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Family evacuated from Puerto Rico sues over SWAT raid of their Meriden apartment

By Matthew Zabierek, Record-Journal
Published: February 23, 2019

MERIDEN — A lawsuit claims police violated the rights of a family relocated from hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico when a SWAT team raided their Geer Avenue apartment last year based on a search warrant for an unrelated drug suspect.

Police did not find drugs in the first-floor apartment and made no arrests during the February 2018 raid, although an officer witnessed drugs being thrown from the window of a second-floor apartment, according to police incident reports obtained by the Record-Journal under a Freedom of Information Act request.

Detectives on scene suspected one of the family members on the first floor left the apartment to warn upstairs neighbors of the raid, according to incident reports. The lawsuit, however, claims the teen was found in his first-floor bedroom and that officers used excessive force in detaining him. A police report lists his age as 16 at the time, while a separate police document lists him as 15.

Paul Spinella, a Hartford attorney representing the plaintiffs, said the family was in no way connected with drug activity and suffered psychological trauma and physical injuries when police entered their apartment around 5 a.m. on Feb. 8, 2018. The SWAT team detonated a “noise flash distractionary device” before breaking through the door, according to police reports, which placed the time of the raid at around 5:30 a.m.

Police reports indicate four of the family members — Rafael Margary-Rivera and Yahaira Rodriguez-Torres and two of their minor children — were detained in handcuffs for an unspecified period of time before an officer determined they were not criminal suspects. The lawsuit claims all five family members, including the teenage son police say warned the upstairs neighbors, were handcuffed and detained for 30 to 40 minutes.

A K-9 officer stationed outside the multi-family home reported seeing several items thrown from a second-floor window. These were later determined to include 140 small bags of heroin, four small bags of cocaine and a silver tumbler containing 42 bags of marijuana. Police seized the drugs outside, but there’s no indication in the reports that officers questioned tenants of the second floor or obtained a search warrant for the upstairs apartment.

The teenage son was not charged despite detectives’ suspicion “he was working with the upstairs neighbor to facilitate the sale of narcotics.”

Police are “not likely” to pursue any future charges stemming from the search, police spokesman Sgt. Christopher Fry said.

All five family members are listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, filed in October in New Haven Superior Court. They’re seeking unspecified damages for “psychological trauma, physical injury, humiliation, pain and suffering, and damage to their reputations in violation of (their) rights as guaranteed under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.”

The suit claims police violated the family’s Fourth Amendment rights by unlawfully detaining them during the search. It also alleges police “acted recklessly by failing to investigate whether the home that was subject to the search was the subject of criminal activity.”

The lawsuit names the city, Police Chief Jeffry Cossette, and 13 retired and active officers as defendants.

Richard Roberts, a Cheshire attorney representing the city, declined to comment because the litigation is pending. Cossette also declined to comment because the lawsuit is pending.

The suit is in the discovery stage and a trial is scheduled for the spring of next year, according to court documents.

Spinella disputes the police reports implicating the teenage son in drug activity.

“If there’s some sort of conspiracy going on, why wasn’t anyone arrested?” Spinella asked. “This is just a way for (police) to salvage or create some kind of defense.”

According to an “after action report” on the search filed by police, the SWAT team was deployed because the man detectives believed was living in the first-floor apartment — a convicted felon named Andres Concepcion — might have had weapons on the premises.

In total, 13 officers in SWAT aided in the search, according to the report, which does not include other officers who aided on the scene.

Prior eviction

Detectives John-Paul Dorais, of the Crime Suppression Unit, and Erik Simonson, of the Major Crimes Division, applied for and obtained a warrant to search the first-floor apartment on Feb. 2, 2018, after members of the Crime Suppression Unit witnessed two suspected drug purchases at 14 Geer Ave.

According to the application, they believed Concepcion, a 28-year-old with a felony conviction for selling narcotics, was living with his girlfriend, Sharlyn Morales, in the apartment at the time. Police believed Concepcion and “other co-conspirators” were selling drugs out of the first-floor apartment and specifically named Concepcion as a person of interest in the search warrant application. Another man, Ramon Morales, 30, was also wanted by police in connection with the investigation, according to the “after action report” filed by police.

Police based their suspicion in part on an investigation Dorais performed in May 2017 into a dispute between Sharlyn Morales and Concepcion following a complaint by the state Department of Children and Families. DCF told police at the time that Concepcion was selling drugs from the first-floor apartment and that Sharlyn Morales’ children had been removed from the residence, according to the application.

Concepcion, Sharlyn and Ramon Morales could not be reached for comment.

Police noted in the application that Concepcion has a known criminal history. He pleaded guilty in 2009 to selling narcotics and in 2012 pleaded guilty to a felony charge of carrying a dangerous weapon.

While police specifically targeted Concepcion as a suspect in the search warrant application, court documents indicate that his girlfriend had been evicted from the apartment several months before the warrant application was filed.

A judge authorized Sharlyn Morales’ eviction from 14 Geer Ave., Apt. 1 in October 2017, according to court records available on the state Judicial Branch website. Concepcion was not listed on the lease with Sharlyn Morales, but property owner Ricky Macri told the Record-Journal it’s possible he was also living there.

The search warrant makes no mention of the Torres family, who, according to Macri, moved into the apartment on Dec. 1, 2017. The family denied any connection to Concepcion or the Moraleses.

