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Paul Courteau

Other Rhode Island Exonerations
On February 2, 1980, a gunman confronted a mail carrier in her truck, tied her up with duct tape and then drove with an accomplice to a home in North Providence, Rhode Island where Cynthia and Clarence Ostalkiewicz operated a jewelry showroom.

At the house, the gunman shielded his face with a package from the mail truck. However, at one point, Cynthia Ostalkiewicz caught a brief glimpse of him when he lowered the package and fumbled trying to pull down a mask. The couple reported the robbers took $240,000 in jewelry.

Raul M. Vargas, Jr., a U.S. postal inspector, investigated the robbery because it had involved the abduction of a postal-service employee, Joan McFarland. He showed McFarland and Cynthia Ostalkiewicz numerous photographs of potential suspects and at one point, McFarland identified someone she said was the man who tied her up, but an investigation showed she was wrong. In March 1980, Vargas said he received a tip from a reliable informant that the gunman was 21-year-old Paul Courteau. On March 7, 1980, Vargas showed Ostalkiewicz a photographic lineup and she identified Courteau.

On May 12, 1980, Ostalkiewicz viewed the same photographic lineup a second time and she again selected Courteau, who was then arrested. On September 15, 1980, Ostalkiewicz went to the courthouse with Vargas. As they were standing in the hallway, Ostalkiewicz suddenly stopped talking and appeared faint. She said that she saw Courteau coming into the courtroom and recognized him as the gunman.

Courteau went to trial in Providence County Superior Court in March 1981. Joan Farland, the mail carrier, who had initially identified another man as the one who had accosted her, identified Courteau as the man who tied her up and took her truck.

Ostalkiewicz also identified Courteau as the man who came to her door on the day of the robbery. She said that she looked through the front window of her home and saw the mail truck parked in the street and Courteau standing outside the door holding a package.

She told the jury that she called to her husband that the mail truck had arrived and opened the door, which generally was kept locked. She said Courteau said he had a package for her and when he had trouble pronouncing her last name, he then pushed his way in. As he entered, he fumbled trying to pull a mask over his face.

Ostalkiewicz said she collapsed in fear. Courteau pulled a gun and ordered her to lie on the floor. Courteau then opened the door and another man entered. They subdued Ostalkiewicz with white tape. Ostalkiewicz’s husband, Clarence, testified that he was in the showroom and activated a burglar alarm at the time the first robber pushed his way into the house. Clarence then went into a back room, closed the door, and awaited the arrival of the police. However, the alarm was not working, and the police did not arrive until after the intruders had left.

Courteau, who was a drug addict, had initially denied to police that he was involved in the crime and claimed he spent the night before the robbery with acquaintances and was still with them the following day when the jewelry business was robbed.

By the time the trial began, Courteau’s alibi witnesses could not be found and so none were called to testify.

In March 1981, Courteau was convicted of armed robbery and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Courteau appealed his conviction, arguing that Vargas had tainted the lineup procedure when he commented, as he showed the photographic lineup to Ostalkiewicz, that there was “a possibility” that suspect might be in the lineup. In July 1983, the Rhode Island Supreme Court rejected that argument and upheld his conviction.

Courteau was released on parole in January 1994.

In 1997, 43-year-old John Burke was on trial in federal court in Massachusetts along with his brother and four other men on charges arising from a series of bank and armored car robbers over a seven year period in New England, including one heist where two guards were murdered.

In the middle of trial, Burke, who was not involved in the robbery where the two guards were killed, abruptly decided to plea guilty and testify against his brother and the others. As part of an agreement reached with prosecutors to plead guilty and testify, Burke agreed to be debriefed about all his crimes and enter the U.S. Marshal’s Service witness protection program.

Among them was the Ostalkiewicz jewelry robbery, prompting prosecutors in Rhode Island to re-examine Courteau’s conviction. Burke, who bore a striking resemblance to Courteau, testified at a hearing on a motion to a vacate Courteau’s conviction. Burke admitted that he and an accomplice who was not Courteau had overpowered the driver of the postal truck and then he donned her jacket to gain entrance into the Ostalkiewicz home.

Burke said that McFarland, the postal truck driver, was tied up in the back of the truck when they pulled up at the Ostalkiewicz home. While he was inside robbing the couple, McFarland escaped and managed to flag down a nearby garbage truck whose driver radioed police.

Burke recounted how as he and his partner fled in the mail truck, the garbage truck driver tried to block their path, but he pointed a .45-caliber revolver at the driver and they were allowed to pass.

The re-investigation also revealed that at the time of Courteau’s trial, the prosecution knew that fingerprints had been found on the package the robber used as a ruse to get Ostalkiewicz to open the door. A police report showing that the prints did not belong to Courteau was not disclosed to his defense attorney.

On April 5, 1999, Assistant Massachusetts Attorney General Susan Bello agreed that Courteau’s conviction should be vacated and said Courteau had been wronged by questionable tactics of law enforcement officials - particularly Vargas, the postal inspector. Bello said that Vargas’s informant—a retired police officer—told her during the re-investigation that he never gave Courteau's name to Vargas.

“I’m not submitting in any way that Mr. Vargas lied,” Bello told Providence County Presiding Superior Court Justice Joseph Rodgers Jr. “I don’t know that he did. But it troubles me.”

“The ID of the defendant was never 100 percent,” Bello also said, noting that Ostalkiewicz was twice presented Courteau's picture. “That bothers me.”

Justice Joseph F. Rodgers Jr. vacated Courteau’s conviction, saying that he believed that “at no time did Mr. Courteau participate in the home invasion.” The prosecution then dismissed the charge.

Courteau, who was subsequently convicted of witness tampering in an unrelated matter, later filed a lawsuit seeking compensation, but the lawsuit was dismissed.

In 2021, Rhode Island enacted a state law allowing wrongfully convicted persons to receive state compensation. In March 2022, Courteau was awarded $558,000.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date:  Before June 2012
Last Updated: 3/31/2022
State:Rhode Island
Most Serious Crime:Robbery
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1980
Sentence:15 years
Age at the date of reported crime:21
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No