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Archive for the ‘COURTS’ Category

Con Man Pleads Guilty

By PHILLIP BANTZ
Sentinel Staff
The Keene Sentinel:  November 07, 2009

The charismatic convicted felon who conned a pair of Chesterfield business owners while posing as a U.S. marshal was sent to prison Thursday.

Wearing a charcoal blazer and blue jeans, a shackled John P. Baldasaro, 46, pleaded guilty in Cheshire County Superior Court to two felony-level counts of theft by deception. He’d vowed months earlier to take the case to trial and represent himself.

Judge John P. Arnold accepted the deal Baldasaro and his attorney, Michael D. Hulser of Acworth, reached with prosecutors and handed down two concurrent sentences of six to 12 years in N.H. State Prison.

In exchange for the guilty plea, prosecutors dismissed two counts of kidnapping and one count of robbery.

If Baldasaro had gone to trial and was convicted on all five counts, he could have faced 60 years in prison, Hulser said after the hearing.

Hulser said he has also negotiated a plea deal for Baldasaro in Maine, where he is accused of stealing a vehicle from a dealership and duping a family out of $7,000 in a bogus investment scheme.

The Maine negotiation calls for a shorter sentence than the N.H. State Prison sentence and will be served concurrently with the New Hampshire sentence, he said.

Meanwhile, Baldasaro faces a federal parole violation charge in Vermont that could keep him in prison for another 12 years. By pleading guilty to the theft charges, Baldasaro effectively admitted to violating parole.

“The Vermont Parole Board will not say what they’re going to do,” Hulser said.

The parole violation stems from a conviction for kidnapping and robbery in White River Junction, Vt. Baldasaro spent 12 years in federal prison, where he married his wife, Vanessa, who works at a law firm in Boston. He was released in September 2008.

Hulser said he hasn’t heard from authorities in Massachusetts, where Baldasaro is accused of impersonating a federal agent and robbing a man at gunpoint. He also hasn’t received word from the federal authorities who are building an impersonation case against Baldasaro.

In Chesterfield, Baldasaro conned Fayyaz Awan, owner of Khyber Convenience Store, and Paul Saba, owner of Big Deal, out of more than $10,860 on May 11, according to court documents.

Baldasaro flashed what appeared to be a holstered gun and U.S. Marshals badge, told Awan and Saba he was investigating a counterfeit cash operation, and took money from both stores before emptying Awan’s bank account, prosecutors said.

Baldasaro told Awan and Saba the money he took was counterfeit, police said. He acted like he was scanning the bills with a laptop computer to determine whether they were legitimate, Saba said in an interview shortly after the incident.

Chesterfield police spent dozens of hours investigating the scheme alongside the U.S. Marshals Office, and Chief Lester C. Fairbanks said it was gratifying to see the case come full circle.

“It’s just nice to see everything fall into place,” he said. “None of us would have gotten here without the U.S. Marshals. That was just a huge stroke of luck that he picked the wrong agency to mess with.”

During the plea and sentencing hearing, Baldasaro spoke only to answer the judge or confer with Hulser. But he was outspoken during a jailhouse interview with The Sentinel in June, when he said he wanted to represent himself during trial and take on Cheshire County Attorney Peter W. Heed.

“John speaks spontaneously very often,” Hulser said outside the courtroom. “I think he would like to retract those statements upon reflection.”

Baldasaro also made “very incriminating” statements to detectives after he was arrested at a Manhattan hotel several days after the Chesterfield incident, Hulser said.

Hulser said he would have tried to prevent jurors from hearing those statements if he was unable to negotiate a plea deal with Heed and Assistant Cheshire County Attorney Keith W. Clouatre.

If the case had gone to trial, Hulser planned to argue that Awan and Saba were acquainted with Baldasaro before he stole from them. He said they owed Baldasaro money, but would not disclose the nature of the debt.

Heed dismissed Hulser’s theory as “baseless” and said Awan and Saba were on board with the plea negotiation, which saved taxpayers the expense of a trial.

“We also don’t want New Hampshire taxpayers to pay for his whole incarceration,” he said. “He has a lot of sentences he can serve” in other states.

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By PHILLIP BANTZ
Sentinel Staff
The Keene Sentinel: November 03, 2009

A Vermont man has filed a right-to-know lawsuit against the city of Keene that could affect the way public records requests are answered across the state.

Wallace S. Nolen of Barre, Vt., presented his case Monday in Cheshire County Superior Court. He wants an electronic document containing the names, titles, salaries, phone numbers, e-mail addresses and work locations of every city employee.

The city has already provided paperwork containing that information to Nolen, with the exception of work locations for each employee, because no such record exists and the city is not required to create one, according to City Attorney Thomas P. Mullins.

The city was not even required by state law to comply with Nolen’s request because he is not a New Hampshire resident, Mullins said.

He said the city has already gone “above and beyond” by giving Nolen paperwork with the employee information he requested, and should not be required to provide it again in electronic form, he said.

