By Pete Kotz
By Michael Musto
By Michael Musto
By Capt. James Van Thach told to Jonathan Wei
By Kera Bolonik
By Michael Musto
By Nick Pinto
By Steve Weinstein
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.
Ordinarily, one would think that driving through the jurisdiction of the PIPPD would be a fairly simple matter. But Lawrence kept getting pulled over on her way to and from Kiryas Joel, an upstate Orthodox Jewish enclave near Harriman. Between 2007 and 2012, she was stopped at least seven times and issued a total of 40 tickets. In addition, Palisades police took her involuntarily to psychiatric hospitals about six times during the period. As a result, she got to know Palisades officers well.
For at least the past eight years, the PIPPD has been controversial. In 2005, the New Jersey ACLU led an effort to stop its officers from illegally arresting gay men. There have also been allegations that the department targets Orthodox Jewish drivers, along with racial profiling charges involving black and Latino motorists.
In one incident described as profiling of Jews, a woman leaving a country-club Orthodox wedding got seven tickets for minor things, including having a dirty license plate. In another incident, a Jewish ambulance service stopped using the parkway because its vehicles were getting hit with so many tickets. In a third, members of a group of elderly Jewish people in a rental car were handcuffed and made to lie on the ground.
On several occasions, for incidents like the ones described and budgetary reasons, bills have been introduced in the state legislature to abolish the department and merge it with either the Bergen County Police or the New Jersey State Police. One such bill is pending.
In the fall of 2007, Lawrence was stopped twice and ticketed by Palisades cops for careless driving, among other things. In December 2009, she was stopped again, ticketed, and then involuntarily committed to Bergen Regional Medical Center for one day for refusing to answer officers' questions.
On May 3 and June 9, 2010, Lawrence was stopped twice more and hit with 11 traffic violations. In the May incident, she was again involuntarily admitted to the Bergen hospital for two days. In the June 9 incident, she allegedly took off at high speed and tailgated a car in front of her.
On May 7, 2010, when she was released from the hospital a second time, she went to Palisades police headquarters to retrieve her car.
Then, she met Officer Vincent Roberson, now 44, a nine-year veteran of the force.
The encounter led to an eight-month relationship. Initially, Lawrence says, Roberson tried to act like her "therapist," saying he would rather try to help her than take her to the hospital—an arrangement that bore the taint of coercion. Their conversation soon ranged into personal areas in Lawrence's life, and eventually, he began disclosing personal issues of his own life and his unhappiness with his job. He told her that he was married, but his wife was overseas awaiting a visa.
"At one point, I became his therapist," she says. "He would say how he became a cop to help people, but he began viewing his job as being a highway robber."
It's unethical for a police officer to develop a personal relationship with someone who is constantly getting in trouble, but through 2010, they spoke on the phone hundreds of times, often for hours a day, and exchanged a dizzying number of text messages. Roberson was often on duty while they were speaking, a violation of his department's policy.
On June 9 and 10, Lawrence was arrested on an outstanding warrant for $500 and stayed in jail overnight. Roberson picked her up from jail, and, she claims, "continued with his sexual advances."
Two days later, on June 12, 2010, she says Roberson met her at a New Jersey hotel for sex. They stayed overnight in the hotel.
She says they subsequently had sex at least four times at Roberson's home and at least four times in either his or her car. Some of the liaisons took place while Roberson was on duty, she says.
The thing that really bothered Lawrence and eventually led her to file a complaint was an occasion on which Roberson essentially demanded sex if he were going to continue to talk to her, she says.
On November 19, 2010, Roberson coerced her into going to the hospital. She was released the following day. On the way home, Roberson, she claims, made threats against her and her family if she filed a complaint with his supervisors.
During this period, Lawrence and Roberson exchanged angry text messages and basically ended the affair. Roberson on at least one occasion made an anti-Semitic remark.
In one message, dated December 1, he wrote, "If you don't like it, then don't answer the phone." In another that day, he wrote: "I can't stand you. I am sick of the loonacy [sic]. But I will call you again to check on you."
In another, Roberson accuses Lawrence of stalking him, and then in another writes, "LEAVE ME ALONE I'M SICK OF YOU AND YOUR PROBLEMS." In a third: "I don't want to hear ur bullshit. I don't want to argue with a loon."
When he threatens to change his number, she says: "U can change ur #. You can't change the facts. After I told you I didn't want to be with you anymore, u still stuck out ur private part."
He replies: "I DON'T CARE WHAT'S BOTHERING U THIS TIME. U R AN ADULT & agreed to it. u were not forced. it will never happen again i promise u that." He then tells her, "FUCK U." He calls her a "lunatic Jew."
