THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Lantigua endorsee a suspect in assault

By Maria Sacchetti and Sean P. Murphy
Globe Staff / April 26, 2011

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One night last summer, police said, Marco Tejeda and his friends rang the doorbell at a Salisbury home allegedly looking for money and drugs.

When a man opened the door, according to court documents, Tejeda, wearing a black mask, cracked him over the head with a small wooden bat and continued to hit him as he lay on the floor. The others made off with $200 and a bottle of oxycodone.

The home invasion stunned this seaside community, and the Superior Court judge ordered Tejeda held without bail. But Tejeda soon submitted to the judge a character reference from a prominent public official, Mayor William Lantigua of Lawrence. The letter, written “to whom it may concern’’ on mayoral stationery, called Tejeda “a hard-working individual with a strong set of values and high ethical standards.’’

Yesterday, Lantigua said he did not know about the assault and believed he was writing a reference for a job application for Tejeda, the 21-year-old son of a Dominican consulate official.

“Without a doubt, I absolutely regret writing the letter,’’ he said after the Globe contacted his office to ask about it. “I will be . . . a lot more careful in the future.’’

The letter was not the first of its kind that Lantigua has written since taking office. His history of providing support for accused criminals is raising new questions in a city that is struggling to maintain law and order in the face of deep cuts in its police force.

In January 2010, shortly after his inauguration, Lantigua wrote a letter on behalf of Jose Valdez, who was arrested for breaking into his mother’s home and threatening her.

Last fall, Lantigua, the first Latino mayor in the state, led dozens of supporters into Lawrence District Court to support the son of his former campaign manager and deputy police chief who was accused of armed robbery and other charges. Jamel Bonilla has pleaded not guilty

Lantigua himself is facing state and federal investigations into possible corruption and other potential wrongdoing at City Hall, law enforcement officials confirm, focusing on whether Lantigua and his allies have illegally profited from city business.

In a letter to city employees yesterday, Lantigua said that the investigations were based on little more than “innuendo and blog gossip’’ and promised to “remain focused on my job as mayor of this great city.’’ He inherited a massive deficit that required a $35 million bailout from the state last year.

The letter in support of Tejeda last year came just weeks after budget cuts forced Police Chief John Romero to reduce his 151-member police force by 40.

Ever since, Lantigua has engaged in an acrimonious public battle with the Lawrence Police Department that police and some city councilors say is destroying years of progress in fighting crime and created a climate of hostility toward police.

In March, Lantigua blamed the rise in car thefts on police not doing their jobs. Earlier this month, he accused a police detective of treating him like a criminal when he filed a report saying that two men in an unmarked car tried to run him over. Police later said they could find no evidence to support the mayor’s report.

The mayor later apologized for disparaging the police.

Romero said that crime rose almost immediately after the City Council approved budget cuts last year that left him scrambling to keep police officers on the streets.

After the layoffs, Romero said, the rate of serious crimes — such as robberies, assaults, rapes, and car thefts — rose by 50 percent.

“Cops matter,’’ Romero said in an interview, “This is the first time the city has had double-digit homicides in 37 years.’’

The worst may be yet to come, he said, as criminals realize how understaffed the department is. A baby shower that turned violent last weekend, leaving two people with stab wounds, nearly got out of control, he said, because police were outnumbered by an inebriated crowd and had no reserves.

“You’d have had twice as many people out there’’ before the layoffs, said Romero.

In this climate, some officials said, having the mayor’s advocacy for accused criminals sends the wrong message.

“It’s totally inappropriate for any political person to get involved in the criminal process,’’ said Dan Rivera, city councilor at large. “We’re trying to get through all these distractions and send the message to the community that we still stand by the police officers and the letter of the law.’’

Scott McNamara, president of the Lawrence Police Superior Officer’s Association, said public officials typically speak up on behalf of victims of crime and not the alleged perpetrators. “If the nature of these letters are something other than that, we think the citizens of Lawrence and in fact, the citizens of this state, deserve an explanation,’’ he said.

Leonard Degnan, the mayor’s chief of staff, defended Lantigua, saying he “writes a lot of letters for people, tons and tons.’’

“People come in all the time asking for a letter and he writes them,’’ Degnan said.

Asked whether Lantigua checks out individuals asking for letters before writing them, Degnan said Lantigua is careful in the letters to say only that the mayor is asking for “every consideration’’ on behalf of the person “consistent with the laws and regulations of the United States and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.’’

“He’s not asking anyone to break any laws,’’ Degnan said.

Last year, Lantigua wrote the letter for the 34-year-old Valdez after his mother, Gregoria Valdez, went to his office and asked for it because her son, who suffered from bipolar disorder, was in trouble. Her son, who acknowledged his role in the crime, was deported to the Dominican Republic, she said, but she was grateful to Lantigua for his compassion toward someone with a mental illness.

Francisco Tejeda, father of Marco Tejeda, said his son is not guilty and was lured to the house as part of a trap. Marco Tejeda has pleaded not guilty to the bat assault and is being held in Essex County jail in Middleton.

Yesterday, his father said he told Lantigua and many others that he needed a letter of support to show the judges that they were not dealing with a “delinquent,’’ but a church-going young man who worked two jobs.

Later, the elder Tejeda changed his account and said Lantigua did not know that the letter was for the court. “I’m responsible,’’ Tejeda said. “If there was a failure, it was mine.’’

Andrea Estes of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Maria Sacchetti can be reached at msacchetti@globe.com; Sean P. Murphy at smurphy@globe.com.