North Adams Airport Commission Awards Public Space To Infamous Rapist

Jun 20, 2018

An update now to a story we first brought you on May 25th: Around 30 people packed North Adams’ city council chambers Tuesday night for the city airport commission’s monthly meeting. The tense meeting ended in shouts when the commission gave the go-ahead to a business run by a convicted rapist. 

The major item on the agenda was a vote on two proposals to take over city-owned hangar space — specifically, an office in the Shamrock Hangar formerly occupied by the Teamflys flight instruction and scenic flight company. The city bought the hangar in 2017.

The first proposal was from Taconic Aviation, a flight instruction company owned by Alex Kelly. Kelly, dubbed the “Preppy Rapist,” gained infamy when he escaped to Europe after being accused of two assaults in the U.S. He eventually was extradited back to the U.S. and served a decade in prison for his crimes. Kelly is a registered sex offender.

Currently the owner and operator of Green Mountain Skydiving, based in Bennington, Vermont, Kelly’s efforts to run his Berkshire Skydiving company out of the publicly-owned Harriman-and-West airport have faced a number of challenges, from FAA drop zone requirements to questions about his right to use the hangar space. Kelly bought Teamflys, the space’s former occupant, in December 2017, but was told by the airport commission at its February 27th meeting that the city would have to revamp its lease and rental system before considering business proposals involving the hangar.

The second proposal came from the Greylock Flying Club, a collection of local pilots headed by Sue Mead, a journalist and student pilot. The club raised more than $5,000 on a website created by Trevor Gilman, a former airport commission member. Gilman also found himself facing criticism from some in the airport community because of irregularities in fuel spending and a possible conflict of interest at the airport. Eventually, the volunteer commissioner was removed by then-Mayor Richard Alcombright last year.

In April 2018, Gilman was cleared of all wrongdoing when sitting Mayor Tom Bernard said that the Massachusetts State Police had closed their investigation.

Ten minutes into Tuesday’s meeting, offering no opportunity for public comment, the commission turned to the vote.

“Mister Kelly certainly presents a viable business that has been operating there for quite some time now," said North Adams airport commission chair Jim McNaughton. “I think you’ve supplied us with everything we’ve asked for, from insurance certificates to your written proposals, what have you. The Greylock Flying Club, nothing against the Greylock Flying Club, it seems to me that they’re really just in their infancy. They’re not a viable business at this moment, so it’s just my opinion that the office should go to Taconic Aviation.”

“Honestly, I was a little disappointed with both of them," said Commission member Dean Bullett. "They both presented their cases but they also took time to kind of disparage the other, which I didn’t find necessary in the agreement. I agree he’s doing well with the business. I’m concerned that whoever has that office, that the public space will become a de facto extension of the office, so I have some concern there, especially with all the infighting right now, that concerns me. Now I also wonder, are we going to have a future need for that office for an airport manager?”

Bullett was referring to the newly vacant airport manager position, as Bill Greenwald announced his resignation in May, citing the bitter infighting in the airport community. McNaughton said that with the relocation of a nearby doctor’s office building to the airport campus, the question of the manager’s office would be answered without the use of the Shamrock Hangar space.

Kelly pledged to keep the space clean and open to the public.

“It’s wide open to everybody, we have people coming and going," he told the commission. "We’ll invest in furniture. It is open space, I even spent a letter to the public to say it is open space.”

Five minutes after the topic was raised, the North Adams airport commission unanimously voted to give the space to Kelly’s Taconic Aviation. Ten minutes later, the commission opened the floor to public comment.

Expressing frustration that his comment was coming after the vote, North Adams resident Joseph Smith said that the allocation of space to Kelly put the city at risk, citing a 2015 Associated Press article about allegations of groping and assault while Kelly was working at Connecticut Parachutists in Ellington, Connecticut.

“If we are to grant usage, at least we should take reasonable steps to protect our city from litigation, such as required Mr. Kelly to inform all tandem jump customers of his past so they can be informed consumers," said Smith. "It was reported in the past that Mr. Kelly said he would only act as videographer on jumps, presumably so that consumers — especially those that might be sexual assault victims — would avoid trauma. For some reason he no longer acts in this more responsible fashion here in North Adams. Mr. Kelly also expressed an interest in maintaining public restrooms at the airport, which also opens us up to additional liability.”

Smith questioned why the commission would accept a business proposal fraught with potential liability when it had another option.

Mead, president of the Greylock Flying Club, used her time to combat commission chair McNaughton’s assessment of the group as nascent.

