WESTBROOK – Residents who have known Suzanne Joyce as a longtime pillar of the community, a selfless volunteer and a dedicated public servant were shocked and confused this week to hear that she has been charged with a crime.
Joyce, a member of the Westbrook School Committee, said she knew nothing about the indictment until she was contacted by a reporter on Tuesday.
Westbrook police have said they did not investigate her.
And the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office has not released any information beyond the one-page indictment charging Joyce with hindering the apprehension or prosecution of Dereck Gilman, who was a special-education technician at Westbrook Middle School before he resigned last month.
Joyce said Thursday that she is surprised by the outpouring of support she has received since the news came out, but still doesn’t know why she was indicted by a grand jury.
“I’m getting emails from people I don’t even know. It’s been amazing,” Joyce said.
City Council President Brendan Rielly said, “Suzanne Joyce is a very good friend of mine. I’ve known her forever,” and he isn’t familiar with the charge against her. “She’s a community leader and has contributed great things to the city.”
Gilman, 24, of 162 Central St. in Westbrook, was indicted on charges of unlawful sexual touching and sexual abuse of a child. He is accused of engaging in sex acts with a 17-year-old student from May 1, 2012, to Jan. 30, 2013, while he worked in the school district.
The indictment says Joyce is accused of obstructing Andrew Keirstead, a teacher’s assistant at Westbrook High School, in the investigation of Gilman. But nothing else in Gilman’s or Joyce’s case file in Cumberland County Unified Criminal Court gives any more details.
Joyce said she plans to issue a statement on the indictments once she has a chance to consult with her attorney, William Childs, a friend of her family.
“I talked to my attorney this morning,” Joyce said Thursday. “We’re working very diligently. I’m just very confused. It’s been a very difficult 48 hours.”
Joyce declined to describe the relationship between the teenager, Gilman and herself, referring specific questions to her lawyer.
Childs said later Thursday that he wants to meet with Joyce to review any written reports first. “I don’t know what the hell is going on with this.”
The lead prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Ackerman, declined to discuss specifics of the case.
Often, when police charge a person with a crime, a police report or affidavit must be filed along with a criminal complaint. But Joyce and Gilman were charged by a grand jury, rather than police, so no detailed written accusation was included.
All evidence was presented to a grand jury, whose proceedings are closed to the public.
Westbrook Public Safety Chief Michael Pardue said information about Gilman’s conduct was referred to the police department at the end of January by the city’s Human Resources Department.
Pardue said he thinks that Westbrook detectives concluded their investigation of Gilman and presented it to prosecutors in April.
Joyce said she respects Keirstead and considers him a man of integrity. She has not spoken to him since the indictment, she said.
She said her phone has been ringing constantly with calls from supporters and people offering to help her.
“The city I’m in is the right place. The number of friends has been incredible,” she said.
Several School Committee members declined comment on the charges but spoke highly of Joyce as a member of the committee and the community.
Committee Chairman James Violette said he counseled members not to comment, in part because they may have to sit in judgment of Joyce.
“We’re going to eventually be the jurors and we’re going to judge Sue, whether it’s positive or negative,” Violette said.
Joyce’s role on the committee will not be affected immediately, he said, but if she is convicted, the committee may have to decide whether she is disqualified from serving.
“The problem is, an indictment came down, but we don’t know what the DA is indicting her for,” Violette said. “Did she do something, try to put duress on a school employee? We just don’t know.”
Violette said committee members were stunned by the accusations.
“You have a really, really good person with a heart of gold going through a nightmare,” said Violette, who served on the City Council alongside Joyce for several years before they moved to the School Committee. “I wish the district attorney would release information so people could move on.”
Violette said he does not know all the details of the investigation of Gilman.
“We basically weren’t told about the situation and how things were reported. … The result was Gilman resigned,” he said.
Residents’ response to Joyce’s indictment was mixed on Thursday.
Rhianna Jacobs said it didn’t change her impression of Joyce. “She’s a phenomenal woman,” she said. “She’s always fighting for the kids.”
Janice Jensen said, “She’s really a nice person,” but the charge makes her “a little suspicious.”
Several parents said the charge alone wouldn’t interfere with Joyce’s ability to function as a School Committee member. “I have no problem with it,” said Annette Richards.
City Councilor Michael Foley said he wanted to contact Joyce but decided to wait since she was probably overwhelmed by other calls from supporters.
“I was stunned and shocked,” Foley said. “She does a lot for the community. I have at times told her she does too much.”
Foley said Joyce contributes to Westbrook’s Halloween on Main Street event, the annual Christmas tree lighting, Little League and Westbrook Baseball Boosters, and she served with him on the City Council before running for School Committee.
“She’s a significant contributor to the community,” he said.
Foley said he went to high school with Keirstead and Gilman and remembers both as committed students and athletes.
“The rumors fly in Westbrook, but I haven’t heard,” he said, when asked about details behind the indictments. “The City Council isn’t involved in the operations of the School Department. We’re not up to speed on that. We have enough of our own business.”
School Committee members Alex Stone, Ed Symbol and Suzanne Salisbury declined to comment on the situation. Mayor Colleen Hilton did not return a telephone message, nor did School Committee members Veronica Bates and Mary Hall.
Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at:
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