When residents heard that the State Police sergeant who released dramatic photographs of alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had been transferred to the Athol barracks to work the midnight shift, they immediately wanted to welcome him to town.
Not as a show of sympathy — Athol is a fine town, after all — just to make Sergeant Sean Murphy feel at home and let him know they understand why he did what he did.
So this week, they have put up “Welcome to Athol, Sgt. Murphy” signs in yards and coffee shops. They even hung a banner over Route 2, the road he will be patrolling in the dead of night.
“I think we all felt that this was a gracious way to welcome the sergeant,” Selectwoman Susannah Whipps said Thursday. “If he was feeling at all down about driving in to a new town for an overnight shift, we thought a sign here or there would give him a boost.”
Murphy only learned Thursday that he would be working the midnight shift at the barracks, his lawyer said.
State Police confirmed that Murphy, a 25-year veteran of the force, has been assigned to the Athol barracks while he is under investigation to determine whether he violated department policy by releasing the photos without authorization.
Murphy provided the photos of Tsarnaev’s capture in Watertown, after a daylong manhunt and a shootout with police, to Boston Magazine last month in response to a Rolling Stone magazine cover photo of Tsarnaev, saying it glamorized “the face of terror.”
Some pictures showed Tsarnaev bloodied, with a police sniper’s laser-projected bead on his forehead. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, his older brother and suspected accomplice, died in the confrontation with police.
David Procopio, a State Police spokesman, said the assignment to Athol was not punitive.
“This is not a demotion or a discipline,” he said. “He is still a sergeant, and his pay and benefits are unaffected.”
Murphy was removed from the media relations unit, where he was a tactical photographer, while the investigation is conducted, he said. Murphy had worked out of the Framingham headquarters of the State Police, but was assigned to the Athol barracks last week. He will have an opportunity to switch shifts in a couple of weeks, and with his seniority would probably have a good chance, Procopio said.
Murphy’s lawyer, Leonard Kesten, said Murphy knew he had been assigned to Athol, but only learned Thursday from news reports that he would be working nights. Murphy has been out of work since he sustained injuries not related to his work in mid-July, Kesten said.
Asked if he believed that the assignment was punitive, Kesten said he thought people could “draw their own conclusion.”
“He loves the State Police,” he said of Murphy, “and is working hard to get back to work.”
Last month, Timothy Alben, the head of the State Police, said he considered Murphy an “exemplary employee” and a man of honor. But he said that employees could not be allowed to release confidential information related to investigations and prosecutions without consequences.
Local residents took some offense at the idea that Athol might be seen as punishment, but said that was not the reason for the signs. They just want him to feel appreciated on a lonely shift.
“Sergeant Murphy comes into town when most of us are going to bed and leaves when we wake,” Whipps said. “I don’t expect to ever cross paths with him. I think that is one of the reasons we thought the signs were a good idea.”
Jake Lyman, whose print shop made the signs and banners, said he supported what Murphy did. He was angry over the Rolling Stone cover, too, and probably would have done the same thing.
“This guy’s not a rock star,” he said of Tsarnaev. “He’s a dirtbag.”
Still, Lyman could not help but think the Athol assignment might have been meant as punishment. The Athol barracks, he has heard, is where you wind up if you do something wrong.
“But we’ll take him,” he said.Peter Schworm can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.