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Retired state police captain and wife charged in connection with death of Dedham teenager

Debra Rowell, left, mother of Alonzo Polk, sat with her family as the clerk-magistrate delivered his decision during a hearing for retired State Police detective captain James Coughlin and his wife, Leslie, at district court in Dedham on Wednesday.
Debra Rowell, left, mother of Alonzo Polk, sat with her family as the clerk-magistrate delivered his decision during a hearing for retired State Police detective captain James Coughlin and his wife, Leslie, at district court in Dedham on Wednesday.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

DEDHAM — The Dedham couple who hosted the high school graduation party where Alonzo J. Polk IV apparently drowned June 6 were charged Wednesday with providing alcohol to minors and endangering a child, after police said four teenagers drank beer at the party and Polk was photographed shortly before his death at a table lined with “empty alcohol containers.”

James F. Coughlin, a retired State Police detective captain, and his wife, Leslie, were both charged after Dedham District Court Clerk-Magistrate Salvatore Paterna found probable cause to support issuing the misdemeanor charges against the couple. An arraignment date has not been set.

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The family of Polk, who was honored with the Anne S. Corcoran Scholarship during high school graduation ceremonies and was a varsity athlete on multiple teams, said the two criminal complaints mark the first step in obtaining justice for the teenager.

“We’re here only for justice for Alonzo. We appreciate what happened here today,” said Roshawn Drane, Polk’s brother. “It’s one step of a long road, and I want to make sure in this long road that there’s justice for Alonzo.”

Drane and Polk’s family walked away from reporters gathered in front of the courthouse, chanting “Justice for Alonzo! Justice for Alonzo! Justice for Alonzo!”

The defense attorney for the couple, Brian T. Kelly, called Polk’s death a “terrible tragedy” but not a crime. “They are heartbroken that it happened,” Kelly said. “But not every accident is a crime.”

The couple — he is 55 and she is 54 — and their supporters left without speaking to reporters.

The Coughlins sat next to each other during what is usually a closed-door proceeding. It was opened to Polk’s family and the public after Paterna concluded the circumstances surrounding the death were of great public interest to the Dedham community. He also rejected a defense request that the Coughlins be allowed to skip the proceeding, as often happens during probable cause hearings.

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Some 14 members of Polk’s family attended as did a similar number of supporters of Coughlin. The hearing, including Paterna’s deliberations, lasted about 20 minutes and consisted of Dedham Police Sergeant Michael Feeley reading a police report and Kelly arguing there was no legal basis to charge the Coughlins with child endangerment.

According to the police report, officers responded to the Coughlins’ home on Netta Road around 12:30 a.m. June 6. One of the responding officers saw “several obviously intoxicated high school age individuals as well as many empty beer cans.”

Police identified four teenagers by name who told investigators “they were permitted to consume alcohol on the premises.” The police report said “James and Leslie Coughlin would have reasonably known that many of the guests were not of age to consume alcohol.’'

To further support the request that both Coughlins face charges of providing alcohol to minors, police said they reviewed photographs taken during the party, “including one that depicts the 17-year-old drowning victim sitting at a table with several empty alcohol containers in front of him.”

Police said the basis for charging the Coughlins with child endangerment was tied to the lack of underwater lighting in the deep end of the in-ground pool. The light, according to police, was still connected to the pool, but was lying on a towel alongside the pool.

“The pool area [was] dimly lit,” according to the police report. “The adults that had previously been outside in the yard/pool area relocated to the interior of the home, thereby leaving a number of underage drinkers unattended at the pool.”

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Polk was pulled from the pool around midnight and provided with CPR at the scene and taken to a Boston hospital; he died June 10. Kelly said James Coughlin provided the CPR.

A cause of death has not been released, and the report did not say whether investigators have confirmed that Polk was drinking alcohol during the party.

Kelly asserted in court that Polk was a non-swimmer who was knocked into the pool by a friend who was unaware the teenager could not swim. He also insisted there were adults still in the backyard when the teenager landed in the pool and that since Polk would have turned 18 on June 17, he could not reasonably be considered a child.

“Alonzo was certainly an outstanding young man and he was a welcome and invited guest to the Coughlins’ home,” Kelly said. But “this wasn’t a situation where he was a toddler left unsupervised near a pool.”

Kelly, without citing his source of information, was adamant that Polk did not consume alcohol at the Coughlins’ home.

“He was observed drinking water. He was not drinking [alcohol] at the party,“ Kelly told Paterna. “It was well-known he was not a drinker.”

Polk’s relatives and family attorney Gregory Henning declined to address defense assertions that Polk was not drinking alcohol, or whether he could swim. They said they will let Dedham and State Police along with Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey’s office continue the investigation.

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Retired State Police detective captain James Coughlin, left, and his wife, Leslie, arrived for a clerk-magistrate hearing at district court in Dedham on Wednesday. The Coughlins hosted a graduation party last month where Alonzo Polk, 17, apparently drowned.
Retired State Police detective captain James Coughlin, left, and his wife, Leslie, arrived for a clerk-magistrate hearing at district court in Dedham on Wednesday. The Coughlins hosted a graduation party last month where Alonzo Polk, 17, apparently drowned. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Through a spokesman, Morrissey said Wednesday he saw no reason to pull troopers off of the case because of Coughlin’s law enforcement career.

“This defendant is a civilian. He was not acting as, or serving as, a police officer in any way,’' Morrissey said in a statement, adding that he is in overall charge of the investigation, not any police agency.

 Alonzo J. Polk IV died after being pulled from a swimming pool during a high school graduation party.
Alonzo J. Polk IV died after being pulled from a swimming pool during a high school graduation party. Instagram

Morrissey also said it was “not uncommon for any district attorney’s office to have to investigate a death where state police officers are involved. … This is not an unusual circumstance.”



John R. Ellement can be reached at john.ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.