Archive for December, 2008


Joshua Henninger took a deep breath, wiped the tears from his face and stood to face the judge.

After less than three and a half hours of delibration Friday, the four-man eight-woman jury had reached a decision: Henninger, 19, was guilty of kidnapping, sexual battery with great force, arson and first-degree murder in the July 2005 bludgeoning death of Annamarie Randazzo.

Three of the jurors wept, one shaking uncontrollably, as they were polled by Lee County Circuit Judge Thomas S. Reese.

“It’s been a difficult week for many of you, I know,” Reese said moments before the verdict. “I don’t envy you sitting there and listening to the evidence and testimony in this case. It had to be extremely difficult.”

Randazzo’s family members rushed out of the courtroom and past reporters lining the hallway outside. Henninger’s family waited as the crowd emptied, then quietly exited through a side door without speaking.

“We’re just happy with the outcome,” said Jeff Walter, Randazzo’s stepfather and the only family member who commented. “We feel that justice, as much as could be done, was served.”

Henninger will be formally sentenced Oct. 24 after a pre-sentencing investigation, Reese said. The only sentence in the state of Florida for a first-degree murder conviction is life in prison without parole.

Henninger and Jeremy Chapman, now 25, kidnapped, raped and killed Randazzo, a 17-year-old Mariner High School honor student, then burned her remains.

Defense attorneys had tried this week to convince jurors that Henninger participated in the murder because he feared not only for his life but the lives of his mother and two teenage sisters, who were sleeping when Randazzo was beaten with a pellet pistol and duct-taped in Henninger’s bedroom July 21, 2005.

Chapman was a “horror waiting to happen,” said Henninger’s lead attorney, Public Deputy Defender Ken Garber. He said Henninger was too scared of Chapman to stand up for himself or Randazzo.

“This isn’t the movie of the week where the hero rises to the occasion. This is a boy who was expected to be a man. He used bad judgment and perhaps he was cowardly in what he did _ he just wasn’t strong enough to stop it,”

Garber said during his closing argument.

And it was Chapman, not Henninger, who intended to kill Randazzo and had plotted her death before she arrived at Henninger’s home to buy drugs, Garber said.

“The bottom line is that Joshua (Henninger) did not have the intent to hurt that girl, to kill her,” he said. “Chapman was the architect and the perpetrator. He had his own agenda and this boy was just pulled into it.”

Chapman, who pleaded guilty in June to murdering Randazzo and his roommate in a separate attack, is serving two consecutive life sentences without parole. As part of the plea negotiation, prosecutors could have called Chapman to testify against Randazzo.

But with Henninger’s taped confessions, which the defense had repeatedly attempted to suppress before and during the trial, Chapman’s testimony was unnecessary.

Henninger, who has a seventh-grade education, testified Thursday, telling jurors that he’d repeatedly lied to investigators, then asked for their trust before launching into another, more peripheral, version of his role in Randazzo’s death.

The damage, though, was already done.

Henninger had explained, on tape, his and Chapman’s plan to lure Randazzo with drugs, then kill her and take her car to South Carolina. He’d described Randazzo’s moans as he and Chapman raped her over a bathtub inside a home under construction in northeast Cape Coral. He re-enacted the death blows.

He even described the size and weight of the log he watched Chapman smash over Randazzo’s head.

“This is not something somebody would admit to if it wasn’t true,” Russell said during his closing argument. “He’s giving you detail. He tried to tell you he walked away. He knows it. He sees it. He’s there.”

Henninger had ample opportunity to avert the crime, and it was Randazzo who was helpless, said Russell.

“The defendant takes the stand yesterday and tries to withdraw his criminal activity. Duress? They’d planned this days before,” said Russell.

Jurors saw photographs of Randazzo’s shattered skull before and after a medical examiner had glued the fragments back together.

Henninger told detectives he and Chapman had eaten at a McDonald’s restaurant ­with Randazzo¹s corpse still in the trunk ­ on the way to dump her body.

The forensic images and Henninger’s narrative or Randazzo’s last moments alive kept the Randazzo family in hysterics throughout the week. They fled the courtroom many times, but they always returned, sometimes after a few minutes, sometimes after a few hours.

The Randazzos, though, will likely find only a fraction of solace in knowing that Chapman and Henninger will be imprisoned for the rest of their lives, said Russell.

“What justice can you get in a murder case?”

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Sentinel Staff
The Keene Sentinel: October 28, 2008
NEWFANE, Vt. — A Vermont man accused of sexually assaulting a girl and having child pornography committed suicide Tuesday in the Windham County Sheriff’s Department parking lot before he could be arrested on federal charges.

