AYER -- "I want to cry," said Benjamin Franklin Pierce. "It made me feel so good that someone would stick up for me."
Pierce, an honorably discharged U.S. Marine veteran and convicted sex offender, said he was touched by Ayer selectman Frank Maxant's protest at the board's Feb. 5 meeting. Maxant, a Navy veteran, ripped up a certificate of appreciation presented to him and each board member by Ayer American Legion Post 139.
Maxant claimed the group displayed "social cowardice" and "surrendered to public opinion and increased Mr. Pierce's misery and isolation" by refusing Pierce membership to the post.
Nashoba Publishing has attempted to contact Post Commander Betty Ann Matozel several times since the meeting for comment but has received no response as of Monday.
Pierce said he lived in Ayer for three years and six months before moving out of state in early 2012. Pierce said "well after the two year mark" of his residency in Ayer he looked to join the local American Legion post. Pierce now lives in Clinton, Arkansas.
Pierce was Maxant's neighbor; both lived in a William Street lodging house owned by controversial landlord Hugh Ernisse. Ernisse, who also owns a home directly across the street from the Ayer school campuses, told the selectmen in 2011 that he intentionally housed sex offenders and drug addicts who otherwise have difficulty finding places to live.
Pierce had moved into an Ernisse-owned Littleton home by the time Ayer Town Meeting voted in Oct. 2011 to enact a bylaw to ban Level 2 and 3 sex offenders from establishing residence within 1,000 feet of public and private schools, parks, senior housing complexes, and school bus stops. The bylaw took effect in April 2012, around the time Pierce moved south.
In Aug. 2011, Pierce was categorized as Level 3, or at highest risk of re-offense, by the Mass. Sex Offender Registry Board. In addition to five open and gross lewdness convictions between 1995 and 2000, Pierce has an out-of-state rape conviction dating to 1980. Pierce said he served eight years on a reduced life sentence for a 1977 rape in New Hampshire.
Pierce opposes bylaws which limit where sex offenders may live. "If they were a murder, they'd have no problem?"
"In my case, my crime was more than 30 years ago," said Pierce. Of convicted offenders, Pierce said, "Leave them alone. They've done their time."
"What a ridiculous law that is. People think that 1,000 feet is going to make any difference?" said Pierce. "It humiliates and hassles them [offenders]."
Ironically, Pierce says Arkansas code is even more "draconian" in preventing Level 3 offenders (at high risk of re-offense) or Level 4 offenders (labeled a Sexually Violent Predator) from living within 2,000 feet of schools or day care centers. Pierce said he was bumped to Level 4 status for registering a day beyond the mandatory 3-day window for offenders establishing residency in Arkansas.
Pierce says the new label unfairly targets him as "a predator or an absolute monster, even though I've had nothing of a sexual nature for more than a quarter century."
Pierce says he is repentant for his past and the 1980 rape conviction. "It was rape. I was a very damaged person, not to make an excuse," said Pierce.
Pierce also claims that he and his sister were sexually molested as children. "I had the thought that as a rape victim, I wanted someone to know how I feel."
Pierce said today's treatment for victims of sexual assault didn't exist in his youth for young boys. "Women have empathy if victimized, but not for men. There was no counseling," said Pierce. "People say 'Pull yourselves up by your bootstraps. What are you, a girl?"
"And I'm sorry. I'm truly sorry, but it was 36 years ago," said Pierce, now 60 years old. "A murderer would have been released a long time ago and been left alone. Some may say I permanently destroyed someone. I say only if they allow it. I had been personally damaged, too."
Pierce claims his life in Ayer was pockmarked by a smear campaign by those "saying everywhere I was a pedophile, which I'm not, and I couldn't do anything about it."
Pierce recalled thinking, "I am scared to death I'm going to do something.'... I was having bad, bad thoughts and that's partly why I moved."
Regarding the Ayer American Legion post, Pierce recalled approaching an officer about membership.
"He said 'Don't' waste our time," said Pierce. "We don't want you.' He also said 'Can you imagine us marching in a parade on Veterans Day and people seeing you and people thinking you're part of us? Don't bother.' Those were his words."
Pierce said he also directly approached Matozel who he claims said "No, we can't have someone like you being a member of the American Legion," said Pierce. "I contacted the national American Legion and they said we leave it up to local discretion."
John Raughter, Communications Director for the national American Legion organization, confirmed Monday, "the [local] post is the judge of its own membership based on the eligibility criteria in the National Constitution and By-Laws of The American Legion."
Pierce said Maxant's actions were "a sign of honor" and "made my heart swell that someone gave that much of a damn, especially with me being gone (from Ayer) this amount of time. I think he's one of the best friends I've had in my life."
On Saturday, Ayer selectmen Chairman Jim Fay said Matozel has confirmed she'll attend the selectmen's Feb. 19 meeting to address Maxant's charges head-on. Fay, an Army veteran and member of the post, said he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the post. However, after talking with Matozel, Fay said it's not clear that Pierce ever formally applied to become a local Legion member.
On Feb. 6, Fay emailed Nashoba Publishing and wrote, "it is not the policy or practice of the Board of Selectmen to disparage any organization with accusations of cowardice in the conduct of their practices."
"The actions of Mr. Maxant in my opinion were inflammatory and disrespectful of the American Legion and what they stand for," said Fay.
Follow Mary Arata at twitter.com/maryearata..