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Police Officer Should Have Refused $2.7M Bequest, Review Panel Says

Sgt. Aaron Goodwin, of the Portsmouth, N.H. Police Dept., seen here being questioned in May, should have refused a gift from an elderly woman he met while on the job, a review panel says.
Rich Beauchesne
Sgt. Aaron Goodwin, of the Portsmouth, N.H. Police Dept., seen here being questioned in May, should have refused a gift from an elderly woman he met while on the job, a review panel says.

A New Hampshire police sergeant broke departmental rules by not refusing an elderly woman's offer to leave him her riverfront house, a review panel says. Sgt. Aaron Goodwin received $2.7 million in property and stocks in an estate case that's still being disputed.

The case has set off debates in Portsmouth, N.H., over police policies covering gifts — and over the motivations of Goodwin, who reportedly first met Geraldine Webber in 2010, when he was investigating a potential crime in the area. He became a regular visitor, both on- and off-duty.

In its report issued Tuesday afternoon, the review panel said Goodwin should have either turned down the bequest or resigned from the police department. But it also faulted his superiors, both for not applying the Portsmouth Police Department's policies and for failing to communicate the developments to the police commission.

As local news site Seacoastonline reports, "The panel also found Goodwin's conduct was a product of his 'sincere belief in community policing and his upbringing and family commitment to vulnerable elderly people.' "

Webber was in her 90s and had dementia when she died in December of 2012, according to news reports. Seven months earlier, she had changed her will to leave Goodwin items that included her house, stocks and bonds, and a Cadillac. Seacoastonline says Webber's final will diminished "previous bequests she had made to medical institutions and the Portsmouth police and fire departments."

Some of those parties who saw their bequests shrink have challenged Webber's will. That line of inquiry remains open, as probate court hearings have focused on whether Webber was capable of managing her affairs and whether Goodwin unduly influenced her.

Ralph Holmes, the lawyer who revised her will over the course of eight months, says Webber was a sharp woman who knew about her holdings. Local newspaper The Union-Leader says Holmes also detailed some of the time Webber spent with the police officer.

"This was the most meaningful relationship in her life," Holmes said about Webber's relationship with Goodwin. "She wanted to go to a casino, he took her there twice. He took her for an occasional lunch and Bloody Mary. That's kindness, not undue influence."

The review panel discusses Webber's personality several times in the report, saying in one instance that she "was variously described as bawdy, strong willed, and a force-of-nature," and in another stating, "We acknowledge that her personality — lively as it was — affected her willingness to accept help from others."

But the panel also said that it was "unfortunate" that Goodwin either didn't know or chose to bypass community resources that might have helped Webber. At a probate hearing last month, the officer didn't change his position.

"I stand behind everything I did for her. I'm proud of it and I wouldn't change anything," Goodwin said at the hearing.

In a 2011 interview with state investigators, Webber said she loved Goodwin and had adopted him, according to Seacoastonline. She admitted to wanting to give the detective money and gifts, saying, "God watched over me when he showed up at my house."

The report on Goodwin's conduct comes from an independent review panel that was set up by the city's police commission last August.

From Seacoastonline:

"The report states that the panelists had no facts to suggest Goodwin's visits were 'excessive or nefarious' and that there's no evidence that he visited her hundreds of times, often in a marked cruiser, as suggested by Webber's neighbor and retired police officer John Connors.

"The report states that Webber told Goodwin on Christmas Eve 2010 that she wanted to give him her house and that Goodwin asserts he reported that to then-chief David 'Lou' Ferland in January 2011.

" 'Chief Ferland steadfastly denies that Sgt. Goodwin discussed the Webber bequest,' the report states, while adding Goodwin was allowed to continue his relationship with Webber off duty, while she was instructed to call Capt. Mike Schwartz about any police matters."

The report says that before the subject of the house arose, Webber "had given Sgt. Goodwin a toy car and stuffed animals of nominal value, for his children. That gift was timely reported to his superiors."

The news of Webber's bequest has caused outrage in Portsmouth, where residents have complained that the case sets a dangerous precedent and could send a troubling message about police priorities.

Portsmouth Police Chief Stephen DuBois issued a statement about the findings, saying, "in the history of our department, there has never been such a complicated and controversial issue such as the one that is now coming to fruition. These have certainly been uncharted waters for us."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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