Joel Coon sat on the tailgate of his GMC Suburban, golf clubs at his side. He watched the younger man, who he knew as “Danny,” get out of the passenger side of a black sedan.
Danny was followed by an older man in a black T-shirt, shorts and baseball cap who said he was Danny’s father.
Coon had agreed to meet the pair in the Gardiner Hannaford supermarket parking lot. The father and son wanted to take a look at the golf clubs, which Coon was selling.
Coon froze as he was ordered by Danny’s father to drop to the ground. He didn’t know if it was a prank or if he was being robbed.
Seconds later, Coon was looking down the barrel of a gun.
He finally went down. Two Gardiner police officers closed in.
Coon would find out later that he had been caught up in an off-the-cuff sting operation arranged by Winthrop Police Chief Joseph Young Sr. — who played Danny’s father — and Ross Bragg, the man Coon knew as Danny.
No one involved disagrees that shortly after 5:30 p.m. on Aug. 27, Young drew his gun on an unarmed man who hadn’t committed a crime.
But Coon, 34, of Dresden, a pharmacist for VA Maine Healthcare System-Togus, didn’t steal the clubs. Coon was vindicated within minutes after police confirmed his brother bought the clubs at an Augusta pawn shop 10 days earlier.
Gardiner Detective Michael Durham, who was at the scene, told Coon the man who pulled the gun on him was Young. He said the younger man was a family friend of the police chief, but didn’t tell Coon his name.
The younger man turned out to be Bragg, the 26-year-old son of attorney Lee Bragg, of Manchester.
Lee Bragg is Winthrop’s town attorney and a partner at the Augusta office of Bernstein Shur. The law firm’s website says he manages the largest municipal law practice in the state, with about 40 municipalities as clients.
The elder Bragg said in a December interview he didn’t know anything about what happened in the Gardiner parking lot in August. But Young maintains that Lee Bragg, whom he’s known since becoming Winthrop’s chief 26 years ago, made the call that initiated the operation.
Coon filed a complaint with the town of Winthrop after the parking lot sting, and Town Manager Jeffrey Woolston conducted an investigation clearing Young of wrongdoing. Law enforcement experts told the Kennebec Journal that Young was justified in pulling his gun and it doesn’t appear any laws were broken.
Even so, some of those experts question Bragg’s denial of knowledge about the sting, his son’s involvement, the operation’s hasty planning and the fact a gun was pulled.
A law enforcement consultant who reviewed incident documents for the Kennebec Journal said Young rushed and mishandled the sting.
Chuck Drago, a former assistant police chief in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who runs a law enforcement consulting firm, said Young needs “a lot more training in how to conduct a covert operation or undercover operation.”
“There’s a list of mistakes or failures on his part in conducting that operation that made it a lot more dangerous than it had to be,” Drago said.
Stolen golf clubs
The golf clubs were stolen July 21 from Ross Bragg’s car, parked near White Cap Condominiums at the Sunday River ski resort in the Oxford County town of Newry.
Bragg, who works at Sunday River, wouldn’t say in a recent interview if the car was locked, but the Oxford County sheriff’s report said he found the back door of the car open and the clubs gone.
He reported the clubs stolen a month later. Bragg said he waited a month because he had given up hope of finding the clubs, but saw them on Craigslist, a classified advertising website, on Aug. 26 in a moment of “serendipity.”
“I typed in Titleist and there was one listing,” which he recognized as his clubs. The posting had gone up earlier that day.
He reported the clubs stolen later that night. Bragg’s report with the Oxford County Sheriff’s Department was filed at 9:13 p.m. on Aug. 26, the day before the Gardiner sting. The police blotter says the “victim had several specifics about the club/bag and has since spotted it” on Craigslist. The item says Oxford County Sheriff’s Deputy Mike Halacy was assigned to the case.
