Advertisement

A snowy night, a cracked taillight and a mystery: How a police officer’s death divided a Boston suburb

In the pre-dawn hours of January 29, 2022,  a man was found dead in a blizzard outside a house in suburban Boston. He was wearing two shirts, blue jeans, socks and one black Nike sneaker. On the blanket of snow near his body were shards of glass and splotches of blood.

His name was John O’Keefe, and he was a Boston police officer.

O’Keefe and his girlfriend of two years, Karen Read, had been on a bar crawl earlier that night. Shortly after midnight, according to court documents, they climbed into her black Lexus SUV and headed to an afterparty at the home of a fellow Boston police officer on Fairview Road in Canton.

About six hours later, O’Keefe’s body was spotted in the front yard of the house, covered in snow. But what happened during those six hours has sharply divided Canton, a town of 24,000 people about 15 miles southwest of Boston.

Residents of the town and neighboring suburbs have spent months debating two potential scenarios: Was O’Keefe beaten inside the house and tossed outside to die in the snow? Or did his girlfriend fatally strike him with her car?

Local prosecutors have made their position clear, charging Read with second-degree murder, vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and leaving the scene of a collision. She has pleaded not guilty, and her trial is set for March.

Officer John O'Keefe in an undated photograph provided by the Boston Police Department. He would have been 48 this week. - Boston Police Department/AP
Officer John O'Keefe in an undated photograph provided by the Boston Police Department. He would have been 48 this week. - Boston Police Department/AP

With both the trial and the two-year anniversary of O’Keefe’s death looming, debate over the case has torn apart the tight-knit town.

Residents have stormed city council meetings, demanding answers. Some have accused the local police of a cover-up to protect those at the party on Fairview Road. Others have visited Facebook group pages and local blogs to discuss intricacies of that fateful night, turning what began as a local homicide case into a broader sensation.

At the heart of the controversy is a key question: Did O’Keefe enter the house on Fairview Road that night? The prosecution says no. The defense says yes.

“Those who’ve heard of the case have pretty much picked a side,” said longtime Canton resident Jonathan Comeau, who recently moved to a nearby suburb. “There is the ‘She is guilty’ side and the ‘There was a fight in that house’ side. There is pretty much no one on the fence.”

What Karen Read says happened that night

Read, 43, is out on bail awaiting her trial.

In court documents and in media interviews, she’s said that she and O’Keefe went to two Canton bars that night. They mingled with friends, drinking beers and vodka sodas, before going to the home on Fairview Road.

Read said she dropped off O’Keefe outside the house, then returned to his place because she wasn’t feeling well. She called and texted him throughout the night, she said, but there was no response.

About 4:30 a.m., Read woke up screaming when she realized O’Keefe had not come home, court documents said.

Karen Read and her attorney, David Yannetti, attend pretrial hearings in September. Read's trial is scheduled to start in March. - Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald/Getty Images
Karen Read and her attorney, David Yannetti, attend pretrial hearings in September. Read's trial is scheduled to start in March. - Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald/Getty Images

She called two female friends, including Jennifer McCabe, who had been drinking with her that night. Together, the three women drove through the streets of Canton in near white-out conditions, looking for O’Keefe and calling his name, court documents said.

As the three women approached Fairview Road, Read said she caught a glimpse of O’Keefe lying on his back in the yard. McCabe told authorities that Read jumped out of the car in a panic and performed CPR on him, but he was not responsive.

The women called 911. It was so dark, officers who responded to the scene said they needed to use a spotlight attached to a police cruiser to find the women, court documents said.

A medical examiner later determined that O’Keefe suffered multiple skull fractures, consistent with blunt-force trauma that led to bleeding in the brain. He also had two swollen black eyes, several abrasions on his right arm as well and blood around his nose and mouth. Hypothermia was a contributing factor in his death, the autopsy ruled.

Read and her legal team, which includes attorneys Alan Jackson and David Yannetti, have said she’s being framed to protect the real killers.

“We know who did it. We know. And we know who spearheaded this coverup. You all know,” Read told reporters after a court hearing in September. “I tried to save his life. I tried to save his life at 6 in the morning, I was covered in his blood. I was the only one trying to save his life.”

Jackson told CNN that he believes O’Keefe entered the Fairview Road house that night and got into an altercation with someone inside.

“I think that confrontation got physical, and he was beaten to a point of unconsciousness,” Jackson said. “This was a coverup … he was murdered inside that house and his body placed outside.”

The body of Boston police officer John O'Keefe was found on January 29, 2022, near the fire hydrant outside this home on Fairview Road in Canton, Massachusetts. Canton residents have dueling theories about what happened that night. - Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe/Getty Images
The body of Boston police officer John O'Keefe was found on January 29, 2022, near the fire hydrant outside this home on Fairview Road in Canton, Massachusetts. Canton residents have dueling theories about what happened that night. - Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

The owner of the house at the time, Brian Albert, has not responded to CNN’s requests for comment.

