Local woman indicted for friend's death in crash

A 20-year-old Haverhill woman has been indicted for her role in a 2018 crash that killed her 18-year-old friend Alexis Spartz.

According to court records, Emily McGovern was indicted for motor vehicle homicide while under the influence of intoxicating liquor and being reckless or negligent, as well as manslaughter by motor vehicle, operating under the influence of intoxicating liquor.

McGovern was arraigned in June for charges of manslaughter, motor vehicle homicide OUI, negligent driving, a marked lanes violation and speeding.

Investigators said McGovern was driving a 2004 Lincoln LS sedan on the afternoon of March 31, 2018, when the car flipped onto its hood on the shoulder of Interstate 495 north in Haverhill.

Speed and alcohol were factors in the crash, according to police.

At the arraignment, prosecutor Calvin Skeirik read a report by Massachusetts State Police that said the car driven by McGovern was traveling 107 mph before the crash, according to the car's data recorder.

Blood tests showed McGovern had a blood alcohol level of .196, according to the police report. The legal blood alcohol limit for people under 21 is .02. For people over 21, the limit is .08.

McGovern's case will eventually move to Salem Superior Court.

The crash scene was chaotic, State Police said, causing confusion about who was driving the car.

Initial reports said that Spartz was behind the wheel, but within a couple days, State Police issued a retraction that said another young person was driving. They did not name McGovern at that time.

Members of Spartz's family have spent the last year mourning her death and anticipating charges against the driver, they said before the anniversary of the crash. Spartz was a 2017 Methuen High graduate.

At that time, Alexis' father, Jim Spartz, described the year as "extremely frustrating" and said, "We've got no information about what transpired: if they're filing charges, what they would be, what caused the crash."

At one point, he called State Police weekly for any updates, he said.

Essex County District Attorney spokesperson Carrie Kimball told The Eagle-Tribune in March that "these motor vehicle investigations, involving a fatality, are lengthy."

— Breanna Edelstein


4-way stop eyed for dangerous intersection

City councilors sometimes makes decisions involving millions of dollars or huge developments that change the landscape of the community.

An issue involving a stop sign can seem unimportant by comparison — except when not addressing it could leave motorists at risk of getting injured, or worse.

Just ask City Councilor Mary Ellen Daly O'Brien.

She said she has seen several near crashes at an intersection near her home in the Highlands neighborhood. That intersection at Park and Webster streets needs a four-way stop arrangement to prevent serious crashes, she said.

"I've seen numerous near misses," Daly O'Brien said. "Traffic has increased on Main Street (at the edge of the Highlands neighborhood), as has the number of trucks.''

The intersection of Park and Webster streets is in the packed inner-city Highlands, a neighborhood which has much traffic and many pedestrians. The neighborhood is just north of City Hall and the public library.

The city has already set up-four way stops at other intersections in the neighborhood, including at Webster and Arlington streets and at Highland and Arlington streets.

Daly O'Brien said she has seen close calls at the intersection of Park and Webster streets, and almost became the victim of a crash there herself.

"I've seen numerous near misses," she said, "and I have been nearly missed.''

Council Michael McGongagle supported sending the request to the Traffic and Safety Committee for review.

"We'll definitely advocate for this at Traffic and Safety for some resources, to put some speed traps up to monitor what's going on," McGonagle said. "A few tickets placed here and there goes a long way at times.''

A traffic light that Daly O'Brien deemed "useless" exacerbates traffic problems in the area, she said.

"It's a useless, useless light at Webster (Street) onto 110 Kenoza (Avenue)," she said. "I've tried twice in my time on the council to get it removed because it was put there by the state before I was on the council.... There's no need of it.

"Why can't we put that light where it's really needed, instead of wasting it where it is?'' she said. "Let's ask the experts one more time."

Although Council President John Michitson noted that traffic along "Kenoza Avenue to Webster to Summer Streets is a real drag way," the comments a 35-year resident of the area drove home the need for a review to change the intersection at Parker and Webster Streets to a four-way stop sign.

— Gerry Miles


Stun gun sales increasing in Mass.

Massachusetts residents are increasingly arming themselves with electronic weapons following a court ruling last year that legalized the non-lethal devices.

