Raid Of The Day: Bruce Lavoie

Note: The "Raid of the Day" features accounts of police raids I've found, researched, and reported while writing my forthcoming book Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces. It's due out in July, but you can pre-order it here.

At 4:30 am on August 3, 1989, officers with the Hudson, New Hampshire, police department met at the police station for a briefing. They'd be executing three simultaneous drug raids that morning in an apartment complex on Roosevelt Avenue. The raid on Bruce Lavoie, a 34-year-old machinist, would be done by Sgt. Stephen Burke, Officer Ronald Mello, and Albert Brackett, the town's chief of police. The chief was wearing a t-shirt with the word "Police" printed on the front and back. The other two officers were wearing black tactical uniforms.

A confidential informant claimed to have seen Lavoie sell a pound of marijuana to his upstairs neighbor, 25-year-old Kevin Hughes. Under New Hampshire law, in order to obtain a warrant for a no-knock raid, police must show specific information that the suspect either is violent or is likely to dispose of evidence. They had no such information on Bruce Lavoie. They stated in the warrant affidavit only that "individuals involved in drug dealing frequently carry firearms." Nashua District Court Judge Gauthier signed the warrant, anyway.

When the police broke in, Lavoie, 34, and his sons Jonathan, 8, and Steven, 6, were asleep in the master bedroom. Lavoie's other son Robert, 11, was asleep in his own bedroom. Bruce's wife Susan was sleeping in the living room. Chief Brackett announced his presence by smacking the Lavoie door three or four times with a battering ram, sending it flying open with the final blow. Susan Lavoie woke up with a start. She had recently been victim of two serious encounters with a neighbor, one in which he choked her, and another that ended with him beating on the family's door with a baseball bat. She feared he had come back for more.

In one hand, Sgt. Stephen Burke carried a Ruger 9 millimeter sem-automatic pistol, with a flashlight taped to his forearm. In the other hand he carried a 20-pound ballistic shield. Mello carried a shotgun with a flashlight strapped to its barrel. When the door came open, the two of them entered the house, both crouched behind Burke's shield. Seconds later, Burke fired his gun. The bullet sped through a hallway wall, into the room where young Robert Lavoie was sleeping, pierced a vacuum cleaner parked in the bedroom, then penetrated a second wall before stopping in a hallway on the other side. Burke would later say he didn't remember discharging his weapon.

Chief Brackett entered the house last. He hit the living room, where he put Susan Lavoie on the floor. According to police accounts, Burke then continued toward the master bedroom, where the door was partially open. As he neared the door, he said saw Lavoie, dressed only in his underwear, attempt to shut the door. Burke thrust his shield into the door, knocking Lavoie back into the bedroom. As Lavoie fell, Burke claimed the man grabbed at his gun gun, at which point he "felt pressure" on his left hand and "heard the gun discharge." Burke later said he didn't remember firing that shot, either.

The bullet struck Lavoie in the left side of his chest, then angled down into his abdominal cavity. He'd later die in surgery. His last words: "Why did you shoot me? What happened?"

Robert Lavoie, the 11-year-old, later told investigators that he woke to the pounding at the door, saw armed men enter the apartment, and heard a gunshot. He then saw them run into his father's bedroom and heard more shots. Jonathan, the eight-year-old, said he woke to gunshots, then looked and saw his wounded father lying on the mattress next to him.

Chief Brackett would later say he heard Burke scream "Let go of my gun!" just before the second gunshot. Mello claimed he heard Burke yell "He grabbed my gun!" after the second shot, just as he saw the two figures fall to the mattress.

In subsequent interviews, the paramedics who responded to the shooting said the police acted suspiciously. Hudson Fire Department Lt. Robert Bianchi and firefighter David Sassak said that when the call came in, they weren't told that they were responding to a shooting, but rather to an "unknown problem." If they had been told it was a shooting, they would have sent more personnel. When they arrived, Chief Brackett ran out to the ambulance and told them someone had been shot, but that it "wasn't one of ours." Brackett then told Bianchi that he wanted "only certain paramedics" to treat Lavoie. When Bianchi tried to call for the needed extra help, Brackett wouldn't allow it, and said instead that he and the other officers would give him whatever help he needed. Bianchi said that when he then asked for the officers to retrieve the stretcher from the ambulance while he treated Lavoie in the house, the officers wouldn't comply. He and Sassak had to leave Lavoie unattended to get the stretcher themselves.

There were other oddities in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. Susan Lavoie said the police told her that her husband had only been shot in the arm, and was in good condition. It wasn't until she arrived at the hospital that she was told he was dead. When she and Lavoie's brother then asked to see the gunshot wound after he was pronounced dead, Chief Brackett wouldn't allow it. Crime lab reports would later show that none of Lavoie's fingerprints were on Burke's gun, nor was there any gunshot residue on Lavoie's hands.

The police did find a "small amount" of marijuana in Lavoie's house, as well as what they called "residue" of cocaine. Lavoie was unarmed when he was shot.