Lee Bragg didn’t like what he and his son were hearing from Oxford County, according to Young’s report to the Winthrop town manager. The father-son pair thought the window of time they had to retrieve the clubs was closing, the chief said.
Ross Bragg said after he saw the clubs advertised online, he called the Maine State Police, who directed him to the sheriff’s office.
He said the sheriff’s department “didn’t seem very competent and I didn’t hear any solid answers as to how I’d get my clubs back.”
Lee Bragg called Young around 10:30 p.m. that night, a little more than an hour after the theft was reported. Bragg “sounded very frustrated,” Young said, and was “concerned that his son might not get his clubs back if they didn’t do something soon.”
Young said he wouldn’t call Bragg a family friend; their relationship is a professional one, he said.
Young said he knew the theft had been reported, but didn’t know the report had been made barely an hour before he was called.
Bragg was looking for advice. Young suggested that Ross Bragg call the clubs’ seller and say he was interested in buying them, arrange a meeting, look at the clubs and make sure they were his.
Young said he and Lee Bragg agreed that the Craigslist post was suspicious. It said the clubs’ location was Dresden, but the seller gave an out-of-state contact number.
Young thought Ross Bragg shouldn’t go alone and proposed tagging along, posing as the younger Bragg’s father.
“It seemed to me to be a rather simple thing to do,” Young said in an interview. “Quite honestly, I would have done it for anybody.”
But Young acknowledges now he was wrong about that — it wasn’t simple.
It wasn’t normal police work for him, either. Young said he worked on undercover operations early in his law enforcement career, but now he doesn’t go in the field unless he needs to back up an officer.
“I’ve been a police chief for the town of Winthrop for 26 years,” he said. “I haven’t done this in, you know, 26 years, I guess.”
Enter the Coons — Joel and his brother, Nolan.
Nolan Coon lives in Washington state, but was in Maine to visit their father, who has cancer and is staying at Joel’s house in Dresden.
Nolan Coon said in an interview he wanted a set of golf clubs to use while in Maine. So on Aug. 17, the brothers bought a set at Augusta Pawn and Jewelry on Water Street. A receipt shows the set cost $66.15. The sheriff’s report said the clubs were valued at $450.
They were pawned at the shop for $30, according to a Gardiner police report.
The set’s blue Ping golf bag had a patch from the Augusta Country Club in Manchester and was made up mostly of Titleist clubs, but had a Ping putter and a Mizuno driver.
Nolan Coon intended to leave the clubs in Maine and use them when he returned to visit. He didn’t like the way the set played, however, so he put it up for sale on Craigslist on Aug. 26, just before he left Maine for home, according to a note he later faxed to Gardiner police. The listing had his Washington state cellphone number.
Ross Bragg contacted Nolan Coon via email at 5:23 p.m. on Aug. 26 about buying the clubs. It was about four hours before he reported them stolen.
Bragg used an email name of A B, though Joel Coon said Bragg identified himself on the phone and in person as Danny. Bragg disputes that he identified himself as Danny, saying he didn’t give a name and only used the email name.
Bragg wrote that he was “very interested in the golf set you posted.”
“I would be happy with just the irons, but I noticed you want to keep the whole package together,” he wrote. “I can definitely do $250.”
Bragg wrote that he had golf league on Tuesday night “and would love the new set by then!” Aug. 27 was a Monday.
In a later message, Nolan Coon said he’d sell Bragg the set for $260, which Bragg agreed to early on Aug. 27 “as long as the irons are in good shape.”
“The person was OK with the price, which was a good deal for my brother, having bought them for $66,” Joel Coon said.
Then they began to negotiate a place to meet. Bragg said he lived in Portland and was coming from there. He said his father, who lived in Augusta, would be chipping in for his birthday.
Later that day, Coon suggested meeting at the Dunkin’ Donuts just off Interstate 295 in Richmond. In the account Young wrote for Winthrop’s town manager, he said Coon and Bragg agreed to the location, but Young had already spoken to Gardiner police about staging the sting in their city, so it had to happen in Gardiner.