Joseph P. Childs, 39, of Townshend shot himself in the head with a 9 mm pistol while he sat beside his mother in the passenger seat of her car, waiting to turn himself over to Brattleboro police detectives, according to Sheriff Keith D. Clark.

Childs pulled the trigger just as detectives were approaching the car to arrest him on federal charges of possession and production of child pornography, according to Vermont State Police Sgt. John Hagen.

Hagen said Childs did not threaten anyone else with the gun. After the shooting, an ambulance rushed Childs to Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

U.S. Attorney Thomas D. Anderson said the production of child pornography charge is tied to a girl who police say was repeatedly molested by Childs earlier this year. He said Childs also had child pornography that did not involve the girl.

The girl, now 10, told investigators that Childs began abusing her in March at his Brattleboro apartment. She said Childs would disrobe her and touch her inappropriately, according to an affidavit prepared by Brattleboro police detective Michael W. Carrier.

She also said that Childs sometimes gave her money after the incidents, and laughed once when she told him her parents would eventually find out about the abuse.

Childs was arrested at his mother’s Townshend residence in April after a brief standoff with Vermont State Police troopers.

He was charged with two counts of lewd and lascivious conduct with a child.

He was re-arrested in May on charges of possession of child pornography and promoting sexual conduct with a child. Investigators said Childs’ computer contained images of child pornography.

Carrier refused to say whether those charges involved the girl Childs allegedly molested.

Childs was released from the Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, Vt., after posting $15,000 bail shortly after his second arrest.

The Vermont State Police are investigating Childs’ death. His body was taken to the state medical examiner’s office for an autopsy scheduled for today.

In the meantime, a second man, Anthony M. Giallella, 70, of Brattleboro faces two counts of lewd and lascivious conduct with a child. He and Childs are accused of molesting the same girl.

Giallella, a convicted sex offender, was arrested Oct. 17, when he showed up at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital threatening to kill himself because of what he’d done to the girl, police said.

He is accused of directing the girl to remove her clothing and inappropriately touching her on several occasions while the two were alone inside his Brattleboro apartment.

During a search of Giallella’s apartment, investigators said they found children’s underwear and diary entries describing sexual encounters with other young girls.

They also found numerous photographs of Giallella posing with children inside his apartment. They are working to identify those children.

Giallella remains at the Springfield jail for lack of $5,000 bail.

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The Keene Sentinel:  December 19, 2007
A Keene man who sexually abused two young relatives for more than a decade faced his crying wife, an outraged judge and one of his victims Tuesday before he was sent to prison.

Howard Weiss, 56, pleaded guilty in Cheshire County Superior Court to seven counts of aggravated sexual assault and one count of attempted aggravated sexual assault, all felonies.

As part of a plea agreement, he was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in N.H. State Prison, followed by 15 years’ probation.

Weiss will be eligible for parole in 10 years if he follows the rules in prison and completes a sexual offender program.

He also received six suspended sentences of seven to 15 years, which can be imposed if he gets into any other legal trouble.

Weiss was barred from having contact with the two victims or anyone under the age of 16.

Judge John P. Arnold said Weiss should be spending the rest of his life behind bars.

“I think he belongs in state prison until he escapes by death,” Arnold said during the hearing. “I don’t think he ever deserves to see the light of day outside of state prison.”

The now-adult victims, one of whom was present Tuesday during the sentencing, said through a court-appointed victim advocate that they had experienced enough abuse in their lives and did not want to be dragged through a trial. They had agreed to Weiss’s plea deal.

“I respect the victims’ wishes that the court accept this negotiated disposition,” Arnold said, “and the court will do so with great reservations.”

The Sentinel does not identify victims of sexual abuse.

Weiss, a tall man with bushy gray hair and a protruding belly, spoke only when responding to Arnold’s questions during the hearing. Both of his wrists were bandaged with white gauze. He had attempted suicide, according to his court-appointed attorney, Michael C. Shklar.

Helen Weiss wept as she sat behind her husband in the small courtroom. Before Weiss was led away in handcuffs, he turned and looked at her. She stared back blankly.

Their childhoods lost

When allegations surfaced in February that Weiss had molested a 3-year-old girl, one of his victimized relatives stepped out of the shadows and spoke with police after more than two decades of silence.

The woman, now 29, told investigators Weiss began molesting her when she was 4 and continued the abuse until she was 15.

She had kept quiet for years, but decided to speak out after learning of another possible victim, Assistant Cheshire County Attorney John S. Webb said.

Keene police did not have enough evidence to move forward with an investigation into the allegations that Weiss had abused the 3 year old. The relative who stepped forward, however, would help send Weiss to prison.

She provided investigators with a statement that detailed years of sexual abuse at the hands of Weiss.