On the night of the raid, Susan Lavoie told police that one of the officers, dressed all in black, looked like Michael Keaton in the Batman movie. According to witnesses, at a public hearing on the raid the following month, several off-duty officers from Nashua showed up in Batman t-shirts to mock her.

Facing mounting public outrage over Lavoie's death, Chief Brackett commissioned a review of the raid and his department from the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Not surprisingly the resulting report -- written by former LAPD Officer Robert McCarthy -- was reluctant to criticize his fellow men in blue. In fact, of the 17-page report, less than one page addressed the Lavoie shooting, the reason the report was commissioned in the first place. According to the Nashua Telegraph, McCarthy praised the Hudson Police Department for its "high degree of professionalism" in "aggressively attack[ing] the drug problem." Despite the fact that neither Susan Lavoie nor her sons heard any police announcement, and that Susan Lavoie thought she was being attacked by a neighbor, McCarthy concluded that the police "wore easily identifiable uniforms," "loudly announced they were officers," and "gave clear commands." McCarthy then used an odd comparison to blame Bruce Lavoie for his own death: "The grabbing of the steering wheel of a speeding police car by a suspect could create the same result."

Of course, a suspect who commandeers a speeding squad car away from the police officer driving it knows full well what he's doing. Bruce Lavoie confronted Sgt. Burke during a 5 am no-knock raid on his home, after Burke had already fired a bullet inside of Lavoie's home. McCarthy's report also completely disregarded statements from Susan Lavoie and the Lavoie children. Even if the Hudson cops did announce themselves as loudly and clearly as they claimed, it's certainly conceivable that the sleeping family may not have heard them, may have been overcome by panic or fear, may have thought they were the unstable neighbor, or, given that Burke had already fired his gun in their home for no reason, simply didn't believe them when they said they were police. McCarthy's report showed a complete lack of empathy for the people -- even the innocent people -- subjected to one of these raids. McCarthy's report -- which again was commissioned in response to public anger of Bruce Lavoie's death during a drug raid -- went on to recommended that Hudson police officers get pay raises and better benefits.

McCarthy's report, and the general official response to Lavoie's death, also demonstrated one of many double standards that would begin to emerge in the handling of these botched drug raids. Chief Al Brackett asked for a no-knock raid because, he argued in his affidavit, drug dealers like Bruce Lavoie tend to be dangerous. Thus, they need to be taken by surprise. This is why they did a no-knock raid at 5 am. But post-raid, the officers and McCarthy argued that Lavoie should have known they were the police --even though they used tactics designed to make him unaware of their presence. Consequently, they argued, Bruce Lavoie was the only one to blame for his own death. But these two assertions can't exist side by side. One can't argue that violent, volatile tactics are necessary to preserve the element of surprise, then argue that the suspect shouldn't have been fully aware that it was the police who were invading his home. But that's exactly what they argued, and it's what police have argued in the years since when a no-knock raid ends in tragedy.

A subsequent report on the Lavoie raid from the New Hampshire Attorney General's Office reached the same conclusion, although that report did at least direct some strong criticism at Burke for the shot he mysteriously fired shortly after entering the house. It also concluded with a paragraph about how drug raids are "a tense and potentially dangerous activity." This paragraph was included to get at Burke's state of mind during the raid, and to excuse his actions as those any reasonable police officer would take under similar circumstances. Notably, it fails to mention that the police crated those tense and dangerous conditions when they decided how and when they'd serve the search warrant. While it went to great lengths to consider the mindset of Sgt. Burke in needlessly firing his gun shortly after entering the Lavoie house, it failed to consider the mindset Bruce Lavoie, a man with a full time job and no criminal record, asleep with his two young boys, who woke up to the sound of a gunshot, and then to the sights and sounds of armed men in his home. The report also failed to explain why Hudson police would decide to carry out a "tense and potentially dangerous" drug raid in a home in which three children were sleeping inside. There are only two possibilities: They either hadn't done enough investigating to know there were children inside, or they didn't care.

The following year, New Hampshire Superior Court Judge William Groff dismissed the evidence seized by police as well as a confession after another raid in Hudson, finding that the police had "flagrantly violated" the state's knock-and-announce requirement. That raid on 21-year-old Christopher Roystan occurred in April 1989, four months before the raid that ended Bruce Lavoie's life. The knock-and-announce rule wasn't just a formality, Groff implored in his ruling, but an important safeguard to "protect citizens' rights to privacy in their homes and prevent unnecessary violence which could result from unannounced entries." Groff found that, as in the Lavoie case, the search warrant affidavit contained no specific information suggesting Roystan could be violent. Instead police asked for -- and were given -- a no-knock warrant based only on boilerplate language about how, in the officer's experience, "drug dealers often keep weapons and ammunition in their homes."

