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Archive for July, 2009

By PHILLIP BANTZ

Sentinel Staff

The Keene Sentinel: July 31, 2009

WINCHESTER — Police in this town had their hands full Thursday night when they chased a convicted sex offender, scuffled with a horse owner and dealt with a drunken man firing a rifle.

The series of incidents kicked off at about 10 p.m., when police received simultaneous calls for a domestic disturbance and a high-speed police pursuit in Massachusetts heading toward Winchester, Police Chief Gary A. Phillips said.

After handling the domestic disturbance at 540 Warwick Road, Winchester police Officer Nathan Jette stopped his patrol car, blue lights activated, on the side of the road and waited for the white Ford Explorer that Bay State authorities were chasing.

Earlier in the night, police in Orange, Mass., had spotted the Explorer and recognized its driver, Joseph W. Finn, 47, of Gardner, Mass., who was wanted on warrants charging him with failing to register as a sex offender and driving with a suspended license.

When Jette saw the Explorer speeding down Warwick Road, he laid a spike strip in its path, puncturing all four of the SUV’s tires as it drove past him, Phillips said.

Jette stepped back into his cruiser and began chasing after the Explorer, which he found ditched near a horse field at 580 Warwick Road. The SUV had crashed into a fence, and the driver was gone, Phillips said.

As police searched for Finn in the field, the property owner, Daniel J. Black, 43, became concerned about his horses escaping through the damaged fence and began arguing with the officers, Phillips said.

“He kept trying to get at his fence and badgering the officers. There was quite a bit of chaos at the time,” he said. “The horses were not going to escape. It wasn’t an issue. We also didn’t want anyone getting into the field and contaminating the suspect’s tracks.”

The Keene Police Department’s police dog unit arrived and helped Winchester officers track down Finn, who was found hiding behind trees in a wood line near the field about a third of a mile from the ditched SUV, Phillips said.

While police were arresting Finn, Black began fighting with other officers near the damaged section of fence, Phillips said. He was taken to the ground and arrested on charges of interfering with law enforcement and resisting arrest.

The officers had just finished handcuffing Black when they heard gunshots coming from the residence at 540 Warwick Road, where they’d investigated a domestic disturbance less than an hour earlier, Phillips said.

They released Black to his son and rushed over to the residence where they’d heard the gunshots and found a “highly intoxicated” Timothy Merrifield, 46, and determined he was firing a rifle into the air, Phillips said.

Merrifield was taken into protective custody and driven to the Cheshire County jail in Westmoreland to sober up. He was not charged with a crime.

Black, meanwhile, will be picked up after police secure warrants for his arrest on the charges of interfering and resisting, Phillips said.

“We just didn’t have enough manpower to arrest him at the time” of the incident, Phillips said.

Finn was charged in New Hampshire with disobeying police, driving with a suspended license, conduct after a crash and marijuana possession — a small bag of marijuana was found in the Explorer, Phillips said.

Finn was held overnight at the jail for lack of $2,500 bail and was scheduled to be arraigned today in Keene District Court.

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By PHILLIP BANTZ
Sentinel Staff

Published: Thursday, July 30, 2009

The attorney for a man accused of impersonating a U.S. marshal while robbing two Chesterfield business owners says his client was only collecting a debt.

Defense attorney Michael D. Hulser of Acworth is arguing that John P. Baldasaro and his alleged victims — Fayyaz Awan, owner of Khyber Convenience Store, and Paula Saba, owner of Big Deal — were not strangers.

“Awan and Saba said they’d never known or seen John before in their lives, that he walked in and fooled them into thinking he was an agent,” Hulser said. “This was not the case.”

Prosecutors say Baldasaro scammed Awan and Saba out of more than $10,860 during a May 11 robbery.

They say Baldasaro convinced the two men that he was investigating a counterfeit cash operation, flashed a holstered gun and a badge, and took money from both stores and emptied Awan’s bank account.

Hulser contends that Awan and Saba owed Baldasaro money, but he would not disclose the nature of the debt.

“It probably wasn’t a debt for Girl Scout cookies, I can tell you that,” Hulser said.

Cheshire County Attorney Peter W. Heed declined to comment on Hulser’s argument.

“The defense is permitted to speak to the press about their theories of the case. We’re under ethical duties not to do so,” he said. “The evidence will speak for itself at the trial.”

Hulser said he has begun plea negotiations with prosecutors and that a deal is already on the table. Hulser and Heed would not discuss the deal.

But Hulser said he will consider any plea deal that sends Baldasaro to prison for less than 10 years.

The deal would also hinge on Baldasaro being able to secure concurrent sentences in his other pending criminal cases in New England, Hulser said.