Roberson then accuses her of harassment and trying to ruin him, and says, "There will be a great case for forcibly having u committed." He accuses her of blackmail and says, "I'll have the state put u in a nuthouse and u will never get out." Later, he says: "No one will ever be your friend. U will be hated by everyone u try to be friends with."
On December 5, Lawrence wrote a long e-mail to Roberson, trying to explain her thinking. "What bothers me and kills me is how you made me feel from the start and them [sic] dumped me," she writes. "I don't want to hurt you. I don't want you to lose your job and family. At the same time, I need my life back.
"It was just fulfilling a dream of being with an Israeli Jewish girl and when you got your dream come through [sic], I became useless," she writes.
On December 6, 2010, a Palisades officer attempted to pull Lawrence over. Worried about Roberson's alleged threat, she tried to flee from the officer. She was ticketed for speeding.
She finally filed a complaint against Roberson with Palisades Parkway Police lieutenant Michael Coppola on December 17, 2010.
A 130-page internal affairs report compiled by Coppola and obtained exclusively by the Voice says she came in "to discuss a problem she was having with an officer who works in our department."
In the interview, Lawrence is recorded as saying: "We started talking day and night, and we got involved. . . . We were always meeting over there by the park, and, ah, it's really not appropriate, and I was really pissed off about it. Then we continuing [sic] like being friends and arguing, and I just said I'm going to mention something about it, and he said he's going to kill me."
She named Roberson, disclosed a sexual relationship with him, and said they met at his house or the park while he was on duty. He often checked up on her, and "his wife was away, and he's a lonely person." They talked up to 10 hours a day, she said. She said Roberson had accused her of stalking him.
After taking her complaint, Coppola wrote that Lawrence "was not forthcoming with a lot of information and needed to be asked several times as well as convinced it was OK to talk about her issues."
However, even though he knew that Lawrence had phone records and text messages to back up her claim, Coppola never asked for them.
She texted Roberson to tell him she had made the complaint. Over the next two days, Roberson pleaded with her to withdraw the complaint and allegedly threatened her again.
Lawrence began to feel pressure and concern for her family's safety. She approached an officer with the Bogota, New Jersey, police department, Jonathan Misskerg, for advice on how to withdraw the complaint. She also talked with Roberson about how to "cloud" her complaint so that it would be rejected.
On December 20, 2010, she called Palisades Police lieutenant Coppola to ask him to withdraw the complaint.
Lawrence told Coppola, "I don't want anyone to get in trouble because of me." But Coppola told her that it was too late. He still had to go ahead with the investigation, saying, "You can't unring a bell."
On December 21, Coppola interviewed Roberson. Roberson flatly denied Lawrence's allegations and told Coppola that he had been trying to help her with her psychological issues, but she became infatuated with him and pestered him with phone calls and messages. "When I tried to break it off with her, she instituted a series of threats," he told Coppola. "I wanted nothing from her."
A pattern developed, he claimed, during which he tried to get away from her, and she kept pursuing him. "I listen to her, and then I start to get annoyed at all of these intrusions, so I stopped answering her calls and messages," he claimed.
Roberson denied doing anything improper. He specifically denied having sexual contact with Lawrence.
"Have you ever kissed her? Have you ever had sex with her?" Coppola asked.
"No," Roberson replied, jumping out his chair indignantly. "I've never had any romantic, physical, sexual involvement with her, no."
Roberson said Coppola was out to get him.
Coppola replied, "If I wanted to get rid of you, I'd probably run out of paper writing up shit on things that I've seen, heard, watched you do, how you act, and all these other fucking things, OK?
"I could probably do it to you and probably about everyone else here," he added, referring to every police officer in the department. "All right, 'cause nobody toes the line around here the way they should."
At the end of the interview, Roberson was ordered not to speak with Lawrence again.
Coppola then asked Lawrence to talk with him. They parried over her complaint, with Lawrence giving evasive, vague answers. In an effort to withdraw her complaint—which Coppola said she could not do—she said this: "Let's say I lied about everything."
Later, when Coppola asked her what was true and what wasn't, she said, "Everything is a lie."
Coppola arrested her for filing a false report. In his report, he wrote that Lawrence had a long history with the agency, questioned her mental stability, and mentioned her psychiatric commitments. "All of the officers are familiar with her," he wrote. "I was unable to produce any information that either had evolved the status of their relationship into something physical." In the end, Coppola found Roberson's statements "credible" but his behavior "improper."
But Coppola did little to independently verify or reject Lawrence's allegations. He basically took Roberson's word, knowing that there were text messages and phone records.
Lawrence's lawyer, Israel Fried, claimed in court that the report was "biased against Ms. Lawrence and in favor of Officer Roberson probably because of all the history that Ms. Lawrence has with this police department."
