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Lawrence mayor’s report of threat rejected

No evidence of attack on Lantigua, police say

Mayor William Lantigua of Lawrence has clashed with the city’s Police Department almost since the day he took office. Mayor William Lantigua of Lawrence has clashed with the city’s Police Department almost since the day he took office.
By Andrea Estes and Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / April 21, 2011

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Lawrence police say they have found no evidence to support the assertion by Mayor William Lantigua that he was nearly run down in front of City Hall last month by a mystery car with unregistered plates, the latest chapter in an increasingly bitter dispute between the controversial mayor and the city’s police.

In a 12-page report made public yesterday, Lawrence Police Captain Denis Pierce concluded there is no evidence the car threatened Lantigua in any way. The report said that an eyewitness to the episode contradicted Lantigua’s insistence that he had been in danger.

The report suggested that on the day of the alleged assault, Lantigua may have been under surveillance by men in a car with unregistered plates similar to those used by undercover law enforcement officials. No further explanation of that possibility was offered.

“We are closing this investigation; no crime was committed,’’ Lawrence Police Chief John Romero said in an interview.

Lantigua, who has sparred with police almost from the day he took office in January 2010, had reported on March 31, 2011, that two men in a silver Ford Fusion or Focus had driven toward him and an aide at “full speed, which I perceived as a deliberate attempt to hit me.’’

But the fact that Lantigua filed the report 28 hours after the alleged episode raised questions among police, prompting Lantigua to lash out at them for not taking his complaint seriously enough.

In a Spanish language interview on WCCM 1110 AM in early April, Lantigua said he felt that police treated him as if he were the criminal and said he felt the police would go so far as to plant damaging evidence on him.

A patrolmen’s union blasted Lantigua for the comments and said it took him more than a day to report the alleged crime.

Lantigua later said he regretted making the remarks, but he continued to insist that the assault had taken place.

“I have been gravely concerned and at times preoccupied’’ with the episode, Lantigua said in a statement. “The vision remains playing in my head.’’

Yesterday, Lantigua declined a request for an interview.

Leonard Degnan, Lantigua’s chief of staff, said the mayor had no comment on the report, which has been sent to the city’s lawyer to review.

“It is what it is,’’ Degnan said yesterday, declining to elaborate. “At this point we have other things.’’

Lantigua, the state’s first Latino mayor, tried to put his stamp on the Police Department from the beginning of his tenure, nominating his former campaign manager — Melix Bonilla, a police sergeant — to be deputy chief under Romero.

City councilors tried to eliminate Bonilla’s position as a budget-cutting measure last September, prompting Lantigua to appear before the council to angrily defend his friend.

Since then, relations between the police and the mayor have only worsened, with Lantigua blaming the police for a rise in car thefts in the city and Romero repeatedly pointing out that his police force has been decimated by budget cuts.

In yesterday’s report, Pierce concluded that two men in a silver Fusion may have been photographing Lantigua and may have driven away when they were spotted, but nothing more. Police traced the license plate, which came back as canceled.

One police officer who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation said law enforcement officials suspect Lantigua simply wanted to know who was following him.

“He wanted to find out who it was, but it’s not a crime to drive around City Hall,’’ the officer said. “It’s not a crime to take your picture, so he had to find some other element’’ that would require police to look up the owner of the license plate.

Filing a false report is against the law, but Romero said he does not plan to pursue the matter.

Police said that an eyewitness to the incident came forward after Lantigua’s account appeared in the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune with the headline “I could be dead.’’ The witness, Rachel Conrad, called Lantigua’s account “a bit outlandish.’’

Conrad reported seeing Lantigua and his aide, Patrick Blanchette, crossing the street as a car was pulling out of a parking space. The mayor was calling out license plate numbers, and Blanchette was taking them down.

The report recounts a police interview with Conrad: Romero asks if she had the sense that the vehicle was intentionally trying to run over the mayor and his aide. “I didn’t get that sense at all,’’ she answered.

According to the report, neither Lantigua nor Blanchette, the city’s economic development director, would give police the name of another man they were speaking to at the time, a local developer, suggesting they did not want police to speak to witnesses other than them.

Lantigua became angry when Pierce sought to prevent him from speaking privately to Blanchette before Blanchette’s interview with police.

“I explained that during criminal investigations, witnesses are kept separate until their interviews are conducted,’’ wrote Pierce. “Mayor Lantigua stated, ‘We are also victims.’ ’’

After Lantigua demanded that a different police officer interview Blanchette, Romero went to City Hall and sat in while Pierce interviewed him.

Lantigua, one of the nation’s first mayors born in the Dominican Republic, has been controversial almost from the day he took office. He initially insisted on keeping his $61,440 job as a state legislator despite the enormous fiscal problems facing the city of Lawrence, problems that required a state investment of $35 million and an outside financial overseer to keep the city afloat.

Lantigua resigned from the Legislature in February 2010, but he remained defiant, saying he had been the victim of a “very very irresponsible media’’ that portrayed him as government paycheck double-dipper.

Andrea Estes can be reached at estes@globe.com. Maria Sacchetti can be reached at sacchetti@globe.com.