BOSTON — A civil-rights suit launched by a local couple against the town of Ayer and its police chief began Tuesday in U.S. District Court. Level 3 sex offender John King, 39, and his wife, Ashley King, 23, seek to overturn as unconstitutional a new Ayer bylaw that restricts where Level 2 and Level 3 sex offenders may live and loiter, and to stop the Ayer police from enforcing the bylaw against John King.
King was convicted of rape and indecent assault and battery in 1999 and was released in 2005 after serving six years in prison.
In June 2011, Ashley King’s parents purchased the single-family house at 6 Whitcomb Ave. for their daughter to rent-to-own from them. Ashley and John met early that fall.
In October 2011, Ayer Town Meeting passed a bylaw banning Level 2 and Level 3 sex offenders from residing or lingering within a 1,000-foot perimeter of all town parks and senior housing projects, among other places.
Five months later, Ashley discovered she was pregnant in February. Meanwhile, in a Feb. 21 letter to the town, the Attorney General’s Office notified Ayer that the bylaw was approved as to form. The AG’s letter also included a warning that the bylaw may be susceptible to a constitutionality challenge.
The AG’s letter included an instruction to post the bylaw in five public places before it would take effect. That posting didn’t occur until April 24.
The Kings married in March and John King planned to let his Worcester room rental lapse at the end of April. The couple testified being unaware of the town bylaw which “grandfathered” existing sex offenders but prohibited offenders from establishing a new residence within a protected zone once the bylaw was enacted.
Under state law, John King visited the Ayer Police on April 19 to fill out paperwork notifying the department of his intention to move into the Whitcomb Avenue home. King testified “the woman behind the glass” told him that, in addition to filling out a standardized change of address form, King also needed to produce two pieces of mail as proof he lived at the house.
“What house?” asked Judge William Young.
“Ayer,” answered King.
“Have you ever been asked that before?” asked King’s attorney Eric Tennen.
No, said King, who reported telling the dispatcher “I’ll have to go and get those for you somehow. It was kind of like asking me for the keys to a car I don’t own.”
King returned to the police station on April 25 carrying freshly-posted mail he’d had his mother-in-law send to Whitcomb Avenue. But instead of being fingerprinted and having a fresh photo taken as he’d expected, King said he was ultimately confronted by Ayer Police Chief William Murray and told he could not move into Whitcomb Avenue because of the new town bylaw.
It’s since been revealed that over that time frame in late April, Murray had lobbied the Ayer selectmen by email, asking the board to spur the town clerk to quickly post the bylaw. Murray’s email made reference to a Level 3 sex offender’s intention to move into a home on Whitcomb Avenue. The bylaw was posted on April 24, the day before Murray and King finally met.
King reported feeling “a shock. I said I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was blown-away.”
King said Murray advised he could live on Whitcomb Avenue for 30 days before being notified by the police to move out in compliance with the bylaw else face a civil penalty. King said he opted against the approach.
“I’m not just trying to invade your town or just randomly move here,” said King. He recalled the police “tried to assert that I was already living there.”
“It was their game,” said King. “I didn’t mean game — I didn’t really have a lot of influence.”
King testified being further agitated by an April 27 email from Murray stating that the Ayer Police would still generate a public notice that King lived in town.
“I was taken aback. I’m sure the police don’t love me but I thought I’d been straight forward,” King said. “I was just very angry. I’d certainly never heard of it before. I thought it was kind of vindictive. I was scared for Ashley and afraid they were going to paper the neighborhood. I felt there was a good likelihood of something happening to her.”
Instead, the couple moved into the basement of Ashley King’s parents’ Harvard home in May. The Ayer house sits unoccupied. Their baby boy was born on Halloween. Now the couple and their baby live in cramped quarters in Ashley’s former second-floor bedroom, down the hall from Ashley’s parents.
Ashley King testified that the flap caused her husband to be “all stressed out. It’s like everything’s flipped on you.”
Town attorney Leonard Kesten asked whether she was aware of Ayer’s sex offender bylaw. “It was big news in Ayer.”
“There was no reason to know about it,” said Ashley King.
Tuesday’s testimony opened with testimony from Dr. Laurie Gudry, president of the nonprofit Massachusetts Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. Gudry is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in sexual violence prevention and sex offender management services.
Called by the Kings, Gudry testified that there was little statistical evidence to support the notion that sex offender restrictive bylaws are effective. Gudry said such bylaws began to surface nationally in 2005 and in Massachusetts in 2008.
Gudry also stated that the Massachusetts Sex Offender Registry Board’s (SORB) methodology for classifying offenders as Level 1, Level 2 and or Level 3 (marking someone as having a low, medium or high likelihood of re-offending) is “not statistically validated.” When classifying offenders, “Massachusetts uses its own frame,” Gudry said.
Ninety to 93 percent of sexual violence victims know their perpetrator, said Gudry. In child sexual abuse, the perpetrator is frequently a member of the child’s household or family, she said.
To ban sex offenders from living near parks and senior centers misses the point, said Gudry. “Recidivism is not related to proximity,” said Gudry. “The data isn’t there.”
Instead of “blanket” SORB categories and other punitive governmental approaches that can “unravel or unwind” offenders, Gundry suggested tailor-made probationary terms and therapy which takes into account the offender’s actual propensities.
“That’s the problem with all legislation,” retorted Young. Custom made probationary programs and therapies are expensive, he said.
“We don’t have that world,” said Young. “We do the best we can.”
“I’m convinced we can do better,” answered Gundry.
The trial is to resume Wednesday morning and may run each morning through Friday. Murray has yet to testify. An Ayer selectman may also be called upon to testify on the process that led to the bylaw’s enactment.