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In This Police Youth Program, a Trail of Sexual Abuse Across the U.S.

Explorer posts, overseen by the Boy Scouts, are supposed to foster an interest in policing. They have faced nearly 200 allegations of misconduct.

A photo collage in black and white and blue tones shows, from left, an excerpt of a transcript that reads: “I hereby submit the following report into the matter of Sandra Birchmore, and into the possible violations…procedure, rules and regulations of the Stoughton Pol…”; a sign reading “Stoughton”, the silhouette of a police officer; the words “Sandra Birchmore”; an excerpt of a transcript that reads “The relationship continue…many years and included…and communications while…was on duty for the Stoug…Police Department.”; and a photo of Sandra Birchmore.

STOUGHTON, Mass. — The last known person to see Sandra Birchmore alive was a police officer.

He stopped by her apartment days before the elementary school teacher’s aide, 23 years old and newly pregnant, was found dead in February 2021. The medical examiner later ruled her death a suicide.

The officer worked for the Stoughton Police Department, near Boston, where he first met Birchmore about a decade earlier through the agency’s Explorer post — part of a youth mentorship program run by local departments across the country.

He acknowledged having sex with her when she was 15, according to a court ruling citing the officer’s text messages. That document indicates that his twin brother — also an officer and Explorer mentor — and a third Stoughton officer, a veteran who ran the program, eventually had sex with her, too.

This article was published in partnership with NBC News.

These assertions, disclosed in an internal police investigative report and through an ongoing lawsuit filed by Birchmore’s family, have sparked demonstrations and an online petition asking for further investigation into her death. The three men, who did not respond to requests for comment, have denied any wrongdoing and have not been charged with a crime.

The youth program that introduced Birchmore to the officers is among hundreds of such chapters at police agencies around the country. Created by the Boy Scouts of America decades ago, law enforcement Explorer posts are designed to help teens and young adults learn about policing.

Birchmore’s case is among at least 194 allegations that law enforcement personnel, mostly policemen, have groomed, sexually abused or engaged in inappropriate behavior with Explorers since 1974, an ongoing investigation by The Marshall Project has found. The vast majority of those affected were teenage girls — some as young as 13.

The Marshall Project is investigating abuse in police Explorer programs. Fill out [this form](https://www.themarshallproject.org/2024/05/01/police-explorer-programs-survey-abuse) to help us.

The Marshall Project is investigating abuse in police Explorer programs. Fill out this form to help us.

Lack of oversight was partly responsible for the abuse, The Marshall Project investigation found. In many programs, armed officers were allowed to be alone with teenage Explorers. In a few instances, departments minimized or dismissed the concerns of those who reported troubling behavior, records show.

The officers accused of abusing teenagers spanned the ranks, from patrolmen to police chiefs. Some were department veterans cited in news articles for their community work. A handful had served their agencies for barely a year. And some were married men with families of their own.

Many cases led to criminal charges. Some officers went to prison, while others received probation or weren’t required to register as sex offenders. A few departments allowed officers to keep their jobs after a reprimand or short suspension. The Marshall Project’s analysis found at least 14 departments, among 111 agencies, that had a history of repeated allegations.

We found allegations across the U.S.

Summaries are based on police and court records.

New York, New York 2021
Two New York City police officers were fired after an internal disciplinary proceeding concluded that they committed sexual misconduct against a teenage girl in the Explorer program.
Santa Maria, California 2012
A 17-year-old Explorer accused a police officer of repeatedly raping her. The officer was shot and killed by a colleague who was trying to arrest him.
Berwyn, Illinois 2004
In a now-settled lawsuit, two teenage boys alleged an employee helping oversee the Explorer program sexually and physically abused them. The department says that sworn officers now run the program.
Largo, Florida 2000
Several officers had sex with female Explorers over more than a decade, investigators found. No officers faced criminal charges. The Largo Police Department later disbanded the program.

The Boy Scouts, which sets guidelines for Explorer posts, declined a request for an interview, and did not answer questions about how it enforces its rules for police departments. Records from the Stoughton Police Department showed no evidence that Scouting leaders conducted evaluations or made sure officers were trained to spot and report abuse of young people. And the former director of youth protection for the Boy Scouts told The Marshall Project he was alarmed by abuse in police Explorer programs.

