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Judge a man by his character?



Last modified: Monday, December 06, 2010
Without video or eyewitness accounts, does Ward Bird's apple-pie resume really matter?

Does it matter that Bird, a 49-year-old Moultonboro farmer, worked with the Boy Scouts in his town? Or that he helped renovate the local historical society building? Or that his daughter studies civil engineering in college? Or that he works hard on the family farm? Or that friends trust him with their kids? Or that he saved a woman, a perfect stranger, from drowning?

Does it?

A growing number of Bird watchers say yes. They don't believe that Bird, transferred from the state prison to the county jail in Ossipee last Wednesday, used a gun to threaten Christine Harris, who had stopped by his rural property looking for directions early in 2006.

Bird's past, supporters say, suggests he's clean.

His decision to reject a plea deal points to his principled ways.

Bring it on, Bird said. Which the state did, convicting him of felony criminal threatening last year and sentencing him to three to six years, a decision upheld recently by the state Supreme Court.

So now people across the state carry signs questioning the verdict. They've formed a committee that meets every Sunday in Bird's hometown. They hope a pardon will work its way through the system and land before Gov. John Lynch and the Executive Council.

'The main thing is the fact that this person is innocent,' said Jon Tolman, a Moultonboro builder who's known Bird for 20 years. 'People dwell on gun rights and property rights, and those are side issues. The reason people are taking time from their busy lives is that they know this man. They know who he is.'

They also believe they know Harris, formerly of Salem, residence currently unknown. They believe the jury should have heard about her history, the history that says she's been convicted of animal cruelty. Look at the six-month sentence she received two years ago in Salem District Court, members of the Free Ward Bird Committee say.

Look at the 50 dogs that were removed from her trailer.

It's the classic case of he said-she said. Only Bird, Harris and maybe a few chipmunks know what really happened that day nearly five years ago.

Bird's reputation, meanwhile, sparkles. That's what everyone says, including JoAnn Wiggin of Moultonboro.

She had gone off Moultonboro Neck Road during a November chill 19 years ago, her Jeep slipping on black ice and plunging into a swamp, upside down. The water rushed in, reaching within inches of Wiggin's mouth.

Bird, driving by, jumped into the cold water, then sought help from another man. The two yanked the door open and saved Wiggin.

That's why news of Bird's arrest and sentencing years later made no sense to Wiggin. That's why she testified on Bird's behalf.

'This is a man I want for my neighbor because you can count on him,' Wiggin said. 'This is the kind of guy Moultonboro needs to keep an old-fashioned attitude in town, where neighbor helps neighbor.'

Bird's sister, Meredith Bird Miller of Wilmot, cited a list of attributes to illustrate her brother's character. Bird inherited the family farm and is a tireless worker. He read National Geographic cover to cover by age 7. He renovated the town's historical society.

And his 16-year-old son quoted Gandhi on his Facebook page the day after Bird left for prison, on Nov. 17.

Threatening someone? With a gun, no less? Ward Bird?

'So much integrity,' Miller said. 'A loving member of the community. Helpful, generous.'

But does that prove Bird's innocence? Does that mean Bird was incapable of having his feathers ruffled to the point where he criminally threatened Harris?

Or does Harris's background mean she provoked this argument?

Former real estate agent Gordon Blais of Meredith says maybe. Blais doesn't know Bird, but he did have an uncomfortable encounter with Harris shortly before the incident in question.

He said she once asked him to help her buy a piece of land for her animals. He showed her a spot in New Hampton, 32 acres of snow-covered terrain with trees bare from winter.

Her question to him that day: Why were all the trees dead?

Concerned, Blais and another agent from his real estate company refused to help Harris further. He said she then went to look at property in the Moultonboro area on her own, stopping by Bird's niece's house for directions before driving to Bird's house.

And that's when someone got mad and, later, lied. Or at least stretched the truth.

Bird claimed Harris ignored the 'no trespassing' signs on his property and refused to leave. He said she grew angry when Bird said his property was not for sale. And he said he never threatened her with a gun, although he admitted using bad language during a five- to 10-minute argument.

'He told me he had his gun at his side,' Meredith Bird Miller said.

But a jury believed Harris's version, that Bird pointed a gun at her. Judge Stephen Houran, following state law, had no choice, sentencing Bird to no less than three years in state prison and no more than six. The state Supreme Court recently upheld that decision, and Bird's backers flew into action.

They've marched in front of the State House. They've marched throughout the Lakes Region. They meet each Sunday at a local landscaping company after outgrowing the home of a Free Ward Bird Committee member.

Tolman says weekly gatherings are up to 15 people. He points to Bird's transfer from state prison to the jail in Ossipee last Wednesday as evidence that freedom might be close. He says his group won't quit until Bird is free. Bird will be eligible for home confinement next November and parole two years after that.

'We had a lot of letters and comments from officials in Carroll County who were urging us to place him on some level of lower security,' said Jeff Lyons, the Corrections Department spokesman.

Ray Burton, the North Country's representative on the Executive Council, says paperwork for a pardon has been filed with the attorney general's office. Pardon reviews are rare, pardons rarer still.

'There are a lot of circumstances to this matter that should be considered by the governor and the council,' Burton said. 'I hope that we'd at least hear it.'

Translation: There's more to come.

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com.)