Judge tosses lenient plea deal in ‘life threatening’ Milford assault
MILFORD — Judge Peter Brown Wednesday tossed a plea deal for a man who confessed to brutally beating a female neighbor in March — and quickly quelled the applause that followed.
Meanwhile, defendant Russell Molleur’s sister wrote a letter to the court on behalf of her brother, saying he’s intellectually disabled, scared in jail and turned to drinking when their mother died five years ago, as she was his support system.
The controversial plea deal offered to and accepted by Molleur, 57, has been thrust into the spotlight by victim Lori Wierzbicki and her brother, Stratford firefighter Tim McLaughlin, who have gained enormous support from people outraged over the plea bargain.
Their “Justice for Lori” Facebook page has thousands of supporters, with a rally held on the Green and more than 19,000 signatures on a change.org petition.
The pair on Wednesday had about 40 supporters in the courtroom who burst into applause when Brown said he was vacating the plea deal. Brown gently stopped the courtroom applause.
Brown said he made the decision in part because Wierzbicki revealed in her victim impact statement read in court Wednesday that the weakness from her multiple sclerosis limited her ability to fend off the attack, and also because Molleur is facing criminal charges involving an intellectually disabled man.
Brown said one of the motivating factors in the plea deal offered to Molleur was that he had no previous record, but that the charges for his actions with the disabled man negate that. In that case, Molleur is charged with second-degree threatening, second-degree unlawful restraint and disorderly conduct, records show.
Both Wierzbicki and McLaughlin told Brown they believe Molleur is a danger to the community.
Molleur originally was charged with assault, unlawful restraint and strangulation, all in the first degree; disorderly conduct and tampering with evidence.
Under the original plea bargain, Molleur was to see most of the charges dropped or downgraded and receive eight years in prison suspended after two years served, and three years of probation, with the right to argue for a full suspended sentence at Wednesday’s hearing, court records state.
McLaughlin said they were informed the plea bargain gets rid of strangulation, disorderly conduct and tampering with evidence — and the assault charge was changed to second-degree, which has no mandatory minimum sentence. The only charge to stand was first-degree unlawful restraint.
As promised to the family, prosecutor Charles “Chuck” Stango told Brown he favored vacating the plea deal.
“Life for her (Wierzbicki) has been forever changed,” Stango told Brown.
Wednesday was Molleur’s sentencing date, but Brown instead put Molleur’s case back on the pretrial docket and he is scheduled to appear in court Feb. 13.
Brown made no mention of all the publicity surrounding the case, and granted the media permission to photograph in the courtroom.
Wierzbicki, who along with MS has bipolar disorder, was strangled and beaten unconscious, punched in the face numerous times during a bloody attack described by police as “life threatening.” Molleur confessed to police at the scene.
Wierzbicki said on the courthouse steps later Wednesday, “I’m happy we’re back to square one.”
Wierzbicki also said she was happy the judge acknowledged her disability, as it was not reflected in the criminal charges. She has maintained Molleur should have been charged with assault on a disabled person, which carries a minimum 5-year sentence.
McLaughlin said Brown and Stango “did the right thing.”
“I thought Judge Brown was very fair — he really listened,” McLaughlin said.
Both Wierzbicki and McLaughlin thanked supporters who had attended the court session, as well as thousands of supporters from all over the state and country who have supported the “Justice for Lori” cause.
McLaughlin said he hopes the attention his sister’s case has received from the public and lawmakers will be a “launching pad for victim’s rights.”
Molleur’s attorney, public defender Susan Brown — no relation to Judge Brown — told the judge her client belongs in a “facility” because he has an intellectual disability for which he receives Social Security benefits.
She said his life was fine until five years ago, when his mother died.
Molleur didn’t cope with the loss well, as she was his primary support system, Susan Brown said, and “his drinking got out of control.”
“Mr. Molleur is very sorry this happened — they were friends, they spent time together,” Susan Brown said, referring to Wierzbicki, who has described Molleur as a casual acquaintance. The two lived in a local complex for the elderly and disabled.
One of Molleur’s sisters wrote a letter to the court on behalf of her brother, detailing his intellectual disability from childhood and his inability to cope after their mother’s death at age 95.
In the letter read in court by Attorney Brown, the sister stated that although he is 57, Molleur has the mental capacity of someone 12 to 14 years old.
With that, and standing only 5 feet, 1 inch tall, he’s scared in jail, she said.
Susan Brown gave Molleur credit in court for asking a neighbor to call police, not fleeing the scene and confessing to police.
“He was horrified by what he saw,” she said, referring to Wierzbicki’s state after the crime. She had bruising so severe that her face and body looked distorted. “It’s a horrible situation. Mr. Molleur has done everything he can to make it better.”
Molleur has been jailed since early March when the attack occurred.
Supporter Michele Lebel was emotional outside the courtroom following Brown’s decision. She was among the many who wore purple, Wierzbicki’s favorite color, and even her lipstick was purple.
“This means a lot because there are so many cases where people don’t speak up,” and don’t get justice, Lebel said. “This is a positive. It’s nice to see they (the court) were open and listening.”
Supporter Bryan Anderson, one of about 100 who attended a rally on the Green in December, said he was impressed with how the judge really listened and considered Wierzbicki’s victim’s impact statement, while weighing the evidence.
“What was achieved today was remarkable,” Anderson said, calling the tossing of the plea deal “unprecedented.”
“It really speaks to the fact that Lori’s situation resonated with the community,” Anderson said.
Wierzbicki had tearfully objected to the plea deal over the phone the day of the plea deal hearing, according to court files, but she said she was never given a realistic chance to appear in person because she was only notified that morning and didn’t have transportation.
After the bloody assault that left her unconscious, Wierzbicki said Molleur ordered her to strip, get in the shower and wash off the blood evidence, as Molleur sat cross-legged on the floor threatening to kill her.
In her victim’s impact statement, Wierzbicki told Judge Brown she still has a fear of showering and on Wednesday took shower number 26 since the attack. The shower makes her relive the assault, so she has to wash herself with baby wipes and wash her hair in the kitchen sink.
“I thought I was going to die that day,” Wierzbicki told the judge.
She told the judge that in addition to being charged with assault on a disabled person, Molleur should have been charged with attempted murder.
Many who were there in court to support Wierzbicki were residents of her complex who said she is loved by all. Wierzbicki keeps the doors double locked these days, but still keeps coffee cups and home baked cookies on the table in case anyone wants to have a cup and chat.