Off-duty: Concord store owner had testified that officers in motorcycle riding gear stole a vest from him and threatened him with arrest.
CONCORD - A judge Friday acquitted a Hill police officer of theft, saying that because the officer, Sgt. Jonathan Evans, turned over a leather motorcycle vest to Concord police shortly after it was taken from a store, his actions didn't meet the statutory definition of "depriving" the store owner of the property.
The vest has been in the custody of Concord police as evidence since it was taken from Brian Blackden's Concord store on May 21, 2011, by several off-duty police officers riding motorcycles. The group calls themselves the Road Dawgs.
Assistant Cheshire County Attorney John Webb maintained that the only reason the vest was turned in to Concord police was because the group had an "oops" moment after completing a charity ride that had brought them into the city that day. Webb said: "Taking it to the Concord Police Department was an afterthought . . . trying to clean up the mess."
But Evans handing over the vest within an hour or so was reason enough for Circuit Court-Concord District Division Judge Gerard Boyle to find Evans innocent of the class B misdemeanor of theft by unauthorized taking, which is punishable by a fine.
Evans was the only officer charged after four members of the Road Dawgs motorcycle group - with membership open only to current and former police officers - entered the Pepper Defense Supply store of Brian Blackden to remove a vest Blackden kept on a mannequin.
Bedford police Sgt. Gary Norton, the man Evans said took the vest and handed it to him, was the only other person who faced a class B misdemeanor theft by unauthorized taking charge. Norton committed suicide May 11, 2012, the day the criminal complaints were filed in the court.
Testimony established that the vest had belonged to a former police officer, Jeff Buskey, who left it with his roommate. The roommate put it in a rented storage locker along with other items. Blackden said he got the vest when the locker contents were seized for sale/auction for lack of payment. "It was more of a yard sale than like 'Storage Wars' (on television)," said Blackden, adding, "I had that vest for over three years before it was an issue with anybody."
Blackden said he often displayed the vest on a female mannequin outside the store at 485 N. State St. in Concord. He said he added patches from his personal collection, putting some of the patches upside down, as a distress signal. "A political statement, actually," said Blackden, adding: "I have a lawsuit pending against the state police."
That lawsuit alleges state police violated his First Amendment rights by seizing his camera at a fatal accident scene in Canterbury last year. In May, Judge Boyle found that Blackden, who is also a freelance photographer, guilty of impersonating emergency personnel for showing up at the scene dressed in protective fire gear, misleading a state trooper.
Testifying Friday, Blackden said five men entered his store May 21, 2011, regarding the vest. Evans testifed that the non-Road Dawgs member of the group remained outside, along with two women who were part of the party. The group made two trips to the store, finding it closed at 11:30 a.m. and returning about noon.
Evans, who said he did not know Blackden before the incident, said someone on the charity ride told them about the vest and the other three members of the group, who were club officers, decided to retrieve it. "I agreed with it," said Evans, although he said the "mission" would have gone forward even without his agreement.
"There was no plan like we were going to go in and grab it," said Evans, although he said one man stood in the doorway and two stood in front of Blackden, who had one arm in a sling, while Norton removed the vest from the mannequin.
Under questioning by Webb, a Cheshire County prosecutor handling the Concord case to avoid conflict-of-interest concerns, Evans acknowledged that when Blackden told them not to take the vest, Norton threatened to have him charged with receiving stolen property.