Time Magazine

SEPTEMBER 1, 1997 VOL. 150 NO. 9




The Aug. 20, 1997, edition of the Colebrook, N.H., weekly newspaper, the News and Sentinel ("Independent but Not Neutral"), is filled with the details and delights of North Country life and small-town journalism. A piece on the upcoming Moose Festival invites "moose-minded people" to come forward for the Mock Moose Parade on Friday night. There is a captivating photograph of a boy who won the Kids Fishing Derby. Among the many stories written by Dennis Joos is a feature on the discovery of a vintage sign that puts neighboring Clarksville on the 45th parallel, halfway between the North Pole and the equator.

But the charms of Colebrook are made excruciatingly painful by the main story in the News and Sentinel, an account written on deadline under the most difficult circumstances imaginable. FOUR GUNNED DOWN IN COLEBROOK; EDITOR, LAWYER, TWO OFFICERS DEAD reads the banner headline over this lead by John Harrigan: "It was a crime of unbelievable proportions that left at least five people dead, a newspaper and a police fraternity in shock and a community stunned to its core." On the afternoon of Aug. 19, Carl Drega, a loner with a murderous grudge and an AR-15 assault rifle, gunned down New Hampshire state troopers Scott Phillips and Les Lord, stole Phillips' police cruiser, then drove to the newspaper building at 1 Bridge Street, where he shot and killed Vickie Bunnell, an attorney and part-time judge whose office was in the building, and Joos, the co-editor of the paper. Before the terror ended with the death of Drega four hours later, he had burned down his home in Columbia, N.H.--on property later found to contain a bomb factory--and wounded four other police officers.

His is the story of a madman who snuffed out the lives of four treasured members of a peaceful community. "God love these people as their families and their towns did," Harrigan, publisher of the News and Sentinel, wrote in an editorial that night. "And God help us all deal with what has happened, and remember those fine and cherished faces, and their smiles." But it is also the story of a small world of heroes. Drega, at every turn in his rampage, encountered ordinary people--and even a dog--who tried to stop him and save lives. As the sound of gunfire dies out, their courage will linger.

Colebrook, just 10 miles south of the Canadian border, is a town of 2,500 people, almost all of whom are friendly, almost all of whom are reserved. It is a town that pops up periodically in the national news: this is where Harry K. Thaw was captured after murdering Stanford White in 1906; this is where millionaire murderer Christopher Wilder killed himself in 1984 after being cornered by police; east of town in Dixville Notch is where the nation's first votes are cast every four years. Ordinarily, though, the biggest events in town are the Blessing of the Bikes in the spring and the Moose Festival at the end of August.

The News and Sentinel has been chronicling Colebrook since the paper was established in 1870. Fred and Esther Harrigan, John's parents, ran the paper for many years. For several years after John bought the Coos County Democrat in Lancaster, 30 miles south of Colebrook, he competed with his father. When Fred, who was also a lawyer and judge, died in 1992, John took over the News and Sentinel, and Bunnell, a local girl who had returned to Colebrook after becoming an attorney, moved into Fred's old law office.

In Colebrook everybody knows everybody. Because the town hall is across the street from the newspaper office, rare was the day that Bunnell or Joos would not wave to troopers Phillips or Lord, whose work often intersected theirs. John Harrigan and Bunnell dated for many years. John was, in fact, supposed to go fishing with Vickie's father last Tuesday afternoon.

Everybody knew Carl Drega as well--and knew enough to avoid him. A carpenter who did occasional work at the nearby Vermont Yankee nuclear-power facility, Drega, 62, had been making trouble for years, usually over his property rights. Bunnell ran afoul of Drega a few years ago when she was serving as one of Columbia's three selectmen. He once warned her off his homestead by firing a gun over her head. Bunnell became so concerned over his open threats that she started carrying a handgun in her purse--something she hated herself for doing despite her love of hunting.

Her worst fears were realized on Aug. 19. At about 2:45 p.m., Phillips decided to cite Drega for the large rust holes in his red truck, parked at LaPerle's IGA Supermarket north of town. Drega got out of the pickup truck and shot Phillips with the AR-15. Lord, who had followed Phillips into the lot, was shot getting out of his cruiser, first from a distance, then at closer range. Phillips, who was wounded, tried to climb an embankment, but Drega returned and shot him several more times with a 9-mm pistol.

