Rules shield former trooper

A woman accuses an ex-officer of misconduct, but questions about the case go unanswered.

Staff WritersJanuary 24, 2011 

  • Secretive Law

    Trooper Larry B. Lovick's prior suspension might not have been released by the state Highway Patrol if lawmakers had not opened up the state's secretive personnel law last year.

    In July, lawmakers voted to make salary and employment histories public. That meant as of Oct. 1, the patrol had to report past disciplinary measures such as demotions and suspensions.

    The new law does not require providing the details of those disciplinary actions. The Senate version called for a brief explanation, but House lawmakers kept it out of the final version.

    Patrol officials insisted that the new law prevented them from releasing the details of Lovick's three-day suspension, which he served in December 2009, but the law does not. Lawmakers left unchanged a provision that allows department heads of state agencies to make public personnel information when their agency's integrity is at stake.

    The new law followed a three-part series in The News & Observer that showed North Carolina has one of the most secretive personnel laws in the nation.

A young woman returning from a trip to a convenience store was near her Raleigh home on the night of May 24 when a police officer in an unmarked car pulled her over.

The woman thought the stop was because of an expired tag, a family member says. But she ended up in handcuffs, in the front passenger seat of the cruiser in a secluded area. Then as the officer sat in the driver's seat, he exposed himself, the family member said.

The officer let the woman go, the family member says, without filing a charge or citation.

No one in law enforcement will confirm the details of the allegation that, eight months later, are part of a still-active investigation.

Law enforcement officials only acknowledge that there is a criminal investigation of former state Highway Patrol Trooper Larry B. Lovick that is directly related to the young woman's account.

This secrecy has been difficult for her family and has raised questions about whether the patrol has sought to keep a lid on the case. Among the details the patrol has declined to release is what caused Lovick, 32, to serve a three-day suspension nearly six months before the May 24 stop.

"I am, frankly, disgusted with the Highway Patrol," said Eugene Johnston, 74, the family member. He is a former Republican congressman and Greensboro lawyer.

Patrol spokesman Sgt. Jeff Gordon said releasing details of the incident, or any information about Lovick's conduct on the force "could compromise any subsequent prosecution."

Chrissy Pearson, a spokeswoman for Gov. Bev Perdue, said the governor backed the decision.

But Johnston said releasing those details might persuade others to come forward if they have had a similar encounter with the trooper.

Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby confirmed that he is handling the investigation, which landed in his hands after the SBI gave him a report two months ago. He said he spoke with the young woman for a second time last week.

"Certainly the information that I have was of a very serious concern and we are pursuing this as we would any serious investigation," Willoughby said.

The young woman at the center of the investigation declined to be interviewed by The N&O. The newspaper generally does not identify people who report to police that they were the victims of sex-related crimes.

In e-mail, she said she recently learned Willoughby was proceeding with the case; she said she did not want to do anything to jeopardize it.

Similarly, Willoughby said he would not discuss details of the case because of N.C. State Bar rules governing prosecutorial conduct.

Lovick on patrol

The patrol confirmed last week that Lovick was on patrol May 24 in Wake County, working from 3 p.m. to 2 a.m. in an unmarked car.

Other patrol records show that from 7:38 p.m. to 11:01 p.m. he wrote no tickets and had not been dispatched to handle any accidents. Gordon said he could not comment on whether the patrol could account for Lovick's whereabouts during that period, citing the investigation.

Lovick, who joined the patrol in 2004, resigned June 7. That same day, the patrol requested that the SBI conduct a criminal investigation.

His attorney, James Crouch of Raleigh, said Lovick would not comment on the allegations or the circumstances of the 2009 suspension.

Stopped a few days later

The case may not have come to the attention of investigators if not for a second traffic stop May 27. The young woman was in a car with friends when a Raleigh police officer pulled them over.

Records show the Raleigh officer charged the young woman and two of her friends with underage drinking. A judge dismissed the charge against the young woman after she produced an evaluation from a substance abuse treatment center that showed she did not have a drinking problem. Her record shows one other brush with the law, a speeding ticket from 2008.

Raleigh police will not comment on what the young woman might have said to the officer during the traffic stop about the incident three days earlier. But after that second traffic stop, the Raleigh police internal affairs division received a report about what happened to the young woman the night of May 24, Raleigh police spokesman Jim Sughrue said.

Recognizing the hat

Sughrue said that at the time, it was unclear which law enforcement agency the officer in question worked for.

Johnston said his relative, the young woman, eventually realized that the man who stopped her May 24 was a trooper because of the signature wide-brimmed campaign hat he was wearing.

Raleigh police turned the case over to the patrol and investigated no further.

"We made a determination that it apparently involved another agency," Sughrue said. "It would be inappropriate for us to comment on another agency's investigation."

The patrol's internal affairs officers interviewed the young woman, Johnston said. She was then interviewed by the SBI.

Johnston said the episode has placed a tremendous strain on the young woman and her family.

"It's just so outside the pale of what you ever thought about happening," said Johnston, who served one term in the U.S. House in the early 1980s and made an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 1992.

The state Highway Patrol has been grappling with several highly publicized cases of trooper misconduct. Many of the cases involved interactions with women.

Since 1998, state records show at least 28 cases of sexual misconduct, ranging from troopers having sex on duty to a trooper who abducted and fondled three women inOrange County. That trooper is serving a prison sentence. Other troopers have been fired, have resigned or were given lesser punishments.

In July, Highway Patrol Commander Randy Glover announced his retirement after a troop commander was fired after being caught driving while intoxicated; a major resigned after admitting to sending dozens of flirtatious text messages to a patrol secretary.

After Glover's retirement, Perdue created a committee to advise her on how to rebuild "the focus on integrity, honor and the proud heritage of the patrol."

Among the group's first recommendations is a new requirement that troopers must radio in to dispatchers any time a person of the opposite sex is in their patrol vehicles.

News researcher David Raynor contributed to this report.

dan.kane@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4861

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