PEABODY — John Keegan, who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the 1996 slaying of Peabody newlywed Kristen Crowley, yesterday insisted that he never touched her, as co-defendant Timothy Dykens first tried to rape her and then bashed her skull with a 47-pound rock.

"I could have saved Mrs. Crowley's life," Keegan acknowledged. "I could have prevented the entire crime had I followed my conscience."

But Keegan "minimized" his role in the 27-year-old woman's death, Parole Board members suggested yesterday, insisting he never went into the woods where Dykens had dragged the victim, just outside her Ledgewood Condominiums unit off Lowell Street in the early morning hours of June 2, 1996.

During the four-hour hearing in Natick, more than two dozen family members and friends of Crowley were moved to tears when her sister-in-law, Jen Matta, played a recording. It was Kristen Crowley, laughing and singing "Summer Nights" from the musical "Grease."

Keegan, 41, is trying for the first time to win parole for the killing. His co-defendant, Dykens, is serving life without parole, after a jury found him guilty of first-degree murder. Keegan pleaded guilty the day after that verdict — and yesterday admitted that had the jury acquitted Dykens, he probably would have taken his chances at trial.

'Led by Dykens'

Throughout his testimony, Keegan, who was accompanied by a Harvard Law School student, portrayed Dykens as the driving force behind the decision to seek out prostitutes after a night of drinking at the Golden Banana.

Keegan suggested that all of the requests he made of dancers and a manager — all of which were rebuffed — were at the behest of Dykens.

But that doesn't explain his lewd suggestion about Crowley, who had entered the nearby Mobil Mart on Lowell Street while the two men were there. "I want a piece of that," he told a store clerk.

And when he agreed to follow Crowley's car? "What did you think he was going to do?" asked Parole Board member Roger Michel.

"I believed he was going to solicit Ms. Crowley," Keegan said.

So wasn't he shocked when he saw Dykens dragging Crowley through the parking lot, toward a wooded area?

"I was frozen for a little bit, I'd say," Keegan said.

Keegan insisted yesterday that he'd never gone into the woods with Dykens, despite witness accounts to the contrary.

But he admitted diverting others who might have called for help.

"It's unfathomable to me you couldn't prevent this assault on Ms. Crowley, given your statements that Mr. Dykens was the more inebriated one," said board member Cesar Archilla.

"I was not fully committed to stopping Mr. Dykens," Keegan responded.

Married in prison

Throughout the hearing, Keegan, who has earned a bachelor's degree from Boston University through a prisoner education program, has become a minister and a prison reform activist, blamed a "dysfunctional life" for his behavior that night.

He and his lawyer noted that he recently married a woman he met through an online website called HotPrisonPenPals.com — though he was later forced to concede that even after the marriage he continued to call another woman with whom he'd also struck up a relationship through the site.

And if he's remorseful, asked Chairman Josh Wall, why did he spend years trying to withdraw his guilty plea and win a new trial?

Wall criticized Keegan's Harvard Law student adviser. "Your lawyer took some of your time to accuse the district attorney of backpedaling," Wall said, referring to Michael Firestone's earlier comments to that effect.

"You, sir, are the one backpedaling," said Wall.

Wall suggested that the only things Keegan acknowledges are things overheard by a witness — that he then fills in the rest by portraying himself as reluctantly acting as a lookout or simply a chauffeur.

Wall also called out Keegan for a facial tic, a twitch that appeared when he was pressed with difficult questions.

Crowley's mother, Susan Gove Ramunda, doesn't think Keegan has taken responsibility, challenging his claim that he never assisted Dykens in killing her daughter. How, she asked, could Dykens have managed to dig up a 47-pound landscaping boulder while holding down Crowley?

"I gave life to her and John Keegan took her life from me," Ramunda told the board. "Why should he have the freedom I don't?"

John Crowley, Kristen's widower, sat next to his second wife, also named Kristen, as she read a statement written by him.

"I am standing here before you sickened that John Keegan seeks freedom," Crowley's wife read.

Kurt Gove, Crowley's brother, told the board, "Prison's been good to John Keegan. He got a degree, he found religion, he even got married. We, however, are not rehabilitated from his actions."

Nothing can "erase the dark, evil stain left on my heart," said Gove.

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

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