In Read’s charging documents, Albert and his wife told police that O’Keefe and Read joined their group at Waterfall Bar & Grille, the second bar in Canton. The Alberts said they invited some people from the bar to their house but were not aware O’Keefe and Read were coming over. The Alberts added they didn’t know O’Keefe or Read that well but wouldn’t have minded if they’d come.

The Alberts also told police they “neither heard nor saw anything outside of their home over the course of the morning,” according to court documents.  The Fairview Road house was sold in April. Jackson said that the Alberts owned a German shepherd, which he believes is responsible for some of the bruises found on O’Keefe.

What prosecutors say happened that night

The prosecution’s narrative centers on what happened outside the house on Fairview Road. They allege that O’Keefe and Read got into an argument that led to him getting out of the Lexus.

They say evidence suggests a drunken Read struck him with her vehicle as she made a three-point turn, leaving him to die in the snowy cold.

Investigators said surveillance footage shows that between the two bars the couple went to that night, Read appeared to consume at least nine drinks.

The third woman in the vehicle that morning told investigators that Read appeared drunk when they were searching for O’Keefe.

Read also mentioned that her SUV’s right taillight was damaged and asked McCabe, “Could I have hit him. Did I hit him,” according to charging documents.

McCabe and the other woman in the car told investigators that as they neared the Fairview Road house, Read cried that she could see O’Keefe lying in the yard, despite the near white-out conditions and a cluster of trees obstructing the view. The two other women told police that neither of them could see O’Keefe at that point.

Read then leaped from the car, ran to O’Keefe and began trying to do CPR, they said.

In case documents and in court, Read’s attorneys have said they believe McCabe, who is Albert’s sister-in-law, is part of a coverup to protect the people inside the house and frame Read for the crime. A forensic search of McCabe’s phone revealed a Google search for the phrase, “Ho(w) long to die in cold” hours before Read called McCabe, looking for O’Keefe, according to court documents. Prosecutors dispute the timing and reason for the search.

McCabe has not been charged with a crime and did not respond to CNN’s requests for comment. Nor did her attorney, Kevin Reddington. But Reddington told local media that allegations of McCabe’s involvement in a cover-up are baseless.

“She cooperated with the police. She answered all their questions. She testified before the grand jury,” Reddington told the Sun Chronicle in April. “The next thing you know she gets smeared by the defense team.”

Norfolk County District Attorney Michael Morrissey has urged residents to stop harassing witnesses in the case. - Robin Chan/Wicked Local/USA Today Network
Norfolk County District Attorney Michael Morrissey has urged residents to stop harassing witnesses in the case. - Robin Chan/Wicked Local/USA Today Network

Canton police officers said they searched the area by O’Keefe’s body and found pieces from a broken cocktail glass and patches of blood in the snow. State police later found pieces of a taillight at the scene that appeared similar to a broken right taillight on Read’s vehicle, court documents said.

In a video statement in August, Michael Morrissey, the Norfolk County district attorney, said location data from O’Keefe’s phone showed he never entered the Fairview Road house.

“Innuendo is not evidence. False narratives are not evidence,” he said.  “Eleven people have given statements that they did not see John O’Keefe enter the home … Zero people have said that they saw him enter the home. Zero. No one. … There was no fight inside that home.”

O’Keefe’s family has described him as a loving man who stepped up to raise his niece and nephew after his sister and her husband died.

“People talk about someone who would give you the shirt off their back but that was truly who John was, and it is heartbreaking for us to suddenly be talking about him in the past tense,” the family said in a statement to local media shortly after his death.

O’Keefe’s niece and nephew, who lived with him for about eight years, told investigators that he and Read argued a lot and had expressed the need to take a break from one another. But Jackson, Read’s attorney, told CNN that she and O’Keefe had not argued that night.

Investigators dispute allegations of a coverup

Morrissey, the district attorney, has demanded a stop to the intimidation of witnesses in the case. He says allegations that a network of law enforcement agencies conspired to frame Read are not plausible.

“These people were not part of a conspiracy and certainly did not commit murder or any crime that night,” Morrisey said in his August video statement. “They are not suspects in any crime. They are merely witnesses in the case. … The idea that multiple police departments, EMTs, fire personnel, the medical examiner and prosecuting agencies are joining in … a vast conspiracy should be seen for what it is — completely contrary to the evidence and a desperate attempt to reassign guilt.”

In a statement to CNN, Canton Police Chief Helena Rafferty said investigators found “absolutely no evidence of a cover up in the tragic death of John O’Keefe.”