The incidents began with inappropriate touching and later escalated to “virtually every variety” of sexual abuse imaginable, Webb said.

Another of Weiss’s relatives later stepped forward and said Weiss began molesting him when he was 4 years old, according to an affidavit prepared by Keene police detective James F. McLaughlin.

The affidavit says the abuse took place in multiple residences in Keene, Swanzey and Westmoreland from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s.

Investigators said Weiss used a Polaroid camera to take naked pictures of the victims and had set up a video camera in a room where the female victim slept.

Weiss would sometimes slap the two relatives if they attempted to fight back during the abuse, and had threatened to harm their mother if they contacted police, Webb said.

Weiss listened in silence during his sentencing hearing as Julie Scott, a victim advocate for the Cheshire County Attorney’s Office, read a statement from the female victim.

“All I really want to know is why?” she said. “Love’s not supposed to hurt, but you made it hurt. … I hate you for taking my childhood away from me.”

Scott said the male victim, now 30, was too angry to attend the hearing, but wanted Weiss to know that even “a lifetime (in prison) would not be enough” of a punishment.

Caught in a web of abuse

A past riddled with sexual abuse shaped Weiss’s future and the nightmarish lives of his two victims, according to statements Helen Weiss made to investigators.

Helen Weiss had been aware her husband was abusing his two relatives, according to the affidavit.

A message seeking comment from McLaughlin, the Keene police detective, as to whether Helen Weiss will be charged in connection with the abuse went unanswered.

In many cases, it can be difficult to prove a person has specific knowledge of a criminal act, Cheshire County Attorney Peter Heed said today.

During several conversations with his wife, Weiss admitted that he had molested the two relatives and another young male, but he did not detail the specific sexual acts and Helen Weiss did not press her husband for additional information, according to the affidavit.

“Howard Weiss did offer to Helen (Weiss) that his father, stepmother, older sister and grandfather molested him and he was not able to resist molesting” the children, the affidavit states. Weiss “further stated that his father beat him, so he has no ‘will power’ and could not stop himself from molesting the children.”

The affidavit does not indicate whether Helen Weiss, who has been married to Weiss for more than 26 years, ever witnessed the abuse. Attempts to reach her for comment were unsuccessful.

While executing a search warrant on Weiss’s home in June, investigators found and seized a hand-carved wooden sex toy, photography and video equipment, and a three-page apology letter written by Weiss for the female victim, according to the affidavit.

Weiss explained in the letter that his mother and stepfather were members of a cult that believed in “having sex with children of all ages.”

He concludes the letter by telling the female victim that “I miss you and I do love you for who you are. Believe or not!”

Weiss had a tumultuous family life and was convicted on a child molestation charge when he was a teenager, according to the affidavit.

Investigators were given a glimpse into Weiss’s background during an interview with his former probation officer.

The details of that interview are included in the affidavit, as follows:

Weiss was born in Connecticut and had 10 siblings through his parents’ divorces. He went as far as the 9th grade in school, and was sent to an academy for children with emotional disabilities when he was 11 or 12 years old.

He spent a year in another mental-health treatment facility after being convicted of a child molestation charge when he was 16.

Weiss later joined the Army and was sent to Germany. He overdosed on drugs shortly after he received orders to serve a tour of duty in Vietnam, and was discharged from the Army on disability.

“Although Weiss has purported to be a disabled vet from Vietnam injuries, he has never had combat injuries, and in fact was never in Vietnam,” the affidavit states.

Waiting for death and expecting hell

No matter the length of his sentence, Weiss does not expect to leave prison alive, according to his attorney.

When Weiss learned police were looking into allegations that he had molested two relatives, he attempted to overdose on pain medication and cut his wrists with a knife and razor, according to the affidavit.

Investigators also said Weiss suffers from a potentially fatal heart condition, and had stopped taking his medication.

“He expects to die in prison,” Shklar, Weiss’s attorney, said during the hearing. “Mr. Weiss expects to go to hell.”

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The Keene Sentinel: January 24, 2008
They gather twice a week beneath bare light bulbs and exposed rafters inside a barn attached to a house in Keene. Their backgrounds are as varied as their ages.

Wrestlers, boxers, martial artists and street brawlers — all glad they’ve found a place to fight, and it’s legal.

This barn is a hidden jewel, an oasis for the small group of combatants that Ben Knight invites into his home and his life. And there’s no membership fee or any hidden charges. It’s all free.

A former Keene High School wrestler, Knight, 30, now has five professional mixed martial arts fights under his belt. But after losing every match, he decided to train harder before stepping into the ring again.

He needed five stitches in his forehead to close a gash opened by his opponent’s elbow during a November fight in Atlantic City.