After taking Phillips' bulletproof vest and car, Drega drove downtown and slammed on the brakes in front of the building at 1 Bridge Street. When Bunnell spotted Drega's familiar checked shirt and the rifle at the foyer door, she pushed her secretary out the back and ran through the adjacent newspaper office, shouting, "It's Drega! He's got a gun!" The precious seconds Bunnell expended warning others may have cost her her life. Drega had gone around to the back door, and he shot her in the back as she was fleeing.

Joos, a man who would carry a spider outside rather than kill it, tried to tackle the 6-ft. 3-in., 240-lb. Drega. But the gunman shook him off as they struggled on the hood of a car, then shot him several times. Drega got back into the cruiser and sat parked in front of the police station for several minutes. The police officers were all up at the supermarket, responding to the first shootings. Next on Drega's hit list was another Columbia selectman, Kenneth Parkhurst; Drega kicked down the door to Parkhurst's house and found nobody home. He returned to his own home and set it afire with diesel fuel he had purchased that day. Next Drega drove across the Connecticut River into Vermont, where he shot at a New Hampshire fish-and-game officer, Wayne Saunders. Fortunately, the bullet hit Saunders' badge.

Drega pulled the cruiser off the road near Dennis Pond in Brunswick, Vt. The cruiser was spotted by a farmer, who alerted police. As several officers approached the car at around 6 p.m., one of their police dogs sensed something up in the hills, and the dog's handler yelled, "Ambush! Hit the dirt!" Just then Drega began firing, wounding a New Hampshire state trooper in the thigh. The area was so isolated and wooded that the officers could not radio for help right away. Before backup could arrive, Drega shot a Border Patrol agent and a Vermont state trooper. Finally, at about 6:50, during a fire fight with more than 20 police officers, Drega was killed by a police bullet through his mouth. Two days later, police discovered an arsenal of 86 pipe bombs, half a dozen rifles, and explosives and projectile casings for a grenade launcher in the ashes of his home.

When the shooting began, staff members at the News and Sentinel were putting their latest issue to bed, and Harrigan was on his way back from Lancaster, where he had been filling in on that paper for a staff member whose mother had died. "I heard the whole thing unfolding on my police radio," recalls Harrigan. "At one point I was on the car phone to the office manager, and I said, 'I fear the worst.' And he said, 'It is the worst.'" When Harrigan arrived back at 1 Bridge Street, he tried to restore order to chaos, at the same time comforting a staff in shock and blanketing his own feelings. "That despicable man--I cannot even say his name--killed four of my friends, including the heart and soul of my newspaper. But I was not going to let him stop us from publishing. And with help from some other friends--the local photo shop, the boyfriend of one of my reporters, a former staffer who offered his help--we somehow put out a paper."

In an editorial Harrigan wrote that evening, he apologized to his readers: "We'll do a better job with the loss and what this has all meant in next week's paper. Right now it's just too much, and getting the paper out is all we can manage." They managed beautifully. Phillips, who leaves a wife and two young children, was remembered as "one of our all-time favorite troopers, cowlick and all." Lord, who leaves a wife and two boys, was "a great guy with a landmark laugh who was about the most likable guy around." Joos, a husband and father who once studied for the priesthood and had just sold a novel, was a "newspaperman's newspaperman who loved rural and small-town life." And in the last line of the main story: Bunnell "leaves a wide extended family of people who simply thought she was the best." After all that had happened that day, the News and Sentinel went to press half an hour late.

In the days that followed the tragedy, there were signs that Colebrook was trying to cope. Black ribbons were hung from the banners in town that say COLEBROOK WELCOMES YOU. Up at the Balsams, the resort in Dixville Notch, guests were graciously asked for their patience as the staff tried to deal with the "terrible tragedy." And almost by way of apology, a sign on Route 3 read THE MOOSE FESTIVAL HAS BEEN CANCELED.

There is no way for Colebrook to replace quickly four such important people. But as the local paper showed by carrying on that night, there is a way to honor them.

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