Rogue D.A. Shielded Killer Cop
A policeman shot an unarmed man, claiming he feared for his life. The state attorney general wanted to investigate. But a local prosecutor allegedly intervened.
The night before he died, Edson Thevenin curled up to watch Star Wars with his kids at their apartment in Watervliet, New York. It was a Saturday in April, and the 37-year-old father of two realized it was getting late. At 9:30 p.m., he got dressed for his brother’s birthday, kissed his family goodbye, and headed out the door.
They would never see him again.
Hours later, Thevenin would be shot dead. The Troy cop who killed him fired eight rounds from his service weapon into the windshield of Thevenin’s car, after a DWI stop allegedly turned into a short-lived police chase.
Police say Thevenin tried to strike Sgt. Randall French with his vehicle, then fled. During the pursuit, Thevenin allegedly attempted to make a U-turn onto the Collar City Bridge and smashed into a barrier. Moments later, police cruisers boxed him in to prevent an escape, and French exited his car to make an arrest.
What happened next isn’t entirely clear. Authorities claim Thevenin drove toward French and pinned his legs against his patrol vehicle, and that’s when French, defending his life, sprayed the devoted dad with bullets. Cops allege Thevenin used his vehicle as a weapon and that French had no other choice.
But one civilian witness claims French fired first and Thevenin’s car, as a result of its driver’s fatal injury, rolled forward.
Thevenin, who was unarmed, died at the scene.
French was cleared of wrongdoing a mere five days later, after Rensselaer County District Attorney Joel Abelove convened a grand jury and gave the policeman immunity, the Times Union reported. Under New York State rules, witnesses before a grand jury are automatically granted immunity unless the prosecutor obtains a waiver. In this case, Abelove reportedly did not obtain a waiver from the very person he was convening to prosecute. When asked about immunity for French earlier this year, Abelove told the Times Union, “As you may be aware, the law prohibits me from discussing grand jury matters.”
Abelove’s maneuver was also apparently in defiance of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s July 2015 executive order allowing the state attorney general to investigate or act as special prosecutor in police-related killings of unarmed civilians. The grand jury decision came three days after the AG’s office notified Abelove they wanted to review evidence in the case, the Albany Times Union revealed.
Abelove told The Daily Beast via e-mail that “it would be inappropriate” for him to comment on the Thevenin shooting because the attorney general’s office has not concluded its investigation.
The DA also said he would not confirm details of the Thevenin grand jury presentation. “By law, I am not permitted to discuss the nature of witnesses’ testimony, whether a witness was granted immunity, or whether certain evidence was presented to the grand jury,” he said.
As the AG’s office conducts its own investigation of the shooting, Rensselaer County lawyers and legal watchdogs say they hope authorities dig into allegations of public corruption within Abelove’s office.
Eric Soufer, a spokesman for the AG, said district attorneys statewide “have been excellent partners” in supporting the governor’s executive order on police-related killings.
“But the situation in Troy is a glaring and deeply troubling exception,” Soufer told The Daily Beast. “That’s why this case is under active investigation and, as the attorney general made clear several months ago, no one is off the hook. ”
On Thursday, the Times Union reported the AG’s office asked Gov. Cuomo for authority to pursue a formal investigation into Abelove himself over the Thevenin shooting. It’s unclear if the governor gave the green light to the request.
Abelove has also been accused of pursuing charges against political enemies while declining to indict his allies; and of allowing dozens of cases to fall by the wayside even as he seeks to make a name as a tough-on-crime public servant.
Among Abelove’s first orders of business was to decline prosecution of a political ally, Martin Reid, chairman of the Rensselaer County Legislature. State investigators discovered Reid snagged more than $15,000 in unemployment while collecting a $30,000-a-year government salary, and turned the case over to the Rensselaer County DA’s office. Months later, after Abelove declined the chance to prosecute, the attorney general announced it was prosecuting Reid, who in September pleaded guilty.
Abelove told The Daily Beast that when he took office, he believed the AG’s office would take on Reid’s prosecution, “as they generally handle these types of cases.” A former employee, however, said in court papers that Abelove received the Reid case during his transition into office and asked Carmelo Laquidara, his election opponent and a chief assistant district attorney, to “close” it.
In an e-mail, Abelove countered the employee’s claim. “The case was never referred to me, and I therefore had no case to drop,” Abelove told The Daily Beast. “The NYS Department of Labor referred the case to the AG, who in fact prosecuted Mr. Reid.”
Abelove also dropped charges against local GOP operative Richard Crist, who helped him secure a primary win on the Independence Party line, the Times Union reported. Crist was facing child endangerment charges over an alleged encounter with his 17-year-old son.
According to the Times Union, Abelove didn’t recuse himself from the case despite Crist’s work on his campaign. He told The Daily Beast his office declined to prosecute Crist because child protective services “found the complaint … to be unfounded.”
Meanwhile, Abelove appears to have no trouble prosecuting foes.
In October, he filed misdemeanor charges against former prosecutor Shane Hug in a convoluted case that local attorneys say reeks of political payback. Hug, a registered Democrat who prosecuted high-profile murder cases, is accused of leaking a 911 call made by a Republican mayoral candidate’s wife during a domestic dispute. Also facing charges are a retired police detective and former DA investigator. All three have denied the accusations against them.
“This is a petty prosecution brought for personal and political reasons by the most ethically challenged district attorney in Rensselaer County in my lifetime,” Trey Smith, Hug’s attorney, told the Times Union when they were charged in October 2016.