But Nolen said he doesn’t want paperwork. He wants the information to be provided on a CD or e-mailed to him so he can easily plug it into a massive database he’s building. The database contains employee information from tens of thousands of municipalities in 30 states, including much of New England, he said.

Nolen is building the database in preparation for a class-action lawsuit aimed at overhauling unclaimed property laws. He wants banks and state treasurers to be more diligent in helping people claim lost assets.

Nolen is gathering the employee information because he says states consistently fail to notify not only residents but their own employees of unclaimed property to which they are entitled.

Nolen said he was spurred to action after being deprived of funds in his deceased father’s bank account because of flaws in the laws.

Because the city of Keene has refused to provide employee information electronically, Nolen said he must manually enter the information into his database, which will take too much time.

Nolen also wants the city to be required to answer right-to-know requests sent by e-mail.

The city typically requires requests to be submitted in writing and dropped off at the City Clerk’s office or mailed.

Communicating via e-mail will streamline the process, make it more environmentally friendly and save the city money in printing and paper costs, Nolen argued.

“In today’s day and age, things should be sent electronically,” he said. “Are you telling me that if I want something from Los Angeles, I have to drive all the way to Los Angeles?”

The city should not be forced to answer right-to-know requests via e-mail, Mullins said. The clerk’s office, which handles the requests, would become inundated with frivolous public records demands and unable to function, he said.

“If we have to do that, the city is going to be placed in a very difficult situation,” he said. “We could be receiving potentially thousands of e-mails.”

The N.H. Supreme Court has never addressed the transmittal of information tied to a public records request, according to Mullins.

“I haven’t seen a case on it,” he said, “and I’ve definitely been looking.”

In a separate right-to-know issue, Nolen has requested any evidence in the case of David Ridley, an activist and videographer from Grafton. Ridley was arrested in March at Keene District Court when he refused to turn off his camera in the court’s lobby.

The Keene Police Department initially refused Nolen’s request, saying the Ridley case was an open investigation and therefore exempt from public record.

But after contacting Mullins, the department acknowledged that certain information could be released.

Mullins said he provided Nolen with paperwork containing basic details in Ridley’s arrest, but Nolen demanded any audio or video evidence the authorities may have from the courthouse incident. That evidence does not exist, Mullins said.

Judge John P. Arnold is reviewing both prongs of Nolen’s right-to-know lawsuit. He is expected to render a decision in a matter of weeks.

During the hearing, Mullins accused Nolen of verbally abusing city employees over the course of his right-to-know requests — the first was filed in March. He said Nolen’s lawsuit is baseless and constitutes harassment.

If Arnold determines the lawsuit is harassment, he could order Nolen to pay the city for legal fees it incurred in fighting the suit.

Nolen is also seeking compensation for legal fees. He has accused city employees of stonewalling him.

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The Dark Side of the Court System

gavelBy PHILLIP BANTZ

The Keene Sentinel: February 23, 2008

Life-altering decisions are often made by lawyers haggling for justice behind closed doors. In nearly all criminal cases, plea deals are negotiated and defendants admit guilt in exchange for lighter sentences.

Prosecutors are bound by state law to work with defense attorneys and make an attempt to reach a resolution before trial.

And while victims and their families may voice their opinions to prosecutors and judges, they ultimately have no say in the process.

Some end up feeling betrayed by a cold legal machine that allows justice to slip through their fingers.

This is a glimpse of the lesser-known side of the business of law.

***

“I felt lost. It was like I was in a different country. We obviously had no say in the matter,” James P. McCarthy Sr. said of his experience with Cheshire County’s court system.

“My kid was killed in a car accident,” he said, “and the guy who killed him only got a slap on the wrist.”

His 21-year-old son, James P. McCarthy Jr., known to friends and family as “Jimmy,” was riding in Seth R. Olson’s convertible in September 2006 when the car hit a sharp turn in Jaffrey and flipped.

McCarthy was thrown head-first into a pole. His young daughter was left fatherless.

Authorities said Olson had been speeding and his recklessness caused the crash.

Olson and his family contend it was a tragic and unintentional accident.

“My brother didn’t mean for this to happen. That night in that car, it could have been anybody. It just happened,” Meghan A. Olson, 19, said. “I saw my brother that night. I’ve never seen him more destroyed in my entire life. … He would have taken Jimmy’s place if he had the chance.”

Seth Olson declined to be interviewed for this story.

He was initially charged with negligent homicide, reckless conduct with a deadly weapon, vehicular assault and driving with a suspended license.

After a year of court proceedings, prosecutors and Olson’s public defender negotiated a plea deal.

The deal was influenced by tire skid marks and other evidence at the scene that would have weakened the chances of securing a conviction during a jury trial, according to Cheshire County Attorney Peter W. Heed.

“A plea deal is usually a good thing,” Heed said. “It may not be the best sentence, but it’s still a guilty plea. It’s not an acquittal.”

The deal shocked the McCarthys, who said they learned about Olson’s agreement after it was finalized.

