Globe, Lugo on Saturday did not deny punching Rourke.

“As an officer that swore to protect and serve our communities, I, unfortunately, saw myself in a situation that no individual should see themselves in,” Lugo said in an email to the Globe. “I stepped in to protect someone that a group of agitators was attacking.”

Lugo did not respond to questions from the Globe as to why he attended the abortion rights rally, nor did he provide further details as to why he was seen in the video, turning around to assault Rourke.

Rhode Island Freedom Fighters, a right-wing group on Facebook, thanked Lugo for “aiding” Mello, and claims he was “pulled away by” Rourke. They claimed the media was “spinning this story.”

Lugo “has been a tremendous police officer in his time with the City of Providence. He is a dedicated father and husband and a real asset to his community,” wrote Griffin, Lugo’s defense lawyer. “He trusts the process and believes the actual facts will exonerate him.”

Griffin did not offer additional “facts” to what Lugo claimed occurred.


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.