In a statement, the organization said it is committed to safeguarding youth, including Explorers. “When we are made aware that a leader in one of our programs has abused a position of trust we will take appropriate measures, including removing that leader, and work to ensure that offenders are held accountable.”

To track allegations of abuse, reporters examined thousands of pages of documents, including lawsuits, investigative reports, police agency records, academic studies and news articles. They also spoke with lawyers, researchers, and current and former Boy Scout officials.

Reporters found abuse allegations in big and small departments spanning much of the country. In Connecticut, an officer first tried to ply a 17-year-old Explorer with compliments and a silver bracelet. After her repeated rejections, he took her into a vacant house, handcuffed her and sexually assaulted her, according to police records and her lawsuit. In South Miami, police records show a detective offered to teach teenagers about sex before he assaulted them — so often that some older Explorers warned new recruits against being alone with him. And in Porterville, California, a sergeant who led his department’s Explorer program took a 17-year-old alone on ride-alongs and complained about his marriage before having sex with her, according to a now-settled lawsuit.

Supporters of the program, including police officials and Scouting leaders, say that abuse cases are rare and represent just a fraction of the tens of thousands of law enforcement Explorers over the decades. Some experts say the program helps teenagers become interested in law enforcement — boosting recruiting in a profession that faces labor shortages.

Craig Martin, who chairs the National Exploring Program, said one way to keep young people safe is the requirement that adults working with Explorers attend a Youth Protection Training at least every two years. Martin referred reporters to Scouting headquarters for specific answers, but said he believes most abuse in the program took place 25 or more years ago.

Slightly more than half of the cases reporters found occurred since 2000. It can take years for people who are abused to come forward — and many never do, experts say.

The power imbalance between officers and Explorers can leave teenagers vulnerable, said Anthony DeMarco, a lawyer who has represented several former Explorers who accused officers of abuse.

“One of the greatest injuries that the Explorers I've worked for have talked about is they dreamed of being in law enforcement,” he said. “And because they were abused, and because in some ways it became known, it felt like it got ripped from them.”

Four people at a protest for Sandra Birchmore, including Sandra's second cousin, Barbara Wright, a White woman with long brown hair, near Stoughton Town Hall. Two people hold signs saying "Justice for Sandra Birchmore."

Barbara Wright, center, at an April 7 protest near Stoughton Town Hall, in Stoughton, Mass., demanding further investigation into the death of her cousin Sandra Birchmore.

Sandra Birchmore was kind and generous to the friends and family who knew her well. Her mother and grandmother raised her. Both women died when Birchmore was a teenager — her mother after a long illness, her grandmother suddenly.

“She had a lot of dreams and a lot of goals,” said Barbara Wright, a cousin. She said Birchmore hoped to go to nursing school. “She was just trying to make her way in this world, just like the rest of us.”

Birchmore was ambitious but sometimes lacked direction, her teaching colleagues told investigators. At times, her immaturity was so pronounced that one of them said she “came across like a child without parents that needed help.”

Birchmore struggled with mental health challenges for much of her life, according to police and court records. As a teen, she sought strength and direction in law enforcement.

It’s why in 2010, at age 13, she joined the local Explorer post, hoping to become a police officer. By then, the Stoughton Police Department had weathered years of scandals involving whistleblower retaliation, lies to the FBI and witness intimidation.

A White man in a police uniform smiles at the camera.

Former Stoughton Police Officer Robert Devine.

When Birchmore joined, veteran officer Robert Devine led the Explorer post. He ran the program for more than a decade as he rose through the ranks from a school resource officer to deputy police chief. His supervisors said he transformed its focus from mentoring to a paramilitary-style youth program.

He brought in former Explorers Matthew Farwell and his twin brother, William, as guest instructors. The Farwells met Birchmore when she was 13. The brothers were in their mid-20s and Devine in his late 30s. The department later hired both Farwells as officers.

