Sheriff knew of jail guard's troubled past
By Jill Harmacinski
MIDDLETON - Sheriff Frank Cousins knew about a former police officer's troubled past but hired him anyway as a guard at Middleton Jail.
Scott Belanger, 39, was arrested last week in Hampton, N.H., and charged with molesting a 12-year-old girl. Cousins fired him the next day.
When Belanger was hired at the jail last June, Cousins and other jail officials were well aware that Belanger had been fired from the Newburyport police department in 1999. In fact, the Newburyport police marshal who had disciplined Belanger when he was a patrolman now works as a special investigator for the sheriff's department and personally conducted Belanger's background check for the jail job, Cousins said.
Cousins, who lives in Newburyport, said he knows Belanger and members of his family.
"I was concerned he used bad judgment in the past," Cousins said. "But the environment is different here. A person is not out on patrol. Our situation is very controlled."
Belanger was fired from Newburyport police in April of 1999 after four incidents in which he displayed what then-Mayor Lisa Mead had called "volatile, violent, uncontrolled behavior."
Mead fired Belanger after an incident at a Newburyport restaurant where Belanger allowed patrons to drink after closing and then fought with a patron while in full police uniform.
He was also disciplined three other times: for leaking information about a drug raid, fighting at a Newburyport bar, and exposing several people to a rabid raccoon he had shot on duty.
Cousins said Belanger never presented any problems during his time as an employee at Middleton Jail. Reviews from his superior officers indicate Belanger was a punctual and obedient corrections officer, he said.
"His behavior prior to coming here had nothing to do with his performance here," Cousins said.
Cousins said Belanger had stayed out of trouble in the five years since he left the Newburyport police. Belanger held several jobs, including a position with Security Specialists, a Newburyport-area security firm.
Cousins said Belanger faced lengthy scrutiny and background checks, as all applicants do.
In order to work as a correctional officer, applicants must pass a comprehensive background check that includes medical, physical fitness and psychological testing, a criminal background check and a drug screen. Investigators also speak with a variety of sources, including neighbors and former employers.
"There was no signal this was coming," Cousins said.
The man who conducted Belanger's background check was Francis O'Connor, a retired Newburyport police marshal who disciplined Belanger for his misconduct as a police officer. O'Connor retired in 1997 and works as a special investigator for the sheriff's department.
Belanger worked the midnight shift and was still on probationary status because he was hired only eight months ago. Cousins fired him immediately when he learned of the molestation charges.
"The charges were serious and I made the decision to terminate him," Cousins said.
According to criminal complaints, Belanger is accused of raping and fondling a 12-year-old girl and then threatening to kill her siblings and mother. Police also charged him with endangering a 9-year-old child by refusing to provide adequate shelter and food.
Belanger, the father of three children, is going through a divorce. He lives on Winnacunnet Road in Hampton.
"It's a very sad story," Cousins said.
Belanger has been charged with felonious sexual assault on a person under age 13, criminal threatening, and endangering the welfare of a child. If convicted of the sexual assault charge, he faces up to 20 years in prison, according to information provided by Hampton police Capt. James Sullivan. Sullivan refused to provide details of the case.
Belanger was held on $15,000 cash bail and is scheduled to return to Hampton District Court on Feb. 15.
Staff reporter Jill Harmacinski can be reached at 978-338-2652 or by email at [email protected]