PLUM ISLAND — The dogs got home safe. On this, the people of Plum Island agree.
As for the rest: Who knows?
It’s Memorial Day and it’s early, around 2:30 a.m.
Kerry Rivers lets out Shmoo, a greyhound, and Stanley, a yorkie, after her shift at the nearby Plum Island Grille, and they take off. Rivers and her friend Meghan Sullivan look for them near Rivers’s home on Donna’s Way, a narrow street a few blocks from the beach.
Next, for reasons that have become the subject of months of speculation, rumor, and dispute on this out-of-the-way island, a brawl breaks out.
In the weeks that follow, the story that emerges describes Rivers and Sullivan as innocent victims, brutally assaulted for unknown reasons by a large group of partiers staying at the house next door. Soon, Rivers and Sullivan are the beneficiaries of a $150-a-head community fund-raiser at the Grille where they work. Rivers, with two broken ankles, attends in a beach buggy.
But two months and one extended police investigation later — amid accusations of racial epithets and dubious assertions of gang ties — Sullivan and Rivers are among those police now say should be charged with assault.
‘This is a little enclave. I don’t think it’s a very tolerant place.’
“I think if the truth came out right away — that the girls said something nasty to start the fight — that people wouldn’t have been so upset” the last two months, said Ron Barrett, president of Plum Island Taxpayers and Associates, the island’s neighborhood association. It would have been nothing more than a drunken brawl quickly forgotten, instead of a wild, winding tale that consumed this beach community.
Now, as the rumors continue to fly two months after the fists did, “people are a little upset that they gave money to them,” Barrett said.
In all, police say they have probable cause to charge eight people, and have sent the details of their investigation to Essex County court for consideration. Savoeuta Phan, Gina Douangnaraj, Kosal Sek, Andy Kry, and Kom San Say could face assault and battery charges; Irene Cocco potentially faces more serious charges of witness intimidation, interfering with an investigation, and assault and battery resulting in serious bodily injury.
Rivers and Sullivan also face assault and battery charges.
In an uncommonly detailed police news release, those on one side of the fight describe a drunken Rivers shouting epithets at the group of Asian-American beachgoers, accusing them of eating the missing Stanley and Shmoo — a schoolyard taunt that trades on the stereotype of Asians as dog-eaters — and throwing the first punch. Rivers and Sullivan say they were simply looking for lost dogs when they were viciously attacked for no clear reason.
“I have no doubt they’ll both be exonerated from the criminal charges,” said Michael Paige, a lawyer and Plum Island resident representing Rivers and Sullivan. Paige became further involved in the case when he accused one of the fight’s participants of being affiliated with Lowell’s notorious Asian Boyz gang — a charge police say slowed their investigation and proved unsubstantiated.
“It’s a very volatile, emotional situation,” said Newbury Police Chief Michael A. Reilly, whose officer was first on the scene and who has since faced accusations of inadequate police presence on the island and criticism about the drawn-out investigation. He said he could not remember anything nearly so heated on Plum Island in his eight years as chief.
“The island is fairly quiet,” Reilly said. “It’s a nice place.”
Plum Island is best known as a wind-swept coastal enclave, home to a federal wildlife preserve, where each Nor’easter brings news of more houses succumbing to the sea.
But about 2,500 people live in the small, densely populated area on the island’s northern tip during the summer months, said Barrett, who has been living on the island since 1978.
This area is split between two much larger mainland towns: Newbury, on whose section of the island the brawl occurred, and Newburyport, to the north. Accessible by car over a single drawbridge in Newbury, Plum Island is both isolated from the mainland and divided further by town jurisdictions. It’s divided in other ways: Elegant, multistory vacation homes stand next to run-down, weather-worn bungalows like those where the fight broke out on Donna’s Way.
Sitting on herporch on a recent sunny afternoon, both her feet in walking boots to help heal her fractures, Rivers said she had lived on the island for 10 years and in her house on Donna’s Way for five. She works as the bar manager at the Plum Island Grille.
“This is my season. I lost my whole summer,” said Rivers, referring to the income she will lose due to her injuries. On Paige’s advice, she declined to discuss the fight, but says she’s grateful for the “amazingly overwhelming” support she’s received from the community since Memorial Day.
