On a quiet Easter morning two years ago, a handful of Natick police officers and a dispatcher gathered in a secluded parking lot to share some drinks and unwind after work.
The gathering soon got out of hand. The dispatcher, the only woman there, later told investigators that Officer James Quilty stuck his hand down her pants and groped her. Then after the four other officers left, she said he trapped her in her car, undid her bra, kissed and fondled her, and forced her hand onto his pants over his crotch.
But Middlesex County prosecutors say Natick police initially shrugged off the allegations. And even after the town completed a formal investigation, records show they didn’t initially seek criminal charges. Instead, they signed a deal with Quilty to keep him on the police force after a suspension. And Natick officials have fought for more than two years to keep almost all the records secret.
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“It’s incredibly disturbing,” said Cody Jacobs, a Natick Town Meeting member who unsuccessfully ran for the select board this year. “This is someone who is accused of a really serious crime.”
A Middlesex grand jury finally indicted Quilty on criminal charges of sexual assault in December 2021 — 20 months after the incident — after both WBUR and an independent blogger requested records about the investigation. Neither the police nor the Middlesex district attorney’s office ever publicly announced the indictment. Quilty has pleaded not guilty.
Both Quilty and his lawyer declined interview requests. In Middlesex Superior Court, Quilty’s attorney, Michael Perpall, has filed a motion asking the court to dismiss the indictments, arguing the prosecutors’ presentation to the grand jury was unfair. In a hearing, Perpall said his client mistakenly thought his interactions with the dispatcher were consensual.
“His understanding of the events of that day were completely off,” Perpall told the judge. “He’s embarrassed, but more so, he’s sorry about what happened.”
Prosecutors, however, scoffed at the suggestion that it was all a misunderstanding.
“This defendant did not just simply make a mistake,” Assistant District Attorney Suzanne Wiseman said in court. “The defendant repeatedly did this over a lengthy period of time with a young female telling him this is not what she wanted.”
Law enforcement experts say the way Natick police handled the allegations against Quilty is emblematic of a broader issue in police departments across the country.
Again and again, officers have been accused of sexual or domestic violence. And again and again, agencies have been accused of ignoring the allegations or trying to keep them from the public.
“This really is the biggest ethics test we’ve ever faced,” said Mark Wynn, a retired lieutenant with the Nashville Police Department who has investigated and trained police how to respond to domestic and sexual violence within their own ranks. “Because if you can’t hold your own officers accountable for crimes, how are we going to hold the general public accountable for their crimes?”
Experts say the lack of accountability may be especially problematic in Massachusetts, where records of police misconduct are often hidden from the public. A controversial privacy law orders police to keep arrests or reports of sexual or domestic violence secret. No other state has such a sweeping law.
Still, The Boston Globe uncovered two high-profile misconduct cases last year. Patrick Rose, a longtime Boston police officer, remained on the force for 21 years after police found he likely sexually assaulted a child in the 1990s; he is now in prison after other victims emerged. The Globe also discovered domestic violence allegations against Dennis White, days after he was appointed police commissioner. He was later fired.
But while public attention has focused on Boston, WBUR found dozens of other departments across the state have withheld information about officers accused of sexual or domestic violence. That includes the case in Natick.
Like many victims, the Natick dispatcher didn’t immediately file a formal complaint about what happened in that parking lot on April 12, 2020.
Instead, she first told her mother that Quilty assaulted her, according to records in Middlesex Superior Court. Then, she confided in a fellow dispatcher.
Within days, a sergeant heard about the incident and reported it to his supervisor, Lieutenant Cara Rossi. Prosecutors, however, said that Rossi initially failed to follow up.
Two months later, Natick police Chief James Hicks learned about the allegations when Quilty was up for a promotion to sergeant. Hicks ordered Rossi to conduct a full investigation.
But Rossi told the chief it was just a “rumor.” And court records show her investigation was cursory.
According to prosecutors, instead of interviewing the dispatcher in private, Rossi approached her in the open office, directly in front of Quilty, and asked her if she had anything to report. The dispatcher said she didn’t. Again, Rossi, who did not respond to requests for comment, dropped the matter.
Prosecutors said the Natick Police Department “chose to do nothing about the incident” until the town administrator hired a Springfield law firm to investigate in July 2020. The department also put Quilty on leave. In October 2020, the town notified the Middlesex district attorney’s office about allegations that Quilty violated the town’s sexual harassment policy.
But the town never publicly disclosed the allegations or the law firm’s findings. The town also says it doesn’t have any records of an arrest, police report, or request for criminal charges on file.
Early last year, Natick signed a confidential “last chance agreement” with Quilty to keep him on the police force after a roughly two-month suspension. By June 2021, Quilty was back at work.
Still, word about the incident slowly leaked out. That same month, a Framingham blogger requested a copy of the town’s investigation. Two months later, in August 2021, WBUR requested copies of the records. The town rejected both requests.
Finally, in December 2021, Quilty was indicted on three counts of indecent assault and battery and placed on unpaid leave again.
The dispatcher, who now works in a different job in another town, did not return messages seeking comment. WBUR and The Boston Globe do not name victims of sexual assault without their permission.
Meanwhile, the town of Ashland named a new police chief last spring: Rossi, the lieutenant who prosecutors say initially shrugged off the allegations against Quilty.
Rossi is named in a complaint the dispatcher filed with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, but Ashland officials said they were told they could not see it, raising questions whether they were able to fully vet the new chief.
Many of the documents regarding Quilty’s alleged assault are are either sealed by the court or otherwise unavailable to the public. WBUR sued Natick for the documents in September, but the case is still pending.
Select board chair Paul Joseph said the town is hesitant to release documents or comment on the case while criminal charges are still pending. Over the past two years, the board has held more than half a dozen meetings on the case behind closed doors.
“We do, as a board, have confidence in the process we’re undertaking,” Joseph said. “And we are trying to do it in the spirit of transparency and fairness to the parties that are involved.”
Jacobs, the former select board candidate who’s also on the town’s finance committee, said he was disappointed by the secrecy, saying it’s vital for residents “to have public trust in our government and especially in the police department.”
He said he still hopes the town releases the records and explains what happened.
“There’s still time to get this right,” said Jacobs.
This story is part of a collaboration with WBUR, an NPR affiliate in Boston.