Both sides had agreed on a deal that would send Olson to the Cheshire County jail in Westmoreland for six months on one misdemeanor charge of vehicular assault.

All other charges against him would be dropped.

“I almost threw up on the table. I left the county attorney’s office crying,” said McCarthy’s mother, Gail A. McCarthy. “I never expected Seth Olson to spend the rest of his life in jail, but his dangerous driving caused Jimmy’s death. I still haven’t gotten over the anger of it and I don’t feel that Jimmy got justice.”

“My jaw just dropped. We didn’t have any say in it,” said James McCarthy Sr., who was sitting beside his wife in the county attorney’s office when they learned of Olson’s plea deal.

“They shoved the plea down our throats. Six months. I still can’t believe it.”

After he’d served less than four months of his sentence, which began in mid-October, the jail’s disciplinary board determined Olson was ready for release.

The decision was based on his good behavior, work history and minimal criminal record, said Richard N. Van Wickler, the jail superintendent.

“The prosecutors left the decision up to us,” Van Wickler said. “We made the best decision we could at the time. Unfortunately, we’re not always right.”

Olson was arrested again Feb. 7 while on work release. He’d submitted a urinalysis test to the jail that tested positive for marijuana, according to Van Wickler.

He spent another 10 days in jail, serving out the remainder of his minimum sentence, and was released.

Olson’s obligation to the jail’s disciplinary board and the court system is finished. The plea deal did not require him to serve probation.

The McCarthys recently asked Mothers Against Drunk Driving and state representatives to investigate their son’s death and the way it was handled by the courts.

“I want people to know that you don’t plea bargain a beautiful life like Jimmy’s,” said McCarthy’s grandfather, Philip J. McCarthy. “This is a miscarriage of justice as far as my family’s concerned.”
***
Lawyers are not immune to the flammable mix of emotions in criminal cases involving death or life-altering victimization.

They may feel passionately about a defendant’s guilt or innocence, but that does not sway the law.

“Of course it can be hard. We may not be happy with the sentence in some cases. We just can’t make everybody happy,” said Heed, the county attorney. “We’re not the attorneys for the victims or the police. We’re the attorneys for the law.”

Prosecutors often deal with grief-stricken families and scarred victims. These are people whose lives have been devastated, and they’re desperate for some sort of justice.

They are not invited into the closed-door legal meetings. They will never see the inner workings of the courts.

But while prosecutors are not required to confer with victims and their families, they still usually try to keep them in the loop.

“You don’t intentionally try to create a poor relationship,” Heed said. “We fight as hard as we can on every case. We also try to develop a rapport with the victims. We try to minimize their pain and confusion.”

The McCarthys said they consistently received updates in their son’s case, and applauded a court-appointed advocate who helped them through the experience.

“We were involved in the process and Lyndi Horn, our victim advocate, was wonderful,” James McCarthy Sr. said. “We just had no say. … We’re riled up at Peter Heed for plea bargaining.”
***
Forget the courtroom dramas on television in which a suspect is arrested, convicted and justice is served in an hour, minus commercial breaks.

The real legal system is a high-stakes game of strategy, and it can be incredibly tedious – imagine a chess game that plays out for years.

And a trial can be a costly gamble. Lawyers never know what a jury will do, which is why most cases are resolved with a plea bargain.

“At least 95 percent of all cases are settled by plea negotiations,” Keene defense lawyer Paul G. Schweizer said. “Plea bargains are absolutely essential to the judicial system.”

Without plea deals, the courts, jails and prisons would become clogged with defendants and inmates.

“As a practical matter, we would have to build 10 new courthouses in Keene if we took everyone to trial,” he said. “We would have to hire five times as many police officers and prosecutors. The judicial system would come to a screeching halt.”

A plea negotiation often hinges on the defense’s adeptness in arguing for a judge to exclude certain pieces of evidence from a case, or the prosecution’s ability to keep that evidence in court.

The defendant’s age, criminal history, willingness to accept responsibility and the extent of the damage he caused are also significant factors in plea negotiations.

In the end, though, it’s the judge who decides whether to accept or deny a plea deal.

If the case against a defendant is strong, he may agree to an open plea deal and essentially throw himself on the mercy of the court in hopes of leniency.

A defendant may also be offered a capped plea deal, which allows him to withdraw his admission of guilt if a judge doesn’t accept the sentence recommendation.

No matter the type of plea deal, people connected to both sides of the case are often left feeling slighted, Schweizer said.

“Plea bargaining is a negotiation where everybody walks away with a bad taste in their mouth, having not gotten what they wanted,” he said. “If one side gets everything they wanted, that’s not a compromise, it’s not a plea negotiation.”
***
Lost evidence and a pair of traumatized victims recently led to a plea deal for a 31-year-old Marlborough man.

Thomas L. Pickford pleaded guilty to abusing two underage girls for three years and was sentenced to one year in jail.

He could have been sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison if he’d been taken to trial and convicted on the two counts of aggravated felonious sexual assault that he originally faced.