Mixed martial arts, led by the flagship promotion Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC, has expanded in the past decade into a thriving industry.

From monthly pay-per-view shows to regular television programming, there is much available for followers — some of whom are inspired to try it themselves.

“It’s a brutal sport,” Knight said. “You have to be ready to go out and give a beating and take a beating.”

Shortly after 7 p.m. Wednesday, the fighters begin to file into Knight’s makeshift gym on Water Street. It’s quiet and you can hear the hum of a space heater. One of the guys jabs a punching bag hanging from a rafter. Another sits on a donated wrestling mat stretching his legs.

Within 10 minutes, the small barn with plywood walls and no insulation is crowded with more than a dozen men, ages 18 to 37. A rap CD begins to play on a boom box on a shelf in the corner. They form a circle and launch into a series of warm-up exercises, shadow boxing and hopping in place to get the blood flowing.

Some of the fighters are wearing pajama pants and others have on gym shorts or sweats. They’re all wearing socks.

Henry Poitras, 25, of Keene leads the group, yelling “uppercut” and “hook.”

A Marine with a background in grappling or submission wrestling, Poitras joined Knight’s club, which has no official name, about six months ago after hearing about it from a friend.

Others, like Greg Somerset, 24, also of Keene, responded to Knight’s recent classified ad in The Sentinel asking fighters to come and train with him.

Of the 60 curious men and women who called about the ad, only six showed up to fight and three have stuck with it, Knight said.

Somerset had been used to fighting on the street, he said, but now he’s learning the art of combat, the myriad of styles and techniques with one efficient purpose: knocking out or making an opponent tap out in the ring.

“This is legal, legitimate,” he said. “We’re learning some useful skills.”

During a recent training match, Somerset was caught by another club member’s fist and his nose was broken.

“I heard a pop,” Somerset said, “and I just kept going.”

After warm-ups and a few grappling demonstrations, the fighters shed their socks, split into two groups and begin fighting on the ground. Each member fights every person in his group for 30 seconds.

A small cut opens up between Poitras’ eyebrows during his first match. It’s impossible to tell exactly what happened — the action is quick — there’s just a smear of blood across his forehead.

Despite first impressions, the training and fighting is relatively safe and most injuries are sprains and sore joints. The fighters use mouthpieces and wear shin pads, gloves and some use headgear.

As the guys toss each other around on the mats and throw a few punches and leg kicks, Knight’s girlfriend, Jessica Ashline, stands quietly in a doorway looking into the barn as a self-described “innocent bystander.”

“I know that it always looks worse than it actually is,” she said. “It’s really grown on me.”

Make no mistake, the club isn’t about a few guys getting together to beat the pulp out of each other. They’re here to hone their skills and, maybe, become professional fighters.

Adam Castor, 29, has been training “seriously” for the last four months. Like Knight, he wrestled for Keene High School. Now he’ll be fighting his first amateur bout March 15 in Plymouth, Mass.

“I just want to challenge myself,” Castor said, smiling. “I want to go and see what happens. It’s not always about fighting. It’s strategy. If you go out there swinging, you’re probably going to lose. It’s usually the smarter guy who wins.”

Many of the club members are training to fight as amateurs, then professionals. Others have simply found something constructive to do with their lives.

“It’s something to do in this town,” Jesse Warren, 22, of Keene said. “Without this, I’d be doing nothing, sitting at home.”

Napoleon Methe never misses a training session in the barn. The slim 22-year-old from Fitzwilliam said he’s working on a dream.

“This is what I want to do with my life,” he said. “I didn’t think I was going to do anything, and now I’ve found something to do. I’ve just always wanted to be a fighter ever since I was little.”

As the night’s session closes, Knight’s no-frills gym is a din of noise. The fighters are laughing, joking with each other and throwing a few mock jabs and grappling moves. The place smells like a locker room and it’s considerably warmer than it was two hours ago. Everyone seems energized.

“I want to come here all the time,” Methe says. “Just being able to make friends with these guys makes it worth it.”

Knight hopes to have a proper gym some day and a sponsored team of professional fighters. He also wants to host a live fighting event in Keene, perhaps at The Colonial Theatre or the high school gym where he used to wrestle.

But for now, Knight said he would settle for a few more wrestling mats and some insulation for the barn.

“I don’t want to make a business out of it really,” he said. “I just want to do it for fun.”

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The Keene Sentinel: February 04, 2008
Evidence in an active criminal investigation can sit untouched for years at the N.H. State Police Forensic Laboratory in Concord.

The lab has been scrambling to chip away at a heaping pile of unsolved crimes, but the chance of clearing the thousands of backlogged cases remains slim.

