Judge praises South Hadley officer’s act of valor in 2016 incident

  • Jeffrey Torres, 31, appears in court Friday, next to his attorney Alfred Chamberland. Torres was found not guilty by reason of lack of criminally responsibility on charges with armed assault with intent to murder and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. GAZETTE STAFF/EMILY CUTTS

Friday, January 12, 2018

NORTHAMPTON —  A Hampshire Superior Court judge on Friday praised a South Hadley police officer’s act of “extraordinary valor” after ruling the man who stabbed him was not guilty due to mental illness.

Jeffrey Torres, 31, had been charged with armed assault with intent to murder and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon after the March 18, 2016, incident at a South Hadley Dunkin’ Donuts. Evaluations by multiple psychiatrists found Torres not criminally responsible due to mental illness, according to prosecutors and defense lawyers.

Judge Richard Carey ruled that Torres is not criminally responsible for his actions, and ordered that he return to Bridgewater State Hospital where he has been since shortly after his arrest.

The ruling followed an hour-long trial during which the prosecution and the defense agreed on the facts of the incident, in which South Hadley Officer Christopher Roberts was stabbed in the neck with a 5-inch serrated knife after responding to the report of a disturbance at the restaurant. After initially approaching Torres and attempting to speak with him, Roberts was “met with this absolutely unprovoked attack, triggered by mental illness,” Carey said.

Assistant Northwestern District Attorney Jennifer Suhl said the incident began at an apartment in Holyoke in the early evening. There, Torres threatened to kill an ex-girlfriend whom he believed was cheating on him with men on Facebook, Suhl said. Afraid that if she let Torres into her apartment she would be killed, the woman told Torres she would deactivate her Facebook account but needed to do it from the computer at the Dunkin’ Donuts where she worked.

Taking their two children with them, Torres and the woman went to the Dunkin’ Donuts on Newton Street, Suhl said. After deactivating her Facebook account, the woman managed to take one of the children into a bathroom with her and called police, Suhl said.

Roberts was the first to arrive and saw Torres near the bathroom, according to Suhl. As Roberts approached, Torres put his hands in his pockets and the officer asked to speak with him outside.

When Torres didn’t comply, Roberts placed himself between Torres and the other child. Torres then took the knife from his pocket and stabbed Roberts in the neck. The knife’s handle broke off and the blade remained embedded in Roberts’ neck.

The officer began to retreat while drawing his weapon, Suhl said. Torres was within arm’s reach of the officer when Roberts fired three shots, hitting Torres in the hand, chest and leg, she said.

When he was interviewed at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Torres admitted to the stabbing and stated that the officer was at the Dunkin’ Donuts “with malicious intent,” Suhl said.

Roberts was treated for his injury and released from Baystate Medical Center. On Friday, he was among 18 officers who attended the brief trial. Roberts referred a request for comment to South Hadley Police Chief Steven Parentela, who then declined to comment.

The only evidence examined in open court was two brief surveillance videos of the incident, taken from different angles. The first clip appeared to show Roberts approaching Torres before the officer quickly backed away with his gun drawn, followed by Torres. The second clip, taken from a camera focused on a door, showed Roberts walking into the restaurant and then going off camera. A short time later, Roberts reappeared along with Torres, who quickly fell to the ground.

Defense attorney Alfred Chamberland, of Easthampton, told the judge Torres has “suffered for a long period of time” and began hearing voices — which would instruct him to do things — when he was about 13. Prior to the March 2016 incident, Torres had a history of hospitalizations and treatments for schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder, according to Chamberland.

“I’ve seen him making steady improvement while at Bridgewater State Hospital,” Chamberland said following the trial.

He added that he hopes Torres will continue to get the treatment he needs and improve. Following the trial Friday, he was sent back to Bridgewater for a 40-day evaluation period. After that, a determination will be made about further treatment and commitment.

“The most important thing is he will be in a setting where he will get the treatment he needs for his mental illness,” Chamberland said. “He is not going to prison where someone with his mental illness would not do well.”

Following his ruling, Carey said in the courtroom that two facts struck him while reading through the trial documents, which included a grand jury transcript, two photos of the knife, 14 photos of the scene of the incident, four photos of Roberts’ knife wound, as well as a recording of the initial 911 call and radio communications.

The first, Carey said, was the danger inherent in police work. At first blush, the call on the police radio about a disturbance at Dunkin’ Donuts seemed to be nothing of “particular import,” the judge said. “As we know, that casual communication very quickly became intense.”

The second, the judge said, was when a second officer arrived on the scene that day, he found that Roberts’ first concern was not that of the blade in his neck but of the well-being of the child who had been near Torres at the beginning of the incident. That action, Carey said, was “an act of extraordinary valor.”

Suhl also praised Roberts’ response to the incident and said he was to be commended for “his brave and heroic actions.”

“He was stabbed by the defendant in the neck in a completely unprovoked attack less than 10 seconds after he entered the Dunkin’ Donuts to help a woman whom the defendant had threatened repeatedly to kill. At the time he was stabbed, he was also attempting to protect a young child, placing his own body in front of that child to protect him,” Suhl said in a statement.

“He discharged his firearm only after the defendant stabbed him in the neck and continued to charge at him despite repeated commands to stop and in reasonable fear for his own life and the lives of the numerous other people inside the Dunkin’ Donuts that night. This case is yet another stark reminder of the extreme danger our police officers put themselves in day in and day out to help keep all of us safe.”

Emily Cutts can be reached at ecutts@gazettenet.com.