AYER -- On Dec. 20, U.S. District Court Judge William Young ordered that Level 3 sex offender John King be grandfathered, or exempt, from an Ayer bylaw banning Level 2 and 3 sex offenders from establishing residence within 1,000 feet of parks, elder housing complexes or schools. Young's order only applies to King's wife's 6 Whitcomb Avenue home. Young ruled that King properly registered the address under state sex notification laws on April 19 -- five days before Ayer's more-restrictive bylaw took effect on April 24.
Ayer Police Chief William Murray had maintained that King never completed the state registration process with his department. On April 19, department officials sent King away to gather more evidence of his intended residence. Meanwhile, Murray lobbied the Town Clerk to get the town bylaw, approved by Ayer Town Meeting in Oct. 2011, on the books. That happened on April 24.
Upon King's April 25 return to the police station, Murray told King that the bylaw prohibited his living at 6 Whitcomb Ave. (which is within 1,000 feet of both Pirone Park and the Pond Street elder housing complex).
Husband and wife John and Ashley King sued in September. In granting grandfathered status, Young dismissed the Kings' constitutional challenge of the bylaw as moot. That was because Young ruled that King was properly registered on April 19; with that, Young did not allow the trial to resume into a "Phase 2" exploration of the constitutionality of the law -- at least as it related to John King. Young stated he'd rule separately on the couple's other claims against the town. No second order had yet issued through Monday, New Year's Eve.
Young's ruling may nix pending criminal charges against King who was arrested by the Ayer Police on May 15 for allegedly failing to register the Whitcomb address under state notification laws. On Dec. 24, the District Attorney's Office said it's reviewing the case in light of Young's order.
While the Kings have declined comment at this time, John King's father-in-law, William McHugh of Harvard, agreed to talk about the situation.
A difficult year
It's been a tumultuous year for William McHugh and his family. Five days before Christmas, a federal court permitted son-in-law John King, a Level 3 sex offender, to move into the 6 Whitcomb Ave. home that William and his wife Sharon had purchased the year before for their eldest daughter Ashley McHugh King.
With days till Christmas, the Kings snapped their first holiday photo as a married couple, it was a snapshot of their two-month old son seated aside a family dog on the front porch of the Whitcomb Avenue home.
The McHughs bought the house in June 2011 with hopes that Ashley would not need a roommate or boyfriend to help pay the bills in a rent-to-own situation they'd structured for her. "We're socially conservative," said McHugh.
The McHughs hunted for six months before finding the home. "It's in close proximity to us," said McHugh. "It's a nice neighborhood. We met some of the neighbors."
Weeks later, mutual friends introduced Ashley McHugh to John King, who'd just been released from incarceration on a probation violation. King had earlier served six years on a 1999 rape charge.
The couple wed in March. On April 19, King visited the Ayer Police to notify the department, per state sex offender law, of his intention to live at 6 Whitcomb Ave. He was told to return with proof of intended address. When he returned six days later, Ayer Police Chief William Murray advised King that the town's own bylaw would prohibit King from living at 6 Whitcomb Ave.
In September, the Kings, financed by McHughs, filed suit against the town and Murray individually. While King was granted grandfathered status from the Ayer bylaw, McHugh had hoped the court would strike down the Ayer bylaw as unconstitutional.
McHugh said the bylaw improperly relies on the state Sex Offender Registry Board classification of whether a sex offender has a low -- Level 1, moderate -- Level 2, or high -- Level 3, risk of perpetrating another sexual offense. McHugh rued he didn't have the resources to sue the SORB itself, "I don't have those pockets."
The SORB is under fire for classifying a Wakefield man as a Level 1 offender despite suspicions raised against the man. The man now faces 100 counts of abusing 13 infants and children in his wife's unlicensed, home-based daycare center.
Conversely, McHugh said the SORB is flawed in other classifications. King's was summarily bumped from Level 2 to 3 status following a non-sex related, post-release probation violation. McHugh hopes the SORB is overhauled.
"As soon as they lose, John and many others are going to go down automatically," said McHugh. "Everybody knows that the SORB system is flawed. I'd assumed that the legal system would classify a person appropriately."
McHugh said its "deceiving" to read King's convictions on the SORB website without clarification. King was charged with rape and "indecent assault and battery on a person aged 14 or older," but McHugh said the record reflects that King knew his victim, and she was an adult woman, not a child.
