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Whose Crime Was It, Anyway?

A Westfield case raises questions about the justice system.

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Thursday, November 10, 2011
Illustration By Mark Roessler
Michael Gregory and Susan Naventi: Happy faces before an unhappy ending

A lovers' quarrel leading to a breakup can be dangerous. In the worst case scenario, violence may break out and leave someone dead or seriously hurt. In an older time, that scenario was common enough that so-called "crimes of passion" often went unprosecuted.

In Westfield in 2009, a quarrel between two Westfield State College students went sour with violent results, and the fallout isn't over. One member of the couple, Susan Naventi, was left with serious head injuries and a disabled hand, and is suing her former boyfriend, Michael Gregory.

But there's more to it than the emotional and physical conflict that left Naventi with cognitive impairment and a hand that may never be completely functional, while injuring Gregory as well.

No one has gotten to the bottom of what happened in the early morning of February 27, 2009. The troubling question is why not—and whether the deficient investigation by the Westfield police, and the irregular handling of the case by the Westfield District Court and the Hampden County District Attorney's office, had anything to do with the fact that Gregory is the son of a state policeman, Gilbert Gregory.

A judge involved with the case said she found the police investigation so remiss as to undermine her confidence in the commonwealth's ability to maintain the public safety.

*

Naventi, from Lee, and Gregory, from Blandford, first knew each other as high school students in Lee. Gregory was in the Lee school because it placed more emphasis on football than Gateway Regional, where Blandford residents ordinarily go to school, and because, he later told the Westfield court, Lee was "a better school." He and Naventi didn't date in high school, but met again as students at Westfield State College (now Westfield State University) and dated for nearly two years. Gregory, who was a year ahead of Naventi at Westfield State, was majoring in criminal justice.

On February 14, 2009, Gregory later testified in court, he told Naventi, who was at his house that Valentine's Day, that he wanted to end their relationship. Naventi was upset, and when she saw a text message from another woman, Rachel Marciniak, on his cell phone, she snapped the top off his laptop computer and broke his cell phone. Both Naventi and Gregory testified that she later arranged to pay him for the damaged items.

Gregory said that after she broke his computer, he "wanted nothing more to do" with Naventi and told her so repeatedly. Naventi said the status of things wasn't that clear—that she and Gregory continued to be together, even occasionally sexually intimate, until February 26.

Gregory's claim makes Naventi's action on February 27 in entering the house where he lived—a house she had often entered before through the back door—seem intrusive, even aggressive, while her claim makes her early-morning entry seem in no way out of the ordinary.

But from that point the story, as detailed in the transcript of Naventi's trial more than a year later, becomes uglier, and murkier. On the evening of February 26, Gregory and a few of his friends had been out drinking in Westfield. Naventi had been out drinking as well, and very early the next morning—between 4:45 and 5:15 according to her account, around six or after according to Gregory's—Naventi went to a house on Ashley Street where Gregory lived with three other men. Besides the three housemates and Gregory's younger brother Scott, other people—"a bunch," Marciniak testified later—had been going and coming to and from the house until the wee hours, and no one could say for sure that the back door was locked (according to Naventi, it was not).

Naventi entered by the back door, as she had often done before, and went straight upstairs to Gregory's room, where she found him in bed with someone. She tried to pull the covers away to see who it was. Gregory said during the trial that she tried to rip the covers off him and Marciniak, then grabbed Marciniak by the throat. After he pushed her away from the bed, he said, Marciniak fled to the bathroom while Naventi picked up a folding knife from a small table, opened the knife, and began trying to stab him.

Both parties agreed that the knife was Gregory's—a present, he told the court, from his father. No one alleged that Naventi had brought a weapon with her. Yet one of the first charges leveled at Naventi involved intent to murder. The Hampden County District Attorney's office later withdrew that charge.

Gregory and Naventi each said the other picked up and wielded the knife; in the ensuing struggle, Gregory said that he pinned Naventi and took the knife away from her. He said he held the woman, who weighed some 65 pounds less than he and was shorter by a foot, to the floor, and that that accounted for the injuries to the left side of her face. Naventi said he punched her in the jaw, stomped on her and banged her head repeatedly against the wooden headboard.