A trail of emails provided by Nolan Coon ends before a meeting place was finally negotiated. Young’s written account says Ross Bragg negotiated the Gardiner meeting by phone with Joel Coon, who became the primary contact after Nolan Coon posted the clubs on Craigslist and left for Washington state the following day.
Neither Young nor Ross Bragg knew Joel Coon’s name before the sting.
“Ross stated that when he spoke to Coon he seemed anxious and eager to sell the clubs and (Ross) feared if we didn’t meet with him that night he was going to sell them to somebody else,” Young’s report says.
So the meeting was set up.
‘Lack of operational knowledge’
Durham learned about the sting from Gardiner Police Chief James Toman at 4:05 p.m. on Aug. 27, he wrote in his report. But Toman had few details, so Durham called Young.
“Chief Young told me he did not know if this operation was going to take place tonight or the following day. Chief Young did not have any information about the seller or his vehicle,” Durham wrote. Also, Young did not know the name of the Oxford County deputy investigating the theft.
“There was a general lack of operational knowledge which made this operation very difficult to plan for,” he wrote.
Still, Young provided Durham a scenario: He’d pose as Ross Bragg’s father and help him retrieve the clubs. If the clubs were Bragg’s, Gardiner police officers would move in and question the seller.
Durham wrote that he contacted Halacy, the Oxford County deputy, and got details on the theft. His report said he ran the sting scenario by James Mitchell, then a Kennebec County assistant district attorney, who OK’d it. Mitchell, now an assistant DA in Aroostook County, didn’t return multiple phone messages and emails over several weeks seeking comment for this story.
Not knowing when the sting would happen, Durham went home.
Young was playing golf in Litchfield late that afternoon when he got a call from Ross Bragg telling him the meeting was arranged.
“I really didn’t have any knowledge as to who Mr. Coon was,” Young said. “Had I had that information it probably would have made things a little bit easier. I could have done some checking.”
At 5:20 p.m., Young called Durham to say the sting was happening.
Young’s statement for the Winthrop investigation said he called Durham to tell him about “the time, place and vehicle description of the subject, what I would be driving and the plan to identify the stolen property and subsequent action to be taken.”
Durham’s report said Young told him it was happening at 5:30 p.m. — in 10 minutes.
“He did not have any additional information,” Durham wrote.
The gun is drawn
Durham wrote that he went to Hannaford from home in his own car, dressed in plain clothes with his badge on a chain around his neck. He had a department-issued gun, an extra magazine, a portable radio and handcuffs.
Young drove his unmarked car from his golf game in Litchfield to the J&S Oil station in Farmingdale, where Ross Bragg was waiting to be picked up. Young’s car was new and wasn’t equipped with emergency lights or radio.
Young said he accidentally left his cellphone at the golf course. That would prove to be a problem as the sting went down.
He picked up Ross Bragg and briefed him on the plan, telling Bragg to identify the clubs, then take a “safety position” behind Young’s car.
The younger Bragg said Young was “very aware of the potential hazards” of the operation and they went over possible scenarios.
The possibility of Young pulling a gun wasn’t one of them, Bragg said. According to their plan, Bragg would identify the clubs and then get in Young’s car.
Durham wrote that he got to the parking lot before Young. Gardiner Police Sgt. Stacey Blair parked a marked cruiser near a Subway restaurant in a lot that overlooks the Hannaford lot. Durham’s account said the two policemen had radio contact and agreed that when Young got there and gave a signal, they would move in.
When Durham arrived at Hannaford, he saw Joel Coon sitting on the tailgate of a light brown GMC Suburban with a set of golf clubs next to him. Coon — wearing a baseball cap, shorts and a T-shirt — was alone.
“I tried calling Chief Young multiple times to update him on this information, but there was no answer,” Durham wrote.
Durham wrote that he saw Young and Ross Bragg enter the parking lot several minutes later.
