Investigations

‘It's a Failure': Hit-and-Run Criminal Case Dismissed After Courtroom Confusion

After a school crossing guard was hit by a car on the job, the accused driver was later charged with the crime. However, on the day of the trial, the judge tossed the case when prosecutors did not realize the investigating police officer had resigned months earlier because of a federal indictment

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Following his retirement, John Rolfe stayed active as a traffic director for the Town of Stoneham, making sure kids got home safely from school.

“I really enjoyed it,” Rolfe expressed.

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In March of 2021, Rolfe was on duty near William Street and Elm Street when he said a car veered around a line of stopped vehicles in an effort to pass through the intersection.

After making sure the kids stayed on the sidewalk, Rolfe said he turned his attention to the car barreling toward him.

“I not only put up my hands, but started blowing my whistle really, really hard,” he said.

At the last moment, Rolfe said he jumped out of the way, but the vehicle’s passenger side mirror clipped him and knocked him to the ground.

The 73-year-old said he needed shoulder surgery and months of physical therapy to recover from his injuries.

“It was truly very, very painful,” Rolfe said.

Luckily, a witness saw what happened and managed to capture several photos of the alleged driver’s license plate. Stoneham police later charged the woman with knowingly leaving the scene after causing personal injury.

NBC10 Boston
John Rolfe (right) stands with NBC10 Boston's Ryan Kath at the intersection where he was hit.

On the day of the trial last December, Rolfe sat inside a Woburn District courtroom. The witness who reported the incident to police was there, too.

But there was a problem for prosecutors.

“Your Honor, the Commonwealth is not ready today on this case,” a Middlesex ADA told Judge Michael Fabbri, according to audio NBC10 Boston obtained. “We learned recently that an officer witness that is necessary for trial has since retired from the Stoneham Police Department.”

When Judge Fabbri asked when prosecutors learned that development, the ADA responded, “This morning, Your Honor.”

The police officer who took Rolfe’s hit-and-run report was Joseph Ponzo, who’d resigned from the department seven months earlier after he was arrested by the FBI and indicted in an alleged multi-million dollar bribery scheme. Ponzo is currently awaiting trial in the federal case.

Inside the Woburn courtroom, prosecutors seemed unaware of that headline. And Judge Fabbri grew impatient as he asked a series of questions about the lack of communication.

Here is how the exchange transpired when the judge called the case for the third time that day, according to court audio:

Judge: Okay, so when was that former police officer notified?

ADA: My understanding is not until today, Your Honor

Judge: There was no summons sent out?

ADA: That’s correct, Your Honor

Judge: And this trial date was set when?

ADA: In August, Your Honor

Judge: Is there a reason why no notice was sent out to that witness until today?

ADA: Not that I’m aware of, Your Honor

Judge: Case dismissed for lack of prosecution

Todd McGhee, a law enforcement analyst and retired Massachusetts state trooper, said the criminal case could’ve already been on shaky ground because of the credibility of former Officer Ponzo’s testimony.

However, remaining unaware of that complicating factor until it was too late?

“It’s an absolute failure,” McGhee said. “There’s nothing that could explain how the DA’s office would not be in contact for an upcoming case with a police department expecting the investigating officer to testify.”

Following NBC10 Boston's questions, Meghan Kelly, a spokesperson for Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan, said when prosecutors requested a continuance in the case that day, the judge denied it.

Kelly also said the DA's office will be re-filing charges in the case, but did not elaborate on that decision or explain what went wrong inside the courtroom last December.

“Our office intends to proceed with this matter and an application for a criminal complaint for the charge of leaving the scene of personal injury has been filed,” Kelly wrote.

After the case was dismissed, Rolfe filed a $100,000 civil claim against the Town of Stoneham in January, accusing the police department of negligence for its role in the botched case.

NBC10 Boston

The NBC10 Boston Investigators got a tip about the story following our coverage of a high-ranking Stoneham police officer’s history of evictions and unpaid civil judgments.

Now that charges are being re-filed, Rolfe told NBC10 Boston he is dropping the lawsuit.

Prior to that development, John Clifford, an attorney representing the Town of Stoneham, told us the police department never received notification from the DA’s office about Rolfe’s case, denied any liability, and expressed confidence about prevailing in court.

Clifford added that Rolfe received a worker’s compensation settlement for missed wages and medical costs.

Relieved to now get a second chance at justice, Rolfe recalled his emotions about how his case was handled the first time around.

“I was full of anger,” Rolfe said. “There I was in the middle of the street, almost killed in the service of the town, and this is the thanks I get?”

Ryan Kath can be reached at ryan.kath@nbcuni.com. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.

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