He pleaded instead to lesser charges of second-degree assault and indecent exposure with lewdness.

The prosecution’s case had been dealt a blow when Cheshire County Judge Brian T. Tucker agreed with the defense’s argument that Pickford’s statements to police about the abuse were made under duress and not admissible in court.

Heed called Pickford’s interviews with police “crucial” to prosecuting the case.

“There’s a huge difference between what we know or think we know,” he said, “and what we can prove in court.”

Further weakening the prosecution’s case was that the victims, now 11 and 13, did not want to be dragged through a trial.

“Our heart goes out to these victims,” Heed said. “These cases often rely on testimony from people that have gone through a difficult situation. Some of the hardest cases are sexual assault.”

Assistant Cheshire County Attorney Christopher D. McLaughlin, who worked for about 12 years defending the accused before becoming a prosecutor, said the courtroom can be a scary place for victimized adults and downright terrifying for abused children.

“Sometimes you’re asking a 6-year-old child to face a dozen strangers and talk about being abused in front of the person who did that to them,” McLaughlin said. “Calling it an intimidating atmosphere would be an understatement.”
***
A few weeks after Pickford was sentenced, a distraught Vermont woman contacted The Sentinel.

The woman said she’d just learned that her ex-boyfriend was being offered a plea deal.

He had been arrested in Hinsdale last year and charged with sexually assaulting their daughter.

Authorities said the girl was first abused when she was 7 years old, and that a second incident occurred when she was 11.

Identities are being withheld because it is The Sentinel’s policy not to identify alleged victims of sexual assault.

As part of the plea deal, court records show the man could receive a six-month jail sentence on one count of simple assault.

He will not have to register as a sexual offender.

“I was told there wasn’t enough evidence. That’s how the county attorney felt,” the victim’s mother said. “It’s just overwhelming and I’m really, really frustrated with the system.”

The woman said her daughter had been ready to testify during the trial.

Before plea negotiations, the girl’s alleged attacker was facing two counts of aggravated felonious sexual assault.

Hinsdale police Sgt. Todd Faulkner spent more than a year investigating the case.

“It’s out of our hands when it goes to the county attorney. … Most of the time a sexual assault case is one person’s word against another’s, which makes it difficult to prove in front of a jury,” he said. “I understand how upset (the victim and her mother) are.”

A Cheshire County judge will decide whether to accept or deny the man’s plea deal during a hearing this week.

“My main concern is that he’ll be out of jail in four months and will try to fight me for custody and visitation rights,” the victim’s mother said. “My kids are scared. They don’t know what he’ll do to them.”

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By PHILLIP BANTZ
Sentinel Staff

The Keene Sentinel: September 08, 2009

The armed teenager who was arrested while topless in downtown Keene did not break the law, according to police prosecutors.

Cassidy Nicosia, 18, of Manchester no longer faces a misdemeanor charge of indecent exposure and lewdness.

Nicosia was arrested Aug. 23 after police received complaint calls about a topless teenager standing near the Main-Marlboro-Winchester streets roundabout with a handgun holstered on her hip.

State law does not require residents to have permits to openly carry guns, and she was not charged with any firearm-related crimes.

Last week, police prosecutors D. Chris McLaughlin and Eliezer Rivera decided to drop the charge of indecent exposure and lewdness against Nicosia. The charge was dropped because walking down the street topless does not qualify as a crime under state law, Keene police Lt. Jay U. Duguay said.

The law states that a person commits indecent exposure and lewdness if he or she fornicates, exposes genitals or performs any other “act of gross lewdness … likely to cause affront or alarm” in public.

“She wasn’t fornicating or exposing genitals — breasts aren’t genitals,” Duguay said. “No one who complained about it said that it was gross lewdness.”

While towns and cities may enact ordinances that prohibit women from going topless in public, Keene has no such ordinance, Duguay said.

“The officer (who arrested Nicosia) did what he thought was right at the time,” he said, “but sometimes you take a second look at these things and realize the law is not really worded the way you thought it was.”

Two other factors played a role in the police prosecutors’ decision to drop the charge against Nicosia, according to Duguay.

They wanted to keep the N.H. Supreme Court from having a chance to weigh in on the law, which could have happened if Nicosia was convicted and appealed, Duguay said. If asked to examine the state law dealing with indecent exposure and lewdness, the court might find that the language in the statute is too broad and then drop the entire statute, he said.

Also, Nicosia went topless to make a statement about equality, which could be viewed as a form of expression or free speech that is protected under the First Amendment, Duguay said.

“I chose to do it because … one of the most important issues to me is equality,” Nicosia said while being videotaped before her arrest. “Men can walk down the street … and, you know, not get harassed at all but yet somehow this is dirty.”

Nicosia is a member of the Free State Project, an effort to convince 20,000 people to move to the Life Free or Die state and participate in various forms of activism and run for local and state office.

Attempts to reach Nicosia before press time were unsuccessful.