Fried says there was a clear conflict of interest in the way Palisades police handled Lawrence and notes in court that Coppola not only was involved as a supervisor in some of the arrests of Lawrence but also oversaw the internal investigation of Roberson.
Two retired NYPD officers with distinguished law-enforcement careers told the Voice that there were plenty of troubling questions about how the PIPPD handled the investigation.
"If you have patrol lieutenants investigating their own officers, that's de facto not having internal affairs," says Eugene O'Donnell, a retired NYPD officer and prosecutor who teaches at John Jay College. "You have to have separation. It's near impossible for a supervisor who is interacting with his cops to then investigate them."
"They dropped the ball," says a 20-year NYPD veteran. "They did not do a thorough investigation. This has shades of small-police-department cronyism. They should have referred it to an outside agency or a prosecutor to avoid that conflict."
Following her arrest, on the advice of a friend, Lawrence returned to the Bogota police and, this time, told the story in much more detail to Captain James Sepp. She also turned over hundreds of text messages and 111 pages of phone records, which showed that Roberson had called her hundreds of times over an eight-month period.
Sepp wrote a report and turned it over to the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office and the PIPPD on January 19, 2011.
"The officers at Bogota who investigated her allegations found them to be 100 percent credible," Fried noted in court.
Among the new revelations: Roberson exposed his penis to her while in uniform and had oral sex with her while on duty.
On January 20, 2011, Coppola re-interviewed Roberson. "I already know the answer to a lot of the stuff I'm going to ask you, and I also know that there's going to be conflicts with stuff you've told us in the past," Coppola said. He added, "All the fucking games are over, and this is about as serious as it gets."
Roberson had lied about not talking to Lawrence during periods when he was talking to her. He had to admit that he had, in fact, called her a lot more than she called him. He had to admit that they had rehearsed for two hours what they would say to get the investigation dropped. He had to explain how inside the station house, Lawrence was jokingly referred to as a stalker.
"Here's what my problem is," Coppola said. "She was charged, and you never came forward. See the predicament I'm in?"
And Roberson finally had to admit that he had a sexual relationship with Lawrence and that he was ashamed.
"I said we had no sexual involvement, and we did," he said.
He admitted to sex at a motel and at his house, and he admitted to oral sex. "Various times we would meet, and she would just give me head or something," Roberson told Coppola. "Part of me having sex with her was wanting to teach her."
Roberson claimed he never had sex with her while on duty, but confronted by Coppola, he began to hedge.
"How can you forget getting fellated in a car?" Coppola asked. "While you're in uniform? How can you forget that? Are you kidding me?"
Roberson eventually grudgingly admitted to one time in uniform. But he added, "She wasn't good at it."
What is even more controversial about the PIPPD's handling of Roberson is that from the start of the interview, Coppola tells Roberson that he is not going to arrest him. "I'm not reading you your Miranda rights. I'm not going to arrest you or anything like that. I'm just making sure you're clear on that from the beginning."
In other words, the man who so quickly arrested Gail Lawrence basically gave Vincent Roberson a pass from the start, even though the officer theoretically could have been charged with intimidation, harassment, official misconduct, obstructing an investigation, lying to investigators, falsifying documents, and as Coppola himself noted, witness tampering.
"You knew she was coming in here, and you involved yourself with altering what she was going to say," Coppola said.
"Yes, sir," Roberson said.
Toward the end of the interview, Lieutenant Walter Siri, who had been sitting in, finally lost his temper with Roberson. "You went on for another half-hour on bullshit. And I'm tired of the fucking bullshit," Siri said. "Do you think I'm holding you to a higher standard because you're a cop? You're goddamn right I am!"
In his conclusion, Coppola wrote that in his initial investigation, he was "confronted by an uncooperative witness and a deceitful officer." The angry text messages that Roberson sent to Lawrence were "unbecoming of a police officer."
Roberson was formally charged with more than a dozen administrative violations.
Coppola concluded his report by saying several criminal charges "could potentially be imposed." But he did not make a specific recommendation. The big questions remain: Were charges considered? And by whom? Why were none filed?
On January 28, 2011, Lawrence was told that Roberson was no longer with the PIPPD.
Although Roberson had resigned, and the PIPPD's internal investigation had cleared Gail Lawrence of lying, the false-reporting charges against her were not dropped. In fact, she was about to face 18 months of legal hell.
Of the municipal courthouse in Alpine, New Jersey, Fried says this: "It's a boys' club. They do these rushed trials, and I've never seen anyone acquitted of anything over there. I've seen defense attorneys do these amazing jobs, and they still lose."
Lawrence continued to drive through PIPPD's jurisdiction. She was stopped once again and once again charged with attempting to elude an officer on February 17, 2011. She was taken to the Bergen County jail and held for six days. Then, the police involuntarily admitted her for one day to the Bergen hospital, again on psychiatric grounds.
