The night began with a late-night pizza craving.
It was about 10:20 p.m. on Feb. 26, 2016, when Steven Vigneault got in his unmarked police car, a Chevy TrailBlazer, at the Springfield, Mass., police department and drove to Primo’s Pizzeria to grab dinner for the narcotics squad.
Everything might have gone differently if not for one decision he made in the parking lot: Vigneault left the car running, according to a federal lawsuit. When he came back out, it was gone.
The chase was on. The alleged thieves, a group of teenagers, were apparently looking for a joyride. For nearly four hours they got one, until a strip of spikes laid by police stopped the speeding TrailBlazer in its tracks. The doors flung open, and the suspected thieves jumped out, fleeing through the woods with police dogs on their heels. They made it as far as the porch of a multifamily home.
That is where, according to the lawsuit filed by one of the teenagers and a federal indictment unsealed Wednesday, the boys were bitten by dogs, handcuffed and kicked in the face by officers, allegedly including Vigneault and Officer Gregg Bigda. Bigda, according to the indictment, ended the attack by spitting on a 14-year-old boy, who was Hispanic.
“Welcome to the white man’s world,” said Bigda, who is white, according to the indictment.
Bigda and Vigneault were arrested by federal authorities Wednesday for deprivation of rights under the color of the law, both accused of using excessive force. Bigda also faces additional charges of abusive interrogation of the teenagers once they were jailed, “so abusive it shocks the conscience,” according to the indictment. Both Bigda, who has been suspended indefinitely, and Vigneault, who resigned in 2016, have denied all the charges, according to the Republican newspaper.
Captured by surveillance cameras in a 30-minute fit of rage, Bigda threatened to kill and beat two teen boys, ages 15 and 16, as well as plant drugs on them, if they didn’t tell him who was driving the TrailBlazer and where a bunch of coins found in their pockets and the car had come from. Bigda apparently either did not know or did not care that the cameras in the jail cells were rolling.
He told one 15-year-old that he could do whatever he wanted to him and get away with it, including “crush your . . . skull,” according to video footage published jointly by the Republican and MassLive.
“I’m not hampered by the . . . truth because I don’t give a f---!” Bigda told the teen suspect. “People like you belong in jail. . . . I’ll stick a . . . kilo of coke in your pocket and put you away for . . . 15 years.”
The videotaped interrogations and alleged beating prompted the Justice Department to begin probing possible civil rights abuses within the Springfield Police Department, making it the first Massachusetts police department to come under a DOJ investigation, the Boston Globe reported.
Neither of the men’s attorneys could immediately be reached for comment. But after court Wednesday, Vigneault’s attorney, Daniel D. Kelly, told the Republican: “There is a tendency to rush to judgment in cases like these. We would ask that the public not rush to judgment.”
After the alleged beatings, one 14-year-old boy was transported to the hospital with a fractured nose, two black eyes and numerous head contusions, according to the federal lawsuit he filed, while at least two others were brought to a jail in neighboring Palmer, Mass.
Once there, Bigda played the bad-cop role, going back and forth to the two teens' cells seeking to force information out of them, mostly by threatening to beat them to the point of hospitalization. According to the indictment, he did not read them their Miranda rights, and their parents were not present.
Two civil lawsuits have alleged Bigda had spent the night drinking rum at his desk before the incident — an allegation made by Vigneault, the Boston Globe reported. It was why Vigneault thought Bigda might need pizza.
The first thing Bigda did when he arrived in the first teen’s cell was point to the blood on his boot. He warned the kid that his blood might end up on his other boot if he didn’t cooperate.
“You see that camera right there? They don’t . . . exist [in Springfield],” where the boys were headed to jail next, Bigda said. “So anything that happens to you at my place never happened. If I don’t write it in the report, it never . . . happened.”
He later added: “You know I’m going to beat the . . . out of you when we get back to Springfield."
He appeared particularly fixated on the dozens of coins mysteriously left in the back seat of the Chevy TrailBlazer. It was his “pet peeve,” he said, believing the kids stole them from somewhere. When the second boy, 15, said he didn’t know where they came from, Bigda exploded.
“Don’t even . . . speak to me if you’re going to lie to me, because I’ll f---ing kill you in the parking lot,” he said.
As MassLive reported, controversy has followed Bigda for more than 20 years. In 1997, the NAACP called for his dismissal after he was caught on video standing by while his colleague kicked a black man in the face, the paper reported. According to the federal lawsuit filed by one of the teens, Bigda has been accused 24 times of misconduct since 2000. He has been accused of holding a civilian’s leg against a police cruiser’s hot tailpipe, breaking the jaw of a mentally disabled person and striking a pregnant woman in front of children, according to the lawsuit. He has denied all wrongdoing.
None of the 24 complaints were upheld, which the lawsuit claims is the result of a systemic problem within the police department. Since 2006, the city has settled 25 police misconduct lawsuits, the Globe reported.
Bigda was suspended for 60 days when footage of his interrogations came to light in 2016, the Republican reported.
In a statement, Ryan Walsh, a spokesman for the Springfield Police Department, said Bigda has been suspended without pay indefinitely.
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