Baldasaro is accused of posing as a federal agent and robbing a man in Massachusetts. Maine authorities say Baldasaro posed as a businessman and bilked a family out of $7,000 through an investment scheme. He is also accused of stealing an SUV from a dealership in Maine. And he faces a federal parole violation in Vermont.

“We’re searching for a global resolution. I need parole on board. I need any possible warrants from any other states to run concurrent to any possible sentence here in New Hampshire,” Hulser said.

In a jailhouse interview in June, Baldasaro was adamant about representing himself in court.

He said he’d handled his own defense during an armed robbery trial in Boston and a kidnapping and robbery trial in White River Junction, Vt. He was convicted in Vermont and sent to prison for 12 years. He was released in September 2008.

“I can guarantee that this is going to be an interesting trial,” Baldasaro said in the interview. “Him (Heed) and I are going to have a battle.”

Hulser said Baldasaro contacted him on the recommendation of fellow inmates at the Cheshire County jail in Westmoreland and family members.

“I convinced him that you absolutely must have an attorney,” Hulser said.

Hulser was able to argue for a lower bail requirement for Baldasaro during a hearing Wednesday at Cheshire County Superior Court.

Baldasaro was being held on $200,000 cash bail, but now he has the option of surety, meaning he will be released if he pays 10 percent of the total bail amount.

He remained in jail today.

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By PHILLIP BANTZ
Sentinel Staff

The Keene Sentinel: July 30, 2009

When Christina Chavez’s husband called and said a naked man had just attacked their van with a flashlight, she thought he was joking.

He wasn’t.

Michael Hagar, 38, of Swanzey allegedly used a large Maglite flashlight to smash the lights and windows of two vehicles parked behind the Hannaford grocery store Tuesday evening in Keene.

Hagar is also accused of chasing after bystanders and threatening to pummel them with the flashlight.

He was not wearing pants or underwear during the incident, police and witnesses said.

Later, at Cheshire Medical Center/Dartmouth-Hitchcock Keene, Hagar kicked and spat on a Keene police officer and threatened a hospital employee, police said.

He now faces charges of criminal mischief, criminal threatening, simple assault and theft.

The flashlight Hagar wielded during the incident was taken from Chavez’s van, police said.

Christina Chavez said her husband, Abraham, had driven the van to work the day of the incident.

“He called later and said the van just got attacked by a naked hobo,” she said. “I really thought he was playing a prank on me.”

Abraham Chavez said he heard Hagar yelling that the van belonged to him and that it was shooting paint balls at him while he was hitting it with the flashlight, according to Christina Chavez.

All of the van’s windows are gone or shattered and its interior and exterior are spattered with Hagar’s blood.

Hagar cut himself on broken glass during the incident and was also bleeding from the face, police said.

The Chavezes’ van has been deemed a biohazard because of the blood, and they cannot drive it until Hagar is tested for communicable diseases, Christina Chavez said.

“If he’s got hepatitis or something, we may have to claim it as a total loss,” she said. “We don’t have another vehicle, so we have to get a rental car.”

Meanwhile, police are still sorting out the details of the bizarre incident.

They believe Hagar, whose nose was broken, may have been involved in a fight at a homeless camp in the woods behind Hannaford known as “tent city,” prior to the vehicle attacks, Keene police Lt. Jay U. Duguay said.

The homeless camp has existed for decades, but its population has recently grown, Duguay said.

“We have locals out there who have fallen on hard times and others who came to the city to start a new life,” he said. “Ever since I’ve been here, for 20 years, people have been camping there, but it’s certainly larger now than it used to be.”

He said police cannot tell the homeless campers to leave the property because it’s privately owned and the owner hasn’t said they are trespassing. The owner of the land could not be confirmed this morning before press time.

“Hannaford has asked us to do more patrols back there, which we’ve done,” he said. “We’ve also been called out there for assaults, disturbances.”

A manager at Hannaford declined to comment on the situation, citing company policy.

Hagar was arraigned Wednesday at Keene District Court. He was being held at the Cheshire County jail in Westmoreland for lack of $10,000 bail.

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By PHILLIP BANTZ

Sentinel Staff

The Keene Sentinel: July 29, 2009

A Swanzey man, naked from the waist down and bleeding from the face, vandalized two vehicles with a flashlight, kicked and spit on a Keene police officer and threatened a hospital employee Tuesday evening, authorities said.

Michael A. Hagar, 38, is charged with three counts of criminal threatening, two counts each of criminal mischief and simple assault and one count of theft.

