230126ind VespiaFile

South Kingstown Police Chief Vincent Vespia, is shown in the Dispatch area of the Public Safety Complex in Peace Dale in this 2016 file photo. Vespia, who served as SK’s Police Chief for 35 years, died Tuesday at the age of 84.

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Former South Kingstown Police Chief Vincent Vespia, 84, the town’s longest-serving top cop, died Tuesday morning at South County Hospital. He retired in 2016 after 35 years in the chief’s chair.

He had a 57-year career in law enforcement that included serving as the state police intelligence detective in organized crime. In the 1970s, Vespia was credited with developing evidence that led to the successful prosecution of organized crime figures.

These included investigations and prosecutions of crime boss Raymond Patriarca and the arrests of Gerald and Harold Tillinghast, brothers eventually convicted of murdering a mob loan shark.

He also found a notable spot in the annals of Rhode Island law enforcement when he in the 1970s served briefly as acting Coventry police chief following a murder investigation that led to the arrest and conviction of several Coventry officers.

Praise for his work and performance has come from law enforcement and government leaders as an exemplary law enforcement officer with a keen intellect, bountiful sense of humor, core-deep honesty, committed husband and father, compassion and empathy while balanced with a no-nonsense belief in standards.

Gov. Dan McKee said Wednesday morning, “Susan and I are deeply saddened to learn of Vincent’s passing. A dedicated public servant, he spent over five decades in law enforcement protecting our communities.”

“Vincent inspired countless men and women to enter the law enforcement profession and was a mentor to so many. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his wife Judy and his daughters Robin and Renee. Rhode Island owes a debt of gratitude to Vincent for his service to our state and country.” he said.

These sentiments were echoed by others.

“He grew up in Providence and had to make a choice of which side of the fence he was going to be on — the one respecting the law or the one skirting the law. It’s easy to see the choice he made,” said former South Kingstown Town Manager Stephen A. Alfred who in 1981 hired Vespia.

“The chief was a no-nonsense man who cared about his family and community,” he said, adding, “He saw his role as protecting the community.”

Vespia came to the South Kingstown post in 1981, nearing mandatory retirement from the state police. During the next 35 years, he would bring change and development to the department.

“I can’t say enough good things about the chief’s command and control of the department,” Alfred said when Vespia retired six years ago.

That point was accented by Chief Sean Corrigan, past president of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association and offering comments on behalf of the organization.

“Chief Vespia’s law enforcement career was legendary, and he was indeed an icon in the law enforcement profession,” he said.

“He was known as a tenacious investigator who was successful in apprehending many members of the Patriarca crime family, followed by 35 years as the Chief of the South Kingstown Police Department where he transformed the police department into one of the finest departments in the state and beyond,” Corrigan said.

Vespia also served as president of the chiefs association and “the knowledge and guidance Chief Vespia provided to our organization throughout the years proved invaluable,” said Corrigan, Narragansett’s chief.

Perhaps even more importantly, said many, Vespia was also a role model for those aspiring to be law enforcement officers or just beginning their careers.

Two of those young people later became superintendents of the Rhode Island State Police. Vespia had reached the rank of lieutenant before leaving for South Kingstown Police Department.

Yet, a simple gesture by their role model captured both the man, his commitment to law enforcement and his understanding of duty.

Both James Manni and Brendan Doherty recalled that when they were sworn in to lead the state police and have the title of superintendent, their mentor and role model saluted them.

In military-style organizations, it’s a lasting tradition about a chain of command and historic order of cohesion and organization bred into recruits and veteran officers alike.

“It was one of the most humbling experiences I ever had,” said Manni, with Doherty, who lives in Narragansett, agreeing. Both he and Manni said they would return his salute.

Manni in an interview said, “He was a trooper through and through.”

“He had to deal with some really vicious, vicious criminals and did it with the tenacity and skill a police detective could learn from today,” Doherty said.

During the 1960s and 1970s, a time in which both federal and state law enforcement were hotly pursuing those in racketeering, corruption and other forms of organized crime, “he was fearless and went up against organized crime which was at its peak,” Manni said Tuesday night.

“His nearly six decades in this profession was truly remarkable,” said Manni, who is South Kingstown’s current town manager.  Vespia served in the U.S. Army and joined the Rhode Island State Police in 1959 where he developed his expertise in investigating organized crime.

Manni and James Tierney, Narragansett Town Manager and long-time South Kingstown police officer, met Vespia 41 years ago. Both were just barely 20 years old and came face-to-face with a law enforcement legend whose exploits with crime bosses were the stuff of lore as well as real news reports.