More than 1,500 electronic Tasers and stun guns have been sold by gun dealers in Massachusetts since July 2018, according to the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.

Last year, state lawmakers legalized stun guns by adding them to a list of regulated weapons, which means owners must get a state firearms license to own one.

The changes, tucked into a 'red flag' bill signed by Gov. Charlie Baker, came in response to a 2018 Supreme Judicial Court ruling that the state's ban on stun guns was unconstitutional.

Rules for ownership and use of the weapons, including penalties for having one without a firearms license, are still being worked out by state regulators. But consumers who previously had to buy them online, or travel to states like New Hampshire to get one, clearly aren't waiting.

Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners Action League, said electronic weapons are an option for people who prefer a non-lethal way to defend themselves.

"It allows someone who isn't comfortable with a firearm to carry something for self-defense, just like pepper spray," he said.

When fired, Tasers shoot two spear-shaped probes that penetrate the skin. Copper wires attached to the probes emit a 50,000-volt shock of electricity, forcing muscles to seize and usually sending the person collapsing to the ground. Other stun guns must touch an individual's skin or clothes but also deliver a debilitating shock.

Wallace said most people seem to prefer hand-held stun guns as opposed to Tasers, which are more expensive and complicated to use.

Many people may not realize they're legal, he said.

"They've been illegal for so long, I'm not sure the general public even knows you can own them now," he said.

He said the requirement to get a firearms license is "ridiculous and unnecessary" and the law itself full of technical issues.

"They never should have classified it as a handgun," he said. "In most states this is something you can buy over the counter, without a permit."

Previously, the state limited the use of stun guns to police officers.

Law enforcement officials, who once opposed efforts to legalize stun guns, aren't raising any concerns about their growing popularity.

"From a police perspective, I'd certainly rather face one of those than a handgun," said Mark Leahy, executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association.

But he said people who purchase them should be aware of the potential downsides.

"They need to be cognizant of the fact that any of these things can be potentially taken away by someone, and used against them," Leahy said.

Another issue for law enforcement is that most stun guns don't have serial numbers, like other weapons, making them difficult to trace if used in crimes.

Police are increasingly using stun guns to subdue unruly suspects, a tactic questioned by civil liberties groups but touted by law enforcement as more humane than other types of force.

Massachusetts police agencies reported 1,339 incidents of police using Tasers or stun guns in 2017 — an increase of nearly 60% from 2012.

Statewide 275 police agencies are authorized to use electronic control weapons, and 7,481 such weapons were in use in 2017.

Overall, the number of firearms sold in Massachusetts -- including hand guns, rifles and shotguns -- has declined from 129,079 in 2016 to 95,216 in 2018, according to state data.

Massachusetts has some of the nation's toughest firearms laws, which have been tightened in recent years in response to gun violence at home and mass shootings elsewhere.

The state's "red flag" law also requires stun guns to be stored in a "locked container" that can only be opened by the operator.

Besides Massachusetts, stun guns are legal in 42 states including New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine and Rhode Island, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In most cases, owners must be at least 18 years old and not have a felony record.

— Christian M. Wade


Mayors demand advancement of abortion bill

Standing outside the Statehouse one morning recently, Easthampton Mayor Nicolle LaChapelle said she drove 90 miles to be there and that many of her constituents travel greater distances to seek reproductive health care.

Framingham Mayor Yvonne Spicer joined five of her colleagues from other cities outside the Statehouse to urge lawmakers to advance an abortion access bill known as the ROE Act.

LaChapelle was among the six Massachusetts mayors who gathered in the light rain to both push for lawmakers to pass a bill aimed at increasing access to abortion and to speak generally about reproductive care access.

"I am pretty sure, in fact very sure, that there is not a man here that drives 100 miles to have treatment for his prostate," LaChapelle said. "I have constituents in Easthampton who are driving to Connecticut, upstate New York to get basic information and a choice that only they deserve to make."

Five of the mayors — LaChapelle, Daniel Rivera of Lawrence, Martin Walsh of Boston,Yvonne Spicer of Framingham, and Donna Holaday of Newburyport — and 11 others from around the state wrote a letter to lawmakers urging them to advance a bill known as the ROE Act.