The 18-point summary of that evening’s events released by Newbury police earlier this month paints a somewhat different picture than the one that emerged in early June, when Paige released a statement describing Rivers and Sullivan being viciously attacked while peacefully searching for the wayward Stanley and Shmoo.
In the official police account, which Rivers calls “mostly bogus,” a Newbury police officer responds to a 911 call at 2:40 a.m., and finds Rivers and Sullivan screaming outside in the aftermath of a fight. They are both exhibiting “obvious symptoms of being heavily intoxicated,” according to the report, and are unable to identify who they say beat them.
Phan admits being in a fight and has the scrapes on her hand to prove it.
Sullivan is taken to the hospital; Rivers refuses treatment but goes to get checked out later, when the injuries to her ankles are discovered.
In the days that followed, police recorded the two factions’ conflicting statements about the fight over the dogs.
Cocco, police say, was in charge of the party at 7 Donna’s Way, next door to Rivers’s home. The partygoers were on their way back from the beach, Cocco told police, when Rivers “came stumbling” from her home and screamed at the group, accusing them of cooking and eating her dogs amid “numerous other racial insults.” Cocco said she and those with her hurried inside.
Phan and Douangnaraj were lagging behind the party, having lost their shoes on the beach. They told police they found Rivers crying in the road.
“When they asked what was wrong, they were met with racial slurs,” according to the police summary, “regarding the partygoers eating her dogs.”
It went downhill from there.
Phan and San Say told police Sullivan threw the first punch, and all four women were soon fighting on the ground. The others then joined the fray.
Attempts to locate Cocco and others for this story by phone, e-mail, and at several homes associated with them in Lowell were unsuccessful. The owner of 7 Donna’s Way, where Cocco hosted the party, is not named in the police summary and also could not be reached.
In Rivers’s and Sullivan’s accounts, which police say contained several inconsistencies, the two women were looking for their dogs and were “beaten for no reason by 10-20 people.”
When police asked Rivers and Sullivan about the racial comments, Sullivan said she may have accused the partygoers of “beating” the dogs, but not of “eating” the dogs.
Rivers accused the police of not getting her side of the story at the scene, but was then presented with her own handwritten statement taken that night. According to the news release, she had no recollection of writing it.
“My clients called 911. I don’t know if the other side did,” said Paige, who also denied that Sullivan swung first. “I think the big question is why this Cocco person would wipe her phone clean and be charged with intimidating a witness.”
Police decided they had probable cause to bring charges against both sides. But during the lengthy investigation, the rumors in town swirled.
Police say the delay, which “had a profound effect on the neighborhood and the perception of the Newbury Police Department,” was in part due to Paige’s gang assertion.
“Investigators spent numerous hours and resources tracking these alleged gang involvement[s],” the news release said. “Absolutely no gang relation could be confirmed,” and the suggestion led witnesses to stop cooperating.
“I wish the truth was out faster — the whole truth,” Barrett said. “Things were screwed up from the beginning because both sides are lying.”
Cocco’s more serious charges hinge on her alleged effort to subvert the investigation by remotely wiping all data from a cellphone police seized with a search warrant.
Jason Marbet, who has lived on the island for 37 years, was not surprised by the details that emerged.
“If you’re from Plum Island at night, chances are you’re drunk,” Marbet said. “I knew immediately what happened.”
Plum Island isn’t racist, he said, but it is extremely white. The most recent American Community Survey puts the Asian population of Newbury — on and off island — at zero, with a margin of error of 17 people.
“This is a little enclave,” Marbet said. “I don’t think it’s a very tolerant place.” But when the population is 98 percent white, tolerance is rarely required.
Barrett said the beach community is more diverse than it might seem, and that the grumbling he has heard since the fight has not been racial in nature. “There’s no talk except people saying maybe I wouldn’t have gone to the 100, 150 dollar fund-raiser,” he said. “Nothing racial.”
And Stanley and Shmoo? They turned up soon enough, and police say footage from a nearby security camera shows them unmolested at a business across the street at about the time Rivers was allegedly accusing people of eating them.
“At no time does it appear,” the police summary explains in the 14th of its 18 bullet points, “that these animals were in the possession of any person at #7 Donna’s Way.”