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Did police misconduct turn a false allegation into a wrongful conviction? - Fr Gordon J. MacRae

Updated: Oct 26, 2022

Left to right: James F McLaughlin, Keene, New Hampshire, Detective, who secured the conviction of Fr Gordon J. MacRae, who is on the right of the photo in handcuffs.

I read somewhere that the State of New Hampshire — the “Live Free or Die” State — has this nation’s second highest percentage of prisoners over the age of 55, second only to West Virginia. To be certain, the offenses that put most of them in prison did not occur at age 55, however. New Hampshire is also one of only three States with a “Truth in Sentencing” law. In effect, it means there is no avenue to reduce a prison sentence based on rehabilitation or anything else.

I admit that I do have a vested interest in this subject. I will be 70 years old on my next birthday. I was 29 when my fictitious crimes were claimed to have taken place. I was 41 when I was sent to prison for them. I could have been set free by age 43 had I been actually guilty or willing to pretend so. Before trial, I three times refused an offer for a one-year plea deal. Now I am in year 29 of a 67-year sentence. Also, this year marked my fortieth anniversary of priesthood ordination by offering Mass alone in my prison cell.

After 23 years in a place in this prison confined almost entirely inside, I love living on the top floor in a place where I can step out onto a walkway and see above prison walls into the forested hills beyond. But this also involves stairs. Lots of them.

I recently went to the commissary to purchase supplies including a heavy bag of bottled water. I had been dehydrated. My commissary bag was heavier than usual. The long walk across the prison yard from the commissary was no problem. The series of ramps to the upper levels where I live left me huffing and puffing just a bit. But the final leg included carrying the heavy bag up eight flights of stairs — 72 in all. Just a few steps from the top that day, my right knee exploded. Now I use a cane — temporary, I hope — and a knee brace and lots of ice. Prison is no country for old men.

I have read that one of the common traits of the wrongfully convicted in prison is that they simply cannot let go of the injustice that befell them. For me, this injustice is as vividly felt today as it was on September 23, 1994. But there comes a point at which it is no longer even about freedom. When freedom comes to a man who has spent more than a quarter century in prison, then freedom itself becomes an intimidating affair.

However, being deprived of justice still remains a gnawing insult to both my psyche and my soul. I cannot help but ponder this and it has never relented. After 28 years it still leaves me fending off bitterness and resentment. Both freedom and justice were stolen from me by a dishonest police officer.

I find it strange, but just and merciful, that even after all these years unjustly in prison, people are still writing about it. The Wall Street Journal has taken up my plight four times over these 28 years. The articles have been read all over the world but ignored in New Hampshire.

Be Wary of Crusaders

The City of Keene, New Hampshire, with a population of about 22,000 in 1994, had a full-time sex crimes detective named James F. McLaughlin. He is now mercifully retired. A 2003 Boston Sunday Globe article by Carlene Hempel (“Hot Pursuit,” Nov. 23, 2003) described him as a detective who “focuses specifically on men interested in boys.” The news media, especially The Boston Globe, has since then gone to great lengths to separate the Catholic sexual abuse narrative from having anything to do with gay men or their lifestyle.

Carlene Hempel reported that McLaughlin separated himself from his initial involvement with ICAC, the “Internet Crimes Against Children” Task Force. Instead, he decided to go it alone, but Hempel avoided writing about why. She infers something, however, in an interview with a former ICAC police trainer who spoke of McLaughlin more generically:

“Cops who ... operate outside the ICAC system put some people at risk...You can’t be posing as a 15-year-old and throw something out like, ‘I’m really questioning my sexual orientation and I wonder if someone out there can help me with that.’ That’s really leading, and in my opinion, entrapment.” — Police ICAC trainer

It was some time after my 1994 trial that McLaughlin took up the cause of Internet crimes. He made 1,000 arrests luring men to Keene, NH from other states in a process that many described as entrapment. In The Boston Globe article, McLaughlin said in his own defence that no judge has ever said that he has gone too far. That did not remain entirely true. In 2005, a federal judge reprimanded McLaughlin for sending child pornography to an online subject of his entrapment effort. At the time, McLaughlin’s supervisor said one of the scariest things I have ever heard from law enforcement. He told a reporter for The Concord Monitor, in an article that has since disappeared from the Internet, that, “It’s our job to ferret the criminal element out of society.”

