By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Gail Lawrence was prosecuted for telling the truth about a Palisades cop
Now comes a sordid tale of sex, abuse of power, and rampant text messaging from the mixed-up files of the Palisades Interstate Parkway Police Department.
The PIPPD, tiny as police departments go in size and jurisdiction, has fewer than 30 officers to patrol an 11-mile stretch of the Palisades Interstate Parkway near Palisades Park, a gorgeous strip of woods and cliffs on the west side of the Hudson River, extending north from the George Washington Bridge.
The main thing these officers do is issue speeding tickets. Drivers unfortunate enough to get a ticket have to appear before a small court in Alpine, New Jersey. Over the years, the PIPPD has been accused of targeting gay men and Jewish motorists, and of being overly aggressive. The court has been compared to something out of My Cousin Vinny.
Enter Gail Lawrence, a 46-year-old Brooklyn woman who managed to rack up more than $5,000 in traffic fines, mostly for speeding and tailgating on the parkway over the past several years. Lawrence acknowledges that she isn't the greatest driver in the world, and she admits that she behaved erratically at times and has had psychological issues as a result of an abusive 10-year marriage. But that's not what this story is about.
During the course of her interaction with the Palisades cops in 2010, she had an affair with an officer, Vincent Roberson, including consensual sexual liaisons with him while he was on duty, according to documents obtained by the Voice.
When he threatened her, Lawrence filed a complaint with his bosses. He denied the allegations. Without looking for any independent verification of her claims, PIPPD arrested Lawrence and charged her with filing a false report and lying to investigators. But phone and text message records, as well as Roberson's eventual admissions, proved that she had been telling the truth.
"On the day of December 17, 2010, when I was charged, it was a full courtroom, and the judge read the charges, and I felt so humiliated knowing that I had told the truth."
Once Lawrence's allegations were proved, Roberson was allowed to quietly resign from the department. However, the PIPPD and the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office refused to drop the false-reporting charges against Lawrence, forcing a bizarre two-day trial unlike any seen in a traffic court.
Nor would either agency pursue criminal charges against Roberson for his alleged serious misconduct. For Lawrence, what followed was an 18-month legal ordeal, complete with document cover-ups and stonewalling that will be made even worse on July 2, when she reports to jail for a 30-day stint, pending appeal.
"The story here is the egregious nature of the way this department ran itself," says Israel Fried, Lawrence's Manhattan-based lawyer. "I worked for the Brooklyn D.A. and the FBI, and I have the utmost respect for law enforcement. Nevertheless, our citizens are protected under the Constitution. Gail is a handful, but this police department is the 'Blue Wall of Silence.' They cover things up and try to bury things."
We sought comment from Chief John Parr of the PIPPD, and despite asking detailed questions about the handling of the case, we received only a "no comment." Sergeant Jesse Cohen told us Chief Parr "has a policy where he will not make any comments in regard to cases that are before any court, even if the disposition of those cases are made. This is in fairness to all parties involved."
Sergeant Cohen added in a subsequent e-mail that the Voice's questions "demonstrate you have been given erroneous information." He added, "As far as your specific questions, they remain within our internal affairs investigation and file and are not subject to public disclosure."
We also sought comment from the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office, which declined. We asked Andrew Samson, the case prosecutor, why the false-reporting charges against Lawrence were not dropped until 18 months after her allegations had been proved true.
Samson said he could not fully discuss the case because internal affairs matters are confidential. But he told the Voice that there was probable cause and merit to the initial charges. He noted that the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office did review the case. Samson also insisted that Lawrence was not "exonerated," though investigative reports and text message evidence reviewed by the Voice seem to dispute that assertion. As for the delay in producing the internal affairs report, he said Lawrence's lawyers didn't file a motion as required for it "until many months after the charges were initially filed."
Lawrence lives in a three-bedroom apartment in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. She was born in Israel and is fluent in four languages. Lawrence came to the States, got married, and had three children before divorcing her husband. When she obtained U.S. citizenship, she opted to change her name to an Anglicized one.
Lawrence's kids are all grown. One daughter, 26, is in the Navy. A second, 24, is in law school. A son, 23, is studying in a yeshiva.
At a relatively advanced age, following the end of a difficult 10-year marriage, Lawrence attended Brooklyn College and majored in Spanish. After college, she joined the U.S. Army because her Orthodox Jewish parents had not allowed her to join in Israel as a young woman. She had to drop out following a back injury in basic training. She has not worked since and receives financial support from family and friends.