BOSTON - Ayer Police Chief William Murray testified Wednesday in the civil rights suit filed by John and Ashley King. The couple claims Murray and the town's sex offender residency-restrictive bylaw have violated their constitutional rights to live as a couple in Ashley King's Whitcomb Avenue house.
The bylaw - approved by Town Meeting in October 2011 and put into effect on April 24 - bans Level 2 and 3 sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of parks and senior housing complexes. Ashley's parents bought their daughter the home in June 2011, which was two months before Ashley met John King, a Level 3 sex offender.
The couple married in March after discovering Ashley was pregnant. King visited the Ayer Police Department on April 19 to give notice under state law that he intended to move into his wife's home.
But on April 25, Murray informed King that the town bylaw prevented King's plans to move into the house since it is within 1,000 feet of both a senior housing complex and a town park.
The Kings and Ashley's parents allege that Murray maintained the bylaw took effect in February, while, under state law, the bylaw actually took effect on April 24 - five days after John King first appeared at the Ayer Police Department on April 19 to provide notice of his intention to move into his wife's home as required by the state sex offender registry notification law.
Plaintiff co-counsel John Swomley painted a picture of how "non-peripheral" Murray was in the selectmen-sponsored push to enact the bylaw. "He's invested in that process," said Swomley.
Swomley walked Murray through selectmen meeting minutes and an email to Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand in which Murray highlighted critical aspects of any potential bylaw, culling language from Fitchburg and Marlborough city ordinances.
"I tried to bring different factors from the different bylaws," agreed Murray. Swomley noted that Murray was successful in ensuring that "all but one" critical legal element flagged by Murray appeared in the final Ayer bylaw.
Faced with growing community angst over a landlord across from the schools who'd provided shelter to sex offenders, Swomley alleged the bylaw push was "not a calmly reasoned" effort.
U.S. District Court Judge William Young advised that he expected to conclude 'phase 1' testimony and argument into Murray's role in the affair on Thursday. Only if necessary, the trial will plod into 'phase 2' consideration of the constitutionality of the bylaw.
"We may never get to the second part," said Young.
Young cautioned the parties against introducing any aspect of John King's pending criminal matter in Lowell Superior Court. The charges followed King's May 15 arrest by Ayer Police for allegedly living in the Whitcomb Avenue house in violation of the state, and not the town, sex offender law.
Town counsel Leonard Kesten objected to Swomley's question asking whether Murray knew on April 19 that the town bylaw hadn't yet been posted and so wasn't in full effect. Judge William Young overruled the objection, "Well we'll see what the answer is."
Murray said he first learned of King's visit the following day - Friday, April 20 -after reading an email King sent to the department referencing his April 19 visit. Murray's expected to return to the stand on Thursday for added testimony.
The Kings allege Murray stalled acceptance of King's April 19 notice required under state laws to give town officials time to quickly post the town's fledlgling bylaw on April 24. The following day, Murray advised King that the town bylaw prohibited King from moving into the house. The Kings now live with Ashley's parents - Bill and Sharon McHugh of Harvard - along with the King's two pit bulls and newborn son, delivered on Halloween.
The McHughs testified that they also met with Murray to discuss any available options. Sharon McHugh laughed "It really didn't seem there were any" short of selling the house and buying another home outside the overlapping protected zones.
The McHughs also said Murray didn't advise them that the town bylaw excepted or 'grandfathered' pre-existing offenders who were already living within protected zones.
"I was thrown by it," said Sharon McHugh.
Bill McHugh said he'd called the American Civil Liberties Union before they met with Murray and was advised that the town bylaw wouldn't have taken effect without review by the Attorney General's Office. McHugh said Murray made no mention during the meeting that the posting had only just occurred in the days after King's visit to the department.
"I left very uncomfortable," said Bill McHugh of the meeting with Murray. "To the point that I didn't trust what the chief told me." HE said he felt a "chill" up his spine with Murray's alleged closing comment that "those people should know better."
McHugh said he was further put off when reading Murray's comments to the selectmen in a subsequent meeting in which McHugh said Murray was "boasting" that he avoided having to deal with King's residency in town.
Plaintiff co-counsel Eric Tennen asked Bill McHugh for his take-away from the Murray meeting. "That John could not live in most of Ayer," answered McHugh. "Certainly not in that house."
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