Cape and Island prosecutors are seeking to charge a former Tisbury police officer with placing a fake inspection sticker on a 1979 Jeep. The vehicle in question later crashed in an accident blamed on defective steering, killing high school senior Eric MacLean.
A show-cause hearing scheduled for Nov. 8 in Edgartown district court could lead to a formal criminal charge filed against Robert Cimeno Sr., the owner of a car rental business on Beach Road in Vineyard Haven, who was a police officer on the Tisbury force 20 years ago.
Prosecutors want to charge Mr. Cimeno with uttering a forged Registry of Motor Vehicles document, a felony offense that could carry a five-year jail term, according to state police.
Mr. Cimeno's attorney, Daniel Gibson of Burlington, yesterday denied any involvement by his client. "We absolutely and aggressively deny all allegations of wrongdoing by the Cimenos," said Mr. Gibson. "Their names will be cleared in any proceedings."
State police have targeted much of their investigation on Mr. Cimeno since the fatal crash in March 2001. It was Mr. Cimeno who sold the Jeep in June 2000 to James O'Brien, the father of Seamus O'Brien, who was driving the car when it lost control and smashed into a tree off County Road, killing Mr. MacLean, a passenger and a longtime friend of the driver.
Within two weeks of the crash, police ruled that faulty steering had caused the crash and revealed that the Jeep bore a phony inspection sticker. The car had no seat belts, no emergency brake and a defective steering column, according to police.
The question for police investigators was finding the origin of the fake sticker and how it ended up on the Jeep.
For police, the answer came after they spent three hours interviewing Seamus's twin brother, Sean O'Brien, who told them he was working at Beach Road Moped Rentals in 2000 when his father purchased the Jeep from his boss, Mr. Cimeno, for $3,500.
When Sean O'Brien told Mr. Cimeno that the Jeep had failed inspection at Buddy's Auto Repair in Oak Bluffs, "[Mr.] Cimeno started bad-mouthing Buddy's," according to the police narrative report.
"[Sean] O'Brien stated that in the afternoon he observed Cimeno come out of the front door of the business, walk over to his Jeep, peel the rejection sticker off with a razor and put a new sticker on," the report continued.
When police asked Mr. Cimeno for his side of the story, he maintained that he "noticed the rejection sticker and offered to buy the vehicle back, but O'Brien refused this offer and drove the vehicle away, stating that he and his father, James, would make the repairs necessary to pass inspection."
Sean O'Brien told police he never informed his father of the incident with the sticker until after the crash that killed Mr. MacLean. "I honestly didn't know something was wrong with Cimeno putting on a sticker. I didn't know how it works," Sean O'Brien stated in the affidavit.
Until last August, both James and Seamus O'Brien were still facing charges of possessing a forged inspection sticker, but they ended up each paying a $50 fine and receiving assurances that the charges will be dropped after completing a 90-day probation. Last year, prosecutors also dropped a charge of vehicular homicide against Seamus O'Brien.
Prosecutors have told the Gazette that the O'Briens have cooperated with the investigation.
Eric MacLean's mother, Patricia Bergeron, has never blamed the O'Briens for the death of her son. Instead, she has focused her anger on Mr. Cimeno. Two months after the fatal crash, she filed a wrongful death lawsuit against both Robert Cimeno and his wife, Patricia, a co-owner of Beach Road Rentals.
"I am very pleased to see this development," Ms. Bergeron told the Gazette yesterday. "It's where it should have been all along."
Eric MacLean was a varsity ice hockey and football player who was planning to join the Marine Corps after he graduated.
Police said the Jeep should never have been on the road. According to a three-page mechanic's report, the only component of the vehicle in good shape were the tires. They were almost new, but that was not enough to counteract the defective steering.
With bolts missing, U-joints corroded and steering gear lacking fluid, the front wheels were prone to shimmying. And the play in the steering wheel could have exceeded eight inches. In an initial interview with police, Seamus O'Brien told them that right before the crash, the wheel pulled hard to the right. Loose steering, the report said, "would make the recovery of control in the event of front wheel shimmying almost impossible."
The Jeep collided with a tree and threw both young men from the car, separating the body of the car from the chassis.
At the time, Oak Bluffs police chief Joseph Carter told the Gazette that the Jeep was "poorly maintained and constructed."
The investigation into the crash, which could lead to a charge against Mr. Cimeno, took more than a year to complete. State police Sgt. Neal Maciel, who served on the Tisbury police department at the same time as Mr. Cimeno, led the investigation and tried to uncover whether the Cimenos might have been manufacturing fake inspection stickers.
Two months after the crash, police raided Beach Road Rentals and a Tisbury taxi business, Patti's Taxi, owned by Jeffrey Cimeno, Mr. Cimeno's son, looking for evidence of a counterfeit operation. They seized computer equipment, including a color ink-jet printer and image scanner, and various colors and kinds of paper.
Sergeant Maciel also learned in the summer of 2000 that the two vehicles registered to Patti's Taxi had no record of ever being inspected. Three weeks later, police received a tip from a MacLean family member, Paula O'Connor, who told police that in May, she had driven to Jeffrey's house in Oak Bluffs and saw a Patti's Taxi vehicle in a circular driveway facing the roadway. She approached the taxi and wrote down the inspection sticker serial number on her hand, 001453526.
When she obtained a police report from the accident, she compared the numbers from the inspection stickers on the Jeep and on the taxi. "She found that the numbers were identical," Sergeant Maciel's affidavit stated. On the evening of May 5, 2001, a second witness, Joseph Kelley, the director of field operations for the Registry of Motor Vehicles, also observed the serial number on the taxi and corroborated Mrs. O'Connor's reading of the numbers.
Three weeks later, Sergeant Maciel received information that over the Memorial Day weekend, Jeffrey Cimeno had constructed a stockade fence on the rear of his Oak Bluffs property to shield his taxis from view from the road.
When Sergeant Maciel checked into registry records for Jeffrey Cimeno's personal vehicle, a 1994 Toyota 4Runner, he discovered it was registered on Oct. 8, 1999, but there was no record of the car ever being inspected until just May 16, "seven days after my interview with Jeffrey Cimeno's parents," Sergeant Maciel wrote.
"It's been an extremely long case for me," Mr. Maciel said in August.