Source: The Philadelphia Inquirer
Jan. 31, 2023
By: Chris Palmer
The criminal case against former Philadelphia police commander Carl Holmes, who had been accused of sexually assaulting women at work, effectively collapsed Tuesday when a key accuser failed to show up to testify at trial.
Assistant District Attorney Clarke Beljean said at a brief hearing that prosecutors and detectives had taken extensive steps in recent days to find the witness and persuade her to come to court. They had even asked a judge to issue a bench warrant Monday, when the trial had been scheduled to begin.
But none of those efforts was successful. And without the woman’s testimony, Beljean said, “I cannot put on a case.”
The charges connected to that witness — Michele Vandegrift, who said Holmes sexually assaulted her in his office in 2007 — were the only offenses still standing against Holmes, who had been charged in 2019 with assaulting two other subordinates. The cases connected to those witnesses had already fallen apart in court due to questions about their credibility or availability to testify.
Holmes, 57, who has denied the allegations, showed little reaction as prosecutors moved to withdraw the latest charges. He and his lawyer, Gregory Pagano,declined to comment as they left the courtroom.
Prosecutors left open the possibility of reviving the case if they are able to find Vandegrift and compel her to appear in court. But even the judge was skeptical that Vandegrift — who in 2017 settled a lawsuit over the allegations for $1.25 million — would ever testify again.
“She’s no longer interested in being part of this case,” said Common Pleas Court Judge Shanese Johnson. “She’s ducking you.”
Holmes was once one of the Police Department’s highest-ranking commanders, a chief inspector who spent nearly three decades on the force and was also a lawyer. But during his career, he had been publicly accused of sexually assaulting women he worked with — allegations detailed extensively by The Inquirer and the Daily News.
In 2019, District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office accused Holmes of crimes including attempted sexual assault and indecent assault after a grand jury investigation. At the time, Krasner said he believed the investigation showed that powerful men in the Police Department had operated with “impunity,” particularly if they were accused of wrongdoing by women. But Krasner said his office would not shy away from prosecuting cases even if he believed they had been “mishandled” in the past.
The case against Holmes ran into frequent trouble as it moved through the courts.
In March 2021, prosecutors were forced to withdraw charges connected to former officer Elisa Diaz after she failed to appear at a preliminary hearing. (The Inquirer doesn’t typically identify people who say they were sexually assaulted, but Holmes’ accusers spoke publicly to help bring attention to how they believed the Police Department had mishandled allegations of workplace sexual harassment and assault.)
A week after that, charges connected to another accuser — Christa Hayburn — were also withdrawn.
Holmes’ trial, scheduled to begin this week, was to center on the testimony of Vandegrift, who had sued Holmes in civil court over his alleged assault, and who had filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2014 alleging multiple years of sexual harassment by male colleagues including Holmes.
Beljean, the prosecutor, said Tuesday that the DA’s Office had not heard from Vandegrift as the case approached trial, even as the office made a variety of attempts to reach her over the last several days — contacting her by phone, sending letters to her house, having detectives deliver subpoenas there, and reaching out to her civil lawyer. When none of those methods succeeded, he said, prosecutors secured a bench warrant, which still did not lead her to appear.
Witnesses’ reluctance to testify is not a new or rare phenomenon — particularly in cases in which they will be expected to relive experiences that can be painful or traumatizing.
Hayburn, another of Holmes’ accusers, said being part of the case was extremely difficult for her — in part because she felt “like a pawn” in a court battle, not a victim worth supporting during an emotional ordeal.
“We need people to surround us, people who actually care about what happens to us,” she said, calling collapse of the case “frustrating, sad, disappointing,” and adding: “I’ve lost a lot of faith in the justice system.”
Beljean said it was unclear why Vandegrift may have been apprehensive. He said she had acknowledged at least two text messages from an office detective trying to reach her but was otherwise unresponsive to the recent efforts.
“We don’t know why she’s not here,” said Beljean.
Pagano, Holmes’ lawyer, had sought to persuade the judge to force prosecutors to put on their trial without her — an attempt to secure a not-guilty verdict for Holmes and end the case completely.
“This case is entitled to finality,” he said. “Mr. Holmes is entitled to finality.”
Johnson, the judge, declined to do so, but she expressed doubt that the case against Holmes would ever move forward.
Published- The Philadelphia Inquirer