Hampshire County Sheriff Patrick Cahillane to probe suspicious vehicle claims

  • Hampshire County Sheriff Patrick Cahillane speaks during a candidate forum at the Easthampton municipal building on Aug. 5, 2022. Brian Steele

  • Caitlin Sepeda, candidate for sheriff of Hampshire County, speaks during a candidate forum at the Easthampton municipal building on Aug. 4, 2022. Brian Steele

  • Yvonne Gittelson, candidate for sheriff of Hampshire County, speaks during a candidate forum at the Easthampton municipal building on Aug. 4, 2022. Brian Steele

  • The Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 8/23/2022 8:59:33 PM
Modified: 8/23/2022 8:55:57 PM

SOUTHAMPTON — Two police reports filed this month allege that a woman has driven past the home of a Hampshire County Jail & House of Correction employee several times and stopped at least twice to take photos of his house and yard, where he displays a lawn sign in support of Caitlin Sepeda — a candidate to unseat Sheriff Patrick Cahillane in the Sept. 6 Democratic primary.

The woman was driving a black SUV with license plates registered to a state government agency, according to the reports, and the jail employee told police that “he suspects the activity was a result” of his Sepeda sign.

A separate police report filed in Goshen alleges that 12 lawn signs showing support for Sepeda and another candidate, Yvonne Gittelson, were stolen last week in a single overnight sweep in Gittelson’s own neighborhood while “Cahillane signs were not touched.”

The Hampshire County Sheriff’s Department is a state-funded agency that runs the Northampton jail and Cahillane is seeking a second six-year term as its leader. Sepeda, a corrections nurse, and Gittelson, the corrections program specialist for the state education department, are vying to unseat him.

‘Suspicious vehicle’

A report filed by Lt. Mark Groeber of the Southampton Police Department states that a jail employee said he received a phone call from his wife while he was at work Aug. 8 in Northampton. The employee said his wife had told him that a woman in a black Ford SUV pulled up to their home around 1:10 p.m. and the driver took cellphone photos of the house and yard, bearing the Sepeda for Sheriff sign, before driving off. The SUV drove past the house again about 10 minutes later, the report alleges.

The next day, the jail employee said he spotted a black Ford SUV with the same license plate in the jail parking lot. The employee told police that “the operator was Barbara Marean,” deputy superintendent of the jail whom “he has known for 16 years,” according to the report.

Investigators determined that the vehicle is registered to the state’s Executive Office for Administration and Finance. The report notes that there is “no crime involved” but the employee wanted the incident documented in case of workplace retaliation for his political preferences.

Reached by phone at the jail on Tuesday, Marean declined to comment or review the police reports. A reporter drove through the jail parking lot around 1:45 p.m. and saw a black Ford SUV with the same license plate from the police reports parked in the space reserved for the deputy superintendent.

Cahillane said an investigation into the matter will be conducted, likely by an outside party to ensure the public trusts the outcome, and that it will involve contacting Southampton police for more information. He said he never saw any photos that were allegedly taken.

“This is the first time I’ve heard of it. Until you contacted me, I wouldn’t have known anything about it,” Cahillane said Tuesday, adding that police did not alert the sheriff’s office.

Asked if he directed or encouraged anyone to engage in such activity, Cahillane said, “No, I have not, nor would I even think of doing that. I have run up until this time, and I plan to continue running, a very positive campaign. … Both of my opponents have not done the same.”

A second report filed by Southampton Officer Wendy Iozzo states that Iozzo had a verbal exchange with the driver while she was sitting in the SUV in question near the jail employee’s home around 8 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 13. Iozzo wrote that she had responded to a report of a suspicious vehicle; she was unsure if the vehicle was involved in surveillance or an investigation for a state agency, so she “asked the operator what was going on,” she wrote.

The female driver spoke to the officer in a manner that Iozzo wrote was “annoyed and agitated.” The report does not contain any quotes from that conversation and it does not identify the driver.

“Based on the operator’s sarcastic response and unprofessional tone, I concluded there was not an official investigation being conducted, and told the operator to have a good evening before driving off,” Iozzo wrote.

Iozzo then responded to the jail employee’s home to speak to him and his wife. During that conversation, the SUV drove past the house again and the employee’s wife detailed a second incident in which the driver photographed her and her home.

Sepeda provided copies of the police reports to the Gazette in redacted form to shield the employee’s name and address. The Gazette has filed a public records request with the Southampton Police Department for the unredacted reports, but Chief Ian Illingsworth confirmed that the redacted copies seen by the Gazette are genuine.

Sepeda said the reports suggest that jail employees are being targeted for political speech.

“I have the backing of a significant portion of the staff. Because of these issues, clearly, they are fearful of showing that support publicly,” Sepeda said. “I want to commend (the employee) for his bravery. This is not an isolated incident, but it is an incident we were able to fully document.”

Sepeda said she is “fearful for all of the rest of the staff … but particularly for this individual because it’s repeated and he seems to be targeted.”

Cahillane rejected any suggestion that an employee would experience retaliation over their political preferences, saying his department holds “the highest standards,” and specifically defended Marean as someone who would not retaliate.

“I don’t believe Barbara Marean would do such a thing,” Cahillane said. “Without looking at it closer, I don’t know why she was in that neighborhood.”

Signs stolen in Goshen

Gittelson, the Goshen resident running for sheriff against Cahillane and Sepeda, filed a report with the Goshen Police Department earlier this month over the theft of 12 campaign signs in her neighborhood, including one from her own yard.

Signs supporting Gittelson and Sepeda vanished overnight on Aug. 14, according to the report written by acting Police Chief William Bissell.

Unlike the Southampton report in which police determined there was “no crime involved,” the Goshen report states that the responsible party could be charged with misdemeanor larceny.

“There was a whole row of ‘Yvonne for Sheriff’ signs and they were all gone,” Gittelson said on Tuesday. “Theft, pure and simple. It’s larceny. One is not exceptionally valuable, but a whole lot of them went missing.”

She described the thefts as election interference, violations of civil rights and trespassing.

Bissell advised Gittelson to set up security cameras, according to the report.

Cahillane said the theft of lawn signs is not unusual during campaign season.

“I haven’t kept track of how many I’ve lost,” Cahillane said.

The candidates are scheduled to participate in a forum at the Northampton Center for the Arts, 33 Hawley St., on Thursday at 7 p.m., sponsored by the Daily Hampshire Gazette and the Northampton and Amherst chapters of the League of Women Voters.

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.
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