Earlier this month, the Times Union revealed that three violent felonies—including the assault of a police officer, a home invasion and a terroristic threat to burn a church—were dismissed after Abelove’s office failed to indict the defendants. “We are conducting a review of the situation. But at the time, the situation is not a reflection of the entire office,” Abelove told the newspaper.
The corruption allegations swirling around Abelove’s office did little to assure Thevenin’s kin that justice was served in his killing.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Cinthia Thevenin said she was awaiting the outcome of the attorney general’s probe.
“We just want the truth—that’s all,” said Thevenin, Edson’s wife and mother to his 4- and 9-year-old boys. “The way they are describing my husband is not the man he was. We just want the truth to come out.”
“My husband was a very loving man who cared about his family,” she told The Daily Beast, adding that Thevenin was active in his church and a weekly ministry for men. “Everybody he encountered, he left an impression on.”
Thevenin said her husband worked as a mechanic for Enterprise car rentals and would leave work early to pick up his 9-year-old son from the bus stop. “If I had to work late, [Edson] was the one that cooked dinner. He got the boys ready for bed. He spent a lot of time making sure the boys were OK by the time I got home,” she said.
Now their children’s routines are “turned upside down,” said the widow, who in September filed a wrongful death suit against the city of Troy and Sgt. French. The case is still pending.
The day after Edson Thevenin was killed, Abelove stood silently next to Troy police chief John Tedesco during a press conference as he defended his cop. “It would appear that the actions of Sgt. French are certainly in line with the law department policy and his training,” Tedesco said. “We are fully supporting the sergeant and his actions.”
Police have released no video footage of the incident, saying traffic cameras weren’t working and that Troy cops have no body or dash cams.
Officers also initially told Thevenin’s widow, Cinthia, that he had been killed in a car wreck, she told the Times Union—a claim the city of Troy denied in court papers. (The family’s pastor, who said he saw the body, said Thevenin had been shot a total of eight times, including four bullets to the head.) Cinthia said that officers asked the morning of her husband’s killing whether her car had been stolen, making no mention of the fatal shooting. She also told the Times Union that the family had trouble reclaiming his personal belongings, including his wedding band.
Within days, Thevenin’s family called for an outside investigation into the shooting and contacted the attorney general’s office. In response, Chief Tedesco claimed the incident didn’t fall under Gov. Cuomo’s executive order because Thevenin allegedly used his vehicle as a weapon, News 10 reported.
But before the AG could investigate, Abelove presented the case to a grand jury, which declined to pursue charges against French.
On April 27, State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed a lawsuit against Abelove, alleging he “flouted” the state’s directives in his rush to present the case. Schneiderman’s office requested, in writing, recordings and records in order to establish the facts of the case, court papers allege. Abelove chose to ignore this request and proceeded with the grand jury proceedings in a case where he did not have jurisdiction, the lawsuit claims.
To add insult to injury, the lawsuit says, Abelove informed the attorney general’s office of his “intent to continue to exercise jurisdiction in this matter” by snail mail. The AG’s office received the letter the following week, after Abelove had already issued a press release on the grand jury’s findings.
The DA’s letter mentioned nothing about his plan to present the case to a grand jury, according to the lawsuit, which was settled two weeks later after Abelove agreed to provide the AG with his Thevenin case file.
“My heartfelt sympathies go out to the French and Thevenin families," Abelove said after the grand jury’s decision. “Hopefully, the community can begin to heal now that the grand jury has concluded its investigation.”
Despite Abelove’s assurances that justice was served, two witnesses to the shooting say they were never called to testify. One bystander allegedly took cellphone footage of the incident that hasn’t been publicly released but is described in court transcripts for an unrelated criminal case in Rensselaer County.
According to the Times Union, those civilians, interviewed by both Troy cops and the attorney general’s office, did not believe French faced imminent danger when he opened fire. When contacted by The Daily Beast, one witness changed his tune, saying he believed the shooting was “justified” and adding that he plans to take a test to become a Troy police officer.
The other witness has claimed Sgt. French fired into Thevenin’s windshield first and that the car slowly rolled into the cop after Thevenin was mortally wounded.
In a written statement reviewed by The Daily Beast, that witness said he was on the road after 3 a.m. when he witnessed Thevenin’s black Honda hit a barrier and cops trail him. He heard gunshots, then Sgt. French yell for help. Another officer allegedly threw Thevenin out of the car and onto the ground.
This witness’s account is also described by local attorney Joseph Ahearn in court transcripts reviewed by The Daily Beast.
At a May 2016 hearing for Ahearn’s client, murder suspect Jacob Heimroth, Ahearn tells the judge French “unjustifiably shot a civilian,” referring to Thevenin, and claims that he saw cellphone footage of his death.
“My recollection of the [cellphone] video is that several shots were discharged, and the officer then yells, ‘my leg,’ in that sequence of events, meaning—respectfully, I think I have a good faith basis to ask whether he was injured before or after he discharged the firearm,” Ahearn said.
Abelove called Ahearn’s request to question French, who was present during Heimroth’s arrest, “a fishing expedition that is irrelevant to this hearing.”
Before Judge Andrew Ceresia denied Ahearn’s request, he asked French if he was disciplined by the Troy Police Department over the shooting and French said no. The officer then testified that he kept his badge, was issued a new gun and was on extended sick leave due to injuries from the incident.
Thevenin’s attorney, Michael A. Rose of New York, declined to discuss whether he saw the cellphone video or any other evidence in the case.
“We think the initial investigation that took place was a rush to reach a conclusion and justice wasn’t served at that time,” Rose told The Daily Beast. “And now we’re confident that there is a thorough investigation taking place and that the truth will come out.”
Coming Friday: A deeper look into allegations of political payback, patronage jobs and injustice.