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Golfers, course workers, zoo keepers immune from park curfew

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In his five years as a Watertown Golf Club member, Charles F. Currier has been on the links all times of the day.

He has golfed early in the morning, before Thompson Park is open, and has left when the sun was just going down. But the 76-year-old avid golfer never has been stopped by Watertown police, not even when the park was closed.

“All different times, and I’ve never been bothered,” he said as he completed a round on a sunny Thursday afternoon.

The Cosgrove Street resident has no objection to police patrolling the golf course in the historic park — they’re just doing their job, he said.

But the matter about driving in the park after hours has become a topic of discussion by late-season golfers and people who work at the golf course after hearing that a Carthage man’s driving-while-intoxicated charge was dismissed at court. His attorney, Anthony M. Neddo, argued that signs leading into Thompson Park are vague about the times it is open.

Signs notify motorists that the park is open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. year round. But, according to city ordinance, golf club employees, members and their guests are allowed in the park after hours.

The man who was charged with aggravated DWI, James J. Cheal, 45, of 3614 Roberts Road, Carthage, had no business being in the park when it was closed, especially if he was driving drunk, according to Kenneth W. Hicks, superintendent of grounds at the golf course for the past 22 years.

Police stopped Mr. Cheal when he drove into the park at the Franklin Street entrance about midnight on Nov. 30. Police then determined that Mr. Cheal’s blood alcohol content was 0.20 percent, and he was charged with aggravated DWI. The state threshold for intoxicated driving is 0.08 percent; for aggravated DWI, it is 0.18 percent.

Last Friday, however, part-time Watertown City Judge Catherine J. Palermo dismissed a violation ticket issued to Mr. Cheal for being in the city-owned park after hours, contending that the signs are traffic control devices and do not adequately notify motorists that they are not permitted to enter Thompson Park after 9 p.m. With the park ticket dismissed, any evidence that was gathered during the improper stop had to be suppressed and the DWI charge was dismissed. The city and the Jefferson County district attorney’s office are considering appealing the judge’s ruling.

The incident upset Mr. Hicks. “It’s wrong,” he said.

As the head greens keeper, Mr. Hicks arrives at work about 5 a.m. during the peak golf season and sometimes has to go back late at night to water the golf course. He and his staff have never been stopped, he said.

As part of their regular duties, police officers periodically patrol the park after hours, mainly to check if anyone is causing trouble, Watertown Police Detective Sgt. Joseph R. Donoghue said. Occasionally, they find youths in the park and they’ve found acts of vandalism occurring, he said.

He would not discuss what happened with Mr. Cheal because it’s an ongoing case. At times, motorists have been charged with DWI while driving through the park, although Sgt. Donoghue did not have statistics on how many times that has occurred during the past year.

John T. Wright, executive director of the New York State Zoo at Thompson Park, lives on the grounds of the zoo. He said he has noticed the police patrols in the park and has no problem with them. While he agreed the signs could be clearer, Mr. Wright said he believes people should know the park closes at 9 p.m. and no one should be there until it reopens at 7 a.m.

Head golf pro Christopher A. Bigenho, who has been with the golf club just two seasons, said he was followed by a patrol car when he arrived at work early on a Saturday morning soon after he began his job last year.

“He stopped following me when he knew I worked here,” he said.

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