Outwardly, the program seemed a positive influence on Birchmore. In 2014, her mother wrote a letter to Devine thanking him for running the Explorer post. By then, officer Matthew Farwell had reportedly had sex with Birchmore, according to police evidence later cited in a judge’s decision allowing the Birchmore family’s lawsuit to proceed.

Two years later, Devine was demoted from deputy chief to patrolman after photos of an extramarital affair caused a scandal in the department. One of his superiors later described him as “exploitive, misogynistic and risk seeking.”

In spring 2015, Birchmore graduated from high school, walking across the stage in flip-flops, and with her hair pinned back in a bun.

Though Birchmore’s participation in the Explorers ended, the officers’ involvement with her didn’t. Devine and the Farwell twins were having separate sexual relationships with her in her early 20s, according to the department's investigative report. Though Devine denied having any contact with her, police found Facebook messages showing that while on duty he discussed meeting Birchmore for sex.

“Devine violated his inherent position of the public trust,” an investigator wrote in the report, adding: “I do not view Devine to be a credible person.”

A beige apartment complex with some cars parked nearby is visible on the right of the photo, at dusk.

The apartment complex in Canton, Mass., where Sandra Birchmore was found dead in February 2021.

By early 2021, Birchmore was pregnant and was looking forward to being a mother. She believed Matthew Farwell was the father, according to police and court records — an assertion that he denies. He also told investigators that he didn't have a sexual relationship with Birchmore until 2020. Investigators found text messages indicating it began much earlier.

Although Massachusetts doesn’t explicitly define an age of consent, state law forbids anyone from having sex with someone under age 16.

On Feb. 1, 2021, Matthew Farwell stopped by Birchmore’s apartment for about 30 minutes. He told investigators that he went there to end their relationship, and that he and Birchmore had a “pretty nasty argument.” When police did a wellness check three days later, the only living beings inside her cluttered apartment were her two cats.

The day after Birchmore’s body was found, Stoughton Police Chief Donna McNamara — the first woman in the job — ordered an internal investigation. At a news conference announcing the findings the following year, McNamara said Devine also had “inappropriate contact with a female student” in a middle school program in the early 2000s.

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“All three men, the Farwells and Devine, violated their oath of office and should never have the privilege of serving any community as a police officer,” she said at the news conference. “Through a sustained and deliberate combination of lies, deceit and treachery, they violated the policies and the core values of the Stoughton Police Department. Not to mention human decency.”

Later in 2022, Birchmore’s aunt sued the officers for wrongful death and Stoughton for negligence and civil rights violations. In the lawsuit, her attorneys described Birchmore’s death as “the culmination of a near decade long scheme of grooming and repeated assaults from a young age” by the officers.

The family’s attorneys declined an interview request. Lawyers for the Farwells did not respond to requests for comment, and Devine’s attorney declined to speak with reporters.

The three officers have resigned. Matthew Farwell surrendered his law enforcement certification in March. William Farwell and Devine are fighting to keep theirs.

“There has been no evidence that other police officers were involved with Sandra or knew about the actions of the three other officers,” McNamara told The Marshall Project. “Sandra’s death is a tragedy. She should be alive today.”

The Stoughton Police Department, a low brick building with columns, is seen at dusk, with lights showing the name of the headquarters.
A round white light with the word "Police" on it is illuminated and blurred at the Stoughton Police Department headquarters.
Five small lights are visible on top of the Stoughton Police Department building.
The Stoughton Police Department headquarters on March 29. Three of the department’s officers resigned amid allegations they had sex with Sandra Birchmore. All three have denied wrongdoing.

Stoughton police ran the Explorer program for about 15 years. The department could locate only a single one-year agreement with Learning for Life, the Scouting affiliate that oversees the national Explorer program.

The agreement — signed by Devine in 2010 — required the department to encourage officers to take Youth Protection Training, as well as undergo an annual evaluation by Learning for Life. But the agency said it hasn’t found records that Devine, the Farwells or any of its officers completed the training, nor did it locate any records related to an evaluation.

The Stoughton Explorer program ended in 2016. The department said it hasn’t found records of an agreement with Learning for Life or the Boy Scouts for any of the program’s other years.

