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Community members rally to 'Free Ward Bird'

Ginny Bird, center, meets with friends in support of her husband Ward. Erin Plummer. (click for larger version)
November 23, 2010
MOULTONBORO — Friends, family, and other members of the community are rallying in support of Ward Bird and petitioning for his criminal threatening conviction to be overturned.

Bird and his wife Ginny Bird manage Picnic Rock Farm in Meredith and live in Moultonboro with their four children.

In 2006, Bird was arrested and charged with criminal threatening after a woman accused him of threatening her with a gun to get off his property. The case reached the New Hampshire Supreme Court this year and issued a ruling on Oct. 27 upholding Bird's conviction.

Bird surrendered to authorities on Tuesday and has begun serving a three-year sentence in state prison. On Wednesday, a crew from WMUR visited Picnic Rock Farm, leading to a series of communications among friends and family that brought over 100 people together to rally in support of Bird.

According to the State Supreme Court's ruling, Christine Harris of Moultonboro had been looking at properties with interest in starting an educational farm. According to court papers, Harris arranged an office meeting with a real estate agent on March 27, 2006 to look at one property owned by Patricia Viano around Yukon Trail. That day, she called the real estate agent to inform him she was running late and could not make the appointment. Because he could not meet her later that day, she decided to look at the property herself.

According to papers, Harris became lost during her drive to the property and stopped at the home of the Birds' niece and asked for directions. The niece gave her directions to the property, though told her that if she passed a white "job trailer" she was on the wrong property.

Documents said the niece called Bird after Harris left and told him that Harris was looking at the Viano property and might show up on his property, also informing him Harris was driving a Ford Ranger.

According to the court, Harris followed the niece's directions and drove past signs that stated "Private road, keep out" on Emerson Path and "no trespassing" on Yukon Trail. She missed the left hand turn off of Yukon Trail, drove past the white trailer, and ended up in front of Bird's house.

Ginny Bird said she remembers that someone came up the driveway and her husband went to the door. She said the woman said she was looking for a neighboring property and Ward Bird said this was not the property she was looking for. Ginny Bird said Harris persisted for another 10 minutes.

"She kept repeating, 'Are you so-and-so?" Ginny Bird said. "He kept saying 'Get off my property."

Court papers, however, said Harris parked her car and got out and Bird came out of the house "screaming, get the F off my property."

Ginny Bird said her husband did start yelling and using obscenities, though only after Harris continued to persist.

Ginny Bird said her husband then told Harris he was going to call the police. She said he did have a gun on him in a holster but he only turned around, "took the gun off, checked the safety, went in the house, and called the police."

Court papers said that Bird came down from his porch and continued to yell profanities while waving a gun at her. At trial, Harris testified that Bird pointed the gun "(t)owards" her.

Court documents said Harris asked Bird whether he was the boyfriend of the woman selling the property and he repeated his command for her to leave his property. Documents then said Harris eventually climbed back into her car, mouthing "(w)hat an ass" and testimony said Bird then walked off the porch toward her waving his gun as she backed out of the driveway.

Ginny Bird said Harris pulled out of the driveway shortly after Ward Bird went back into the house, saying Harris' demeanor seemed "nonchalant."

"She never even saw the gun until he turned around," Ginny Bird said.

Shortly afterward, Thomas Dawson of the Moultonboro Police Department, who is now the police chief, appeared at the house and said a woman came to the police crying and saying Ward Bird pointed a gun at her and was pressing charges.

Bird was asked to come to the police station and fill out a report. He was subsequently charged with reckless conduct with a firearm. Some time later he was also charged with criminal threatening with a firearm.

Ward Bird used the services of attorney Mark Sisti for his defense. Ginny Bird said the first trial resulted in a mistrial. In April of 2009 a second trial resulted in a guilty verdict. The involvement of a firearm in the charges activated the state's mandatory minimum sentence of three to six years.

The case was then appealed to the state Supreme Court with calling for a reconsideration on the basis that he was protecting his property and was not using the gun as a deadly weapon but as a way to get someone to leave. The court ruled against this appeal, saying a gun automatically implies the threat of deadly force and that Bird's alleged conduct at the time of the incident reinforced the threat.

The appeal also said the court made an error in that it did not consider Harris' conviction in 2008 of animal cruelty and also challenged the use of the mandatory minimum sentence.

The ruling by the state Supreme Court upheld the prior conviction, saying the ruling upheld state laws.

Jonathan Tolman of Moultonboro said Bird's conviction occurred due to language in state law that does not specify a homeowner can show a gun as a way to get someone off his or her land. Tolman said such language exists in New Jersey law but not in New Hampshire.

An effort is now underway appealing to Gov. John Lynch and Executive Councilor Ray Burton to have Bird pardoned and to state legislators, especially Rep. Betsey Patten of Moultonboro, to have the law changed for property owners to be able to show a gun to repel intruders.

Ginny Bird said just a month before the incident, an accident tore blood vessels in his abdomen and he was taken by MedFlight to Maine Medical Center. He returned home with numerous staples and was still recovering at the time of the incident.

After WMUR's first contact last week, word quickly spread around the community and people gathered through calls, texts, Facebook, and other means. Within 10 minutes after word spread, around 100 people gathered at Picnic Rock Farm to show their support.

"I was sitting at work half an hour ago and got a text message (about) WMUR," said Chris Shipp of Moultonboro. "There's a lot of people who said they just left their jobs and came here. The people are just pouring in. This guy is a pillar of our community on every level. He's a kind, gentle person and it appears to me the big picture needs to be looked at and a huge injustice was done."

Josh Cahoon said he learned of the rally through emails.

"I literally went outside, dropped my tools, and showed up," said Josh Cahoon. "I've known Ward in town. Something needs to be done."

People wore yellow and black ribbons and put them on their cars. Signs were taped onto cars and outside Picnic Rock Farm saying "Free Bird" and "Free Ward Bird." Local businesses, such as Bayswater Books in Center Harbor, have also put "Free Ward Bird" on their letterboard signs.

Supporters described Bird as a leader in the community and a close friend.

"Live free and go to jail if you defend you property," said Al Solomon of Moultonboro. "These are good people, such a good man."

"He's one of the nicest men I ever met and he would do anything for everybody," said Carla Horne of Meredith.

Ginny Bird said Ward's imprisonment has taken a heavy toll on her family. She is also greatly appreciative of the support Ward and the family have received from the community.

"It's amazing, I can't even tell you how good it makes us feel," she said. "It's getting us through this, the kindness of people."

Martin Lord Osman
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