CONCORD, N.H. — During a nor’easter last March, Paul Aaron walked the abandoned streets of Lowell wearing a bullet-proof vest and carrying a kilo of suspected fentanyl, according to court testimony.
A jury will never hear that evidence, but the image of a man so heavily involved in alleged drug trafficking that he went to such lengths to protect himself weighed heavily on US District Court Judge Joseph N. Laplante Thursday as he considered Aaron’s request to be released pending trial.
“The bullet-proof vest is a very difficult thing for the court to overlook,” Laplante said during a detention hearing in federal court in Concord, N.H.
The hearing was the latest twist in the federal drug case against Aaron, 31, which had led to an internal investigation into several Lowell police officers and the dismissal of nearly two dozen criminal cases in Massachusetts.
Laplante rejected Aaron’s bail request based on evidence that can’t be introduced at trial but could be considered during the detention hearing. Aaron “dodged a bullet,” LaPlante said, when prosecutors agreed to suppress some evidence after questions were raised about the veracity of police reports and affidavits in the case. Three officers involved in the case, who are on leave, are barred from testifying in court while their roles in it are investigated, which has contributed to the dismissals.
Aaron, a Lowell resident, has been held without bail since April when he was arrested as part of a federal investigation into a fentanyl-trafficking operation allegedly run by two brothers in Lawrence. He faces drug conspiracy charges and has pleaded not guilty.
Federal prosecutors charged 45 people in the case, writing in court papers that the enterprise was linked to two shootings, multiple robberies, and the seizures of more than 15 kilograms of suspected fentanyl and more than $500,000 in drug proceeds.
But it was Aaron’s arrest in Lowell a month earlier — on March 7 — that has come under scrutiny after his defense attorney unearthed video surveillance that appeared to contradict official accounts of the encounter given by a New Hampshire State Police trooper and several members of the Lowell Police Department’s Special Investigations Section.
Aaron’s lawyer, David H. Bownes played the video during a hearing in federal court in New Hampshire on Oct. 9, and afterward prosecutors agreed to throw out evidence seized during the arrest and search of his apartment on East Merrimack Street in Lowell. That evidence included the bullet-proof vest, suspected fentanyl, and firearms.
A key issue was a shopping bag allegedly containing suspected fentanyl that Aaron was holding when he was arrested.
At the hearing in October, New Hampshire State Police Trooper Francisco Vicente testified that he watched Aaron approach a livery car, lean into the window, and then walk away carrying the shopping bag, according to a transcript.
Vicente said Aaron wasn’t carrying the bag before approaching the vehicle — a crucial detail, the defense wrote in court papers, because officers said it provided probable cause to stop Aaron.
But surveillance video from the scene of the arrest shows Aaron carrying a bag before he approached what police described as the vehicle and after he walked away.
Vicente’s testimony was similar to a police report and an affidavit about the arrest prepared by Lowell detectives, Bownes said in court papers.
Two days after the October hearing, the office of Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan halted its prosecution of Aaron for several firearms offenses and for wearing body armor during the commission of a felony. The charges were tied to his March 7 arrest in Lowell, court papers show.
In early November, Lowell police placed three officers on paid administrative leave pending a review of their role in Aaron’s arrest. A fourth officer is also being investigated, but wasn’t placed on leave, according to attorney Douglas I. Louison, a lawyer for the police union.
The three officers on leave are also prohibited from testifying in court, the department said.
As of Thursday, Ryan’s office said it had dismissed a total of 22 cases because officers weren’t available to testify, up from the 15 cases that prosecutors reported on Dec. 11.
The investigation into the officers continues, the department and Louison said Thursday. They didn’t comment further.
Louison has identified the officers on leave as Nicholas Dokos, Rafael Rivera, and David Lavoie. He has said he also represents the fourth officer, Detective David Kew, who participated in Aaron’s arrest, but wasn’t placed on leave. A New Hampshire State Police spokesman declined to comment on Thursday.
Aaron appeared in court Thursday wearing a brown prison uniform.
Bownes said his client has been offered a plea agreement, but hasn’t accepted it. Bownes has asked a judge to throw out more evidence against Aaron, though a hearing on that request hasn’t been scheduled.
Bownes said Thursday that the evidence against Aaron has been weakened considerably and his client would stay out of trouble if granted bail.
In an interview, he said he plans to seek Aaron’s release again after a judge hears arguments on his request to suppress more evidence.
Assistant US Attorney Georgiana L. Konesky argued Aaron should remain locked up.
She said Aaron was arrested after receiving about a kilo of fentanyl from Sergio Martinez, an alleged leader of the drug trafficking operation. He was granted cash bail in Lowell District Court, Konesky said, and resumed his drug-dealing activities.
If convicted, Aaron faces at least 10 years in prison, prosecutors said.