Why won’t the Worcester DA release a 66-year-old murder file?
On August 31, 1951, 35-year-old Alje Savela was murdered in Barre. The Massachusetts state trooper was sitting in his patrol vehicle when he was shot nine times in the head and body by an assailant who fired 11 rounds. When his body was discovered, the engine of his cruiser was still running and his gun was still holstered.
After a lengthy manhunt and investigation, State Police concluded that the killer was George Heroux, a career criminal whose bank robberies landed him on the FBI’s “most wanted” list. “We are certain he is our man and have evidence which places him at the scene of Savela’s murder,” State Police Captain Joseph Crescio said in July 1952, according to a Boston Globe article from the time.
However, Heroux was never tried for the murder. He was instead sentenced to life in prison for fatally shooting the assistant superintendent of Florida State Prison during a 1955 breakout attempt. He died in prison in 1960.
For several years, Craig Shibley has been trying to bring attention to the Savela investigation using the Massachusetts public records law, which allows anyone to view or obtain copies of most government records. Shibley, who is writing a book about the murder, believes that because the records are so old and because the prime suspect died decades ago, releasing them should be a “pretty cut-and-dry matter.”
John Harty, now in his 90s, says he was a friend of Savela’s and is also seeking records related to the trooper’s murder. Harty says he was interviewed by State Police at the time and would like the transcripts to add to a scrapbook before he dies.
But the Worcester District Attorney’s Office says the Savela file cannot be disclosed to the public because the investigation of the murder—now more than 60 years old—remains ongoing.
The spat over the case file might be the best possible example of government officials overreaching with the so-called investigatory exemption to the public records law, which allows law enforcement to protect records that, if released to the public, could jeopardize investigations.
The exemption says that government agencies may withhold records if disclosing them “would probably so prejudice the possibility of effective law enforcement that such disclosure would not be in the public interest.” That hardly seems to apply to the Savela file. Nevertheless, the State Police and Worcester District Attorney’s Office have repeatedly insisted that they cannot release the records.
Shibley’s quest for the records dates back to October 2012, when he first submitted a request to the State Police. After more than a year, the State Police denied his request, citing an ongoing investigation. Shibley filed an appeal with then-Supervisor of Records Shawn Williams, but Williams sided with the State Police, ruling that because the investigation “remains ongoing,” the department did not have to release the records.
But soon the State Police acknowledged that there was no ongoing investigation. “Technically, the case is open because no one was ever charged or named as a suspect,” spokesman David Procopio told the Boston Globe in 2014. “But there are currently no new or active leads being investigated.”
After that, Williams issued a second ruling that the State Police had “erred in withholding the records,” and ordered the department to provide them to Shibley. A lawyer for the State Police only provided Shibley with a redacted copy of a single report. Shibley filed another appeal, and Williams again ordered the State Police to grant him access to the case file. But in response, a State Police lawyer said that the Worcester District Attorney’s Office was the actual custodian of the case file and that if Shibley wanted more records, he would need to request them from the DAO.
Shibley did just that, but the DAO refused to turn over the records. Shibley again turned to the supervisor of records. Williams and now-Supervisor of Records Rebecca Murray ruled on three separate occasions that the DAO had failed to justify withholding records related to the murder. However, the DAO still refused to turn them over.
Despite all the frustrating setbacks Shibley has faced, he’s not deterred. “I’m not going to stop until I get that damn file or until I find out that that file doesn’t exist,” he says.
John Harty also wants records related to Savela’s murder, although for more personal reasons.
“[Savela] drove our racecar,” he says. “We had a stock car back then, and he drove that. He wanted to be a stock car driver, and he was supposed to drive my car that night [that he was killed] … He was a wonderful man, and he was my best friend … I’ve just thought about him every day since he got murdered … The only bad habit he had was he smoked Chesterfield cigarettes.”
In February, Harty’s granddaughter, Amy Grandone, sent the DAO a records request on his behalf. The DAO denied the request, citing an ongoing investigation. Grandone sent an appeal to Murray, who again ruled that the DAO had failed to justify withholding the records. But the DAO continued to hold firm.
On April 4, Murray referred the matter to the attorney general’s office, which has the power to enforce the public records law. If the AGO agrees with Murray’s interpretation of the law, it can sue the DAO to try to force the disclosure of the records.
Meanwhile, a working group headed by Murray is examining whether the investigatory exemption needs to be reformed. The working group was created by the Legislature when it passed an update to the public records law last year. The group will meet several times this year and must issue its findings by December 30.
While the investigatory exemption probably should be clarified and narrowed, improving it won’t solve the real problem facing records requesters. Even with the investigatory exemption in its current form, the supervisor of records still concluded numerous times that the DAO failed to justify withholding the Savela file. What’s needed is more enforcement of the public records law. So hopefully the AGO will do the right thing and help Shibley and Harty get the records they’re after.
Andrew Quemere has been making public records requests in Massachusetts for more than a decade. He writes The Mass. Dump Dispatch, a newsletter about public records. Subscribe to read about the latest developments in government transparency. Follow him on Twitter @andrewqmr.