Sheriff: Hennigan Fails to Comprehend Her Duties as Clerk

In the wake of comments last week from Superior Court Criminal Clerk Maura Hennigan, the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney Dan Conley are swinging back – and they’re not throwing friendly jabs.

In a story last week, Hennigan deflected some of the blame that was focused on her office for the accidental release from jail of a man, Jean Torres Vargas, who was facing murder charges for a violent attack on East Boston’s Michael Costa – an attack that left Costa, 47, in a coma and eventually led to his death.

Among the things Hennigan brought into question was the training of Sheriff’s Department employees at the jail, as well as the actions of the District Attorney’s office in not pursuing a higher bail at an earlier date.

Perhaps it was Sheriff Andrea Cabral’s office that took the greatest exception, noting that Hennigan’s comments didn’t entirely make sense.

“It’s unfortunate that in her attempt to divert attention, she has questioned the abilities and training of our officers here at the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department,” said Peter Van Delft, Public Information Officer at the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department. “Through Sheriff Cabral, the Department has instituted and upholds some of the most rigorous training standards in the profession of corrections. It borders on the offensive that she’s chosen to cast blame unduly, and clearly, there appear to be several aspects of the work of the Clerk’s Office that she fails to comprehend.”

Hennigan also indicated in the story last week that she was preparing to send out a letter revealing her findings after a lengthy inquiry into the accidental release. She said she would send out that letter to Cabral, Conley and the head of the Clerk Magistrate’s Association.

In fact, though, the contents of the letter had already been communicated to the Sheriff’s Office several days prior, and the Sheriff’s Office had already responded with a pointed letter to Hennigan.

The Sheriff’s Office sent that letter out on April 20th.

“In response to your specific inquiry, on March 24th, there was no reason for this office to run a warrant check on the last name ‘Torres’ as that is not Mr. Vargas’ last name nor is it a known alias,” read the letter from Kathleen Cawley, deputy general counsel at the Sheriff’s Department. “We also do not check for warrants just using a date of birth or Social Security number. We accept faxed warrants, especially, if there is an issue or any confusion regarding a defendant’s name. This office was not notified, by phone or fax, that a murder warrant for Mr. Vargas had been issued. If we had, we likely would have caught the inadvertent transposition of his middle and last names.”

Four days later Hennigan made comments to the newspaper calling the Sheriff’s Office training procedures into question.

Meanwhile, Suffolk County DA Conley’s office indicated that there was no way that they could have raised Vargas’s bail in front of a judge or during a Grand Jury – as Hennigan alleged they could have done.

They said that they charged Vargas with murder as soon as the medical examiner declared Costa’s death a homicide. The medical examiner didn’t declare Costa’s death a homicide until earlier this year.

“That was the development that allowed us to charge Vargas with murder and schedule his arraignment on that charge, which we did at our first opportunity with the intention of having him held without bail,” said DA spokesman Jake Wark. “We could not have raised Vargas’ bail in the interim because there was no change in the case’s procedural posture. The implication that a judge would have increased his bail with no corresponding increase in charges just doesn’t hold water. Our intention and expectation was to hold Vargas without bail at the earliest opportunity following his indictment.”

Of course, Vargas never showed up for his indictment in early April because he had been bailed out of jail on $2,500 bail two weeks earlier due to a clerical error at Hennigan’s Office when typing in Vargas’s murder warrant.

Chelsea Police were instrumental in capturing Vargas on Essex Street two weeks ago, bringing him back into custody after about a month on the streets.

Wark said that one thing that shouldn’t be lost in the current blame game is that Vargas held some responsibility, too, for not showing up at his arraignment.

“None of this should detract from the responsibility that Vargas himself bears here,” said Wark. “He knew he’d been indicted. He knew he had an arraignment April 9th,  and he failed to appear despite that knowledge.”

Suffolk County Superior Court in Boston handles the most serious criminal cases for Revere, Chelsea, Winthrop and Boston.

Sidebar –

Members of Michael Costa’s family talked to the Record this week and indicated that, many times, they have been lost in the shuffle as people debate the issues surrounding the alleged killer of their relative.

“We have waited patiently for something to happen and for this man to pay for what he did,” said Mary Ordonez, a first cousin and close friend of Costa’s. “Michael was left in a vegetable state after this beating. If you had seen him in the hospital, you would see what a vicious man this Vargas is. He doesn’t belong in society. We waited and waited and heard nothing until we saw it on the news and heard he was on the run. We wondered when anyone was going to tell us that.”

Most of all, Ordonez said that she and the rest of her family want to see justice done for their relative, and they’re not interested in accepting the idea of a mistake potentially letting his alleged killer free.

“I guess it’s a blessing he had too much to drink and ran his mouth off about being wanted for murder, which I understand is what got him caught,” she said. “Maura Hennigan needs to be held accountable for these things she has done. That office has been unsupervised for a while. I’m grateful the DA is on top of this. At least somebody is doing their job.”

Vargas – accused of stomping Costa into the cement sidewalk for unapparent reasons – was held without bail at an April 23rd arraignment. He is to return to court on the murder case this May 15th.

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