“We’re constantly trying to improve our workflow, but we’re at the point now where I don’t see how we can improve efficiency to offset the number of new cases coming in,” Lab Director Timothy J. Pifer said during a recent interview.

“How can you possibly say you’re getting there, that you’re getting ahead, when you have years of backlogs and it’s not easing up?”

Last year, the lab received more than 7,700 criminal cases — about 120 from the Keene Police Department – containing dozens of pieces of evidence that required nearly 10,000 forensic tests, from fingerprinting to DNA and firearms analysis.

Criminalists had 3,067 backlogged or uncompleted forensics tests left over at the end of the year, according to Pifer. And the work just keeps piling up.

“The lesser crimes continue to get pushed back,” he said. “Most law enforcement agencies know that if they submit evidence on property crimes it could sit here for seven years.”

Pifer said the average turnaround on a burglary, theft or other property crime without a suspect is two years. The same goes for cybercrimes.

Priority is given to homicides, sexual assaults, crimes involving juveniles and cases with defendants who have upcoming trials.

Keene police have all but stopped submitting evidence from misdemeanor crimes to the lab because they only have a year to make an arrest, and their chances of prosecution usually expire before the case is forensically analyzed, Lt. Peter S. Thomas said.

Most agencies opt to investigate minor crimes themselves, focusing on circumstantial evidence rather than forensics.

“It’s just a practicality for us,” Thomas said. “At that lab, they’re just so overwhelmed.”

The lab was only recently able to open an August 2005 home burglary case in Keene that had no suspects.

A criminalist lifted fingerprints from the scene that matched a suspect on a state database and an arrest was made last week, nearly three years after the crime.

“The lab is absolutely critical to our cases,” Cheshire County Attorney Peter W. Heed said. “The reality is they just don’t have enough staff to keep up with the cases that we send there. They do their very best to keep up, but they just can’t.”

Staff and funding shortages have strained the lab, which employs 42 criminalists and serves more than 200 law enforcement agencies around the state, Pifer said. About half of the criminalists on staff are working an average of eight to 10 hours of overtime every week, he said.

And they’re barely making a dent: The backlogs remain as constant as the flow of fresh cases pouring into the lab every day.

The CSI effect

Advances in DNA testing and what Pifer calls the “CSI effect,” referring to the wildly popular television crime-investigation drama, have given some prosecutors unrealistic expectations of forensic labs.

They are submitting more evidence per case than ever before, Pifer said, because they’ve learned that DNA can be found on anything from a cigarette filter to a soda can.

Not so long ago, a typical homicide case contained about a dozen pieces of evidence for analysis, he said.

The average case today comes with 50 to 100 samples, and it’s not unusual to see more than 400.

“I feel that some of these cases are like, ‘Let’s Make A Deal,’ where we’re trying to find the least amount of evidence to prove or disprove a case,” Pifer said. “There might be 30 blood stains in a room and the lab wants to test two for a positive identification of a suspect. The prosecutors would love for us to test all 30.

“Now they’re bringing the whole room in,” he said. “They’re rolling up the carpet, loading up the furniture and it all comes here where we’ll have to reconstruct the entire scene.”

Some overworked crime labs – budget and staff problems are common in public labs across the country – have begun limiting the number of samples that can be submitted in a case, regardless of the crime, Pifer said.

The state lab in Florida, for example, only allows five pieces of evidence per case, even if it’s a homicide, which means prosecutors have to gamble on what they choose to submit for forensic analysis.

“I hope we will never get to that in this state,” Pifer said. “But this lab is overwhelmed with the volume of cases coming in. I do see at some point in the future looking at a potential reduction in services.”

Adding to the problem is that criminalists are finding themselves out of the lab and inside a courtroom more often now than ever before.

“Prosecutors want to put us on the stand today even if we didn’t find fingerprints or DNA on the evidence,” Pifer said. “They call us to court to tell jurors why we didn’t find that evidence. That wasn’t happening before shows like ‘CSI.’ “

Chipping away at backlog

The days of criminalists driving hours to testify for a matter of minutes on minor criminal cases in district court are quickly coming to a close in the Granite State.

At some point within the next two months, they will simply have to take a few steps out of the lab and enter a small room down the hallway. After testifying in front of a video camera connected to a statewide court network, they will head back to work, Pifer said.

The video-testimony system will not be used for jury trials where a criminalist’s presence is necessary, only in drug cases and other minor district court proceedings that have eaten up valuable lab time for years.

Last year, state criminalists spent 1,688 hours in court, or driving to and from court, because they were subpoenaed in drug and DWI cases, according to Pifer. And 85 percent of the time they ended up not having to testify, or were only on the stand for 10 minutes, he said.