The “after action report” states initial findings from a sweep of the apartment “determined the occupants on the first floor were not the wanted individuals.”

Macri filed to evict Sharlyn Morales, whose 12-month lease began March 23, 2017, after she missed a deadline to pay rents for July 2017.

Meriden Housing Authority Executive Director Robert Cappelletti told the Record-Journal he believes the vacant first-floor unit was included on a list of available units in the city compiled by the housing authority, and that a Torres family member used the list to find an apartment in Meriden.

Drug activity

The Crime Suppression Unit began conducting surveillance on 14 Geer Ave. at least three months after Morales’ eviction and about eight months after the May 2017 investigation into the DCF complaint regarding Concepcion.

On Jan. 29, 2018, officers saw a woman get out of a car that had just turned onto Geer Avenue and was parked near the multi-family home, according to the search warrant application. The woman, whose name was redacted, “entered the side door of 14 Geer Avenue” and “exited the residence within approximately one minute and returned to the vehicle.”

The amount of time she spent inside 14 Geer Ave. “was consistent with the amount of time it takes to conduct a drug sale,” the warrant application states, adding that the car was known to law enforcement to be “frequently loaned out to drug dealers and drug users in exchange for narcotics.”

On Feb. 1, members of the Crime Suppression Unit observed a woman, known by police on suspicion of drug activity, being picked up from her home on Twiss Street and driven to 14 Geer Ave. The woman, whose name was also redacted in the warrant application, left the front passenger seat and entered 14 Geer Ave. for two minutes, during which time police suspected she bought drugs, according to the affidavit.

Officers then followed the vehicle to Big M Liquors, 71 Pratt St., and arrested the woman on two active arrest warrants. Police found her with a bag containing what was later determined to be crack cocaine. According to the initial arrest report, the woman told officers “she had just bought the $150 piece from a house” police officers “determined to be 14 Geer Ave. based off our observations.” The report does not specify which apartment.

The search warrant application, dated the next day, states that the arrestee told police “she purchased the crack/cocaine from a Hispanic male that resides on the first floor” and that “there are two Hispanic males that sell crack/cocaine and heroin out of the apartment.”

Rafael Margary-Rivera, one of the plaintiffs, told officers on multiple occasions during the search that police “were in the wrong apartment and that the upstairs residents were selling narcotics,” according to an incident report written by Simonson following the raid.

“Rafael’s belief regarding the guilt of his upstairs neighbors contradicts the information (Dorais in the Crime Suppression Unit) received from at least two independent sources,” Simonson wrote.

Simonson wrote in his report that the couple’s teenage son went missing from the apartment during the search. Police requested a patrol officer to the scene to begin a missing person investigation. While Margary-Rivera, the teen’s father, was completing the missing person report, he received a text from a man who lived in the apartment above that his son had fled there when he heard police enter. Margary-Rivera showed police the teen’s bedroom and how it has a door that leads to an interior stairwell directly to the upstairs apartment. Macri, the property owner, confirmed there is access to the second-floor through the stairwell.

The son, listed as 15 years old in the missing person report, later returned to the first-floor apartment. Based on the fact that drawers in his bedroom were open when Simonson entered and the fact that drugs were seen being thrown out of the second-floor apartment, Simonson wrote in the report that he suspected the teen “was working with the upstairs neighbor to facilitate the sale of narcotics,” though he was not charged by police.

‘Hard to fathom’

Spinella said members of the family were “terrorized” by the SWAT search and some of the family members have since received therapy. The experience of the raid, Spinella said, was made worse because the family had relocated from Puerto Rico only a few months prior, due to Hurricane Maria.

“They came here with high hopes,” the attorney said.

The lawsuit states the family was relocated under a Federal Emergency Management Agency program. A FEMA spokeswoman said she couldn’t confirm whether the family was relocated by the agency because she didn’t have enough information.

During the search, Yahaira Rodriguez-Torres began to complain of chest pains, Simonson’s report said. He requested an ambulance, which took Yahaira to MidState Medical Center. Simonson drove the other family members to the hospital.

“Once I dropped off Yahaira’s family at MidState Medical Center, I provided Rafael (Margary-Rivera) with my business card and informed him to contact me with any questions regarding this morning’s incident,” Simonson’s report said.

The lawsuit claims Yahaira was also injured while attempting to run during the search because she was “in a panic from being surrounded by men with military-style weapons.”

“The whole circumstance is an outrage,” Spinella said. “These are religious people, they’re hard-working people and the whole thing is a tragedy. The fact that they could traumatize this family and just walk away from it and say, ‘OK have a nice day, here’s my business card,’ is hard to fathom.”

Spinella advised the family not to speak with a reporter because the lawsuit is pending.

Macri, said the family ended their 12-month lease early and moved out of the apartment in early September 2018 because they didn’t feel comfortable living there following the raid. Spinella declined to say whether the family still lives in Meriden.

Macri called them a “very nice family.”

“We were kinda, like, bummed that they had to leave, but I guess they felt more comfortable based on what they experienced,” Macri said.

Macri said he was “shocked” to learn of the SWAT search when it occurred. He said he wasn’t aware of any drug activity in the multi-family home and didn’t know Concepcion.

“It was shocking to us. I couldn’t believe it. We’ve never had anything like that,” Macri said. “My heart went out to the family as well because I could see how they were reacting. I felt bad for them, it was just a terrible situation. I don’t know the merit of it, but the experience of it was quite alarming for them and us as well.”