The letter is also signed by mayors Joseph Petty of Worcester, Alex Morse of Holyoke, David Narkewicz of Northampton, Ruthanne Fuller of Newton, Stephanie Burke of Medford, Kimberly Driscoll of Salem, Marc McGovern of Cambridge, Jon Mitchell of New Bedford, Michael Cahill of Beverly, Gail Infurna of Melrose and Gary Christenson of Malden.

The bill would eliminate parental consent requirements for teenagers seeking abortions, would allow for abortions after 24 weeks to protect the physical or mental health of a patient, or in cases of diagnosed lethal fetal anomalies, and would include abortion in the pregnancy-related "safety-net" health coverage for Massachusetts residents ineligible for MassHealth.

Speakers at the event described it as a backstop against potential federal action to restrict abortion access and a way to send a message to other states and to the Trump administration.

Walsh, a former state representative, said the mayors will work with legislators from their cities to advocate for the bill and share constituent stories.

"We shouldn't be taking away rights from women," Walsh said. "We shouldn't be taking rights away from families, and that's why we're putting a stake in the ground here in Massachusetts. That's why we as mayors today are going to stand shoulder to shoulder with our colleagues in the Senate and the House and demand that action happens, that this bill be taken up, that this bill goes to the governor's desk so that we can continue to add protections here in Massachusetts."

Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone said the bill would help destigmatize abortion. He said passing it presents an opportunity "for us to actually act like the most progressive state in the United States."

The bill, cosponsored by 104 of 200 state legislators, has remained before the Judiciary Committee since a June hearing that brought both supporters and opponents to the State House in droves, filling Gardner Auditorium and spilling over into two hearing rooms during hours of emotionally charged testimony.

The committee is co-chaired by Rep. Claire Cronin, D-Easton, and Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton.

Committee members Sen. Will Brownsberger of Belmont and Reps. Jay Livingstone of Boston and Carole Fiola of Fall River stood with the mayors at the event.

Opponents of the bill say it would strip away parents' rights to be involved in an important decision for their teenager, and that it remove protections of patients, including one provision that would no longer require an abortion after 24 weeks to take place in a hospital.

Rivera and Spicer said current abortion law can present challenges for young women, women of color, and women living in poverty, who generally face more barriers accessing health care.

"As a person who represents many young women of color, many poor women in my community, any impediment to safe and legal abortion is really a risk to health in my whole community," Rivera said.

Spicer said women of color "have long lost the opportunities to be able to have affordable, quality health care, and these are the women that will promptly suffer if this does not move forward."

— Katie Lannan, State House News Service


State utility regulator slams Columbia Gas

The state Department of Public Utilities came out swinging last week, hammering the Columbia Gas for breaking federal law in one letter and then threatening to fine the company $1 million for every violation listed in another letter – both of which were issued as a result of the recent Level 1 gas leak in Lawrence.

The leak forced the evacuation of dozens of homes and businesses in the same South Lawrence neighborhood devastated by last year's gas disaster that affected Lawrence, Andover and North Andover. Hundreds of people were displaced and forced to seek reimbursement for lost food and wages due to the leak that happened about 3 a.m. Sept. 27.

In the first letter, issued Tuesday morning of last week, DPU Chairman Matthew Nelson told Columbia Gas President Mark Kempic that the company must submit a "detailed work plan" describing how it intends to prevent future gas leaks.

In the Sept. 27 incident, a contractor testing water meters for Lawrence — M.E. Simpson Co. Inc. of Valparaiso, Indiana — mistook a gas valve for a water valve, investigators said. When the company's workers turned it to test it, called "exercising," the gas valve punctured a high-pressure, plastic gas line that had been inserted into the old cast iron gas line as part of the system rebuild approved by local, state and federal authorities after last year's disaster.

When the high-pressure line was broken, it released gas into the surrounding area, including the sewer system, officials said. A police officer on the scene noticed gas hissing out of a manhole cover and was overcome with the smell of natural gas, so he called in the Fire Department, which was soon joined by officials from the gas company and the state.

Roads were blocked off, residents evacuated and businesses closed. Some people couldn't return to the neighborhood until the next night.

On the day after the leak, a statement issued by Columbia Gas and the city seemed to indicate that the two entities were taking joint responsibility for the break, with the city admitting that its contractor mistook a gas line for a water line while the gas company admitting it failed to remove a gas valve that was no longer being used.

