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For jogger, no more crossing the line

Portsmouth, N.H., bans him for alleged misconduct

Jogger Craig O'Brien of Eliot, Maine, who runs shirtless, is banned from jogging in Portsmouth, N.H. O'Brien now jogs along Route 1A in Rye. Jogger Craig O'Brien of Eliot, Maine, who runs shirtless, is banned from jogging in Portsmouth, N.H. O'Brien now jogs along Route 1A in Rye. (Cheryl Senter for the Boston Globe)
By Jenna Russell
Globe Staff / December 2, 2009

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PORTSMOUTH, N.H. - A jogger on his daily run - solitary, focused - seems unlikely kindling for a blazing controversy.

But Craig O’Brien has ignited a firestorm since his feud with police in Portsmouth set off a court battle and prompted a judge to ban him from the city.

The strange tale of how one man’s exercise routine became fodder for wildly unlikely conflict reveals a host of questions underneath: what rights runners have to run where they choose; what code of conduct runners must conform to; and, according to O’Brien, what kind of city Portsmouth wants to be.

Police say O’Brien, a 48-year-old who lives in Eliot, Maine, but regularly crossed the border to run here, has obstructed traffic several times by running in the road and has sworn at officers who ordered him to stop. As a result, they charged him with multiple counts of disorderly conduct. O’Brien, who says he runs 8 miles a day in sun, rain, or snow, denies ever causing a traffic problem. He says that he never went looking for trouble but that Portsmouth police have harassed him.

“This town has changed, and it’s weird,’’ said O’Brien, who grew up in Portsmouth but has lived across the border in Maine for years. “It’s like you have to behave a certain way, or they want to get rid of you. . . . It looks pretty on the outside, but inside it’s creepy.’’

Portsmouth police say the case is straightforward. “As long as he jogs in Portsmouth in a manner that interrupts vehicular traffic, appropriate action will be taken,’’ Sergeant Jonathan Aubin wrote in an e-mail.

For roughly a decade, O’Brien said, he ran without incident, mostly on routes in Rye and New Castle and in a Portsmouth cemetery. (Police in New Castle confirmed they have no record of problems with O’Brien.) His troubles began when he started running in downtown Portsmouth, he said, and on Junkins Avenue, where the police station sits.

In Portsmouth, he said, some drivers objected to his habit of running shirtless to keep cool, yelling at him to “put a shirt on.’’

He was first charged with disorderly conduct in May. According to police reports and court records, O’Brien ran in the street on Junkins Avenue and forced cars to drive around him, continuing after an officer asked him to stop. O’Brien said that he was on the side of the road and that there were no cars. A week later, he was slapped with the same charge again, for yelling profanities and calling someone on South Street a “sissy,’’ according to a police report.

In that incident, O’Brien says, he was crossing the street when a passing police officer told him to get out of the road, then drove behind him slowly. According to O’Brien, when he told the officer to leave him alone, the officer got out of his car. When a bystander stopped, O’Brien asked him, “What are you looking at, sissy?’’

“I get mad - yeah, I do,’’ acknowledged O’Brien, who admitted calling the police “communists’’ and “KGB’’ when he felt harassed. “When people drove by me and told me to wear a shirt, I swore at them, but I never randomly swear at people,’’ he said.

In August, police charged him with disorderly conduct for a third time. Again, they said, he jogged in the street, disrupting traffic, and screamed profanities at an officer who told him to stop. In September, a judge banned him from entering Portsmouth, and a week later, he was charged with violating the ban when police again found him jogging on South Street. He spent a night in jail before being released.

“I tested them, because I thought they were bluffing,’’ he said. “The judge banned me when I haven’t been convicted of anything.’’

His trial, which had been scheduled for earlier this month, was postponed when the public defender failed to appear.

Interviewed just after his run one recent evening - he has been jogging in Rye to avoid further charges - O’Brien ate an orange and drank flavored seltzer water. Bearded, with a ruddy complexion, he boasted of his ability to run “25 miles per hour,’’ and attributed his willingness to wrangle with authority to his upbringing in a “big, tough, Irish family’’ where alcoholism was rampant. O’Brien said he stopped drinking 20 years ago, and when he did, his run-ins with the law, including a burglary conviction, ended.

Portsmouth resident Ruth Griffin said she is troubled by the city’s treatment of O’Brien. Before he was banned, Griffin said, O’Brien came to the edge of her property every day and hand-fed her pet sheep and geese, taking pains to make sure one lame goose got enough to eat.

“He has a gentle nature, and I would bet my bottom dollar if I needed him, he’d be there,’’ she said. “The animals miss him.’’

O’Brien wants to run where he pleases, but at the very least, he wants the freedom to drive through Portsmouth to jog in Rye and New Castle. He is currently restricted to travel through the city on Interstate 95 and two smaller roads, exceptions granted so he can get to his job with a Braintree demolition crew.

His commute is long, and he rarely jogs before dark. But he says he has not missed a run.

“It’s like breathing to me,’’ he said. “It’s in my blood.’’

Jenna Russell can be reached at jrussell@globe.com.