The video-testimony equipment was purchased through a federal grant – as was nearly 90 percent of the lab’s equipment – and will tie into the courts’ existing video-arraignment systems.

In another state-of-the-art attempt to cut through the case backlog, the lab recently began using a remote viewing system that allows police officers to investigate cybercrimes from their own offices.

A typical cybercrime involves at least two computers and takes seven months to analyze. Criminalists have to make mirror images or bit-by-bit duplicates of the hard drives and then spend days sifting through the digital evidence, Pifer said.

Now, after the duplicate hard drive is created at the lab, it is uploaded onto a secure network that can be accessed by the police department handling the investigation.

As part of the N.H. Attorney General’s recent cybercrimes initiative, 75 police officers from 43 different departments, including the Keene Police Department, have been trained to investigate cybercrimes, said Lucy H. Carrillo, an assistant attorney general and Internet crimes prosecutor.

“Police departments can do some of the searching,” Carrillo said. “It vastly reduces the burden on the lab and shortens the length of time we can get to a case. Other states have expressed interest in the program.”

Clouds gather

The hundreds of backlogged case files at the lab are troubling, but the situation hasn’t become critical just yet.

Delays at the lab have not resulted in dropped criminal cases or suspects being released from custody, Pifer said.

So far, the criminalists have been able to analyze evidence well in advance of upcoming trials, Pifer said.

“When we’re not picking up a case until a week before it goes to trial, then we’re critical,” he said. “When people know they’re getting away with crimes because of problems at the lab, then we’re critical.”

Of course, some crimes are being placed on the back burner and staying there for years, but there’s no other choice.

And the chances of shrinking that heaping backlog appear even more bleak as federal funding for state crime labs runs dry.

“These grants were meant as seed programs to get us and other public labs up to speed then sunset out,” Pifer said. “They were never meant to be a long-term supplement to state funding. Unfortunately, budget concerns in our state are at a bad time.”

While funds run thin, crime is growing across the state.

The lab received 829 criminal cases in January. It was the busiest month in recent history, according to Pifer.

“If we stay on that pace,” he said, “we’ll be in trouble.”

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The Keene Sentinel: June 03, 2008
The saga of an ill 69-year-old woman who embezzled more than $1.5 million from a Keene-based toy company and handed the money over to an alleged extortionist, her faux family and a casino neared its conclusion Monday.

Anne M. Everett was sentenced in Cheshire County Superior Court on two felony counts of theft by unauthorized taking and could spend the next 14 years in prison.

Everett, a former Keene resident who had been living in Candia, suffers from lung cancer and will likely die behind bars, said her public defender, Michael C. Shklar.

“Mrs. Everett is not long for this world,” he said during the hearing. “That’s a sad fact.”

Everett pleaded guilty in December 2007 to masterminding a complex embezzlement scheme targeting Douglas Co., where she worked for 44 years as a controller in the accounting department.

She was responsible for paying the company’s bills, signing checks and reconciling accounts.

Because of her age and failing health, Shklar had recommended that Everett serve a minimum of two years in prison, while Assistant Cheshire County Attorney Kathleen G. O’Reilly argued for a sentence of 14 to 28 years.

“This was a massive undertaking by the defendant to pull the wool over the eyes of the people that trusted her,” O’Reilly said in court. “She had to doctor the books repeatedly, constantly, for years.”

Judge John P. Arnold ultimately ordered Everett to serve seven to 14 years behind bars and pay $1,524,087 in restitution to Douglas, a family-owned business that manufactures and imports stuffed animals and other toys.

The likelihood that Douglas will ever see a fraction of the embezzled funds is slim because Everett gave away or spent the cash and she doesn’t own a home or have life insurance, O’Reilly said.

Everett actually gave the bulk of the stolen money to an alleged extortionist and a group of people she considered to be her family but are of no biological relation, according to court testimony. She used the rest to pay bills and play bingo at Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut, according to court testimony.

“I don’t have an answer for this defendant because she doesn’t fit any molds for conventional criminal activity,” Shklar said during the hearing. “Her motives were not selfish. She did not live high on the hog. There were no fancy cars. There were no fancy houses.”

Shklar called Everett’s case “one of the strangest that I have seen in 23 or 24 years” and O’Reilly described Everett’s motives as “puzzling at best.”

From at least January 2003 to December 2006, Everett wrote checks from the Douglas account to herself and others, forging their names and cashing the checks without their knowledge, according to court testimony. She also opened a fraudulent credit account under the company’s name, O’Reilly said.

While Everett’s scheme did not financially cripple the company, it hurt employees because their annual raises were cut to make up for the lost funds, according to Douglas President Scott T. Clarke.