Karen Read's attorneys say bruises on her boyfriend's arms were from a fight. Prosecutors say they're from her striking him with her SUV. - John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe/Getty Images
Karen Read's attorneys say bruises on her boyfriend's arms were from a fight. Prosecutors say they're from her striking him with her SUV. - John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

At a town board meeting in August, she acknowledged there’s a “mistrust for the police department” in Canton, but said it’s not as widespread as portrayed.

“However, I do acknowledge that it is there, and I hear you,” she said. “I believe the first step in bridging that trust gap is effective and healthy communication.” She did not respond to further questions from CNN on the root of the mistrust.

Last month, Canton residents voted for an independent investigation into the police department after a special town meeting that focused on Read’s case.

Rafferty told CNN she believes the $200,000 budget for the investigation would be better spent on other things.

“I believe that Canton has more productive uses for the funds to serve our town,” she said. “Regardless, we welcome the review which will end the wild speculation about our Police Department and demonstrate to everyone that the citizens of Canton should be proud of our dedicated officers.”

CNN affiliate WFXT reported last week that the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts has launched a federal probe into Read’s arrest and prosecution. When reached by CNN, the federal agency declined to comment. “We don’t confirm or deny investigations,” it said.

The furor over the case has divided the town

Reassurances from the police and prosecutors have not done much to quell the debate in this upper-middle class suburb — known for being the headquarters of donut chain Dunkin’.

Walk into a coffee shop or restaurant and anyone who’s heard about the case has formed an opinion, said Comeau, who grew up in Canton.

In Canton and surrounding towns, where family ties span generations, residents have picked sides, leading to grudges and accusations. Albert’s brother is a selectman in the town, which has added another layer to the debate, some former Canton residents told CNN.

“There are people who privately talk about the case and are scared to say anything out of fear that the police or other townies would be upset, and something would happen to them or their children,” Comeau said. “Even the local businesses understand that they cannot pick a side for fear of losing business.”

Hundreds of police officers line up to attend a wake for Boston Police officer John O'Keefe at St. Francis of Assisi Church on February 6, 2022, in Braintree, Massachusetts. - Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe/Getty Images
Hundreds of police officers line up to attend a wake for Boston Police officer John O'Keefe at St. Francis of Assisi Church on February 6, 2022, in Braintree, Massachusetts. - Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

Aidan Kearney, a Massachusetts blogger nicknamed Turtleboy, has fed the ongoing debate with numerous posts alleging a murder coverup by law enforcement and local politicians. But he’s also made his own headlines. In October, Kearney pleaded not guilty to charges of witness intimidation and conspiracy after he allegedly called and sent messages to witnesses and investigators in Read’s case, CNN affiliate WBZ reported.

“I will not be silenced,” Kearney, wearing a “Free Karen Read” sweatshirt, told a crowd gathered outside the courthouse after his release. “I will be steadfast in keeping on with this mission to expose the real killers of John O’Keefe.”

In nearby Malden, a group of Read’s supporters hosted a Halloween Day fundraiser for her defense. Some attendees wore “Free Karen Read” T-shirts and FBI hats or wrapped themselves in yellow crime-scene tape.

Peter Elikann, an author and criminal defense attorney in the Boston neighborhood of Charlestown, told CNN he’s watched the dueling narratives unfold over the past few months. Social media has fed competing theories and amplified the debate, he said.

“It’s …. like opposing armies lined up on the horizon,” Elikann said. But unlike a lot of murder cases that can appear “open and shut,” he said, this one is anything but.

“The interesting thing here is that the controversy is not based purely on emotion and gut instinct … the facts as promised by the prosecution and the defense are in such stark contradiction,” he said.

Sean McDonough, a former Canton resident and retired DEA agent, said the deep divisions surrounding the case do not surprise him. He attended high school in Canton, knows the town’s culture and politics, and said there’s long been a deep mistrust of the police department.

“A lot of questions have come up that that basically divide the town … And there’s answers that have not been given yet,” said McDonough, who now lives in Naples, Florida. “It was a beautiful town to live in and still is. It’s just this is a very big cloud that’s hanging over them, and it’s getting worse.”

McDonough and others interested in the case have joined private Facebook pages to dissect scenarios of what they believe happened that night. Several pages have thousands of members.

One Facebook post acknowledged the nuances of the case and how much they’ve torn the town apart.

“From the outside looking in, it’s hard to understand,” the post said. “From the inside looking out, it’s hard to explain.”

O’Keefe would have turned 48 on Friday.

At a Canton town meeting Tuesday night, resident Jennifer O’Donnell said that amid all the controversy, some people have forgotten the real victim.

“I would like to take the opportunity to remember one of Canton’s own and finest,” she said. “Many of us have noticed a lack of such a moment after his passing.”

In spite of all the acrimony, she said, people in Canton should share one common goal: justice for John O’Keefe.

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com