SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

July 23, 2011

Faced with jail, mom takes back admission in drinking party case

By Julie Manganis
Staff writer

BEVERLY — A Beverly mother charged with hosting an underage drinking party that led to one girl being hospitalized with alcohol poisoning last Halloween tried to convince a judge yesterday to spare her a record by continuing the case without a finding.

It didn't work. Salem District Court Judge Michael Uhlarik called what happened to the teenaged girl at Clark's apartment "every parent's worst nightmare" and told Tiffany Clark, 36, "You ought to count your blessings today that these are the only charges you're facing," referring to the counts of providing alcohol to minors filed by police last fall.

"Uh huh," Clark, who continues to insist she didn't buy alcohol for the teens, responded.

The judge then announced that he would impose the maximum penalty, a year in jail, of which Clark would have to serve 11 months, followed by two years of probation, fines and a host of other conditions.

It was even more time in custody than requested by prosecutor Heidi Sylvanowicz, who was also seeking a year in jail but with six months to be served.

Uhlarik suggested that the maximum penalty, one year in jail, is not long enough for the seriousness of the offense.

But after hearing the judge's sentence, Clark, of 903 Manor Road, Beverly, changed her mind, took back her admission to sufficient facts for a guilty finding, and asked for a trial. That's something she's allowed to do under Massachusetts law.

The decision came following a hearing where Sylvanowicz described how police had received numerous calls about teens drinking and running through yards in the public housing complex at the end of Manor Road.

One 16-year-old girl ended up at Beverly Hospital with alcohol poisoning, the prosecutor said.

When police arrived, Clark insisted that her daughter was just having four or five friends over.

Told about the teenager at the hospital, Clark was indifferent, the prosecutor, citing a Beverly police report, said.

As police looked around and found large groups of teens — 10 on one floor, 15 more downstairs and others in the yard — Clark, who had also been drinking, grew increasingly unsteady, eventually falling over in a doorway.

At the hospital, the teenager told police there were so many guests at the party "you couldn't move."

They had been consuming "Jello shots," alcohol mixed into gelatine and served in small plastic cups. Police eventually found 75 to 100 empty cups around the apartment.

The teenager told police that Clark had been pouring vodka shots for her, Sylvanowicz told the judge.

The prosecutor also showed the judge photos taken from a Facebook page showing the crowd at the party. Clark can be seen in two of them, appearing to be texting on her cellphone.

Sylvanowicz called the case "extremely concerning," noting, "This is a constant issue in the community and certainly a focal point of District Attorney (Jonathan) Blodgett."

"These were other people's children, and other parents trusted this woman," said the prosecutor.

Clark's lawyer, Martha Rice Martini, said her client denies buying any alcohol that night, but was willing to concede — at least until the judge announced his sentence — that if a jury heard the evidence available, she could be convicted.

Martini said Clark, a single parent, worked until 8 p.m. as a supermarket cashier, then returned home to find that the house was filled with teens.

"She tried to deal with the situation but admits she lost control," said Martini. "She is deeply ashamed of this incident."

But Martini pointed to efforts by Clark to deal with the aftermath, including Department of Children and Families-mandated parenting classes in order to regain custody of her children, who were taken from her after the incident.

"The question is whether one mistake should sully Ms. Clark's record and jeopardize her housing," Martini suggested.

"While I'm looking at a defendant with no criminal background, to be honest, in a case like this, that's irrelevant," said Uhlarik.

The case is now scheduled for a Sept. 7 hearing on a motion to dismiss one of the counts against Clark, with a trial to follow.

Courts reporter Julie Manganis may be reached at 978-338-2521 or at jmanganis@salemnews.com.