“This has been a breach of trust and friendship that has been very detrimental to our company,” he said in court in support of the state’s sentencing recommendation. “It certainly has affected our company deeply. … She was a friend to my parents. She was a friend to all of us. Something like this should not go unpunished.”

Shortly before launching the embezzlement scheme, Everett came into a small inheritance and distributed the money to a group of people that had taken her in after she moved from Maine to Keene as a young woman, Shklar said.

When her inheritance dried up, Everett decided to write a check to herself from the Douglas account so she could continue to provide for the group.

“She considered them all to be her family. She had nieces, nephews and grandsons,” Shklar said. “She liked that people thought she had money and could help them out.”

Everett said in a brief statement during the hearing that she was “just trying to keep everyone safe” and apologized for her crimes.

She had already cashed a few fraudulent checks when Donald C. Whitten, 59, formerly of Keene, learned of the scheme and threatened to harm her or notify authorities if she didn’t give him money, Shklar said.

“Mrs. Everett was genuinely terrorized by this extortionist,” he said. “He turned this scheme into what it became.”

After she’d already given him thousands of dollars, Everett decided to cut off Whitten, who was her “nephew” and the black sheep of the family, according to Shklar.

“He was constantly in trouble and never had money,” he said.

When Everett cut off the cash flow, Whitten sent an anonymous e-mail to The Sentinel and another regional paper blowing the whistle on the embezzlement scheme, Shklar said.

“He essentially killed the goose that laid the golden egg,” he said.

Whitten was later arrested and charged with attempted theft by extortion and receiving stolen property, both felonies. He has pleaded guilty to both charges and is scheduled to be sentenced June 12 in Cheshire County Superior Court.

It’s impossible to know exactly how much money Whitten received from Everett because it was given to him in cash and checks, Shklar said.

Meantime, Everett plans to request a sentencing review by a panel of three judges in Concord. The panel could increase, decrease of leave her sentence unchanged.

Everett secured a better fate by negotiating a plea with prosecutors rather than facing trial, Shklar said.

“The state has a paper trail a mile long and a mile wide and a full confession from Mrs. Everett,” he said outside the courtroom. “Mrs. Everett’s trial could have been ugly. The state could have sought additional charges and broken down each transaction over $1,000.”

In prison, Everett will receive cancer treatments as needed and may be sent to the N.H. State Prison in Concord because, unlike the women’s prison in Goffstown, the facility has a full-time nursing staff that can provide long-term care to inmates, said Jeffrey J. Lyons, department of corrections spokesman.

Everett would be separated from the all-male inmate population, Lyons said.

“We would diagnose her and provide whatever medical treatment is necessary,” he said. “We have people who spend significant periods of their prison incarceration bedridden for medical treatment. … We can also bring them to the hospital if need be.”

Inmates who are terminally ill or severely debilitated can qualify for medical parole under a state law that became effective June 2004. Since then, only six prisoners have qualified, said John F. Eckert, executive assistant to the state’s adult parole board.

Eckert said he receives a few medical parole requests every month from inmates saying they have cancer, diabetes, heart conditions or other ailments. But without a referral from the doctor at their facility, they’re not even considered candidates.

“The only inmates that we’ve been asked to consider have been granted parole,” Eckert said, “but they literally cannot walk out of here. They have to be wheeled out.”

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The Keene Sentinel: June 11, 2008
The very different lives of a Claremont optometrist and Lempster construction worker with identical names became entangled this week after one of the men leapt off a bridge and plummeted to his death.

Jason M. Fulton was sitting in an excavator Tuesday morning when his 64-year-old mother called in a panic.

“She said, ‘Oh my God am I glad to hear from you.’ She thought I was dead,” Fulton said.

“It’s ironic because just before she called I was thinking about how lucky I am. I couldn’t possibly be in a happier place in my life right now. The last thing on my mind would be jumping off a bridge.”

On Monday afternoon, Dr. Jason M. Fulton left the Brattleboro Retreat — where he was being treated for depression, according to a colleague — and walked about a mile and a half to the West River Bridge on Interstate 91.

Passing motorists called 911 when they saw Fulton, a successful optometrist with a young daughter and pregnant wife, leaning over a guardrail near the center of the bridge.

Vermont State Police Sgt. Michael S. Sorensen arrived with other troopers, who stopped traffic and attempted to talk Fulton out of jumping.

“I just asked what his name was. He said, ‘Jason.’ He wouldn’t say anything else,” Sorensen said. “Then he just jumped.”

Fulton fell approximately 110 feet into the West River. He was pulled from the water by Brattleboro police officers, but died hours later at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital.