The he-said-she-said is impossible to sort out, but both Gregory and Naventi were hurt in the fight. Gregory sustained at least one bite—two, by his account—and had one fairly heavy and a few light slash wounds when he appeared at Noble Hospital four hours later. Naventi ended up with eight fractured teeth, a jaw that had to be wired shut for nine weeks, and head injuries that left her with her cognitive functioning still impaired as of this writing, according to her lawyer, Aaron Wilson. Her left hand was cut so deeply by the knife that two tendons were severed; it is not clear whether she will ever regain full use of it. She held her hand up to keep Gregory from stabbing her, she said, and the knife he was wielding went deep into the hand.

A plastic surgeon, Dr.George Csank of Pittsfield, who treated Naventi after the incident, testified that her wound was a defensive one because, he said, it was simply so deep that no one would inflict such a cut on themselves by gripping the blade of a knife, even a knife they planned to use to stab someone else—though he admitted that it was hypothetically possible that the wound was not defensive.

In the end the struggle stopped and Naventi sat in the bedroom for a while, "muttering to herself," Scott Gregory later testified. After a while she made her way downstairs, where she huddled in the kitchen with her profusely bleeding hand wrapped in a sweater she had borrowed from a friend. Michael Gregory called the police.

It's here that the story becomes more than the tale of a breakup that went sour.

*

Two Westfield police officers, Jeffrey Baillargeon and Frank Gaulin, responded to Gregory's call. The information they had received through the dispatcher was that "a male had been stabbed by a female." Based on that statement, they arrested Naventi but not Gregory, though standard procedure, according to Wilson, would have been to arrest both parties to an altercation in which both were injured.

At Naventi's trial, Wilson asked Baillargeon whether he and Gaulin had tried to get Naventi's version of what happened. "And you did not have a conversation with Susan Naventi about what you learned from the other two gentlemen?" Wilson asked.

"No," Baillargeon replied. "We did not."

"You never asked her whether or not that had [sic]—what they told you had happened had happened?"

"Correct," Officer Baillargeon responded.

Gaulin testified that Naventi had told him her ex-boyfriend had stabbed her, but he said nothing about whether he had posed more detailed questions.

Even more important than the one-sided inquiry as to what had happened was the lack of forensic work in this case. In an age when crime dramas on film and television provide endless demonstrations of the advanced forensic technology available today, it's a still mistake to assume that such resources are always brought into play on the local level.

Gregory himself testified that he cleaned up patches of "caked" blood in his room the very day of the incident, and no results of blood analysis, if any was ever done, were presented to the court (the Advocate contacted the Westfield Police Department but was unable to get any information about the forensics in the case that went beyond the information supplied by court records). And no forensic work was done on the knife, as cross-examination revealed.

"Did you or anybody else on the Westfield Police Department subject the knife to analysis by a lab?" Wilson asked Baillargeon at the trial.

"I don't believe it went out to a lab, no," Baillargeon said.

"It didn't go for prints?"

"No."

"It didn't go for blood analysis?"

"No."

The police sent Naventi from the Ashley Street house in an ambulance to Noble Hospital, where she was informed that she was under arrest on felony charges of breaking and entering in the daytime, assault and battery, assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and assault and battery with intent to murder. Baillargeon had ordered that she be arrested, he told the court, "after talking with Rachel and Michael." The two officers testified that at the time they were called to the house they did not know Michael's father, Gilbert Gregory, personally. Michael Gregory testified that he had never seen Gaulin and Baillargeon, though Baillargeon said in court that he had been called to the Ashley Street house before on noise complaints.

The hospital arranged for Naventi to get specialized treatment for her hand and her broken jaw. Gregory had his cuts closed and bandaged by the EMTs in the ambulance the police sent to his house, but did not go to the hospital until 11:34 a.m., more than four hours after the police had arrived at the house.

Before he went to the hospital, Gregory called his father three times, phone records showed. Gregory said in court that he spoke to his father before he went to the hospital because he was covered by his father's insurance. Whether the two talked about strategies for dealing with the police and the district attorney's office is unknown. Sgt. Gilbert Gregory refused to comment on that, or on whether he ever spoke to anyone in the justice system about the case.

On February 28, the day after the incident, the Westfield Evening News reported that Susan Naventi had been arrested for stabbing her ex-boyfriend. The article detailed Gregory's version of what had happened, though neither he nor Marciniak were named; only Naventi was. Another article appeared on March 26, after Naventi had been released on pre-trial probation. Again Gregory's name did not appear.

