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March 28. 2013 9:42PM

Investigators explain why officer's arrest took 4 days

BEDFORD - Bedford investigators did not arrest a Manchester police sergeant when they went to his house hours after a hit-and-run crash that injured two teens because they did not have probable cause to believe he was the driver, according to Hillsborough County Attorney Patricia M. LaFrance.

Stephen Coco, 41, of Bedford turned himself in to Bedford police Tuesday, four days after the crash and a day after he was fired from the Manchester Police Department. By then, police had a warrant for his arrest on two class B felony counts of conduct after an accident, which carry a maximum sentence of 3 1/2 to seven years per charge.

LaFrance said investigators wanted to be certain when they sought an arrest warrant from a judge that they had the needed probable cause.

A little more than five hours after the crash, detectives had information that Coco was the man at the wheel of an SUV that hit the two teens as they walked along Harrod Drive. Investigators had matched a broken part of a plastic lens, found at the crash scene, to Coco's damaged 2007 Nissan Pathfinder that was parked in the driveway of his 29 Meadowcrest Drive home.

LaFrance explained, however, that while the part appeared to be a match to the "naked eye," that is not forensic evidence. An expert, she said, is needed at trial to show that the part came off the Nissan.

And, according to the affidavit filed in 9th Circuit Court, Merrimack District Division, Coco also denied he had driven the Nissan at all that night.

Meanwhile, Manchester police have said they have concluded an internal investigation into the hit-and-run as well as events preceding it. Coco had been visiting the Harrod Lane home of Jeff Harrington, a fellow Manchester police officer whose son suffers from leukemia.

"A large amount of information was gathered during the investigation, the scope of which encompassed the periods of time that preceded and followed the collision. The only employee misconduct identified during this investigation was on the part of Stephen Coco and based on those findings, he was terminated," said police Lt. Maureen Tessier.

LaFrance said the case is still under investigation. She said it will be prosecuted by another county attorney's office - which one has yet to be determined.

Dean Drukker, 18, and Noah Hickman, 17, were struck from behind on the night of March 22 as they were walking along Harrod Lane. Drukker suffered a serious head injury and was hospitalized for several days, while Hickman broke his right elbow.

The driver of the SUV fled the scene. Police were led to Coco's home after Hickman told them he and Drukker saw the SUV leave a nearby home, which turned out to be Harrington's residence.

Later on Saturday, investigators impounded the SUV, which was an undercover vehicle assigned to Coco as a sergeant in the Special Investigations Unit at the Manchester Police Department. They obtained a warrant to search it and found fresh damage to its front, numerous indentations in the front hood on the driver's side and fabric impressions on the front bumper consistent with the clothes Drukker had on when he was hit, according to the affidavit.

Coco is free on $20,000 personal recognizance bail, pending a probable cause hearing set for April 16.

Coco, who was employed with the Manchester Police Department for 17 1/2 years, was fired Monday for violating several standard operating procedures, according to Manchester Police Chief David Mara.



pgrossmith@unionleader.com

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