“The flying club has developed a GoFundMe page as you might be aware," said Mead, "and now we have a formal board of directors, we have filed with the state and established a nonprofit corporation to act as a social club.”

Mead suggested that if the commission were to grant Kelly a lease, it expire after October 2018 as a trial run.

Next up was Trevor Gilman, who expressed concern about the commission’s competence.

“I know that I’m a lightning rod for conversation," said Gilman, "so I’ve tried to avoid coming to these meetings — but this meeting I could not avoid because I think that Bill resigning as airport manager — it just didn’t even get discussed in his airport manager’s report — is the most dangerous thing that’s happened at this airport since I’ve been here 25 years.”

He told the commission, made up of appointed volunteers, that without an experienced manager, it would be overwhelmed.

“You now have skydivers jumping in the middle of it making no radio calls to local traffic pattern," warned Gilman. "Someone is going to die.”

During the meeting, Kelly was defiant and baited attendees. He mocked Gilman during Gilman’s public statement, and could be heard laughing over his comments.

“But this is the reason I came here, it’s uncomfortable for me to come to these meetings, but I’m here because it’s unsafe,” said Gilman over Kelly's laughter.

In his public comments, Kelly seemed sarcastic.

“I just want to say thank you for the warm welcome I’ve received, you guys are wonderful people," said Kelly to the audience. "Especially you, the one with the tongue out, you’re a really good looking man. Anyway, thank you so much for the warm welcome, we really look forward to this. We’re going to have actually have a professional business here, we’re going to be very successful. Actually, we’ve been very successful so far, and thank you.”

Kelly declined to comment when approached by WAMC Tuesday.

“If there are other people wanting to lease this property that he’s using, does character not count for anything," asked resident Barbara May. “I think it’s kind of appalling that somebody with his record would be welcomed with open arms. I have daughters, they’ve gone parachuting. I would never let them jump with somebody like Mr. Kelly. Never.”

Erica Manville, former chair of the North Adams Public Arts Commission as well as the former union president of the city’s public schools, said she spoke for both her students at BART Charter Public School and women of the Berkshires.

“We look at you guys as people that are going to help us be safe," said Manville, "and I’m shaking because I can’t believe that we’re not taking that into consideration for our citizens.”

Smith interjected on his way out of the council chambers.

“But they’re cowards at the table," said Smith. "That’s how it works.”

The last speaker was Derek Rougeau, a pilot who partially owns a hangar at the airport and has deep roots in the city.

“My concern here is that many people that first come  to the airport, either by air or by land, come to this building," said Rougeau. "They are going to encounter this person with his history. He’s infamous. This is going to be the face of the North Adams airport. That’s a travesty.”

With that, the meeting ended.

“It was appalling. They didn’t let us make any comments before the vote. They had obviously already decided what they were going to do," Rougeau told WAMC. “If anybody in their right mind is caring about how North Adams looks to the rest of the state or even the Northeast, they would not allow this to happen. They have other people who want the office space, and we have security issues, with a convicted felon running our security gate system. What else can I say, it’s just ridiculous.”

“By the way he acted in that meeting, I’m really concerned," Manville told WAMC. “He’s looking at us and just laughing. He’s laughing at North Adams.”

Airport commission chair McNaughton declined to comment on the vote. Also declining to speak with WAMC were city Administrative Officer Michael Canales and Mayor Tom Bernard, who appointed two of the commission members involved in the vote. While officials remained silent, a conflict erupted in the lobby of city hall.

Sue Mead confronted Kelly about his behavior during the meeting, specifically his laughter during Gilman’s comments. A crowd of citizens upset with Kelly’s presence unleashed their frustration on him and his assessment of Gilman.

“Trevor’s a conman and a hack,” said Kelly.

“And you’re a rapist. You’re a f---ing rapist, my friend," said Kristin Gilman, Trevor’s wife. "How many people? Two, three, four, five, six? Only two you were incarcerated for. F--- you.”

Unidentified sympathizers defended her against Kelly as his remarks became personal.

“OK, thank you. Ma’am, thank you. You’re an old miserable lady. Old, miserable lady,” Kelly told Gilman.

“You’re a f---ing rapist and you’re disgusting and I promise you-" said Gilman before being cut off.

“Watch your tongue," a member of the crowd warned Kelly.

“What do you mean, she just called me names," retorted Kelly.

“No, she spoke the TRUTH," yelled another crowd member.

It’s not clear what terms and conditions Kelly will be subject to while leasing the city space at Harriman-and-West.