Westfield Evening News reporter Carl Hartdegen told the Advocate that Michael Gregory was not named in the articles because the police report had designated him the victim, and Hartdegen's "practice has been to keep victims' and witnesses' names confidential because there's no onus on them. I try not to put them in the limelight." Hartdegen said no one had asked him to keep Gregory's name out of the paper.

Later, when the intent to murder charge against Naventi was dropped, there was no press coverage.

*

In the summer of 2009 Naventi, still under charges of assault and breaking and entering, tried to lodge a complaint against Gregory in Westfield District Court. That court declined to charge Gregory because courts are prohibited from hearing cases involving people with relationships to the court system; the clerk of sessions noted on a document that the person who would be the defendant, Michael Gregory, was "Trooper Gil Gregory's son," and Naventi had to file her complaint in Holyoke District Court.

If the Westfield court would have been biased in favor of Gregory, it acted properly in refusing the case. What is disturbing is that the refusal did not work both ways: the court did not disqualify itself from hearing the case in which Naventi was the defendant and Gregory the alleged victim, as it should have done if that jurisdiction had a potential for bias in favor of the Gregory family.

Sgt. Gilbert Gregory told the Advocate that Wilson wanted the jurisdiction to be changed. "[Aaron] Wilson wanted it in the Holyoke court," Gregory said. "He wanted it in Holyoke in the worst way."

Wilson categorically denied that. "I never asked for it to be moved out of Westfield," he told the Advocate. "I went with Susan to apply for a complaint. I helped her fill it out. I never heard anything. I inquired and found that it was going to be transferred."

In August, Naventi and Gregory both testified at a hearing before Holyoke Clerk Magistrate Manuel Moutinho, who issued a complaint charging Gregory with assault and battery, assault and battery with a dangerous weapon-knife and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon-headboard. In November, however, in a memo signed by Assistant District Attorney Joan Dietz, the office of Hampden County District Attorney William Bennett issued a nolle prosequi (refusal to prosecute) on the complaint, effectively dropping the charges against Gregory. The rationale expressed in the memo was that the Commonwealth could not prove beyond the shadow of a reasonable doubt that the defendant had not acted in self-defense—although Naventi's injuries were much more severe than Gregory's, and although the clerk magistrate in Holyoke had found grounds to issue a complaint.

Was the District Attorney's office influenced by the close bond between district attorneys and state police? Asked whose decision it was to nolle pros the charges against Gregory, Dietz said only that the District Attorney's office made the decision and that she could not comment "beyond the public record."

For Naventi, struggling with the injury to her hand and her cognitive impairment, the process dragged on until June, 2010, when she was tried in Westfield District Court before Judge Laurie McLeod. By that time Gregory, then 23, had graduated from Westfield State; Naventi, 22, had been unable to return to school because of her injuries.

Among the witnesses for the prosecution was Rachel Marciniak. Marciniak had earlier told police that Naventi had been first to pick up the knife that caused the injuries, but under cross-questioning by Wilson, she admitted that she had told police Naventi picked up the knife only because she had heard Gregory screaming that he was being stabbed.

"Well, when you& told the police officer under oath, I saw her take the knife, I saw him take the knife from her, and you didn't, that's not the truth, is it?" Wilson asked her.

"When you hear someone yelling, 'I'm, stop stabbing me, you're stabbing me'— I put two and two together, yes," Marciniak responded.

"So you didn't see it?" Wilson asked.

"No," Marciniak said.

Gregory originally testified that though Naventi phoned and texted him over and over before coming to the house in the early morning of February 27—a visit she said he had previously agreed to—he didn't call or text her back. Confronted with phone records that proved that he did, he said that he "had been known to sleepwalk," that he must have been half asleep when he talked to her and that he had only gotten back to her to tell her not to come.

Other testimony suggested that in the wake of the incident, the ranks of the young people who had frequented the Ashley Street house closed protectively around Gregory. One of his friends, Kaitlin Salvo, who had not witnessed the altercation, was called to testify about the movements of Naventi and others from various bars and parties early in the morning on February 27, before the fight. Wilson read a message Salvo had put on her Facebook page months before Naventi's trial, around the time of the hearing in Holyoke the previous August: "Miss you Rob. I should be around this week to put Susan in jail. Can I see you?"

