Jeffrey R. Ring of Clinton is Webmaster at www.clintonmass.us, which bills itself as "Clinton's Freedom of Speech Site." (T&G File Photo/PAUL KAPTEYN)
Complaint says Web users express hate, threats
By Karen Nugent TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF
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CLINTON- Complaints have been filed with Attorney General Martha Coakley's office and Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr., alleging that a Web site frequented by proponents of a controversial town-owned rifle range is disseminating anti-gay propaganda and targeting opponents who live near the range with death threats.
The complaint, signed by Selectmen Mary Rose Dickhaut and James J. LeBlanc, along with 10 other Clinton and Lancaster residents opposed to shooting at the range, alleges that members of a forum on the Web site www.clintonmass.us have engaged in stalking, gay bashing, slander, sexual harassment and other civil rights violations.
Mr. LeBlanc, who lives near the range, which is on a 12-acre site in Lancaster also known as the Brandli property, is openly gay.
Ms. Dickhaut has relatives in the neighborhood.
Both confirmed that they signed letters to Mr. Early and Ms. Coakley as part of a packet of evidence sent to both offices and to the Telegram & Gazette. The letter asks for an investigation and prosecution of forum members.
Mr. LeBlanc said he signed the letter because he has been targeted on the Web site. Ms. Dickhaut declined to comment beyond saying that she signed the letter.
"It's all there - their postings are in the packet," Mr. LeBlanc said.
The other signers, all neighborhood residents, are David S. Hennis, Mr. LeBlanc's partner; Paula C. and James A. Nedved, who filed affidavits in the packet; Millie and Robert Dulmaine of Lancaster; Kristen and Pat English of Lancaster, Dianne and J. Wayne Paradis of Lancaster, and Dennis R. Parker of Clinton, a Clinton fire captain.
"These threats and attacks appear to be led by a group of individuals (many licensed gun, machine gun, and other weapons holders) who hide behind screen names and violate the laws under the guise of freedom of speech," the signed letter says. "The web site appears to be connected to a local fish and game club (the Clinton Fish & Game Protective Association) who have been attempting to reopen a closed rifle range in our neighborhood."
A spokesman for Mr. Early's office said last week that Clinton and Lancaster police have been advised to investigate the complaint, but that it is not a matter for state police.
A spokeswoman from Ms. Coakley's office said investigators are reviewing the complaint.
The complaint, filed with the attorney general's office Nov. 3, contains about 30 pages of comments posted on the Web site, two affidavits signed by Paula C. and James A. Nedved of South Meadow Road, near the range; a copy of a Sept. 11 police report filed by Ms. Dickhaut about a note and a bag of toilet paper left at her house late one night; and a copy of an April 2007 Telegram & Gazette article about the Web site. The Nedveds' affidavit was notarized by Jean D. Sifleet, a lawyer and range opponent who lives in the neighborhood. The packet sent to Ms. Coakley and Mr. Early, and to the Telegram & Gazette, also contained an unsigned two-page letter titled "Community Terrorized by Gun Hate Group."
Mr. Parker said yesterday that he is the author of the unsigned letter, which he described as an overview of the items in the packet.
"Why would I allow this to continue?" Mr. Parker said, when asked about the letter.
"This has gone on far too long and it needs to stop. They are terrorizing two neighborhoods - one in Clinton and one in Lancaster - and there is no reason we should have to put up with it," he said.
Mr. Parker's letter claims death threats have been made to children and town officials, along with threats to blow up buildings and infrastructure. A post, made on May 11, just after Mr. LeBlanc was elected, says: "I still don't like **** and they should not be in public office, teaching, or other positions where children are. Six feet under is a good starting point for the **** and lesbians."
Ms. Sifleet said the residents decided to file the complaints because there is growing frustration that they have been ignored by the officials, police and the media.
"It's just time to go on record and be official," she said. "There are substantive issues here," said Ms. Sifleet, noting that she has made complaints to police about unauthorized shooting at the range and is sick of being "brushed off."
The Web site, which has a link to the fish and game association's site, bills itself as "Clinton's Freedom of Speech Site." It has no connection to Clinton's official town Web site, or another Clinton Web site, www.clintonmass.com.
Its creator and webmaster, Jeffrey R. Ring, said he reported Mr. LeBlanc and Ms. Dickhaut to the state Ethics Commission in May, after Mr. LeBlanc was elected, citing a conflict of interest in their opposition to the range, because of their connections to the neighborhood. The commission has a policy of not confirming or denying investigations, but Mr. Ring said he has been contacted.
