1969
unsettled
A fallen leaf, captured by a pinhole camera, appears almost animal-like on a road through Peter Dana Point in Indian Township. In the late 1960s, the tribe’s attorney, Don Gellers, was appealing his conviction on the drug charge that had gotten him disbarred. Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

D

on Gellers and his supporters believed he was being framed in a conspiracy involving the police, the courts, the Attorney General’s Office and the Indian whose estranged wife he had become involved with, all with the aim of retiring the Passamaquoddy’s hated and effective defender.

The evidence suggests they were correct.

A prominent Boston trial lawyer, Harvey Silverglate, soon came forward with a remarkable story: On April 18, 1968 – just a month after Gellers’ arrest – he had had cocktails in a Bangor restaurant with Assistant Attorney General John Kelly, who bragged to him that “the powers that be in this state” were going to take down Gellers with the marijuana charge because he was a “troublemaker” who was “stirring up the Indians” and they “wanted to get him off the Indian suit.” They were using Danny Bassett, an Indian whose wife was romantically involved with the young attorney, to help them get their man.

Silverglate later testified that Kelly had told him that the AG’s office had been working with Danny so that he “would have his revenge” and that “ultimately, if they could convict Gellers of a marijuana charge or any drug charge, they would proceed to disbar him and get him out of the case.”

“(Kelly) said Danny was going to be the instrumentality in getting to Gellers,” Silverglate told the court. “I took it to mean it was a setup.”

Silverglate, who became a prominent and highly respected civil liberties lawyer, still recalls the scene 46 years later. “The prosecutor was talking about getting Gellers, and it was obvious to me they were looking to win the Indian suit by disabling the lawyer,” says Silverglate, who came to Maine to give testimony in Gellers’ hearing for a new trial. “It’s not unprecedented that prosecutors would go after the lawyer who was giving them aggravation.”

Silverglate himself felt vulnerable coming to Maine to testify against the authorities. “I don’t think they were very happy about having me testify, and I was sure Gellers wouldn’t be the last to be retaliated against for taking on an unpopular cause,” says Silverglate, whose clients have included Leona Helmsley, Michael Milken, and the Church of Scientology. “That’s why, as soon as I testified, I got the hell out of town.”

A federal prisoner in Ohio, Scott Workman, later sent Gellers’ former intern, Tom Tureen, a signed affidavit, saying he had been released from the Hancock County Jail in September 1967 after agreeing with a state trooper to play the role of the Patriarca gangster in the forthcoming sting.

“Sgt. Joe McCarthy came down into the basement and called me to the side and told me that an attorney by the name of Gellers was a troublemaker who was stirring up the Indians down there, and that they were going to get him,” Workman wrote. If Workman would “pose as a runaway gunman” from the Patriarca family and help state police Detective W. Lawrence Hall “in planting marijuana in Gellers’ home,” then the charges against him would be dismissed with the help of Assistant Attorney General Kelly.

Workman said he agreed and his charges were dropped. He claimed he later received word that “the deal is off,” the implication being that the authorities had allegedly decided to have one of their own detectives play the role instead.

Kelly testifed in court that he remembered having cocktails with Silverglate in April 1968, but had no recollection of discussing the Gellers case with him. Today, Kelly says he has no memory of being involved in either the restaurant conversation nor the alleged deal with Workman, but he admits the Attorney General’s Office behavior should raise eyebrows. “I was a freshman attorney and more of a gofer man, so they weren’t bringing me into any high-level conversations,” says Kelly, who now practices law in Portland. “I do recall being taken aback at the police action and the prosecution level and their attitude toward marijuana, which when you look back from the perspective of today was laughable.”

“Obviously they were very motivated (to get Gellers),” he adds. “The facts speak for themselves.”

Further, in 1968, Ed Hinckley was sacked as commissioner of the state’s new Indian Affairs Department for refusing to cut his expenditures. Gov. Kenneth Curtis – an important ally of the Indians – appointed former Passamaquoddy tribal Gov. John Stevens to replace him. Before starting work, Stevens recalls Curtis asking him if there was anything he wanted to know. “I said, ‘Yes, I want to know: Did you plant that stuff on Don Gellers?,'” Stevens recalls. “If they planted it, I can’t trust the state police.”

Thereafter, Stevens says, he was invited to the governor’s office. There, Hall, the police detective who’d posed as the Mafioso, reluctantly admitted to having “put all those cigarettes all over the house and inside Don Gellers’ suit pockets.” Curtis, Stevens said, was apologetic. Hall was not. “They didn’t want to be exposed how they operate.”

Reached at his Florida home, former Gov. Curtis said he couldn’t recall the meeting but didn’t deny it might have occurred. Hall also didn’t recall the meeting, but said it could have happened, as he had known Curtis, who was a fellow Maine Maritime Academy alumnus; Hall said he would never have planted evidence himself, but couldn’t vouch for Danny Bassett and other Indians who had unsupervised access to Gellers’ home for several days during the operation.

Years later, Bangor Daily News reporter John Day wrote that in the months before the sting “there were persistent rumors in law enforcement circles about a state police investigation of Gellers.” On returning from a meeting in Augusta in February 1968, Old Town police Chief Otis N. LaBree told Day that “the boys in the Attorney General’s Office were busting their tails to nail a lawyer up in Eastport on drug charges because he was ‘stirring up the Indians’,” according to one of Day’s published accounts, which appeared in 1980.

“I felt at the time they were really gunning for (Gellers) because he was an unpopular guy,” says retired attorney Cushman Anthony, one of the only lawyers in Maine who was willing to represent Gellers on appeal. “They were trying to get rid of a grain of sand in the oyster.”

Gellers believes the conspiracy extended all the way to Curtis’ office, because he says he overheard Assistant Attorney General Richard Cohen placing a phone call there immediately after Gellers’ conviction. This seems unlikely, however, as the governor and Attorney General James Erwin were political rivals; indeed Erwin, a conservative “law and order” Republican, ran against Curtis in the next election.

“It was very questionable as to whether or not Gellers was guilty,” former Gov. Curtis recalls, adding his own relationship with the Attorney General’s Office was “basically uncooperative.”

“I think Gellers was so controversial to certain segments of the population that they tried to entrap him,” Curtis says.

In another strange incident a few days after the sting, Gellers’ friend and co-defendant Al Cox – free on bail – stepped out of Gellers’ house to allegedly discover Danny Bassett and his nephew Anthony “Pluto” Stanley slashing the upholstery in the attorney’s car and pouring sugar into the gas tank. When Gellers tried to press charges, he says the Attorney General’s Office sent Detective Hall – who was based in York County – to act as a “special investigator” on the complaint. Stanley admitted he and Bassett were guilty – Gellers says – but Hall refused to believe his signed affidavit and the court in Calais refused to issue a complaint. (Hall today says he doesn’t recall the incident.)

That law enforcement was working to get rid of an unpopular attorney seemed clear. The events that followed would also put the courts in an unfavorable light.

Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at:

[email protected]

 

Coming next:

Putting Don Gellers away