Gay couple wins award of $2.84M in rights case

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Star-Ledger Staff

A gay couple claimed for years that Secaucus did little to protect their civil rights or investigate a crowd of drinking and unruly volunteer firefighters who allegedly harassed and threatened them.

Earlier this week, a civil court jury in Hudson County agreed.

The jury on Tuesday awarded Peter de Vries and Timothy Carter $2.84 million in a civil lawsuit that some see as a victory for the gay community and a launch point for a possible criminal investigation.

"It was a mob attack and then the town government gathered around to protect the perpetrators," the couple's attorney, Neil Mullin, said of the April 25, 2004, incident and its aftermath.

The plaintiffs described the event as a 12-minute tirade that took place outside their home, next door to a Secaucus firehouse. They said it started when Carter complained about a raucous 1 a.m. party held in the firehouse parking lot.

Mullin said he will refer the case to the state Attorney General's Office, so it could reopen a bias crime investigation and to the U.S. Attorney's Office for a possible criminal obstruction case.

The Montclair attorney questioned whether Secaucus is a safe place for gay residents. "The same leadership that protected these perpetrators is still in power, and I think that's most unfortunate," he said.

Secaucus town Administrator David B. Drumeler, on the advice of private attorneys representing the town, declined to comment on the verdict.

"Unfortunately, we're still in the process of evaluating what our options are here, and our attorneys are working on it," Drumeler said.

He referred calls to the attorneys, Daniel R. Bevere and David M. Paris, who argued the civil rights case for Secaucus. Neither lawyer could be reached immediately for comment.

The jury awarded about $433,000 for economic damages to Peter de Vries; $1 million in emotional damages to de Vries; and $1.4 million in emotional damages to Tim Carter.

In his opening statement, Bevere argued that the town of Secaucus should not be held accountable because it did not sanction a party the firefighters attended earlier that night. Nor should the town be held liable for the conduct of off-duty volunteers, he said.

Bevere also said town officials were told to cease their investigation and bring no charges against the firefighters because it was being investigated by the county and state.

Carter said he was berated by the firefighter he approached and, when he went inside, some of them banged on the side of his rented house and threatened to kill him, de Vries and their dogs.

The men had been drinking earlier at a private party and continued outside the firehouse parking lot, where they returned by private bus.

In his closing statement, attorney David Paris said de Vries' initial 911 call complained of only three abusive firefighters, not a mob, according to a court transcript. The call also did not mention the banging on the house, the shaking of the couple's fence or the threats to kill them, he said.

Mullin's co-counsel, Nancy Erika Smith, said town officials could produce few notes taken on the numerous meetings they claimed to hold regarding the couple's complaints, a sign the matters were not taken seriously.

Carter, who reportedly suffers from post-traumatic stress, was not in the courtroom when the verdict was read. In court papers, he said, "After April 25, 2004, we began to live in constant fear."

De Vries and Carter said fear forced them to leave Secaucus.

As for de Vries, the verdict was a sign that their complaints were taken seriously, according to his attorney.

"He was overcome with emotion," Mullin said of de Vries. "He thanked the jury as they were walking out past him. He said, 'Thank you for believing.'"

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