Keene police were called to the West Street Shopping Center at about 10:20 p.m. for a report of a man using a large Maglite flashlight to smash out the windows and lights of two vehicles parked behind Hannaford grocery store, Keene police Lt. Jay U. Duguay said.

When one of the vehicle owners, Ada Boule, 20, of Keene saw the man, who was later identified as Hagar, damaging her vehicle she ran away to get help, Duguay said.

After speaking with Boule, Kevin Fisk, 28, of Keene and Dennis Laprade, 40, of Rindge confronted Hagar while he was still striking the vehicles with the flashlight, Duguay said.

He said Hagar then chased the men away while threatening them with the flashlight, which he’d stolen from one of the vehicles.

Boule and the other vehicle owner, Abraham Chavez, 26, of Sullivan, told police that Hagar was a stranger and they did not know why he was attacking their vehicles, Duguay said.

Hagar was not wearing pants or underwear during the incident — a long T-shirt was covering his genitals — and it was unclear what happened to his clothing, Duguay said.

Hagar’s nose was also broken, possibly during a fight prior to the incident behind Hannaford, though police are still investigating what led to his facial injuries, Duguay said.

Hagar cooperated with police during his arrest, but became combative at Cheshire Medical Center/Dartmouth-Hitchcock Keene, where he was taken to be treated for facial injuries and cuts caused by broken glass from the vehicles, Duguay said.

He spit on Keene police Officer Michael O’Donnell and kicked the officer in the face, and made death threats to hospital employee Clayton Stalker, 56, of Keene, Duguay said.

Police are awaiting the results of a drug test and psychological evaluation Hagar completed at the hospital.

After he was released from the hospital, Hagar was taken to the Cheshire County jail in Westmoreland, where he was held without bail. He was scheduled to be arraigned today in Keene District Court.

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By PHILLIP BANTZ
Sentinel Staff

The Keene Sentinel: July 13, 2009

They never thought Tabitha Ellis would live this long. Not the doctors. Not even her parents. She was born with cancer on her vocal chords and later diagnosed with a life-threatening heart disease that compromised her immune system.

Ellis, now 18, has defied the odds, becoming a multi-sport athlete in high school and then a singer/actor attending a drama academy in New York City.

Her childhood was a series of hospital visits and medical treatments. She was forced to tote around a heart-monitoring machine that was about the size of a lunch pail and wired to her chest.

“When she stopped breathing, the machine would warn us,” said Ellis’ mother, Irene, of Swanzey. “We would either have to do CPR or shake her. Sometimes a little shake would spring her into breathing again.”

But just a gentle shake. And even then it was risky. Her bones were so brittle and her joints were so weak that her limbs would sometimes pop out of place while she was horsing around with her older brother, T.J.

“We couldn’t play like most brothers and sisters play,” he said.

T.J. Ellis, now 25, said he had to wait five weeks after his younger sister was born before he could even be in the same room with her.

“I could only see her through glass at the hospital,” he said. “At that age I didn’t know why I couldn’t go in there.”

When she was 2 years old, Tabitha Ellis underwent surgery to repair a hole in her heart. She now has an artificial heart valve.

In the years after the surgery, Tabitha Ellis’ heart and body grew stronger. She shed the cumbersome heart-monitoring machine along with her introverted characteristics, spending less time alone in her room and more time with friends.

It was as if someone had flipped a switch inside her, said her father, Todd.

“Finally, she didn’t have to spend time in doctors’ offices or worry about the monitor going off,” he said. “It was really amazing. She completely changed when the surgery happened.”

Compared to the other students, though, Tabitha Ellis was still weak when she entered her freshman year at Monadnock Regional High School. She was the new kid in school, having just moved from Washington, D.C., and she weighed less than 75 pounds.

“She still wanted to be like everybody else,” Irene Ellis said. “She didn’t want to be singled out. She never wanted that.”

As Tabitha Ellis’ heart became even stronger and the doctors weaned her off some of her medications, her body began to fill out. Soon she no longer had to play the role of the frail girl watching from the sidelines.

“When I was little the hospital was my second home and I couldn’t do a lot,” she said. “I always wanted to make up for it.”

So she did. She joined the high school’s track and field program, running the mile for two years. She became the only girl on the boys’ lacrosse team, playing for two years. “I fit in well,” she said. She joined the school’s swim team, competing for all four years. She was also a varsity cheerleader for more than three years.

“When people ask me for advice, I say ‘You only live once, so just go after your dreams wholeheartedly,’ ” she said. “I’ve had setbacks. Everyone does. It’s a part of life. You just have to move on. That’s what I did. If I couldn’t do something one year, I’d look forward to doing it the next year.”

