SEPTEMBER 1, 1997 VOL. 150 NO. 9
A TIME BOMB EXPLODES
THE SERENITY OF A SMALL, CLOSE-KNIT NEW HAMPSHIRE TOWN
IS SHATTERED WHEN THE LOCAL CRANK BECOMES THE DEMON NEXT DOOR
BY STEVE WULF/COLEBROOK
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
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
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
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
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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