MILLIS — A small town teeming with law enforcement searching for a fugitive gunman became one searching for answers after police said Thursday that the officer who claimed he was fired on by a passing pickup truck driver had fabricated the account.
Residents of this pastoral suburb of roughly 8,000, who endured a lock-down that lasted more than six hours and included the closing of schools, were left mystified and saddened as to how and why one of their own concocted such a story. The officer — a 24-year-old who was working as a full-time dispatcher and as a part-time patrolman — was scheduled to begin training for a full-time patrol position soon, according to police.
As the investigation continued, officials said the officer would be fired and could face criminal charges as early as next week. His police SUV crashed into the woods around 2:30 p.m. Wednesday off Forest Road, caught fire, and was destroyed. The officer said the vehicle had been hit by gunfire from a white man driving a dark-colored pickup truck.
But investigators determined that the shots were fired by the officer himself and there was no pickup truck driver, said Millis’s acting police chief, Sergeant William Dwyer, who wore a grim expression as he briefed the media during an afternoon news conference.
“I know for myself, I still am very upset and don’t know exactly how to feel right now, except I’m concerned for the other members of the department,” a close-knit unit of about 14, said Dwyer, who declined to provide more details or name the officer, citing the ongoing investigation.
Town residents expressed shock at the news that an officer sworn to uphold the law had apparently betrayed the public trust in such a bizarre fashion.
A parent who has three children in the town’s elementary school, and who requested anonymity to protect the family’s privacy, said Thursday she hoped the incident is indeed a hoax.
“First, I hope that’s true, you know? That this is all resolved,” said the woman, who is a member of the Clyde F. Brown Home and School Association. “Then you look at it, and, what does it say about Millis? And the police officer?”
Brenda Whelan, a longtime resident, said heavily armed SWAT officers descended on her backyard Wednesday searching for a suspect. By Thursday, any lingering fear in her 10-year-old granddaughter, Brooke, had been replaced by frustration that the manhunt prevented her from showing off one of her prized back-to-school outfits.
“She said, ‘Do you realize that I walked over here scared to death for nothing?’ ” Whelan said.
A spokesman for Norfolk District Attorney Michael W. Morrissey said he could not comment on possible criminal charges. The officer has not been arrested, police said Thursday.
Dwyer said authorities were still investigating whether the officer had intentionally crashed his department vehicle and set it on fire. He gave no information on a possible motive.
Dwyer said State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan’s office was trying to determine how the fire started. Coan said in a brief telephone interview Thursday night that the cause of the fire remained under investigation.
The burned-out SUV was pulled from the woods off Forest Road, about 50 yards southeast of the intersection with Birch Street, late Wednesday night, leaving charred debris on a bed of pine needles. Forest Road is a two-lane ribbon of asphalt that runs more than a mile from the center of town toward Medfield, sweeping across the Charles River not far from its source and running along stone walls, split-rail fences, and occasional horse farms.
Hours earlier on Wednesday morning, someone had called in a bomb threat to Millis Middle School. Authorities determined there was no threat to the school, and Millis and State Police said Thursday they were investigating whether the threatening call and the incident with the officer are connected.
Kenneth H. Anderson, a Boston lawyer who represents police officers in legal proceedings, said in a phone interview that he could not recall a comparable situation in a Massachusetts department.
“It’s almost like the police version of Charles Stuart,” Anderson said, referring to the man who fatally shot his pregnant wife in Boston in 1989 and blamed the killing on a black suspect, setting off a massive manhunt fueled by a false story that inflamed racial tensions in the city. “It’s very unusual.”
Anderson said the allegations against the officer, if true, severely undermine trust in the justice system.
“Our whole system is based on public trust and that police officers are doing the right thing, and when they come into court and testify that they’re being honest,” he said. “And when you don’t have that, everyone questions the integrity of our system.”
In addition to a motive for the alleged ruse, the cost of the manhunt that gripped the town also was undetermined on Thursday.
Most State Police investigators who responded, including a helicopter crew, were working their normal shifts, said David Procopio, an agency spokesman.
He said a small number of investigators may have worked overtime, but a cost estimate would not be available until early next week.
Town officials contacted by the Globe were tight-lipped about the case on Thursday.
Christopher J. Smith, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, declined to comment, except to praise the professionalism of investigators.
He said: “The dispatchers who worked in an extremely chaotic environment, the patrol staff, the management staff, as well as everybody that came in to assist us, they did an excellent job.”
Smith called the developments on Thursday “unfortunate” but added, “at the same time . . . it’s fortunate that nobody got hurt.”
Town Manager Charles J. Aspinwall also did not address specifics of the case but said in a written statement that “the selectmen’s office will work closely with the Police Department on the employment aspect of this case and trust that the department will take all appropriate action to prosecute this matter to its conclusion.”John R. Ellement and Martin Finucane of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Eric Moskowitz can be reached at email@example.com. Travis Andersen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Evan Allen can be reached at email@example.com.