After graduating high school last year, Tabitha Ellis chased her dreams to the Big Apple, where she’s studying musical theater at The American Musical and Dramatic Academy.

Despite the cancer on her vocal chords — the nodules were surgically removed two years ago — she has enjoyed singing for most of her life.

Her grandmother, a country singer, appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and her mother is also known to belt out a song.

“I have some little singing roots,” Tabitha Ellis said. “I like all kinds of music, depending on what type of mood I’m in.”

She contracted the acting bug in her late teens when she left cheerleading to play the role of Liesl in her high school’s production of “The Sound of Music.”

“I’d always wanted to try acting since I was a freshman. I knew that if I didn’t do it before I left high school I would regret it,” she said. “It turned out to be a life-changing experience.”

She now spends nearly 40 hours a week reading scripts, memorizing lines, dancing and singing at the dramatic academy in Manhattan. She lives in an old hotel building-turned dormitory and imagines a life on Broadway or starring in big-screen films.

“Whatever comes first,” she said.

When Tabitha Ellis finishes her two-year conservatory — she’s three weeks into her first semester — she will have to move on to the Los Angeles campus and study for another two years if she wants to obtain a degree. She’s uncertain about the path she wants to take.

“I’d really like to go straight on into the business,” she said, “but I understand that having a degree is also important.”

Whatever direction Tabitha Ellis’ life takes, her family will be watching. They’ve witnessed her transformation. They know she can traverse the roughest of roads. Now they sit back and wait to see what she’ll do next.

“When she was a young girl she could tell you what her plans were to die, what she wanted done with her body,” Irene Ellis said. “It’s just so amazing, what she’s done already.”

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By PHILLIP BANTZ

Sentinel Staff

The Keene Sentinel: July 09, 2009

Strings of vehicle break-ins and vandalism and the occasional vicious beating or stabbing may lead some to believe that Keene’s streets are getting meaner, but crime statistics show little change over the last six years.

Even in light of rough economic times, which typically parallel a spike in shoplifting — people begin stealing groceries or other necessities they can no longer afford — the Elm City’s property crime rate remains stable.

The city’s social programs, such as The Community Kitchen, which provides food to area residents in need, play a significant role in curbing crime, Keene police Lt. Jay U. Duguay said.

“We’re behind the nation when it comes to economic issues. People are still losing their homes and jobs, but overall we haven’t felt the effects of it yet,” he said. “Right now it’s wait-and-see.”

During the last six years, Keene police have received an average of 490 reports dealing with larceny or theft. Last year they took 667 reports of larceny or theft, the highest number of those types of crimes since 2002, which saw 604 reports.

From the beginning of this year to the end of April, there were 202 reports of larceny and theft, slightly higher than the 147 during the same period last year, and 33 burglaries, which is on par with previous years.

“There’s going to be periods with a little influx, but for the most part it’s steady,” Duguay said. “I was actually kind of surprised at how consistent the numbers were.”

In 2004 and 2005, property crime rates dipped dramatically. While 2003 saw 557 larcenies and thefts, that number hit 272 the following year and then slightly increased to 286 the next year before rising to 455 in 2006.

“We didn’t change our patrol procedures during those times (2004 and 2005) and we weren’t up to full staff. So I don’t know why those years are lower,” Duguay said. “I think the more consistent number is the high number, but thank goodness for the lows.”

Violent crime reports in Keene have also remained steady over the last several years, with an average of 366 assaults annually.

Between 20 and 30 sex assaults are reported in the city each year, though only a small fraction of those cases result in arrests because the others lack sufficient evidence, Duguay said.

Statistics only tell part of the story, though. For the crime victims, the numbers hold little meaning.

Mitchell J. Farrell was staying in Keene on business June 25 when someone broke into his vehicle and stole his medications, GPS unit and two chargers. Farrell said he left the vehicle unlocked while he went for a walk at about 7:30 p.m., and it was ransacked when he returned.

“To have all of that stolen out of my car during the short time it was unlocked just shocked me, the boldness of it,” he said. “To be honest, it makes me think that Keene is no different from Boston or New York City or Chicago. I’ve been to all those cities and I’ve never had a problem.”

Farrell, who lives in Lake View, N.Y., about 17 miles south of Buffalo, said he was left a little shaken after his experience in Keene.

“I don’t even have a lock and key for my door at home. I haven’t been a victim of a crime since the late ’70s when my bicycle was stolen,” he said. “They went through all the compartments in my car. I was pretty angry, but what are you going to do? It’s just a strange feeling.”

For each of Keene’s 46 police officers, there are about 496 full-time residents and 114 Keene State College students.

