Vandals Cause $8K in Heavy Equipment Damage as Fernald Security Woes Escalate

By Chris Wangler
May 6, 2024

 

Can the City of Waltham secure the former Walter E. Fernald Development Center? 

The sprawling 190-acre property has been closed to the public since the city acquired it from the state in 2014, but nothing appears to deter vandals and trespassers. 

 

The situation appeared to escalate recently when vandals damaged equipment used to build recreation amenities.

Can police drones serve as a deterrent? Dozens have been detained since the start of year, including a Peabody man with multiple weapons.

Heavy Equipment Targeted

After years of inaction at Fernald, the city council approved $9.5 million in Fernald recreation amenities along Trapelo Road in late 2023.

Slated for completion later this year, the amenities include the largest universally accessible playground in the Northeast, but they have received a mixed response

Some say residents were not consulted about the plans, while others fault the city for failing to acknowledge the mistreatment of those with developmental disabilities in the past.

 

Since March, the contractor hired by the city, Green Acres Landscape & Construction, has been clearing land behind a chain link fence that surrounds the 16-acre worksite. 

The Lakeville-based company has completed a number of Waltham recreation projects in recent years without incident. 

But on Wednesday, April 17, a job supervisor reported vandalism to Waltham Police. 

A Doosan 225 excavator positioned near Trapelo Road had its windows smashed, and vandals also allegedly overturned a portable toilet nearby.

In a police report, the supervisor told police that a New Holland dump truck parked further up the property driveway also had its windows smashed and had a spring valve removed.

 

The supervisor surmised that a load of rocks in the dump truck had been emptied onto the ground, although he believed the vehicle had not been moved.

The estimated damage to both vehicles was roughly $8,000.

Keys to the dump truck and to a Doosan loader were missing, and all the vehicles appeared to have been “rifled through,” the supervisor told police.

  

A surveillance camera captured three persons, presumed to be males, inside the construction fence around 2:00 a.m. on April 17. 

Video timestamps placed the parties on the Fernald property for approximately two and half hours, the report said.

  

Green Acres could not be reached for comment on the vandalism incident, but signs noting video surveillance were placed on project fencing afterward. 

A Waltham Police spokesman said patrols of the area have been increased, and the incident remains under investigation. 

So were the suspects just kids up to no good or was the vandalism something more, possibly motivated by opposition to the recreational amenities? 

It’s unclear, but damage to equipment used by workers represents an escalation in illegal activity on the property.

“State of Grave Disrepair”

The Green Acres incident is only the latest chapter in a long history of Fernald security incidents on the vacant property, many of which were never even noticed or investigated by police.

Urban explorers are drawn to the former state school for the developmentally disabled for its troubling history and intriguing buildings. 

Meanwhile, vandals and arsonists have left behind 10 years' worth of damage.

 

Back in 2018, three Wayland men allegedly vandalized the former Marquardt building in broad daylight. Spotted on cameras, they were caught and charged.

Multiple arson fires, some in boarded-up buildings, have worsened conditions even more—and represent a potential hazard to Waltham firefighters. 

  

This year, Boston media reported about patient records abandoned at Fernald while under state ownership, as well as State Police case files.

One Waltham Police officer, writing a report about a trespassing incident in January, described the situation as “a state of grave disrepair.”

 

Upset neighbors criticized the city for the decline of once-pristine Fernald grounds and historically significant buildings at a recent city council citizen input hearing. 

“Because of the city’s inaction to take proper care of those buildings, they are worthless now,” said Paul Wilbur, an abutter and lifelong Waltham resident. “You guys blew it.”

Fed up with the situation, he openly admitted to trespassing. “I actually spend a lot of time at the Fernald illegally,” he said.

And he's not alone, apparently. The Green Acres police report in mid-April noted “an increase of incursions” onto the property over the last two weeks. 

“Several photos we observed showed joggers jumping the fences in order to get onto the property, or people just strolling on the grounds,” the report said.

“Extra attention is requested to the property, especially in the overnight hours.”

Eye in the Sky over Fernald

For years Waltham Police have patrolled Fernald, but the property size and number of buildings presented challenges.

 

Thermal drones that track heat signatures have emerged as a promising alternative.

“We can check the entire campus in 15 to 20 minutes,” said Waltham Police Sergeant Dan Hart, head of a WPD Drone Unit with eleven FAA licensed pilots.

 

The initial impetus for drone use among first responders was search and rescue, Sgt. Hart said. Drones with infrared sensors can also be used by fire departments to identify hot spots.

The goal at Fernald is to prevent trespassers from getting hurt in steadily deteriorating buildings.

“People shouldn’t be going into the buildings,” said WPD Detective Sergeant Pat Dean. 

He said police drones are deployed randomly, but tend to monitor Fernald on the weekends. The Green Acres incident happened on a Wednesday morning during April school vacation week.

 

Since the start of the year, Det. Sgt. Dean said 34 people, including 10 juveniles, have been detained and summonsed to court for trespassing. 

Most of the incidents involve people traveling in groups, and dozens fled before being identified.

Back on Saturday, January 27 around 10:45 p.m., a thermal drone observed a group of trespassers, according to a police narrative in Waltham District Court.

 

Responding officers “quickly found” a group of 9 individuals (7 females, 2 males) “who appeared…to be in their late teens,” the report said. 

Wearing a backpack, a 19-year-old man from Peabody was pat frisked. Police found a “K-bar style knife/machete,” a serrated claw knife and an Airsoft gun that closely resembled a Glock 17 pistol.

 

“He was arrested and charged with trespassing,” said Det. Sgt. Dean. 

After being arraigned on the misdemeanor charge in Waltham District Court, the man paid $100 and his case was dismissed.

The overwhelming majority of Fernald trespassers this year were not arrested, but rather summonsed for clerk magistrate hearings in Waltham District Court to determine if sufficient evidence exists to move forward. 

 

Their cases are likely to be dismissed, with no court records issuing, but the added enforcement reflects the city’s desire to secure a property that has become an embarrassing monument to neglect.

Is drone surveillance the answer to Fernald's persistent security woes? Should the city install more cameras or maybe even open up the property to deter curious kids?

Mayor Jeannette McCarthy, responsible for so much of what is planned at Fernald, as well as the neglect, could not be reached for comment.

File and courtesy photos