Salvo's testimony also pointed up what may be the most important unanswered question about the outbreak of violence in the Ashley Street house: the time it occurred. Salvo said that at around six that morning, she was in a car with Naventi, who was looking for a ride to Gregory's house. The driver of the car, Jamie Callan, refused to take Naventi to Gregory's house but took her to the house in which she was living, so she walked from her house to Gregory's. That agrees with Gregory's statement that the fight took place around six or 6:30.

Naventi confirmed that Callan took her home and that she walked back to Gregory's house, but she said she arrived much earlier: between 4:45 and 5:15.

Phone records showed that Salvo called Naventi at 5:53 a.m., though Salvo said she and Naventi had been at the same party, left it together, and were in the car driven by Callan at around 6. Naventi told Wilson that when Salvo called her at 5:53—after the fight, according to Naventi—she said something to the effect that Naventi deserved what she got (asked in court if she said that, Salvo replied, "Not that I know of.") If Salvo did make such a remark at 5:53, and it was a reference to the fight, it throws grave doubt on the testimony of those who said Naventi arrived at Gregory's house at 6 or after.

If Naventi was telling the truth, what happened between the end of the bloody contest between herself and Gregory and the time, an hour and a half later or more, when the police were called? Naventi, Wilson argued in court, "was seriously hurt. She was bleeding. I would suggest that she may have been unconscious and Michael Gregory knew that there was trouble upon him. What did they do? Did they hide drugs? Did they, did he self inflict wounds?"

And what happened between the time the police left the house around 8 a.m. and 11:34 a.m., when Gregory arrived at the hospital?

Here was the central enigma. Had Gregory awakened suddenly after only a few hours' sleep on February 27, 2009 to find himself the victim of a surprise assault by a violently jealous ex-girlfriend who first tried to attack Marciniak and then, when Gregory pushed her away from the bed, picked up his own knife and slashed him in several places before he managed to wrest it away from her?

Or did Naventi come to the house believing their relationship was salvageable, turn back the covers of a bed she had often slept in herself to see who had taken her place, then find herself the victim of a stabbing and a beating so brutal that she is still partially incapacitated? As she huddled in the bedroom bleeding, did Gregory, conscious that the force he had used had had unintended consequences, try to persuade her to leave the house in order to avoid calling the police?

The Advocate was unable to discuss the case with Naventi or with Gregory.

*

As one person's testimony after another showed weaknesses, Judge McLeod—rendering a verdict all alone because Naventi had chosen a bench trial rather than a jury process—acquitted Naventi on all counts. Without accepting all the hypotheses offered by the defense, McLeod noted a few points offered by the prosecution witnesses that strained credibility. For one thing, said the judge, "Mr. Gregory's statements& don't comport with the very serious damages, serious injuries that Ms. Naventi received, when Mr. Gregory said she may have hit her head on the floor."

And why, if Naventi had seriously assaulted Gregory, did he and his brother Scott ask her to leave the house after the fight, McLeod asked. Scott Gregory testified that he even offered to drive Naventi home.

But most of all, McLeod faulted the police work in the case. "I guess what really concerns me," she said, "is that, is the police's very limited investigation in this. Obviously two people got very, well, three people got injured. & I can't see why the police would stay with one set of facts and not ask anybody else what happened. It does not make sense to me and it gives me great concern in terms of public safety of the commonwealth, and how the commonwealth can prove cases."

McLeod said in conclusion that while "some of the things that Ms. Naventi or the defense has presented don't exactly give me a firm view of what occurred that night," the prosecution's version "doesn't adequately address what I need to address, which is, has the case been proven beyond a reasonable doubt? And I find that for many reasons, I have many doubts about everything that occurred that night."

A jury will get its chance to delve farther into what happened that night, or rather that early morning. Naventi has now brought a civil suit against Gregory for damages, and Gregory has instituted a countersuit; discovery is now in progress in Naventi's suit. Meanwhile both Gregory and his brother Scott have followed their father into the field of law enforcement: Scott is a police officer in Northampton, and since last April, Michael has been an auxiliary officer with the Westfield Police Department.

Naventi, who was fourth in her high school graduating class at Lee High School and won several scholarships to college, where she was majoring in math, is still unable to go back to Westfield State because of the disabilities stemming from the events of February 27, 2009. She will not resume her studies or look for work until she is cleared by a neurologist. From the events of that pre-dawn hour, no one emerged a winner—not Michael Gregory, not Susan Naventi, not the Hampden County justice system.

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