Ian “Freeman” Bernard, a talk radio host and outspoken member of the project, said other women were planning to go topless outside Keene District Court during Nicosia’s arraignment, which was scheduled for Wednesday. He wasn’t sure if the topless demonstration would still occur.

While Nicosia no longer faces a criminal charge, the dismissal prevents her from challenging the law and paving the way for other women to go topless in public without risking arrest, Bernard said.

“By dropping the charge they’ve really headed off any way to challenge what they’ve done and set a precedent,” he said. “Hopefully, if this happens again, if someone like Cassidy decides she’s hot and wants to act like her male counterparts, they can be left alone.”

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By PHILLIP BANTZ

Mark Gorham in 1980s, after murder of Linda Smith; Sentinel archive

Mark Gorham in 1980s, after murder of Linda Smith; Sentinel archive

Sentinel Staff

The Keene Sentinel: September 04, 2009

CONCORD — The family of a Massachusetts woman who was murdered nearly 25 years ago faced her killer for the first time Thursday during an emotional parole hearing.

They asked Mark P. Gorham, 49, why he bludgeoned and strangled Linda Smith after he was seen leaving a Troy dance hall with her Nov. 10, 1984. Hunters found Smith’s scorched body the next morning inside a smoldering stolen pickup truck parked on a logging trail in Richmond.

Gorham, who was living in Troy and working at a local sawmill, met Smith, 40, of Gardner, Mass., the night of the murder.

“What did she do that made you so mad, so nutty?” asked Sandra Higgins, one of Smith’s three sisters who attended the hearing. She clutched a photo of Smith as she confronted Gorham.

“Nothing,” Gorham replied.

“Why?” Higgins asked again.

“I don’t have an excuse for what I did that night,” Gorham said, his voice trailing off. He wore a gray suit and a deadpan expression as he sat next to his therapist during the hearing.

Gorham was arrested six days after Smith’s body was discovered. He later pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sent to prison for 25 to 50 years.

After hearing tearful pleas from Smith’s family to keep Gorham behind bars, the parole board decided to let him stay at a halfway house until May 2010 and review his case again.

If Gorham’s parole was granted Thursday, he would have been eligible for release Nov. 5, Smith’s birthday.

The parole board is an independent agency comprised of seven members who report to Gov. John H. Lynch. The board members who handled Gorham’s case are Robert E. Hamel, Megan C. DeVorsey and Pierre J. Morin.

Gorham told the trio that he stayed out of trouble in prison, but his disciplinary record, which was available to the parole board, told a different story, said N.H. Attorney General’s Office victim-witness advocate Jennifer L. Hunt.

“His record is horrific,” she said during the hearing.

Between 1985 and 1988, Gorham was disciplined 37 times for various infractions, such as being disruptive and provoking or threatening other inmates or guards, Hunt said.

Because of his behavioral problems, he was transferred from New Hampshire to a prison in Massachusetts before being sent to federal prison and then to a Florida prison, Hunt said. He was returned to the Granite State in 1995, she said.

Gorham said he became a new man during his experiences in lockup, which included substance abuse counseling and religious classes.

“I’m a born-again Christian,” he said. “I’m not the same person I was 25 years ago. I’m not the same man.”

Gorham’s therapist, Donna Moore, agreed that Gorham had changed for the better. She’s had 17 sessions with Gorham since April at the halfway house on the prison grounds where he resides. She said he has a “spiritual foundation” and “deep remorse.”

“I think he’s ready to be a contributing member of society,” she said.

Gorham has found work as a welder since he was allowed to leave prison for the halfway house and has had no disciplinary problems. He told the parole board he was an angry young man when he killed Smith, and apologized for the slaying.

“I know my apology doesn’t help you,” he said to Smith’s family, “but I hope someday it does.”

Smith’s family rejected Gorham’s apology and his story of rehabilitation. They said they wanted him to be executed, or at least stay in prison for the rest of his life.

“I feel he’ll do it again. What would you tell the next victim’s family?” Smith’s sister, Brenda Fontaine, told the parole board before Gorham entered the room. “It’s a scary thought …”

One of Smith’s two daughters who attended the hearing, Kelly Bennett, said she believed Gorham called her home the night of the murder and the next day. She said he made derogatory sexual comments during the calls.

“It was the same voice I heard while I was in court,” she said, also while Gorham was not in the room. “I’m scared. I don’t want him to know who I am.”

Smith’s youngest daughter, Tammy Bowler, faced Gorham during the hearing and said she is haunted by her mother’s violent end.

“I go to bed and every night I think about what my mother’s last words were,” she said, choking back tears. “I just remember that night, that morning when my mother didn’t come home.”

When the parole board announced its decision, Smith’s sister, Donna Morse, became enraged and was asked to leave the room.

“This decision was made even before we came in and spoke,” she screamed. She also cursed at Gorham as she made her way toward the exit.

After the hearing, Gorham went to lunch with his counselor from the halfway house, Stephen Nelson, and his brother, Shane, who attended the hearing but did not speak.