“The calls for service have continuously gone up, but we’ve basically had the same number of officers for years. The officers are always busy,” Duguay said. “But no matter how we do our patrols, if people would just lock their doors and protect their property the number of crimes of opportunity we have would go way down.”

At least 10 unlocked vehicles in Keene were broken into over the weekend, and many similar crimes have been committed this year and in previous years. Thieves are simply trying door handles and making off with expensive cell phones, GPS units, cash, clothing and other personal belongings.

Walking along Main Street on Wednesday afternoon, Kim Mooney said she wasn’t threatened by property crime in Keene. She recently moved to Keene from a more rural community in upstate New York.

“This is a big city to me, and I feel very safe here,” she said. “You don’t see the violent crimes, only petty property crimes.”

Another resident, Tyson Bailey, also said he felt that the criminal element in the city was insignificant.

“I’ve lived in Keene for four years,” he said. “I’ve never had any issues.”

State Rep. Steven W. Lindsey, who was robbed while working as a taxi driver two years ago, said he believes crime is on the decline in Keene, though he’s not sure why.

“I live on Marlboro Street in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city and things just seem to be mellower,” he said. “I don’t know if there’s something in the water or what.”

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By PHILLIP BANTZ
Sentinel Staff

The Keene Sentinel: July 01, 2009

Horror stories involving overworked and under-funded public defender offices across the nation have become commonplace.

The accused who cannot afford lawyers sit in jail for months before public defenders are even able to review their cases. Then they accept plea bargains for lengthy prison sentences because their attorneys were too busy with other cases to negotiate better deals.

The issue has reached a boiling point in at least seven states where public defender offices have refused to take on new cases for fear of being unable to provide a capable defense.

In New Hampshire, the Concord-based public defender office is experiencing the same budget-related hardships as most other state-funded agencies, but remains relatively healthy, according to litigation director Richard C. Guerriero Jr.

“These are pretty tough times, but we’re providing an adequate defense” for indigent defendants, he said. “I don’t think there’s a threat to the necessity of representation for these defendants.”

Fewer than 120 public defenders working out of offices in each of the 10 counties across the state handle an estimated 28,000 cases each year. Caseloads are increasing annually, but the number of new public defenders being hired is not keeping pace.

“We just had a 5 percent layoff statewide at the public defender office,” Guerriero said. “We lost between 15 and 20 people across the board — attorneys, staff investigators, everything.”

One lawyer lost his job at the Keene office, which currently has 12 public defenders, including several who work on cases throughout the state.

This year the state public defender office has a $17 million budget for indigent defense, according to Executive Director Christopher M. Keating.

“The Legislature was very responsible in preserving the essence of the program,” he said. “The funding levels are going to enable us to provide the same level of service and we won’t have to endure any additional layoffs, I don’t think.”

The average New Hampshire public defender is handling 65 to 75 open cases at any given time, but could sometimes have more than 90 cases, according to Guerriero.

Comparatively, the average caseload for each public defender in Florida’s Miami-Dade County has reached at least 500, according to the Florida public defender association.

Frustrated public defenders in Miami-Dade filed a lawsuit last year asking that they be allowed to refuse cases and have lawyers from other state offices and private firms step in to help with their caseloads.

A judge sided with the public defenders, but the decision was appealed to the state Supreme Court and overturned.

Former New Hampshire public defender Michael D. Hulser said he often spent seven days a week in the Keene office and had more than 100 open cases on his plate.

“To say it’s not a heavy burden would be disingenuous. But one thing they look at before you’re hired as a public defender is whether you can handle that kind of caseload,” he said. “I take full offense to the overwork criticism we hear. We learn to budget our time and none of our clients are shortchanged.”

Hulser was laid off in March as part of budget cuts. He’d worked as a public defender for two years.

“The director came to every office and said there was a possibility of layoffs and then one day the ax just fell,” he said. “When I left it was all on good terms. I truly enjoyed my time there.”

Hulser, who has started a practice in Keene, said the state’s public defender office is “one of the best in the country” because of its rigid hiring standards and the training it provides to its lawyers.

The public defender office’s training program, which encourages its lawyers to further their legal knowledge, hone trial skills and stay up to date on developments in forensics and treatment options for offenders, was also affected by the state’s budget cuts.

“We have a two-day training session in the late spring or early summer, and this year it was one day,” Guerriero said. “What we were able to do was adequate, but not as much as we would normally do.”

While he foresees more troubled times for the state’s public defender office, Guerriero said the breaking point is a long way off.

“I think we’re going to get by with what we have,” he said. “Never say never, but right now things look okay.”

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