DA Conley Seeks Changes at Superior Court Clerk’s Office

An alleged murderer who was on the loose until last weekend due to a courthouse clerical error has Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley calling for changes in the Superior Court Clerk’s Office, and the director of that office – Maura Hennigan – saying there were many mistakes made in offices that ranged from her own office to the DA’s Office to the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office.

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

The Journal broke the story two weeks ago that Jean Torres Vargas – an alleged murderer indicted for the beating death of an East Boston man – had been let out by mistake on bail earlier this month.

Due to a clerical error at the courthouse, it was believed at the time, Torres Vargas’s name did not come up as having a murder indictment when he was bailed out of jail on March 24th. So, he was freed.

The name had apparently been typed in wrong.

Some in Hennigan’s office alleged that the mistake occurred because of hostile working conditions and political favoritism in the office – a situation they say Hennigan created, but which Hennigan adamantly denies.

All of this came at the same time that Hennigan was a focus of a Boston television station investigative report into whether or not she regularly showed up for work, a report that showed her walking her dog in a Boston park during working hours.

With all of that as background, Torres Vargas was on the loose.

Many – including the DA’s Office and Hennigan – worried that he might have fled and might never be held accountable for the alleged beating death of East Boston’s Matthew Costa.

With the case under increased media scrutiny by Boston television station’s last week, Conley and the Boston Police said in a press conference that they wanted to focus all of their efforts on a search for Torres Vargas.

“Apparently, there was an error in the warrant entered by the Suffolk Superior Court clerk’s office,” said DA Conley in a statement late last week. “That error allowed him to post bail on March 24. It was, literally, a clerical error – clearly unintentional and certainly not malicious, but an extremely grave and serious one. We’re ready to help prevent these errors in the future, but our top priority today is to locate and arrest ‘Tyson’ Vargas. He’s dangerous, he’s erratic, and he’s wanted for murder.”

Fortunately, Chelsea Police apprehended Torres Vargas early this past Sunday morning when they were called to a disturbance on Essex Street in Chelsea. A female at the scene told police the man causing the problem was wanted for murder in Boston and she identified him.

Using a federal fingerprint system, Chelsea Police identified the man as Torres Vargas and took him into custody. He was held without bail at an arraignment on Monday.

By all accounts, Hennigan was taking the brunt of the unbelievable error and several in law enforcement circles seemed to be losing patience with her.

On Tuesday of this week, though, Hennigan came out swinging, telling the Journal that she had researched the entire issue with a “fine-toothed comb” and was preparing to send a written report to Conley, Sheriff Andrea Cabral and to Trial Court Chief Robert Mulligan.

“I looked into this so carefully because people want to know what happened and deserve to know what happened,” she said, noting that she believes several things could have been done to avoid the incident – most especially reforming the computer database for arrest warrants.

She said that there were  two clerical errors in her office, but she seemed to put the blame on the Assistant Clerk who signed off on two different arrest warrant documents generated from two different databases that the court routinely uses.

“The Assistant Clerk Magistrate is supposed to look at those documents and that they are the same with all particular information and then the Assistant Clerk Magistrate signs off,” she said, backing away from comments last week that it was an unintended hyphen in the name that caused all the problems. “The sign off was done on Mr. Torres Vargas, but that person who signed off didn’t check to see if everything matched up and whether things were different. They just signed off on it.”

Sources told the Journal that person was Assistant Clerk Michael Ciampa – a long-time clerk who has the respect of most in the office. The source also said that the fault did not lie on Ciampa for the matter.

“Signing off on the warrant doesn’t mean anything,” said the source.

And that’s something that Hennigan seemed to also believe to an extent – noting that there were numerous things that DA Conley’s Office could have done to prevent Torres Vargas from getting out.

She said they were never given aliases – such as his street name of “Tyson” – when the paperwork came over.

Likewise, she said that the DA’s Office could have immediately called him into a grand jury to increase his bail.

“They could have brought him in and upped his bail because they have a grand jury going on,” she said. “What could have happened is the DA could have brought in Torres Vargas and upped his bail after Mr. Costa had died so he couldn’t bail. That didn’t occur and I’m not finding fault, but it could have occurred.”

She also said that Torres Vargas was supposed to be arraigned for murder two days before he was released, on March 22nd.

“Mr. Vargas was supposed to come in to be arraigned, but he didn’t come,” said Hennigan. “He wasn’t brought over from jail and his lawyer didn’t show up either. I don’t know why.”

She also said that corrections officers at the Nashua Street Jail – overseen by Sheriff Cabral – may not know how to property use the warrant system.

Hennigan said on the night Torres Vargas was bailed, officers at the jail didn’t do a complete search as mandated by the system’s manual – leading her to believe they might not have been trained.

“They just searched it under ‘Jean Vargas,’ and it didn’t come up,” she said. “Because it was under ‘Torres Vargas, Jean,’ which is the correct format, they didn’t see it…If you are at the jail and you aren’t familiar with the manual, they will put in the wrong name.

“What I have to wonder from a training perspective is when you have a jail – wherever it is – if you don’t know the format for names, you will only run it under one name and that’s what they did and they did not get the (murder) warrant and they released him,” she continued.

Hennigan went further to say that many in her office were not fully trained when the current database was instituted in 1997 and updated in 2001. That, she said, would fall on her predecessor, John Nucci, and the state Trial Court.

“The employees here have said to me that they were not trained on the new system in 2001, but they have the book [manual],” she said. “John Nucci would know better about that, and it’s the Trial Court that does the training.”

She said that the entire computer system needs to be reformed, and that the fault for this incident – and perhaps others in the past – do not lie only on her office.

“Going forward, what you have to do is learn from these things,” she said. “I would have to think that this isn’t the first time things like this  have  happened. We have to make sure the system works and that nobody makes mistakes. You’re going to have mistakes, but you would hope the system captures those mistakes. You would think a person with the same date of birth and the same name would have been pulled up by the system despite the mistake, but he wasn’t.”

Sidebar –

While Court Clerk Maura Hennigan is now focused on just who is responsible for accidentally letting out an accused East Boston murderer, the state inquiry that originally focused the spotlight on Hennigan has found her guilty.

In a letter from Michael Sullivan of the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance (OCPF) last week, it was determined that employees in Hennigan’s office worked on campaign related activities in the courthouse during working hours.

“Based on our review, we have determined that public employees, during their work day, placed address labels on campaign envelopes for the Hennigan Committee,” read the decision letter. “This activity did not comply with the campaign finance law.”

Hennigan apparently told OCPF that last Nov. 22nd she asked a non-public employee to pick up campaign envelopes and deliver them to the courthouse. When that person arrived, two court employees met him and brought several boxes of those  envelopes to the 15th floor conference room in the Clerk’s Office.

The OCPF said they received inconsistent testimony from several individuals, but they determined that five Clerk Office employees worked in the conference room that afternoon placing address labels on invitations to a fundraiser.

Hennigan’s committee was required to pay a $2,000 fine to the state, and then closed the matter.

“Essentially, I regret that happened, but I did not direct or approach them to do any of that,” she said. “I wasn’t present, but I have agreed to compensate the Commonwealth because I am the boss.”

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