Smith’s family members, who live scattered throughout New England, also went to a restaurant. They planned to reminisce about Smith’s life.

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By PHILLIP BANTZ

Sentinel Staff

Simon with his public defender. Credit: Steve Hooper, Sentinel Staff

Simon with his public defender. Credit: Steve Hooper, Sentinel Staff

The Keene Sentinel: August 27, 2009

The Brattleboro man accused of wreaking havoc on Keene roads last week will undergo a mental competency evaluation before his case moves forward in court.

The evidence hearing scheduled Wednesday at Keene District Court for Peter J. Simon was postponed until a psychiatrist from the N.H. State Hospital in Concord evaluates Simon and determines whether he is competent.

Public defender Matt Hill, who represents Simon, 39, requested the evaluation. He did not return a message seeking comment.

Simon was working at C&S Wholesale Grocers Inc. in Brattleboro as a grocery selector for the last six or seven months while living in hotels in Brattleboro, according to a friend of Simon who was in court Wednesday.

The friend, who asked to remain anonymous, worked with Simon at C&S and the two often drove to work together. He described Simon as a quiet loner and said he believes Simon has no family or other close friends in the area.

He said he believes he was the last person to speak with Simon Friday morning before Simon allegedly led police on a high-speed chase through Keene and then crashed his pickup into a bus.

Simon called at about 7:30 a.m. He was crying and saying he was stressed during the 10-minute conversation, the friend said. Simon gave no indication that he was suicidal or taking illegal drugs, he said.

“I don’t think he was on anything other than what he was prescribed,” he said. He declined to say what types of prescription medications Simon was taking.

Before Simon began staying at hotels, he lived at the Phoenix House Brattleboro Center, a substance abuse treatment facility, and had numerous run-ins with the law, according to police. But he’d recently gotten his life back on track and bought a Dodge Ram pickup, the friend said.

He and Simon planned to meet Friday afternoon and work on the pickup, which Simon meticulously cared for. But the meeting never happened, and the next time the friend heard about Simon it was from the evening news.

“He didn’t give any indication (during the phone conversation) that it was this bad,” he said.

Police said they began chasing Simon’s black pickup after other drivers reported seeing it heading into oncoming traffic on Route 12. The pickup did doughnuts in the parking lot outside the N.H. State Police Troop C barracks in Keene during the chase before it jumped several curbs and entered the nearby Monadnock Marketplace shopping center, police said.

Trooper Kelly Wardner fired several shots at the pickup as it exited the shopping center. Several shots hit the driver’s side of the pickup, but not Simon, police said.

Witness Clay Bradley, 45, of Marlow said Wardner was not in danger and acted recklessly, while Cheshire County Attorney Peter W. Heed said the shooting was justified because the trooper feared for her life and the lives of others.

The N.H. State Police Major Crimes Unit in Concord continues to investigate Wardner’s decision to open fire. She remains on active duty.

After the pickup exited the shopping center it made a left turn toward the Winchester Street-Route 101 roundabout and suddenly veered from the eastbound lane into the westbound lane of traffic, police said.

A horrific crash ensued. The pickup collided head-on with a 33-passenger Thomas Transportation bus carrying two people and its engine burst into flames.

The bus driver, Michael Baker, escaped the crash with minor injuries, but the passenger, R. Edward Heywood, suffered extensive head and facial injuries and had to be flown to a trauma center at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon.

Heywood, a former Jaffrey-Rindge Middle School principal who lives in Rindge, was in a medically induced coma after the crash because of brain swelling. He has emerged from the coma and the swelling has subsided, but he needs facial reconstruction surgery.

Heywood, 61, was recently hired as a driver for Thomas Transportation and was being driven to pick up his commercial driver’s license when the crash occurred.

A bloody Simon exited his burning pickup after the crash, attempted to carjack a passing vehicle and then ran to a nearby fast food restaurant, where he begged employees to kill him, according to police and witnesses.

Simon was shocked with a Taser twice before he was handcuffed. He screamed phrases such as “Brattleboro, I’m alive!” and “They’re gonna kill me” before he was loaded into an ambulance.

Simon was released from the hospital hours after the crash. The top of his head is lacerated and he had trouble walking in court.

He is charged with two counts of reckless conduct with a deadly weapon (the pickup) and one count each of resisting arrest and disobeying police.

Simon is being held at the Cheshire County jail in Westmoreland for lack of $100,000 bail.

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Peter Simon

Peter J. Simon

By PHILLIP BANTZ
Sentinel Staff

The Keene Sentinel: August 22, 2009

The man accused of leading police on a high-speed chase Friday that involved gunshots being fired at his pickup and left a bus passenger critically injured was arraigned later the same day while wearing a hospital gown.

The top of his head marked with lacerations, Peter J. Simon, 39, learned in Keene District Court about the charges he faces so far: two counts of reckless conduct and one count each of resisting arrest and disobeying police.

