Haden Wilber says he became scapegoat for failures of Mobile Enforcement Team
Fighting to get his job back, a former state trooper fired for misconduct admitted Wednesday to illegally searching civilians’ phones, mishandling physical evidence and writing a deficient arrest report, but adamantly denied lying about it during an internal-affairs investigation.
State Police fired Haden Wilber last August after determining he violated multiple departmental policies as well as the state and federal constitutions during a 2017 drug case, and then made false statements to an internal investigator who looked into those allegations.
The case involved a vehicle stop that ended with the arrest of a Maine woman, Robyn White, for possessing a small amount of heroin. Asserting that she could have more drugs hidden inside her body, Wilber filed an additional charge of bringing contraband into the jail, which State Police officials now say was not supported by probable cause.
The additional charge resulted in White being held in jail for 13 days and subjected to an invasive body-cavity search at a hospital. No drugs were ever found on her person. White sued in 2019, settling with the state last year for $212,500.
The internal investigation later revealed that Wilber read text messages on her phone without a warrant immediately after her arrest, a clear constitutional violation under U.S. Supreme Court precedent at the time.
In a two-day hearing this week before the Personnel Appeals Board in Concord, Wilber and his attorney, Marc Beaudoin, acknowledged Wilber made missteps in the White case. But they rejected the state’s claims that he lied during the internal investigation, which began in late 2020, nearly four years after the arrest. They argued he simply had trouble remembering certain details from an old case.
“I didn’t lie to investigators during this internal investigation,” Wilber said Wednesday. “I was honest with them, the best I could, to my recollection. Unfortunately, I didn’t write a good report, which didn’t help me, and I take full ownership of that.”
Testifying a day earlier, State Police Detective Sgt. Justin Rowe, who conducted the internal investigation, said he believed Wilber intentionally misled him. Col. Nathan Noyes, who made the decision to fire Wilber, said he agreed.
“He was providing certain information and certain responses to our investigator, and then evidence and proof was showing otherwise,” Noyes said Tuesday, adding that he was also troubled by Wilber’s admission that he did warrantless “cursory” searches of civilians’ phones not only in the White case but as many as five times before that.
“That led me to genuinely question his integrity,” Noyes said.
Wilber, who joined State Police in 2012, belonged to the agency’s Mobile Enforcement Team, or “MET team,” a drug-interdiction unit that the ACLU of New Hampshire and prominent defense attorneys have criticized for using traffic stops as pretexts to check out unrelated suspicions about certain drivers.
Wilber said Wednesday that the MET was encouraged to make pretextual stops, calling them the “bread and butter of drug interdictions.” During the internal investigation, he told Rowe that the MET’s supervisor, Mark Hall, who is now a State Police captain, wanted troopers to “push the envelope” and get as many drug cases as possible.
In his closing arguments Wednesday, Beaudoin claimed State Police fired Wilber to distract from bad press about the unit, which needed better supervision.
“The state was embarrassed,” Beaudoin said. “They were embarrassed that they were getting sued. They were embarrassed that the MET team was in the paper. And they felt that somebody had to pay for this, so that they could shift the blame from the State Police not having proper supervision.”
Tyler Dumont, a spokesperson for the Department of Safety, declined to comment on Beaudoin’s statement or other aspects of this week’s proceedings.
“A decision in this matter is still pending, so it would be inappropriate for the Department to comment on any aspects of the testimony provided at this time,” Dumont said in an emailed statement. “From a general standpoint, however, Department leadership regularly reviews all aspects of operations, including the State Police Mobile Enforcement Team.”
The White case began on Feb. 10, 2017 when Wilber pulled her over on Interstate 95 in Portsmouth, ostensibly for failing to clear snow from her vehicle. Wilber said Wednesday that the stop was a pretext to investigate his suspicion she was transporting drugs, though he said he couldn’t remember exactly what drew his attention to her car, other than its Maine plates.
Wilber testified that White’s appearance suggested she used drugs; that she lit a cigarette, which he said can be a sign of nervousness; and that he was not convinced by her stated reason for driving from northern Maine to the “known drug area” of Lynn, Mass., and back in a day — to drop off a birthday gift for her son. Wilber searched the vehicle, finding what he suspected to be a small amount of heroin and drug paraphernalia.
Wilber said he believed White had more drugs, stating that “body carrying” was becoming common among traffickers at the time. He conveyed his suspicion to staff at the Rockingham County jail, reiterating that belief after guards found nothing during a strip search. The jail sent White to a different jail, in Strafford County, for an electronic body scan.
