By Samantha Allen
At about 5 p.m. on Aug. 29, 2012, a Westford police officer was racing to a domestic call on the other side of town down Oak Hill Road. Going about 50 in a 30 mph zone on the Westford, Mass. street, he had his lights flashing, but no siren sounding. At that moment, a civilian was driving his Toyota Tundra, about to cross the way. The driver’s friend, 87-year-old Tom Courtney, was in the passenger seat and lived less than a minute’s drive away.
Locals know this four-way intersection as a difficult one. There’s a crumbling cement wall to a driver’s right when exiting the local country club parking lot, and a fence to the left. Neighbors told me they often have to edge out from that side of the road to see around the barriers.
This civilian driver attempted to cross the street in that spot and said he never saw, or heard, the cruiser coming. The officer, according to his car’s black box readout, broke to 35 mph 1.2 seconds before impact. We at the Sun of Lowell obtained this and other documents through a state public records request.
He slammed into the passenger side of the Toyota, the side Courtney was sitting on. Five days later, the senior citizen died from his injuries in a Boston hospital.
Following a seven months-long investigation by the Middlesex County District Attorney’s office, neither driver was charged in the case. Because of this, the DA’s office said it would not identify the civilian driver or officer involved.
During a seven-months long investigation of my own, I made public records requests looking to learn more. The Sun’s Editor-in-Chief, Jim Campanini, along with Managing Editor Tom Zuppa, Enterprise Editor Chris Scott and myself, worked on this because we believed there must have been more to the story. We ultimately found out a lot more than we had expected and later developed our findings into a three-day investigative series for Sunshine Week this past March.
In the more than 200 pages of investigative documents we received, an email exchange between two assistant DAs read that the involved officer is “not the best driver in the department,” according to his supervisor at the police station. The supervisor reported that his officer had “seven or eight crashes” previously.
Westford officials would not identify the officer behind the wheel. But one public records request bore unexpected fruit. A receipt for the records (about $100) had the name of the involved officer, Robert Musto, a Westford native who started with the department in 2006.
We learned from the records that between 2006 and late 2013 Musto had seven driving-related incidents at the department. Some were minor and two were notable. Musto drove his cruiser into a rock wall in April 2012 for undisclosed reasons. Then, in another incident in January 2012, he crashed into a sawhorse due to “distracted driving.” Musto said he went to take a turn and lunged for his clipboard as it was slipping off the car’s dash. This resulted in minor damage to the cruiser.
Musto did not return multiple requests seeking comment for this story and town officials didn’t want to comment much either. The Massachusetts State Police ruled the crash was caused because of the poor layout at the intersection, though the Board of Selectmen — Westford’s road commissioners — have yet to take action to adjust the site.
Because of the nature of the officer’s emergency call, police policy gave Musto “flexibility” whether to use both his lights and sirens that day. An independent accident reconstructionist in New Hampshire I consulted with, however, said because the officer was going over the speed limit, he should have been aware of his responsibility to warn others on the road of his whereabouts. The expert said both sirens and lights are an important part of a police officer’s “warning system.” The reconstructionist did note though that he believes the civilian driver was also at fault in this case, but there was not enough evidence to charge either driver.
Records show the Registry of Motor Vehicles revoked the civilian driver’s license for about seven months during the DA’s investigation, typical in fatal crashes like these, because he was considered an “immediate threat.” In March 2013, the man had to pay $500 to have his license reinstated even though he was found not guilty.
The police department refuses to comment on any disciplinary action it may have taken against Musto in this case. The police chief said though Musto remains a “competent” and “dedicated” member with the department.
Samantha is a reporter for the Sun of Lowell newspaper and with Digital First Media. Follow her on Twitter @SAllen_89.