Judge Edward J. Burke set Simon’s bail at $100,000 after hearing a rundown of his criminal history, which spans from Arizona to Montana and includes convictions for battery on police officers, fleeing police, assault and being a fugitive from justice, according to Keene police Lt. Peter S. Thomas.

Simon’s last known address is the Phoenix House Brattleboro Center. But Simon is no longer a resident of the substance abuse treatment center, according to Richard Turner, vice president of Phoenix Houses of New England.

Citing privacy laws, Turner declined to disclose details about Simon’s time at Phoenix House or where he went after he left.

Simon did not have an attorney during the arraignment and appeared disoriented in court. He asked if he could make a phone call and, later, if he could press charges against the N.H. State Police trooper who fired shots at the pickup he was driving during the chase.

“So because I didn’t stop you guys shot at me,” he said, “and then I ran into somebody else.”

Simon had just arrived at the arraignment from Cheshire Medical Center/Dartmouth-Hitchcock Keene, where he was taken after the crash.

Medical staff cleared Simon to leave the hospital and attend the arraignment. He was taken to the Cheshire County jail in Westmoreland after the hearing.

Police began chasing after a black Dodge Ram pickup Simon was driving after other drivers spotted him heading the wrong way on Route 12 and driving over curbs and medians, according to Cheshire County Attorney Peter W. Heed.

The pickup also rammed the back of a red car on Route 12, Thomas said. Police want to speak with the driver of that car as part of their criminal investigation against Simon.

The pickup eventually turned into the Monadnock Marketplace during the chase and began tearing around the parking lot of the nearby N.H. State Police Troop C barracks, police said. The pickup then headed into the shopping center and made a U-turn, according to witnesses.

Trooper Kelly Wardner stopped her cruiser near the middle of the road at the exit of the shopping center, stepped out of the vehicle and fired several shots at the driver’s side of the pickup as it passed her, according to court documents Burke read during Simon’s arraignment.

Some of the shots hit the pickup, which exited the shopping center, made a left turn toward the Winchester Street-Route 101 roundabout and then veered from the eastbound lane into the westbound lane, police said.

Michael Baker, a driver for Thomas Transportation, was driving a bus in the westbound lane when he saw the pickup coming toward him and tried to avoid a collision, according to the transportation company’s owner, Ed Thomas.

“It was my understanding that the pickup truck was intentionally trying to hit him,” Ed Thomas said.

Ed Heywood, who was recently hired by the transportation company, was sitting in the passenger seat of the bus, Ed Thomas said. He said Baker was driving Heywood to the Division of Motor Vehicles office, which is near the state police barracks, so Heywood could pick up his commercial driver’s license.

Baker and Heywood were the only people in the 33-passenger bus when the pickup collided with it head-on.

The front passenger side of the pickup smashed into the front passenger side of the bus, spraying debris from both vehicles over the road.

While Baker suffered minor injuries in the crash, Heywood was critically injured and had to be flown by helicopter to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon. His condition was not available.

Simon allegedly exited the pickup after the collision, attempted to carjack a passing vehicle — police also want to speak with this driver — and then ran across a field to a KFC/Taco Bell restaurant on Key Road.

Employees at the restaurant said a bloody Simon asked if someone would kill him and vaulted the counter before police arrived. They said Simon ripped the barbs from a trooper’s Taser out of his back and was Tasered again in the neck before he was arrested.

Wardner remained on active duty after the shooting — she pulled the trigger because she believed the pickup Simon was driving was going to injure or kill her or someone else, according to Heed.

Under state law, officers may use deadly force in defense of themselves or others who they believe are in danger of being seriously injured or killed. Officers may also use lethal force if they are trying to stop a person who is committing a felony that involves violence, a deadly weapon or poses a serious danger to others.

A passer-by during the shooting, Clay Bradley, 45, of Marlow, said he had to “hit the deck” because he thought one of the bullets from Wardner’s gun was going to strike him. He said Wardner fired three shots at the pickup.

Bradley also said he did not believe the pickup was going to hit Wardner or anyone else in the vicinity when Wardner opened fire.

The N.H. State Police Major Crimes Unit in Concord continues to investigate the shooting. Capt. Mark J. Myrdek, who is involved with the investigation, declined comment.

“We’re still trying to make sure we get all the facts together,” he said.

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By PHILLIP BANTZ
Sentinel Staff
The Keene Sentinel: August 15, 2009

HINSDALE — Wal-Mart is one step closer to buying land that is tied up in legal red tape because its former owner is the bankrupt Hinsdale Greyhound Park.

A bankruptcy trustee has lifted a pending lawsuit attached to the 23 acres off Route 119 in Hinsdale that Wal-Mart wants to buy for $2.1 million to build a Supercenter.

The sale, which has been in the works for about three years, is expected to close Aug. 26.

The track’s president, Joseph E. Sullivan 3rd, and a business partner, Carl B. Thomas of Spofford-based Thomas Construction Corp., are part owners of the holding company that is trying to sell the land to Wal-Mart.

Sullivan and Thomas formed Hinsdale Real Estate LLC a little more than a year before the track filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in December 2008.