"Reasonable people can be confused," said McHugh. "And I think Chief Murray plays into that."
Ayer Town Meeting passed the bylaw because "The road to hell is paved by good intentions," suggested McHugh. "They acted irrationally and scraped together a bylaw that in the end will cost a lot of money in lawsuits and doesn't serve their purposes. And it does nothing about the grandfathered. So to pretend that the bylaw does anything is kind of silly."
"If they're trying to keep pedophiles out of their town, then the town should pass a bylaw to keep pedophiles out of town. If they're trying to keep drug addicts out of town, they should pass a bylaw to keep addicts out of town," said McHugh. "But they're pretending it does something it doesn't do."
McHugh blasted the Ayer selectmen's Dec. 21 Facebook statement on the judge's order. It's not clear who drafted or approved the statement; since the Ayer selectmen have not met since the order issued.
"The Ayer Board of Selectmen deeply regrets that the bylaw was not posted in a timely manner by the Ayer Town Clerk," said the statement. Though the Attorney General's Office approved the bylaw in February, Ayer Town Clerk John Canney didn't post the bylaw -- putting it in full effect -- until April 24.
But McHugh praises Canney for working diligently with the AG's Office to ensure the bylaw was posted correctly. "Even if the clerk has posted it sooner, we'd still be in court on the constitutionality case which they'd have lost under Judge Young," said McHugh.
"The evidence heard in Court demonstrated that there was absolutely no wrongdoing by Ayer Police Chief William Murray or the Ayer Police Department," said the statement. "The rest of their (Kings') lawsuit that alleged that the actions by the Police Chief and Police Department were improper will be dismissed."
Not true, said McHugh. As of Monday, the judge has yet to rule on the Kings' outstanding claims that Murray violated the couple's federal and state constitutional rights of intrastate travel and free association. The couple also claimed a loss of consortium (marital relations) and sought municipal liability against Murray as the "final policy maker for the Town of Ayer with respect to its police department."
"We are pleased that the Town of Ayer's Sex Offender Residency Bylaw remains in place and will continue to provide protection to our most vulnerable citizens of Ayer," concluded the selectmen's statement.
"The focus should not be the plaintiff's background," said McHugh. "But that's what the defendants want to base it on. They want you to believe he's [King's] a repeat pedophile when he's not."
McHugh praised Selectman Frank Maxant, who has opposed the bylaw. "He's a very reasonable guy. At one of the meetings, he said it (the bylaw) would be a bull's-eye for the Civil Liberty Union," said McHugh. "He was right, and the judge clearly said he would probably find that the bylaw was unconstitutional."
McHugh blasted Attorney General Martha Coakley's handling of the bylaw. "Why the heck did they approve it?" said McHugh. Throughout its 7 page letter to the town, the AG's Office repeatedly warned of a possible constitutional challenge against the bylaw.
Regarding media coverage of the case, McHugh said, "It's been hard and somewhat embarrassing." McHugh said he's not one to sue but, "Then there is a time when you have to litigate, which is unfortunate."
While he's happy the Kings have moved in, McHugh is upset with a neighbor who allowed the Ayer Police to set up a camera to film goings on at 6 Whitcomb Ave. McHugh said the footage was used to allegedly prove that King was living at the house on May 15 when he was charged with failure to register under state law.
"Imagine that?" said McHugh. "The chief had a camera in a neighbor's house spying on Ashley and John. I guess they're not Christians and were taught to hate their neighbors," said McHugh, who charged that such action "feeds people's fears." The DA's Office is reviewing whether to proceed with that case.
McHugh said that fears fueled the 2011 Town Meeting vote approving the bylaw. "I don't know what people are thinking. It can't work. Where are they (offenders) going to live? If they're repeat offenders, lock them up -- I agree. Three strikes and you're out. But John has to make a living. John has to live somewhere. If you don't allow that, what are they going to resort to?"
"Our (SORB) system is broken and no one is trying to fix it. And then what? Move them [offenders] to other areas? If it's not fair to residents on Whitcomb Avenue, then why is it fair to people on another street in Ayer?"
McHugh wants Ayer officials to "stop putting my daughter in the spot light and implying that there is a repeat sex offender living in that house, or that he's any threat to the elderly or children. That's not correct. John does not have a history of that."
"This should be the happiest time of their life with their marriage and a baby, but the town of Ayer has made it the worst," said McHugh
Follow Mary Arata at twitter.com/maryearata.