For CPD officer, parole board shakeup brings hope, opens old woundsBy Jay Turner
This week, as policy makers and prisoners’ rights advocates continue to debate the pros and cons of the governor’s recent and dramatic overhaul of the state parole board, Canton Police Officer Don Wolffe is left to quietly wonder what could have been had the reforms come sooner.
Wolffe, a lifelong Canton resident, was among the thousands of officers from across the commonwealth who traveled to Woburn on New Year’s Eve for the funeral of John “Jack” Maguire, the veteran police officer who was shot and killed the day after Christmas by paroled armed robber Dominic Cinelli outside a Kohl’s department store following an attempted jewelry heist.
Like a lot of Massachusetts residents, Wolffe has struggled to understand how the board members could have possibly determined that Cinelli, a career criminal serving three life sentences, had somehow deserved another shot at freedom when they released him back in 2008. Then again, Wolffe was not exactly surprised, either – not after being forced to live out his own personal nightmare when the same parole board voted to release his sister’s killer, Robert E. Sorensen, after several prior denials and a 22-year stint behind bars.
“I feel terrible for the Maguire family,” said a somber Wolffe in a telephone interview last week. “The parole board made a victim out of them, and being a victim myself, I totally feel their pain.”
To this day, Wolffe said it is still extremely painful to talk about the 1988 murder of his sister, Patricia Bonito-Wolffe, who was stabbed and suffocated in the bedroom of her Pequit Street home in the early morning hours on June 18. Sorensen, who had been in a relationship with Patricia, had planned the crime in advance and had returned to her home after work to carry it out while Patricia’s two young children and a neighbor’s child lay asleep in an adjacent room.
Wolffe, who at the time was fresh out of the Police Academy, said the crime was a textbook case of first-degree murder, yet Sorensen was inexplicably allowed to enter into a plea of second-degree murder, making him eligible for parole after 15 years.
Wolffe said his family protested the decision by the district attorney’s office to accept the plea, but were told by an assistant prosecutor that it wasn’t the family’s decision to make.
“I was absolutely astonished that they didn’t want to pursue it on a first-degree basis,” he said, “especially under the circumstances, considering the violent nature of the crime and the fact that she was attacked at her most vulnerable point. As for why the commonwealth allows these pleas in the first place, I honestly don’t know.”
Wolffe said his family now feels as if they have been victimized twice by the judicial system – first with the plea agreement and again with the parole board’s decision more than two decades later.
“I absolutely thought it was a poor decision on their part to free my sister’s murderer,” he said. “Unfortunately, we knew at the time that he would be eligible for parole some day, and we kept hoping it wouldn’t happen, but he subsequently was.”
Wolffe said his entire family attended Sorensen’s most recent parole hearing, and just as they had at all the others, they implored the parole board to reconsider the brutal nature of the murder and keep him locked up. Canton Police Chief Ken Berkowitz also attended the hearing and read a brief statement of support on behalf of the family.
“Basically we argued that he doesn’t deserve a second chance at life,” explained Wolffe, “because Patricia’s not going to have a second chance at life.”
Wolffe did not elaborate on the arguments made on Sorensen’s behalf, other than to note that Sorensen was represented at the hearing by a retired superior court judge. However, he did point out that Sorensen was allowed to remarry while in prison and has since moved in with his wife.
“That’s just the way the judicial system is in Massachusetts,” said an admittedly frustrated Wolffe. “It seems that they’ve lost sight of the victims of crime in their haste to allow people with life sentences to come out and have a second chance at being members of society.”
While there is no evidence to suggest that Sorensen poses a danger to the people of the commonwealth, Wolffe said the documented failings of the parole board, particularly as it relates to the release of Cinelli, should cast a shadow of doubt over all of their recent decisions.
Wolffe added that his sister’s murder stands as proof of what Sorensen is capable of, and when asked if he thinks the man could hurt someone else, Wolffe did not hesitate in saying yes.
“Of course I’m worried,” he said. “We’re being asked to trust him that he’s going to go back into society and be a contributor, that he’s somehow been rehabilitated.”
Wolffe said Sorensen’s horrific act devastated his entire family, while the subsequent legal decisions only served to exacerbate their pain. At the same time, he praised the governor’s swift action in shaking up the parole board, calling it the “absolute right thing to do” to help restore public confidence during these trying times, and he remains hopeful that the justice system will continue to realign its priorities and seek justice at all costs – if not for Patricia specifically, then at least for any future victims of crime.
Wolffe is also grateful to have the support of his fellow officers and of Chief Berkowitz in particular, and as painful as this experience has been, he believes it has made him a better police officer.
“It’s made me more sensitive to victims of crime, that’s for sure,” said Wolffe. “Being a victim yourself, you can relate to what people are going through, and perhaps offer a little comfort during what is certainly a very difficult time for them.”
Editor’s note: Information on the above-referenced crime was obtained solely from Don Wolffe, the victim’s brother, with corroboration provided by Canton Police Chief Ken Berkowitz. Robert Sorensen, the man convicted in the 1988 murder of Patricia Bonito-Wolffe, was not contacted for this story. Attempts by the Citizen to reach the Massachusetts Parole Board were unsuccessful.
Short URL: http://www.thecantoncitizen.com/?p=783