Wilber said a Strafford County guard called to tell him the scan showed something in White’s intestinal area, though Wilber did not record the guard’s name in his report.
Rowe testified that Wilber’s files included images from that and a second scan done two weeks later.
“We discussed that and we both agreed that neither one of us could make out anything on these alleged scans, and we’re not trained to do that,” Rowe said.
Based on his observations of White and the unnamed correctional officer’s description of the scan, Wilber charged White with bringing contraband into the jail.
Rowe said Wilber did not have probable cause for that charge, “not being able to properly identify exactly what that article was at the time.” Noyes agreed that the charge lacked probable cause.
The charge resulted in White’s bail being increased and her spending 13 days in detention. Despite being placed in a “dry cell,” where officers could check if White passed anything, no drugs were found.
Wilber agreed to drop the contraband charge and a judge lowered White’s bail, but, at Wilber’s request, ordered her to submit to a second scan before release. Wilber said a different Strafford County jail employee, whose name he also failed to record, told him the scan showed an item in White’s pelvic area.
Rowe testified that the only record of either scan he could obtain from the jails was a note in Rockingham County’s file saying no foreign objects were detected.
Wilber obtained a search warrant for a body-cavity search of White. A different trooper, Alex Davis, transported her to Wentworth-Douglass Hospital in Dover, where a doctor performed a vaginal and rectal exam. Nothing was found.
The Granite State News Collaborative’s efforts to reach White for comment have been unsuccessful.
The original possession charge was also dropped a few months later, after prosecutors determined Wilber did not have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity at the point he began questioning White about drugs, a violation of the state constitution.
Wilber testified this week that Rockingham County prosecutors were regularly declining to prosecute the MET’s drug arrests at the time due to such issues.
During the internal investigation, Rowe obtained texts between Wilber and a sheriff’s deputy in Maine from the day of the stop in which Wilber said, “off the record,” that he’d read a message on the defendant’s phone. Confronted with the texts, Wilber admitted to Rowe that he went into White’s phone without a warrant to confirm his investigation was on the right track.
In Wednesday’s hearing, Wilber said he knew at the time that it was an illegal search. He also said he’d done it perhaps five times before then.
Wilber later took White’s phone out of evidence and said he doesn’t recall what happened to it. State Police say they haven’t been able to locate it to this day.
Rowe said he determined Wilber violated departmental policies by, among other things, leaving key information out of his report, failing to file search-warrant returns, losing White’s cell phone and violating her rights by illegally searching it.
“The totality of his performance in this singular case, I feel like he didn’t take the proper investigative tactics with this. I think he overstretched and failed to properly document his actions in this case,” Rowe testified. “He slowly made decisions along the way in this case that clearly affected the ultimate outcome.”
“It was not becoming of a N.H. State Trooper,” he added.
Rowe also said Wilber made multiple false statements during his internal investigation, only to correct himself when confronted with documentation that showed otherwise, which in his judgment showed a pattern of dishonesty and violated State Police’s integrity policy.
Wilber said that when he couldn’t remember something, Rowe pushed him to answer, leading him to make conjectures that later proved wrong.
He acknowledged writing a sloppy report about White’s arrest, but said MET troopers were handling so many cases they often prioritized paperwork for more important cases.
Wilber also testified that he told lawyers from the N.H. Attorney General’s Office about his illegal phone search while they defended him against White’s lawsuit.
“I informed them of what I did, and both assistant attorney generals stated that it was harmless, that there was no issue with it that they saw, because it wasn’t used in any report, wasn’t in an affidavit, and therefore it was harmless,” he said.
Michael Garrity, a spokesperson for the office, declined to comment, saying it would violate attorney-client privilege for those lawyers to speak about their conversations with Wilber.
Beaudoin presented numerous awards and glowing performance evaluations from Wilber’s supervisors, along with two additional witnesses.
Sgt. Gary Ingham, the commander of the State Police K9 unit, said he wasn’t familiar with the White case but praised Wilber’s work in general.
Retired State Police Major John Encarnacao said it was common for drug investigators to look through cell phones seized during arrests until 2014, when the U.S. Supreme Court explicitly said that it requires a warrant. He also noted the importance of supervision.
“I look at this instance and … some of the stopgaps were absent,” he said.
These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.
This article was originally published by the GSNC on April 20, 2022.