“I was in the first group of recruits he hired,” said Tierney. “I worked for him for more than 28 years. ‘The Chief’ was a mentor, a cop, a family man and he loved the job,” Tierney said.

“He was simply, ‘The Chief.’ I’ve worked for more than 30 years in law enforcement and know a lot of chiefs. In my phone, he is simply, ‘The Chief.’ No name following it. Everyone else had their name following the rank,” he recalled, noting that on the summer day they met, Vespia took the time to talk to him.

Manni also recalled a similar experience involving a prisoner transfer. “His demeanor was so professional and so polite and respectful of you,” he added.

Impressions can last a lifetime, as these did.

Like Tierney seeing him as “The Chief,” Manni noted that he always called him “sir” — even after he became superintendent and advanced with experiences and titles far beyond the status of a young Department of Environmental Management auxiliary police officer.

Reflecting on Vespia’s career, Manni said, “Chief Vespia’s 35 years of service as the police chief of South Kingstown demonstrates his love for this community and commitment to public service. Integrity, trustworthiness and fairness were the hallmarks of his career. He will truly be missed.“

In another way, Vespia’s death brings yet to two young boys the loss of a mentor and a reminder about the inevitable changes that come with the passing of time.

“May ‘The Chief’ rest in peace,” Tierney said simply.

He touched more than just police officers, though.

Vespia was a person with a hand outstretched to the residents of this town, talking to them wherever they might meet, lending an ear to a complaint or acknowledging a suggestion that could improve the town and policing.

That’s a side of Vespia that Joe Viele knew as a former Town Council member and long-time proprietor of now-closed Liberty Rentals.

“Owning a business in town, I had the pleasure of having some of the people in our local government as long-time customers. Chief Vespia was one that had been a regular in my store for many years,” said Viele, now executive director of the Southern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce.

“I also would run into him occasionally at the former River Bend Athletic Club. He was always a pleasure to talk to. My relationship with him when I served on Town Council was equally good. Anytime he addressed the council, he presented clearly with integrity. Our town was lucky to have Vin, he will be missed,” Viele said.

In 2012, Vespia was the first-ever inductee into the Rhode Island Criminal Justice Hall of Fame for his many above-the-call-of-duty contributions to law enforcement.

Another defining moment in his career was a decision to remain rather than leave for another offer coming shortly after getting the top law enforcement job in South Kingstown

His longtime friend, the late controversial and popular Providence Mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci, asked him to lead that city’s police department. Vespia turned him down.

“One of the smartest moves I’ve ever made was to resist going to Providence,” Vespia told The Independent years ago. “I had shaken hands with [Town Manager] Steve Alfred, and once that happened, that was the end of it.”

When he retired, South Kingstown officers commended Vespia for maintaining the department’s integrity, increasing the force as a way to keep the crime rate in South Kingstown low, and for being fair to both those on the force and within the community.

Then Capt. Joe Geaber, who joined the force in 1975, said Vespia gave officers the room to work on their own, if needed, but always had his eyes open throughout the department.

“He was on top of everything he needed to be on top of,” said Geaber who would replace Vespia as chief. “But he also gave us the leeway for us to do what we needed to do. He was always there if you needed a question or help with anything.”

Capt. Joel Ewing-Chow, who would later replace Geaber as chief, said at the time, “It’s been a pleasure working with him. I’ve always gotten along with him. He’s always been a fair boss; a fair chief.”

In 2012 and about five years before he retired, Vespia talked about a chief’s administrative duties, an unappealing part of the job that took him away from a part he loved.

“I’ve been chief for 30 years — but the greater number of duties of a police chief are administrative and that was not my first interest, my first love. During my whole career, I was most happy when I was a street cop and investigator,” he said.

Yesterday, shortly after Vespia’s passing, another successor in the job, current South Kingstown Chief Matthew C. Moynihan, offered his words of praise.

The late chief “served our department with honor and distinction until his retirement in 2016. He was known for his professionalism and law enforcement expertise and loved by his officers for his integrity and extraordinary leadership skills,” Moynihan said. 

He referenced the tradition of honor with The End of Watch Call or Last Radio Call at the time of an officer’s death. It notes one last ceremonial radio call to the officer, followed by a silence, then perhaps a second call, followed by silence. The watch — duties — are taken over by colleagues in the sisterhood and brotherhood as police relationships are colloquially known among each other.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the Vespia family and their loved ones. Thank you, Chief Vespia, for your dedication and service to our town and this department. We have the watch,” he said.

Write to Bill Seymour, freelance writer covering news and feature stories, at independent.southcountylife@gmail.com.

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