As Young drove toward Coon, he saw Durham parked about 50 yards away from Coon’s car and waved to him.
Young pulled up behind Coon’s Suburban and he and Bragg got out of the car.
Joel Coon said Ross Bragg, who he knew as Danny, shook his hand and began looking over the clubs. Young shook Coon’s hand and stood next to him.
Bragg said he liked the clubs, according to both Coon and Young. Then he went to Young’s car.
“Immediately the father turned to face me at close range with a completely changed demeanor,” Coon wrote in the complaint he filed with the town of Winthrop.
Young and Coon disagree about what happened next.
Young’s version is that he said, “Police officer. These clubs are stolen. Get down on the ground.”
Coon’s version is that Young didn’t say the clubs were stolen, but yelled, “I am a police officer. I have a badge. Get on the ground.”
Coon said he never saw a badge.
Bragg said Young identified himself twice. Although the plan included Young showing his badge, Bragg said he didn’t see whether that happened.
He said Coon took a step toward his truck. “He seemed to be weighing his options” to flee, Bragg said.
Young said his badge was in his left hand and he put it in front of Coon’s face.
“There’s no way he didn’t see that badge,” Young said. “He just looked at me and was unresponsive.”
Coon said he thought at first it was a prank. Or maybe he was being robbed.
He agrees with Young that he didn’t react — his confusion paralyzed him.
Young wrote that his badge was still “up in (Coon’s) face” and he said, “I’m a police officer. Down on the ground now.”
Coon was still not responding.
“That’s when I pulled my firearm” — a .380-caliber semi-automatic pistol he carries off-duty — Young said.
Young and Coon were a few feet apart.
Durham didn’t mention in his report that Young showed his badge. It said only that he saw Young approach Coon and the golf clubs.
“I then observed Chief Young draw his firearm and the seller then laid on his stomach on the ground (prone),” Durham wrote. “I called Sgt. Blair on the radio and told him to move in.”
Coon is cleared
Durham rushed from his car and Blair drove up in a marked police cruiser. Durham wrote that he told Coon to get up and walk over to Blair’s car.
Young put his gun away. Young and Bragg left a short time later.
Durham asked Coon for identification and told him the man who held him at gunpoint was the Winthrop police chief. He also told Coon the clubs were stolen and the sting had been set up to recover them.
“I had no kind of inkling that they had been stolen,” Coon said in an interview.
Coon told the detective that his brother had bought the clubs and called Nolan Coon, who agreed to fax the pawn shop receipt. Durham said that once he got the receipt, the brothers would be cleared of any wrongdoing. Joel Coon said police then let him leave.
“That was a little draconian,” Coon said he told Durham.
Coon said Durham replied that if the sting had happened under his watch, “it would have gone down a lot differently.”
Durham and Blair seized the clubs as evidence and took them back to the police station. Durham soon got a fax with the receipt from Nolan Coon and the brothers were cleared.
The next day Joel Coon picked up three clubs from the police station that were added to the set by the pawn shop and not part of the stolen set. Durham called Bragg to say he could get his clubs after the Oxford County Sheriff’s Department gave the OK to release them.
In a phone call with Durham on Aug. 28, Coon said he was angry about the sting and asked why Young “took him down at gunpoint and what authority Chief Young had in Gardiner,” according to the detective’s report.
“I explained that these were questions he should direct towards my chief, as I did not have answers to these questions,” Durham wrote. “I explained that I hoped he felt Sgt. Blair and I had treated him fairly. He said we had, and he added that Sgt. Blair and I were very civil.”
Durham’s boss, Toman, said that Durham telling Coon he would have done it differently was OK.
Toman said he couldn’t second-guess Young for drawing his gun, though.
“Because of different personalities and so forth,” Toman said, “it’s normal for different agencies to handle things differently.”
Part 2 of this story will appear in Monday’s edition.
Michael Shepherd — 621-5632