Mayor Daniel Rivera, however, said early last week that the gas company was completely at fault for having left the old valve accessible to the water contractor. He said the valve was mislabeled as a water meter and that maps used by the contractor listed the valve as being part of the water system.

A Columbia Gas spokesman, however, said updated maps used by the company accurately portrayed the locations of all utility lines in the city, even showing a water line nearby.

The DPU seems to have agreed with the mayor, however, saying that Columbia Gas had failed on several occasions to inspect and/or remove old gas valves and lines that had been abandoned.

"As you know, I issued my 11th set of orders issued on Sept. 11, 2019 to address concerns with 'abandoned services' that Bay State Gas took out of service during the restoration efforts following the Sept. 13, 2018 gas line event," wrote Matthew Nelson, chairman of the state DPU.

"Those restoration efforts involved, among other things, abandoning 4,900 existing service lines and replacing them with new services that currently provide gas to customers," he wrote. "Recent inspections have confirmed that much of the work performed on these abandoned services failed to comply with applicable Massachusetts and federal law.

"While the abandoned services are not active and may not immediately affect customers’ gas service, Columbia Gas has indicated that the existence of gas leaks in or near the replaced lines could pose safety concerns, and that a Grade 1 gas leak would significantly increase those concerns."

He noted that on Sept. 27, that's exactly what happened, when a gas leak was discovered in Lawrence around 3 a.m.

"A Grade 1 leak is a leak that represents an existing or probable hazard to persons or property, and requires immediate and continuous action until the conditions are no longer hazardous," he said in the letter. "I am aware that Columbia Gas, under the department’s supervision, took immediate action to identify and eliminate the source of the Grade 1 leak. The Department continues to work with Columbia Gas to take additional actions needed to ensure that similar incidents near abandoned gas valves will not occur."

Nonetheless, Nelson ordered that Columbia Gas take three major steps to make sure that no more gas leaks occur under its watch and that if it fails in any of these steps, it would face a $1 million fine for each infraction.

First, he said, the company must, by Oct. 7, "submit a detailed work plan to the DPU describing how it intends to address the estimated 2,200 locations where meters were moved as part of the abandoned service work completed during the Merrimack Valley restoration.''

By Oct. 18, Columbia Gas "shall complete quality control work on abandoned services where the insertion technique was used (covering approximately 713 homes) to assure that the work it performed on these abandoned services as part of the Merrimack Valley restoration is in compliance with Massachusetts and federal law. The Department expects that this work will be completed at a rate of about 50 homes inspected and remediated per day."

Finally, Columbia Gas "shall pay for a third-party independent audit, to be contracted through the Department, of all gas pipeline work completed as part of the Merrimack Valley restoration effort. Such audit will evaluate compliance with Massachusetts and federal law, as well as any other operational or safety risks that may be posed by the pipeline work."

The second letter came out after 5 p.m. Tuesday of last week, citing the company for failing to comply with its own regulations, and thus federal regulations, by not properly disabling a gas valve that was still attached to a low-pressure cast-iron gas line that no longer carried gas, but did have a new, high-pressure gas line inserted into it.

Columbia Gas did not return several requests for comment.

Justin Evans, public utilities engineer for the Pipeline Safety Division for the DPU, chastised Columbia Gas for failing to abandon the gas main based on its procedures.

"The valve from the abandoned main, located at the intersection of South Broadway and Salem Street, could only be exercised because Columbia Gas did not abandon the main as required by the company’s procedures, which state, 'When a distribution main is to be abandoned, valve boxes associated with the abandoned main (if they exist) shall be removed and the hole filled with a suitable compacting material,'' he said. "If the valve boxes cannot be removed due to their location in concrete or pavement, the valve box lids shall be removed and the valve boxes filled with concrete or other suitable material.'"

As a result, Evans said, the company also broke federal law.

“Each operator shall prepare and follow for each pipeline a manual of written procedures for conducting operations and maintenance activities and for emergency response," he said. "Based on current information, Columbia Gas failed to follow its own procedures abandoning the valve box and, therefore, Columbia Gas violated federal pipeline safety regulations."

— Bill Kirk




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