When Sorensen returned to his barracks later that afternoon, he searched the Department of Motor Vehicles records database for a Jason M. Fulton. The results indicated that one lived in Lempster.

Sorensen distributed reports of Fulton’s death, which included the erroneous address, to newspapers and television stations throughout the region. A correction was issued Tuesday afternoon.

The other Fulton had already been inundated with phone calls from distraught family members and friends.

“I had to recharge my cell phone a few times,” he said. “It’s definitely made for an eerie day. It’s just strange.”

The situation went from bizarre to infuriating when officials at the Goshen-Lempster Cooperative School pulled his daughter, 9, and son, 14, out of a field trip and gym class, respectively, Fulton said.

“My daughter was standing there and overheard them telling my ex-wife that they’d confirmed I was dead,” Fulton said. “They took my son out of class and had him sitting for 45 minutes in limbo.

“Not once did they try to call my parents or call me or anyone in my family,” he said. “Not once did we receive a phone call, which I found a little upsetting. I just can’t understand what they could have been thinking.”

Principal Thomas J. Fitzgerald said he tried to call Fulton’s mother and other family members, but could not reach them.

Fitzgerald was told about the death by mutual aid dispatchers.

“I had the unenviable task of calling the children’s mother,” he said. “I was the one that broke the erroneous news to her that her ex-husband had committed suicide.”

Fulton’s children were never told by school staff that their father was dead, Fitzgerald said.

He defended the school’s actions and blamed local media and police for any stress or trauma Fulton’s children may have experienced.

“If it’s released by police and it’s in print, what do you expect us to do?” he said.

Tammy L. Jackson, Fulton’s sister, said their mother has been “absolutely traumatized” and their family was still recovering from the shock.

“My mother was getting calls of sympathy,” she said. “It was pretty horrible.”

Jackson questioned why police didn’t contact Fulton’s next of kin to confirm his identity and address.

“It’s pretty disappointing that the state police could be that far off,” she said. “It just seems absurd to me that they could be that lackadaisical.”

Dr. Fulton’s family found out about the suicide before it was reached by authorities, which is why reports of his death were relayed to local media, and there was no reason to suspect a mix-up, according to Sorensen.

“If we had known there was another Jason Fulton walking around we would have tried to deal with that,” he said. “In my 18 years of being a trooper, this is the first time I’ve ever seen anything like this happen.”

Dr. Fulton’s age is still not clear. Initial reports from state police said he was born Dec. 27, 1973, which is the other Fulton’s date of birth.

“That would just be too bizarre,” Fulton said. “I mean, we were thinking that this could be some sort of identity theft, but it doesn’t look like that at this point.”

Although the two Fultons lived in nearby towns, their paths never crossed. They never even received each other’s mail.

Sometimes, though, other people would mistake Fulton for a doctor who lived in Claremont.

“It’s come up in conversation a couple of times. I kind of joked about it the first time someone asked me if I was a doctor. I enjoyed it, you know, because I’m just a construction worker,” Fulton said. “I just want his family to know that I feel horrible about what happened. I’m sure they must be suffering terribly.”

Dr. Fulton’s wife, Roberta, is expected to give birth to a baby boy in about a month.

He also left behind a daughter who will celebrate her second birthday in July, said Dr. Frank E. Reed of Reed Optical in Claremont.

“This is a very sad, sad thing,” said Reed, who worked with Fulton for the past two years. “Jason was probably the most decent, kindhearted man I’ve ever met. Maybe he was too kind. He was very sensitive and, I don’t know, I guess he just became overwhelmed with life’s issues.”

Roberta Fulton is staying with friends, according to Reed, and could not be reached for comment.

The Fultons were religious and very active in their local church group. Dr. Fulton also enjoyed playing tennis and golf, Reed said.

“On the outside, he seemed pretty normal to me. It was my hope that he and his wife were going to buy my optometry business some day,” he said. “I did know he had been struggling for three or four months with depression. Apparently he had struggled with depression in the past, which recently came to light and was unbeknownst to me.”

Fulton had sought mental-health treatment at the N.H. State Hospital and, a week before he committed suicide, checked into the Brattleboro Retreat after experiencing a relapse, according to Reed.

“The last time I saw him was the Friday before he went to the retreat. He had a washed-out look,” Reed said. “His eyes had almost become black. It was a sad and difficult thing to see.”

Reed and others who knew Dr. Fulton will likely be grappling with his death, and the series of events that led him to the edge of the bridge, for years.

“He had such a bright future. He was making a good living. He had a beautiful wife and a beautiful little girl and a son on the way,” Reed said. “It’s almost like you can’t believe that someone can sink to that depth and commit such a final act. It’s hard to fathom.”

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