No jail time for Hamilton police officer who sexually assaulted woman he was mentoring, judge rules

Michael LaCombe resigned from the Hamilton Police Service after he was found guilty of two counts of sexual assault. He was sentenced on Monday. (Bobby Hristova/CBC - image credit)
Michael LaCombe resigned from the Hamilton Police Service after he was found guilty of two counts of sexual assault. He was sentenced on Monday. (Bobby Hristova/CBC - image credit)

WARNING: This article contains details of sexual assault and may affect those who have experienced it or know someone affected by it. 

A former Hamilton police officer will not go to jail for sexually assaulting the woman he was mentoring as she pursued her own career in policing.

Michael LaCombe, 54, will instead serve 12 months of house arrest followed by 12 months of probation after Justice Cameron Watson found him guilty of two counts of sexual assault in January, following a trial.

Watson sentenced LaCombe on Monday at the Ontario Court of Justice in St. Catharines, Ont., describing his crimes and the aftermath as "a spectacular and cataclysmic fall from grace" in his written decision.

"His life has taken an irreparable downward spiral. He is no longer the man he once was," Watson wrote.

Watson also described how LaCombe's conduct "devastated" the victim, who has felt isolated and suffers from panic attacks, among other impacts, in recent years.

His decision was in line with what LaCombe's defence had requested, while the Crown had pushed for two years in custody plus two years' probation, arguing his crimes were "serious and significant."

Watson did not read his decision aloud to the court, as is the common practice, and LaCombe appeared calm as he briefly stood before the justice.

Hamilton Police Service/Youtube
Hamilton Police Service/Youtube

Watson had also previously informed LaCombe he wouldn't spend any time in jail at a sentencing hearing last month — before Watson had decided on the length of the sentence.

It was a "slightly unorthodox" move, Watson said at the April 22 hearing.

Justices generally wait until after the hearing to consider the arguments of both sides before making a decision on sentencing. But LaCombe's "immense amount of emotional strain" compelled Watson to put the former cop's mind at ease that no jail time was necessary, he said.

"I understand and have no doubt this has destroyed his life and he's suffering a form of exquisite agony and to keep the sword hanging over his head — not knowing what's going to happen — in my opinion, as a fellow human being, is unnecessary," Watson said.

Held 'significant degree of power' over victim: Crown

LaCombe and the victim had known each other for years leading up to the assaults in January 2010, assistant Crown attorney Ian Bulmer said at the April sentencing hearing.

LaCombe was the victim's instructor when she was a teenager in the Air Cadets, and then when she was an adult, her mentor. He promised to write her a reference letter for when she applied to the Hamilton Police Service — a job she "desperately wanted," Bulmer said.

"That was a significant degree of power held over her," he said.

During the first incident, LaCombe drove her home in his police cruiser and in uniform, and then kissed her. The victim made up "excuses" to end the assault and got out of the car, defence lawyer Dean Paquette said at the sentencing hearing.

Later that month, LaCombe "contrived another opportunity to meet" and picked the victim up in his own car, without initially telling her where they were going, and brought her to a hotel, Paquette said.

In the room, he handed her a dress he bought from Value Village, and she went into the washroom but didn't change into it, the defence said. When she emerged, LaCombe picked her up without her consent, pulled her on top of him, took off her top and bra and kissed her.

The victim then made it clear she wasn't consenting, and he stopped and drove her home, Paquette said.

He argued at sentencing that these assaults were LaCombe, who is married, attempting to have an affair. LaCombe should have been "more attuned to her feelings," Paquette said.

LaCombe later wrote the victim a reference letter and she got a job in the service, but the assaults weighed on her for years until she reported them to the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), Ontario's police watchdog, Watson wrote in his decision.

Victim 'devastated' by assaults

LaCombe's conduct "devastated" the victim, whose identity is protected under a publication ban, Watson wrote. She's also been unable to enjoy a normal life since reporting the crime to the SIU in 2021, and has been in hiding, the judge wrote.

She feels isolated at work as a police officer, suffers from panic attacks and has developed a "strong fear and distrust of men," Watson wrote.

The victim submitted a statement, but declined to read it in court and was not present for LaCombe's sentencing.

LaCombe initially lied about the allegations to SIU investigators, and then pleaded not guilty, court heard at the hearing in April. The case went to a judge-only trial last year.

After Watson found him guilty, LaCombe resigned from the police service — before a disciplinary hearing was held — and he was discharged from the military, of which he'd been a member for decades.

LaCombe tearfully apologized to the victim at his sentencing hearing in April.

"I placed her in an unfair situation over 15 years ago and for that I'm truly sorry," he said. "I should've known better and been a better person than that.... The shame and guilt I feel for my actions will never subside."

Watson determined LaCombe didn't deserve incarceration for his crimes because he's led a life of "exemplary service," has no prior criminal record and is remorseful, according to his written decision.

"This offence involved his ham-fisted attempt to engage in an extramarital affair with a friend, albeit with an extremely serious impact on [the victim]," Watson wrote.