In a May 4 court hearing, a judge told her she could go to jail for six months. That statement led her to call 911 later from the highway, and she was once again involuntarily admitted to the Bergen hospital, this time for eight days.
She began trying to obtain a copy of the internal investigation but kept hitting a brick wall. Meanwhile, her case, which should have been disposed of fairly quickly, went into the deep freeze.
On July 3, Andrew Samson, the private lawyer who acts as prosecutor for the municipal court in Alpine, New Jersey, replied, "This information is not relevant to the charges asserted, and as such, will not be produced."
On July 10, 2011, Lawrence filed an exhaustive request for documents. That request was ignored. On July 20, 2011, she asked the judge for time to get another lawyer and obtain more documents. The judge refused and ordered a trial.
She had trouble with a couple of previous lawyers. One of them, Rabbi Benjamin Kelsen, begged off of her case because he got appointed to the Palisades Interstate Court. Another simply didn't show up for a related trial on other traffic charges.
She was finally tried for the May and June 2010 traffic summonses, even though her lawyer resigned from representing her days before.
Lawrence made seven objections during the trial to being forced to proceed without a lawyer, but the judge, Roy McGeady, rejected them and said, "It's time to face the music and hear the trials. . . . I'm not fooling around with you anymore."
Despite Lawrence's objections, McGeady found her guilty of 11 traffic offenses, fined her $2,400, and suspended her driving privileges for 150 days. Arguing the judge had violated her constitutional rights to a fair trial and a lawyer, she has filed an appeal of that ruling.
"The entire proceeding was per se unfair, and the convictions must be reversed," her appellate lawyer Joseph Bahgat wrote.
Arguing that appellate courts should defer to the trial court, the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office fought the appeal and waived her right to counsel by refusing to accept the services of a public defender.
Bahgat replied that prosecutors were trying to distract the appellate court from a proceeding "riddled with errors."
The appellate judge found the trial judge had acted according to the rules and ordered Lawrence to pay the fines. (She has since appealed that ruling.)
Meanwhile, Lawrence still stood charged with fleeing from police on two occasions, refusing to provide identification, providing false information to a police officer, and making a false complaint in connection with Roberson.
In September 2011, during a court hearing, Fried learned that the Bogota police had turned over a videotaped interview of Lawrence to prosecutors and the PIPPD, which was never disclosed in discovery. Ten months after Lawrence's arrest, Fried was still seeking the full investigative file on the case. He had made two discovery requests, but neither had been fully complied with.
"The information in the IAB files certainly calls the PIP officers' credibility into question and may also give rise to a claim of selective enforcement," Fried wrote in a legal brief. "The failure to provide this evidence is not inadvertent, but rather the result of a deliberate suppression by the state," Fried concluded.
The prosecutor, Samson, insisted that was the first time he had heard of the Bogota videotape and objected to allowing Fried to review the internal affairs file.
In an interview, Fried tells the Voice: "They had documents in their possession from day one that they denied having because as long as they kept it in house, it would have never gotten out. If she hadn't complained to someone else, it really never would have gotten out."
Meanwhile, Fried argued that the treatment (traffic stops, summonses, and involuntary commitments) she received from Palisades police during the period leading up to her initial complaint and after amounted to retaliation and should be dismissed.
But Samson wouldn't budge. "It's not incumbent on the state to prove intent for a motor vehicle charge," he said in court. "So she's speeding, she's speeding."
In other words, even though Lawrence had been proved correct in her allegations against Roberson, the state still refused to drop the other charges.
Last June 15, Lawrence returned for the second and final day of her trial on filing a false report and eluding police officers. She heard Judge McGeady finally dismiss the false-reporting charge but convict her of eluding the officers.
Prosecutors offered her an unusual, almost extortionate plea deal—no jail if she agreed not to file a lawsuit.
The offer, Fried says, smacked of yet another effort to cover up the department's misconduct. She declined the offer and was sentenced to 30 days in jail. On July 2, she will begin that sentence.
"My suspicion is they dismissed the charges because they didn't want it to come out in court," Fried says.
Meanwhile, it's still unclear why the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office did not pursue charges against Roberson.
So far, Lawrence's legal issues have cost somewhere close to $40,000. The unemployed Lawrence says friends in the Jewish community have paid her legal fees. She is preparing a lawsuit against the PIPPD and prosecutors.
Asked how the PIPPD should have handled Lawrence and her repeated traffic problems, Fried says this: "If it was one instance, fine. But she had dozens of encounters with them, and about six psychiatric commitments. At some point, they should have reached out to someone for outside help. The problem is this is a boys' club, and it was easier to arrest her."
As for Roberson, according to a résumé he posted online, he got a job as a security guard in Manhattan.
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