Metro

Bill Cosby scandal leaves Western Mass. town wondering

Bill and Camille Cosby bought a home in Shelburne Falls decades ago and still vote at the local town hall.
Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe
Bill and Camille Cosby bought a home in Shelburne Falls decades ago and still vote at the local town hall.

SHELBURNE FALLS — The federal courthouse in gritty Springfield is about 45 miles and a world away from the sheltering serenity of Shelburne Falls, where Bill Cosby settled 45 years ago, raised his five children, and where he still owns a home.

But Springfield is the setting for a recent skirmish in the sexual-assault scandal that has embroiled the entertainer and threatens to kill his five-decade career. Three women have filed defamation claims there against Cosby, who is the subject of accusations from more than three dozen women who say he assaulted them decades ago. Three more women came forward in Los Angeles Thursday with similar accusations.

The lawsuit filed in Springfield alleges that Cosby and his representatives branded the women liars after they went public with sexual-assault allegations. Cosby, 77, has never been charged with criminal assault, and his lawyers and spokesmen have denied the lawsuit’s claims.

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Few courthouse observers believe that Judge Mark G. Mastroianni, who has been assigned to the case, will ever preside over a trial, or even a hearing. Though the women may want their day in court, it is doubtful that Cosby does. He has yet to address the claims other than to call them “innuendos.”

Little more than a half-hour away, Cosby’s hometown of Shelburne Falls seems a bucolic still life where in sugaring season buckets hang off maple trees, and where the Village Information Center bears a sign: “Closed Till May 1.” Most people in the town of about 2,000 know Cosby from a distance or have seen the family around town.

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“The Cosby family has been good neighbors,” says Town Clerk Joseph Judd. “They’ve made donations to different organizations and they’ve given people work. I think people here respect their privacy and the fact that this is a private matter.”

Many of the 2,000 or so residents of Shelburne Falls say they know Bill Cosby from a distance or have seen the family in town over the years.
Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe
Many of the 2,000 or so residents of Shelburne Falls say they know Bill Cosby from a distance or have seen the family in town over the years.

Bill and Camille Cosby have bought up hundreds of acres for conservation purposes, endearing themselves to some locals. Mostly they’ve kept a low profile, sending helpers to fetch Cosby’s cappuccino at Shelburne Falls Coffee Roasters, where the espresso machine he donated years back still has his name engraved on it.

Some are willing to discuss the scandal. “There are too many stories with too many similarities,” says Patti Hackett-Hunter, a retired health care policy analyst. “Women don’t come forward to get crucified unless they’ve got something to say, because they’re the ones who are going to be questioned. It’s sad, but I absolutely believe them.”

Ellen Eller, who owns Sawyer News, a local store, says she feels “bad for the family, whether he did it or not.”

Evan Vucci/Associated Press/File 2014
Bill Cosby.

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How did Cosby end up here? According to a 2014 biography by Mark Whitaker, “Cosby: His Life and Times,” Cosby performed at UMass Amherst in 1969 and officials encouraged him to enroll in a new midcareer program in education. He got a master’s degree and, at age 40, received a doctorate.

That wasn’t without controversy, either. A high school dropout, Cosby got his equivalency diploma while in the Navy and dropped out of Temple University — which later awarded him a degree. At UMass, he had a minimal class schedule. His dissertation focused on how his TV show “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” could be used to teach students in the classroom.

The Cosbys bought their 15-room farmhouse, built in 1842, for $65,000 on the rural reaches of town, which is not far from Amherst. The couple, who have been married since 1964, sent their five children to area schools and still vote at Shelburne Town Hall, or by absentee ballot.

Their hilly estate comprises woods and fields dotted with yellow “No Trespassing” signs. A sign at the house’s gates warns: “If You Are Not Invited, DO NOT Pass Through These Gates.” Cars have recently been seen on the property, which includes a gray main house, a modern timber barn, and a gazebo. According to tax records, the property is assessed at $2,694,800.

At Green Fields Market, a natural-foods store in Greenfield, Cosby would order things for his mother by phone and send someone to pick them up. “I told him I appreciated all the laughs I’d gotten from him over the years,” says a market worker, who asked not to be identified. “He said he didn’t come into the store because he didn’t want to cause a disturbance.”

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Shelburne Falls has been the scene of both happy and tragic times in the Cosbys’ lives. One of the Cosby daughters was married in a cornfield there. On Thanksgiving Day in 1981, the Cosbys hosted Miles Davis’s wedding to actress Cicely Tyson.

‘The Cosby family has been good neighbors. They’ve made donations to different organizations and they’ve given people work. I think people here respect their privacy and the fact that this is a private matter.’

Joseph Judd, Shelburne Falls town clerk 

And in January 1997, Ennis Cosby, the couple’s only son, was buried in an herb garden on their property. He was 27 when he was shot to death in a robbery as he changed a flat tire on a Los Angeles freeway. Locals recall that Ennis and his dad, who were very close, would be seen shooting hoops, and that the son played in a town basketball league.

Sergeant Dana Lavigne, a state trooper with the Shelburne Falls barracks, says one of the Cosby daughters has recently been at the estate.

Of the current charges against Bill Cosby, Lavigne says: “If the allegations are true, it’s good that these women can come together in strength to bring their story forward. Who knows how this stuff lingers on in their lives? And I guess if he’s not guilty of the charges, all of this will vindicate him. Let’s hope that the truth comes out.”

Jean Gobillot, an artist who lives in town, says she can relate to the women. “Something similar happened to me when I was a teenager,” she says. “It was a very shameful thing, and I didn’t report it. But it stays with you. He [Cosby] says why are the women just now coming forward? But it might help them just to know they aren’t alone.”

Her husband, Per Brandin, says he feels the complaints are valid. “When there are allegations, I feel they are generally true,” Brandin says. “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

Sidney Anderson owns Baker Pharmacy in town, which has an old-fashioned soda fountain and counter in the front. He says locals felt sympathy when Ennis, who used to ride his bicycle around town, was killed.

“But when something like this comes around, people don’t know what to think,” he says.

At Shelburne Falls Coffee Roasters, the espresso machine Bill Cosby donated years back still has his name engraved on it.
Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe
At Shelburne Falls Coffee Roasters, the espresso machine Bill Cosby donated years back still has his name engraved on it.

Bella English can be reached at english@globe.com.