Detective McLaughlin’s focus on Internet crimes involving men and teenage boys came well after the case he built against me. Thomas Grover, my 27-year-old accuser at trial was awarded close to $200,000 from the Catholic Diocese of Manchester, New Hampshire, for his easily identifiable lies. The problem with an accuser’s lies in the hands of a crusading sex crimes detective, however, is that they are easily covered up by finding witnesses willing to corroborate the accuser’s story. There were none here to be found, however. Consider this excerpt from a sworn statement of Debra Collett, the drug abuse counsellor of 27-year-old Thomas Grover whose trial testimony sent me to prison. Her statement is part of a post-trial investigation:

“Thomas Grover never revealed to me that Gordon MacRae perpetrated against him. Mr. Grover spent a great deal of time being confronted [in therapy] for his dishonesty, misrepresentations, and unwillingness to be honest about his problems. Thomas Grover did reveal that he had been sexually abused but named no specific person except his foster father. When asked if he meant Mr. Grover, he responded ‘yes, among others ...’ He accused so many people of sexual abuse that we thought he was going for some sort of sexual abuse victim world record. But he never accused Fr. MacRae.” — Sworn statement of Debra Collett

Of her experience with Detective James McLaughlin and his pre-trial investigation, Ms. Collett wrote:

“I was contacted by Keene Police detectives McLaughlin and Clarke...I was uncomfortable with [the] repeated starting and stopping of the tape recorder when my answers to their questions were not the answers they wanted to hear...I confronted them about this and their treatment of me which included coercion, intimidation, veiled and more forward threats of arrest...McLaughlin said that he would personally come to my home, drag me out of it bodily if necessary, and force me to testify despite my information to him...They presented as argumentative, manipulative, and threatening me via use of police power to get me to say what they wanted to hear.” — Sworn statement of Debra Collett

Perhaps the more important part of Ms. Collett’s statement is her assertion that it was recorded. Under court rules, the prosecution was required to turn over to the defence all material including any recorded interviews. Despite repeated references to tapes in police reports, however, none were ever provided. The recording of McLaughlin’s interviews with Ms. Collett simply disappeared.

Unlike his protocols in nearly all other cases, Detective McLaughlin recorded none of his interviews with claimants in the case against me. A reason for the absence of recorded interviews may become clearer from a statement of Steven Wollschlager, a young man who accused me during one of Detective McLaughlin’s interviews, and later recanted, refusing to repeat his accusations to a grand jury. His sworn statement was reported by Ryan A. MacDonald in “Police Investigative Misconduct Railroaded an Innocent Catholic Priest”:

“In 1994 before [MacRae] was to go on trial, I was contacted again by McLaughlin. I was aware at the time of the [MacRae] trial, knowing full well that it was all bogus and having heard all the talk of the lawsuits and money involved, and also the reputations of those making the accusations....During this meeting I just listened to the scenarios being presented to me. The lawsuits and money were of great discussion, and I was left feeling that if I would just go along with the story I could reap the rewards as well. “McLaughlin asked me three times if [MacRae] ever came on to me sexually or offered me money for sexual favors. [He] had me believing that all I had to do was make up a story about [MacRae] and I could reap a large sum of money as others already had. McLaughlin...referenced that life could be easier with a large sum of money...I was at the time using drugs and could have been influenced to say anything they wanted for money. A short time later after being subpoenaed to court, I had a different feeling about the situation.” — Sworn statement of Steven Wollschlager

Neither Steven Wollschlager nor Debra Collett have ever been allowed to present their testimony under oath in any court of law.

In the photograph at the end of this post, Detective McLaughlin is shown being honored by unknown entities for his 350th arrest while posing as a male teenager luring adults online to their arrest in Keene, New Hampshire. Less than one percent of these cases ever went to trial. The other 99 percent were resolved through lenient plea deal offers that defence attorneys urged their clients to take —regardless of guilt or innocence.

I was never a part of McLaughlin’s Internet predator obsession, but his tactics and dishonesty leading up to that endeavour were very much a part of his case against me.

Before his retirement from the Keene, New Hampshire Police Department, Detective James F. McLaughlin was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award. This was a part of the public face. The private face remains sealed in McLaughlin’s police personnel file. There have been many hints. In 1987, McLaughlin was reprimanded for erasing evidence by altering an audio recording under suspicious circumstances and then lying about it to superiors. A 1988 reprimand from his chief included reference to “a disproportionate number of serious accusations and violations [which] have significantly detracted from your record.” The erased tape incident resulted in a one-week suspension and a statement that McLaughlin’s explanation was “unacceptable.”

In December 2021, a court order released to the public a previously secret list of officers with compromised credibility. Detective McLaughlin was on that list for a 1985 founded incident of “falsification of records.” Just hours later, his presence on the list was sealed under court order along with his personnel file. This has all been carried out in secret in the “Live Free or Die” state.

James F McLaughlin being honored by unknown entities for his 350th arrest while posing as a male teenager luring adults online to their arrest. He now appears on a secret Attorney General’s list for falsifying records.

Gordon J. MacRae is a Catholic priest who was convicted on the 23rd of September 1994, of five counts of sexual assault in Cheshire County Superior Court, Keene, New Hampshire. He has currently served 29 years of a 67-year sentence steadfastly maintaining his innocence. He writes weekly from prison for the blog Beyond These Stone Walls.

Please let us know if you think that there is a mistake in this article, explaining what you think is wrong and why. We will correct any errors as soon as possible.

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