Groff's ruling highlighted another trend that would play out alongside the increase in paramilitary drug raids over the next 20 years -- the increase in gun ownership in America. As Groff wrote, the "potential for serious injury or death to innocent persons when police resort to unannounced entry is also manifest. In New Hampshire, where many law-abiding citizens own guns, the potential for violent responses that might be aroused in a startled homeowner suddenly faced with armed unknown persons, endangers citizens and police alike."

The defense attorney in that case found that more than half the warrants executed by Hudson police over the previous two years were served with no-knock raids, many authorized by search warrants with the same boilerplate language.

Hudson police also videotaped the Roystan raid. Groff seemed alarmed by what he saw:

It is doubtful that the court would have appreciate the extreme violence attendant to the execution of the warrant by mere verbal description. The actions of the Hudson Police in this case, which is apparently representative of their general procedure in executing all search warrants for narcotics, underscores the importance of the enforcement of the knock and announce rule. The potential for unnecessary violence and injury to police and citizens by virtue of the indiscriminate use of such tactics is staggering.

The remarkable thing about that passage is that a state judge who regularly ruled on the reasonableness of searches (and presumably signed off on search warrants himself) apparently had no idea about the manner by which search warrants in his jurisdiction were being served. Judges are supposed to be the backstops for the Fourth Amendment. Here, even a judge who understood the amendment's value and importance was oblivious to what was happening after the warrants were signed.

In a bit of candor, Lt. Don Hamel, head of Nashua, New Hampshire's narcotics division, admitted that police departments in the state were changing the way they conduct raids in the wake of the Lavoie raid and Groff's ruling. "The tide is turning. The courts are looking into affidavits and search warrants much closer, and I think that's a good thing. It does rock us back on our heels a bit, but in the end it's making us better."

But other chiefs around New Hampshire reacted to Groff's ruling with a shrug. In the Nashua Telegraph, several dismissed the decision as an isolated case that probably wouldn't affect their own procedures. Unfortunately, they were right. Hamel was wrong. The raids would continue, in New Hampshire and elsewhere. And skeptical judges like Groff would soon become anachronisms.

In November 1990, the town of Hudson reached a $800,000 settlement with the Lavoie family. Part of it went to Susan Lavoie immediately, and part of it to the Lavoie boys when they turned 18. Susan Lavoie was also able to force some changes in department policy. The Hudson SWAT team was disbanded for two years. In a 1994 interview with the Nashua Telegraph, Richard Gendron said the department was doing more "consent searches" for drug warrants instead of nighttime raids, although the department still continued to do some raids with the help of SWAT teams from police departments nearby.

Stephen Burke resigned from the Nashua Police Department five months after the raid to take a position with another, undisclosed police agency. Chief Albert Brackett resigned a year later to take a job as a deputy with the Hillsborough County, Florida Sheriff's Department. He would be investigated in 1991 after a suspect died of massive internal bleeding while in his custody. Brackett had chased the man down, tackled him, cuffed him, then put a knee in his back for several minutes, ignoring the suspect's pleas that he couldn't breathe. He was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing in that case too. He was subsequently promoted to detective.

The Lavoie children had nightmares for years, and required intense pschological counseling. Robert Lavoie dropped out of school at 16. In 1998, at the age of 21, he was packing up his belongings to move out of the house where his father was killed when police pulled over the U-Haul truck he was driving. Police searched the truck and found LSD. He was charged with possession with intent to sell.

Susan Lavoie remarried, then was separated after filing several domestic violence complaints against her new husband. She also accumulated a criminal record of her own in the following years, including charges for writing bad checks, punching a police officer, and drunk driving. She eventually lost custody of her children.

Sources: "Son of Hudson Man Killed in 1989 Drug Raid Is Arrest," Manchester Union-Leader, December 5, 1998; "Deputy had role in earlier fatal raid," St. Petersburg Times, May 11, 1991; Andrew W. Serell, "The Death of Bruce Lavoie," Office of the New Hampshire Attorney General, August 25, 1989; Kris Frieswick, "Hudson Will Pay Widow $800,000," Manchester Union-Leader," November 17, 1990; Pat Grossmith, "Police Didn't Knock First," Manchester Union-Leader," July 31, 1990; Pat Grossmith, "Some Police Use No-Knock Search Warrants," Manchester Union-Leader, August 1, 1990; Cheryl Dulak, "Probe Backs Officers," Nashua Telegraph, November 7, 1989; Carolyn Magnusun, "One Year Later, Lavoies' Pain Lingers," Nashua Telegraph, August 1, 1990; Carolyn Magnuson, "Police Refused More Medics for Lavoie," Nashua Telegraph, August 30, 1989; Cheryl Dulak, "State A.G. Chided Over Lavoie Probe," Nashua Telegraph, November 28, 1989; Kevin Landrigan, "Lavoie Probe Sheds Light, Raises More Questions," Nashua Telegraph, August 29, 1989; Cheryl Dulak, "Troubled Times," "They're Good Kids; They Went Through Hell," and "Police Department Has a Different Look," all from the Nashua Telegraph, September 2, 1994.