The Boy Scouts didn’t respond to questions about its oversight of the Stoughton Explorer program.

While the structure of Explorer programs can vary by departments, participants are generally required to maintain an average grade score while in school, attend program meetings and exemplify good moral character. The curriculum can include community service, firearms training and evidence collection.

One of the key components of many Explorer programs is the ride-along, where participants accompany officers for hours as they patrol. Each agency has slightly different rules for ride-alongs: Some require time limits or switch up the officers that teenagers spend time with.

Since at least the ’90s, the Boy Scouts has required a “two-deep” leadership rule, mandating two adults present in all its programs. The intent was to prevent an adult from being alone with children. But the Boy Scouts carved out an exception to the “two-deep” rule for police ride-alongs in Explorer programs. Explorers are allowed to ride alone with an officer — though they must be at least 18 to do ride-alongs after midnight, according to documents on the Learning for Life website.

“What could possibly go wrong? You know, one adult, no supervision,” said Timothy Kosnoff, a lawyer who has represented thousands of clients, including Explorer participants, suing the Boy Scouts for sexual abuse.

A few departments said their Explorer programs were run by a single precinct or even individual officers. And while several departments have policies that explicitly ban fraternization between officers and Explorer participants, other agencies made changes only after misconduct occurred.

In one lawsuit filed in 2019 a woman said a police officer abused her as a teenager in Connecticut. Her lawyers alleged that the Scouts and Learning for Life knew that police departments were not following their policies to prevent sexual abuse.

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Attorneys for the Boy Scouts responded by calling child sexual abuse a “broad societal problem.”

“This abuse can occur anywhere, even in Scouting and Explorer programs,” the attorneys wrote in a court filing. They argued that the organization wasn’t responsible for the abuse she alleged because the officer had violated Explorer policies.

The officer was sentenced to 30 months in prison.

In 2022, the Boy Scouts agreed to settle with more than 82,000 people, most of them men, who said they were abused as minors in Scouting programs. The Scouting organization did not say how many Explorer cases are part of the settlement, which is now about $2.5 billion.

Michael Johnson, a former police detective who investigated child abuse, said he became alarmed by the sexual abuse in Explorer programs after the Boy Scouts hired him in 2010 as the national director of youth protection.

“They have these Explorers with them riding around at night and the officers do a nonexistent-to-poor job of maintaining clear boundaries,” he said.

He said he tried internally to root out abuse, especially on overnight ride-alongs, though he was also publicly promoting Scouting during those years.

Johnson said the Boy Scouts fired him in 2020, and he became an outspoken critic of how the organization handled cases of abuse.

Seven people stand with signs or an American flag at a street corner in Stoughton, Mass. Some of the signs show photos of Sandra Birchmore.

People gathered at a protest for Sandra Birchmore near Stoughton Town Hall on April 7, in Stoughton, Mass.

Allegations of Explorer abuse did not always result in criminal prosecutions. Of the 156 officers identified by The Marshall Project who faced professional or legal consequences in connection with the allegations against them, at least two-thirds were criminally charged. Among those charged, about half were sentenced to time behind bars — from weekends in jail to decades in prison. And at least 20 had to register as sex offenders.

Some allegations involved misconduct that wasn’t criminal behavior — for example, an 18-year-old Explorer in a consensual relationship with an officer — but may have violated departmental policies.

In at least 19 cases, officers accused of abuse or inappropriate behavior were reprimanded or suspended but kept their jobs. In other instances, officers relinquished their law enforcement certifications in plea deals to avoid criminal charges.

Sometimes, it took years for an officer to face repercussions.

In 2004, a police sergeant in the small city of Brownwood, Texas, was known for making female colleagues and Explorers uncomfortable, according to a criminal investigation by the Texas Rangers.

The sergeant “only wanted me to ride along in the patrol vehicles with him and not others and he did not like me riding with the other officers,” a victim later told investigators, adding that when she was in high school the officer would discuss the size of his penis with her and send her sexually graphic text messages. When she and others tried to report the abuse, the police chief at the time deemed the allegations unfounded, according to the Rangers’ report.

She told investigators she left the program after the officer followed her into a storage room and groped her. She had to push him out of the way to escape.

