SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

September 28, 2013

Middleton parents found not guilty after underage party

BY JULIE MANGANIS
STAFF WRITER

---- — MIDDLETON — A Middleton couple has been found not guilty of child endangerment charges that were filed after a 14-year-old girl attending a New Year’s Eve party in their home was hospitalized for acute intoxication.

Salem District Court Judge Emily Karstetter found on Thursday that the couple, Mark Clifford and Paula Rogers, had been negligent but not reckless during the Dec. 31, 2011, party. Her verdict came following a four-hour trial.

Clifford, 56, and Rogers, 42, of 176 Lake St., were upstairs with their younger children while their teenage daughter hosted a party downstairs for a group of her friends, ranging in age from 14 to 17.

Shortly before 11 p.m., a then-14-year-old Saugus girl at the party began vomiting and then became unconscious. She was later taken to Children’s Hospital in Boston.

Several other girls at the party also tested positive for alcohol.

But Clifford and Rogers, who took the stand in their own defense, insisted that Rogers had checked on the teens every 15 minutes and had no idea they were drinking.

“They were watching their kids as best they could,” said Lance Layne, who represented Clifford.

The teens, several of whom were charged with being minors in possession of alcohol, told police they had sneaked in vodka in a water bottle and then spiked the punch bowl.

Police, in their report, noted that officers found a vodka bottle, along with a 32-ounce beer bottle. The bottles were never collected as evidence, however, and were not introduced during the trial.

Police also learned from interviews with the teens that the girl had been sick, vomiting in a bathroom, for about 15 minutes before passing out. The teens told police they were afraid to call for help because they didn’t want to get in trouble, but eventually did so after the girl lost consciousness.

Police had initially charged the parents with furnishing the alcohol, but a previous judge dismissed the charge after being told that the girls admitted one of them brought the vodka.

On Thursday, Clifford and Rogers opted for a bench trial, which is a trial before a judge, instead of a jury. Layne said the decision to waive a jury was based on the concern that jurors would be unable to focus on the legal definition of wanton and reckless conduct.

During the trial, prosecutor Heidi Sylvanowicz called eight witnesses, including the girl who was hospitalized and her mother, some of the other party guests, and two police officers.

The couple, while cleared of criminal charges, could still be subject to a civil lawsuit from the family of the girl who was hospitalized.

On the night of the incident, the mother of that girl sent a text message and photo of her daughter, in a hospital bed with a tube inserted into her throat, that read, “Thank you for almost killing my daughter. Tell your parents I will see them in court.”

The case bears some similarities to that of a Beverly woman, Tiffany Clark, who was sentenced to serve six months in jail last year after she was found guilty of furnishing alcohol to minors during a Halloween party in 2010. A girl at that party also ended up in the hospital after consuming “Jell-O shots” made with vodka.

Prosecutors had alleged that Clark purchased the vodka and helped her daughter make the shots the night before the party; Clark and her daughter denied buying alcohol, and Clark testified that she had no idea that her daughter was putting alcohol in the Jell-O cups.

But photos from the party showed Clark smoking and texting as teens continued to drink, and she admitted that she, too, started drinking during the party.

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.