Mr. Ring, a member of the fish and game association, said the site is designed to allow free-flowing discussion, similar to conversations friends may have in Central Park, a coffee shop or on a front porch.
"I do not condone threats, and I deny that any have been made on the site," he said. "It's there for open discussions. I don't agree with everything on the site, but I approve of the concept."
Recently, Mr. Ring said, he has stepped up monitoring on the site.
"The name calling - that really goes nowhere," he said, noting that there is a way to report abuse to a moderator.
Mr. Parker's overview letter alleges that someone's gate was destroyed while the property owner was speaking against the range at a selectmen's meeting, and that the words "******* die" and "kill *******" were spray painted and carved on trees and posts in the neighborhood.
Police Chief Mark R. Laverdure said no complaints were received about the vandalism.
But, he said, the department is investigating the complaints, which were forwarded to him from Mr. Early's office.
"We're consulting with the district attorney's office, and we may discuss it with other agencies to see if a crime has been committed," he said. "At first glance, it's hard to say. They're pretty technical allegations. The comments on the Web site are terrible and deplorable. The individuals posting on there say some pretty mean things against certain groups.
"There is bad will between these two groups, and it just keeps escalating. The range is the root of the whole matter," Chief Laverdure said.
The rifle range is in Lancaster, on the Clinton line, and owned by Clinton. The range, leased to the fish and game association, had been used as a shooting range by military, police and sportsmen for about 80 years before the Lancaster Zoning Agent, acting on complaints from neighbors, issued a cease-and-desist order in June 2007. The range had already been the subject of controversy for several years, as the neighborhood was being developed.
Lancaster Police Chief Kevin D. Lamb said he read the complaint and did not see any potential violations that would have occurred in Lancaster.
The overview letter by Mr. Parker, which says members of the "hate group" have been seen patrolling and stalking the neighborhood, goes on to accuse William F. Connolly Jr., a member of the fish and game association and an ardent supporter of keeping the range open, of making remarks to the Nedveds about how many large-capacity weapons he owns, and joking about shooting at their house.
"As parents with small children they were too terrified until recently to say anything, because of the death threats … the neighborhood has been living in fear of an impending massacre. People are afraid to even turn the lights on in their house at night," the letter says.
Mrs. Nedved's affidavit describes a conversation she had with Mr. Connolly, a member of the town Finance Committee, during a 2006 Clinton High School football game. She said the conversation ended with Mr. Connolly explaining the state law allowing shooting within 150 feet of a paved road and 500 feet from a house. She contends he said, "If you don't let us shoot at the rifle range, we could aim anywhere. Why, we could aim right at your house."
Mrs. Nedved said in the affidavit that she worried about the "mental stability" of someone who would make such a comment at the end of a friendly conversation.
Mr. Connolly denied making the comment to Mrs. Nedved. He acknowledged that he has quoted the law on numerous occasions in response to comments made by range opponents, questions from reporters, and on the Web site.
"I am a responsible gun owner, and I advocate for the safe and proper use of firearms," he said. "I have attempted to de-personalize the issue. I've made a sincere, well-intentioned effort to remain open to conversation, and I would not jeopardize that effort by making threats to neighbors."
The Nedveds, who were also involved in a controversy shortly after they moved to town in 1998 about a boat ramp on South Meadow Pond, adjacent to their property, said in their affidavits that they did not report threats to the police because they contend Mr. Connolly is a "good friend" of Chief Laverdure, who "works in tandem" with him.
The chief said he takes offense at the claim.
"Bill Connolly is not a friend of mine. I've worked with him on various town boards - he's a member of the Finance Committee, and he was on the police station building committee. The Clinton Police Department will investigate this by the book," Chief Laverdure said.
The chief said the town solicitor told him that police could continue shooting at the range as part of their yearly training and firearms certification, until they are served a stop order by Lancaster. They finished this year's six-day training a few weeks ago.
Mr. Connolly occasionally posts on the Web site, under his own name, and said he stands by any posts he made. The complaint does not point out any of Mr. Connolly's posts, except one in which he requests a copy of a photograph posted by Mr. Ring, depicting a heavily armed man in a small boat with the caption: "Going Fishing at South Meadow Pond; Anyone interested in some 'sport fishing' this weekend?"
Mr. Connolly, who said he owns about 25 firearms - not the more than 50 machine guns and semiautomatic weapons claimed by the Nedveds - said he was joking about the photograph. He said he thinks the complaint is in response to his recent effort to keep the range open by getting it classified as a tax-exempt educational facility that will offer marksmanship instruction. The classification would allow the group to circumvent zoning bylaws.