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Two-and-a-half years later, at age 53, the sergeant was arrested for sexually abusing a different Explorer, who was 15. He was later convicted for both assaults and is now incarcerated.

Troy Carroll, a Brownwood lieutenant who assisted with the investigation, said that he supported holding the sergeant accountable and that overall the Explorers was “a great program.”

The city reportedly agreed to a $300,000 settlement with one of the victims in 2010.

In San Bernardino County, California, a sheriff’s deputy faced felony charges in 2017 related to having sex with a teenage Explorer participant. He ultimately pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor assault charge and served probation, court records show. Four years later, authorities were seeking help to identify more of the man’s victims after an allegation that he had sexually abused a young family member for years. He is now serving a decadeslong prison sentence for child sexual abuse.

Victims in the Explorer abuse cases said they experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety after the assaults. Some detailed their trauma in lawsuits and at sentencing hearings.

“He took away what were supposed to be the best years,” one young woman told a judge in 2015, according to a local news report, before a California police officer was sentenced to 45 days in jail, probation and community service for assaulting her.

No criminal charges have been filed in Birchmore’s case. The Norfolk County district attorney’s office began investigating after her death. But a spokesman said they handed the investigation over to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office last fall. The attorney general’s office declined to comment.

True-crime enthusiasts have latched onto the circumstances of Birchmore's death and fanned speculation online, leading to podcasts, YouTube videos and Reddit threads. An online petition has more than 2,000 signatures calling for further investigation, and thousands more have joined a “Justice for Sandra Birchmore” Facebook group.

On a cloudy Sunday in Stoughton in early April, roughly two dozen people rallied outside the town hall at an event organized by the Facebook group. They held signs displaying Birchmore’s photo and an illustration of a mother and her baby with angel wings.

Wright, Birchmore’s cousin, joined the event. She said she learned many of the details of Birchmore’s relationships with the officers through news reports after her death. She then started doing research about other Explorer programs.

“There’s so many cases all over the place with them,” she said. “It’s disgusting to see how people of authority will take advantage sometimes.”

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673. The hotline, run by the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN), can put you in contact with your local rape crisis center. You can also access RAINN’s online chat service at https://www.rainn.org/get-help.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or chat live at 988lifeline.org. You can also visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional support.

How We Reported This Investigation

For this article, reporters reviewed thousands of pages of lawsuits, police internal investigations, sex offender registries, program contracts and policies, as well as hundreds of news articles. We spoke to attorneys to gain a better understanding of the scope of police abuse within Explorer programs, as well as researchers and advocates whose expertise focuses on police sexual misconduct or child sexual trauma.

We created a database of incidents focused specifically on police officers, sheriff deputies and other law enforcement personnel alleged to have sexually abused, or behaved inappropriately with, Explorer program participants. The database includes cases from the 1970s to present. In cases in which officers may have had multiple victims, we counted only incidents involving people who were part of Explorer programs. We did not include incidents in which the alleged perpetrators were fellow Explorer participants. Some officers had more than one victim; some victims had more than one perpetrator.

Our numbers are surely an undercount. According to experts, many victims of sex crimes do not report the assaults to police.

Lakeidra Chavis Twitter Email is a staff writer for The Marshall Project. She has written extensively on gun violence and gun enforcement in Chicago, as well as Black suicides, gang structures and the opioid crisis. Her work currently focuses on juvenile justice. She previously reported at ProPublica Illinois and for NPR stations in Chicago and Alaska. Lakeidra was a 2021 Livingston Award finalist. She lives in Chicago, Illinois.

Daphne Duret Twitter Email is a staff writer for The Marshall Project. She reports on policing issues across the country and is based in south Florida.

Joseph Neff Twitter Email is a staff writer who has investigated wrongful convictions, prosecutorial and police misconduct, probation, cash bail and forensic ‘science’. He was a Pulitzer finalist and has won the Goldsmith, RFK, MOLLY, SPJ’s Sigma Delta Chi, Gerald Loeb, Michael Kelly and other awards. He previously worked at The News & Observer (Raleigh) and The Associated Press.