Frederick journalist files battery complaint against activist

February 27, 1994|By Sonya Senkowsky | Sonya Senkowsky,Capital News Service

FREDERICK -- The story wasn't a scoop or a scandal. It was so routine, the reporter didn't even get a byline.

But, says Frederick News-Post reporter Jessica Gregg, one community activist's ire has turned her Sept. 28 City Hall coverage into a frightening monthslong ordeal -- including phoned threats to colleagues and public displays that scared her.

To end it, Ms. Gregg, a 23-year-old Carroll County native, has done something rarely done by reporters.

She has filed a criminal complaint against the activist.

And prosecutors are taking him to court.

Francis William Ashton, 43, who has been leading the community's call to give citizens a voice on a local airport commission, denies Ms. Gregg's charges of assault and battery.

Because a trial is pending, Mr. Ashton said he would not comment on her accusation that he "offensively" bumped her at a City Hall meeting.

"I have nothing against reporters. I have nothing against newspapers," Mr. Ashton said.

But he said he felt Ms. Gregg "jeopardized" airport commission plans. He did not elaborate.

Ms. Gregg said she, too, feels jeopardized.

In court papers filed Nov. 24, she said Mr. Ashton's displeasure has resulted in "a persistent course of conduct designed to harass me."

She said in an interview, "I'd like him put away."

Though she is only in her second year with the News-Post, the paper granted her a month's leave so she could avoid seeing Mr. Ashton, Ms. Gregg said.

Problems began Sept. 30, the day after her newspaper published her brief story on a meeting of the airport commission, Ms. Gregg said. Mr. Ashton called her and said that he was upset he had not been quoted in the story and that it had not appeared on the front page, she said.

She suggested Mr. Ashton write a letter to the editor. When his language became abusive, she hung up, she said.

He called her editors repeatedly, complaining.

And he wrote the publisher in late October, asking for her dismissal, said Ms. Gregg.

Managing Editor Michael Powell said he could not comment on the case, and messages left for Publisher George Delaplaine were not returned.

"We get our share of reader dissatisfaction," said Ms. Gregg, a Westminster High graduate who had worked as a reporter for Capital News Service while she attended the University of Maryland. "Usually, if you tell them to write a letter to the editor or talk to the editor, they're satisfied.

"This guy, obviously nothing was going to satisfy him."

Mr. Ashton began following her to public events she covered, she said. He called her a "liar" and "deceitful" on a Frederick radio program, and called newspaper and town officials to make threats against her, Ms. Gregg said in court papers.

He told a city alderman he was going to "get her," according to the court papers, and told an editor at the newspaper that he was going to "bring her down."

Ms. Gregg said fellow workers advised her to take different routes home.

"He's looking at the paper to see what I'm writing and he's letting himself get obsessed by it," Ms. Gregg said.

Alderwoman Frances Baker, who said she was standing beside the reporter at the Nov. 4 meeting when Mr. Ashton was said to have bumped into her, would not discuss the incident. But she did say Ms. Gregg's fears were "not unwarranted."

As Ms. Gregg's fears grew, she began to ask others to walk her to her car at meetings where she saw Mr. Ashton.

Mr. Powell accompanied her to a City Hall meeting, court records say.

Her parents bought her a car phone.

She moved.

On Nov. 26, the state's attorney issued formal assault and battery charges against Mr. Ashton, based on the bumping incident.

The case, delayed once at Mr. Ashton's request, is scheduled for April 7 in Frederick County District Court. According to court records, Mr. Ashton has no attorney of record.

But he has retained the services of private investigator Tim May, a longtime acquaintance.

"Any time there is litigation, there is need for an investigator," Mr. May said. He declined to comment further.

The Frederick News-Post has not written about Ms. Gregg's problems.

"I think the people here really do care," Ms. Gregg said. "But they don't know what to do."

Ms. Gregg said she has had enough attention.

"I don't want to live my life always looking over my shoulder," she said.

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