When the track closed, dozens of bettors were told that an estimated $500,000 in their wagering accounts was lost. Their money had been commingled with the track’s general funds, a practice that the N.H. Racing and Charitable Gaming Commission made illegal shortly after the track closed.

Sullivan’s bankruptcy attorney, John M. Sullivan of Concord, said bettors were kept in the dark so the track, which was in financial turmoil, would have enough money to pay its 49 employees for the last time.

The track also owes more than $1.2 million to other creditors who did business with it, including telephone companies, food vendors and greyhound tracks across the country for simulcast betting.

Joseph Sullivan also took out $650,000 in loans from the track that he hasn’t repaid. He has declined to say where the money went.

As the court-appointed trustee in the track’s bankruptcy case, Michael A. Askenaizer has been selling off the track’s assets to help repay its creditors. He’s also investigating whether the bankruptcy filing involves fraudulent transfers of property, perjury or is an abuse of the bankruptcy system.

The N.H. Attorney General’s Office has cleared Sullivan of any criminal wrongdoing. Some bettors accused him of stealing the money in their accounts.

In looking at Sullivan’s land deal with Hinsdale Real Estate, Askenaizer began to question the relatively low price tag Sullivan attached to the property: $3.3 million for the track’s 106 acres and every building on the property.

Sullivan and Thomas deny that the land deal was fraudulent.

They say the holding company paid a fair price for the land and selling the land was the only way to keep the track afloat during the year before it shut down, because there were no other financing options, according to court documents prepared by Askenaizer.

Because of his concerns about the deal, which remains under investigation, Askenaizer filed a pending lawsuit with the Cheshire County Registry of Deeds on the property. The pending lawsuit warns potential buyers, such as Wal-Mart, that if they purchase the land, they could be implicated in lawsuits stemming from the bankruptcy case.

Wal-Mart said it would back out of the deal if the pending lawsuit was not lifted from the land it wants to buy. This prompted Askenaizer to ask a judge at U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Manchester for permission to lift the pending lawsuit, but only on the property that interests Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart would be able to buy the land and would be protected from any lawsuits associated with the track’s bankruptcy.

If the deal goes through, $500,000 from the sale must be placed in an escrow account that cannot be touched until the bankruptcy case is resolved. The money could be used to repay creditors.

In his request to remove the pending lawsuit, Askenaizer said he wants the Wal-Mart deal to work because the retail giant’s presence will increase the value of the land surrounding the store, which may help repay the track’s debt.

Askenaizer did not return messages seeking comment.

Jennifer Rood, an attorney for the track’s biggest bettors, also could not be reached.

One of the bettors Rood represents, Herschel Bird of Nevada, stands to lose nearly $140,000 he had in a wagering account at the track.

Bird said he will not fight the Wal-Mart land deal if it helps creditors get paid.

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By PHILLIP BANTZ
Sentinel Staff
The Keene Sentinel: August 08, 2009

The Winchester man on trial for stabbing a Keene State College student during a fraternity party last year was convicted on all counts today.

Jurors convicted Gary Duquette of four counts of first-degree assault after deliberating for about five hours over two days. Each count of first-degree assault carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.

The jury began deliberating Thursday at about 1 p.m., and was sent home by Cheshire County Superior Court Judge Philip P. Mangones shortly before 4:30 p.m. after they had not reached a verdict. They resumed deliberations today at 9 a.m. and reached a verdict less than 45 minutes later.

Duquette stared straight ahead as the verdicts were read and as the jury was polled, each saying they believed Duquette was guilty on all counts.

Duquette’s younger sister cried when the verdict came. His mother told him that she loved him, as a bailiff led him from the courtroom in handcuffs. His uncle was also in the courtroom. They all declined comment.

Duquette had been on house arrest for about a year prior to the trial because his family was able to post $10,000 bail. Judge Mangones revoked Duquette’s bail after he was convicted today and he was sent to the Cheshire County jail in Westmoreland.

He will be sentenced after a pre-sentencing investigation, which will include an examination of his criminal history. His adult record stretches back seven years and includes convictions for shoplifting, carrying or selling a weapon, drug possession, simple assault, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, according to Assistant Cheshire County Attorney John S. Webb.

Webb and Assistant Cheshire County Attorney Keith W. Clouatre prosecuted Duquette. They declined comment after the trial, as did Duquette’s attorney, Nathan R. Lynch of Walpole.

The stabbing victim, Justin Ranucci, and his family also declined comment.

Duquette, then 24, was accused of stabbing Ranucci, then 19, in the back, chest and leg outside the Alpha Pi Tau fraternity house at 29 Coolidge St. the night of July 22, 2008. Ranucci’s lung and spleen were punctured during the stabbing.

Webb told jurors that Duquette and Ranucci faced off head-to-head, which meant Ranucci could clearly identify his attacker, while Lynch argued that someone else stabbed Ranucci during a drunken melee. Ranucci also testified that he was certain Duquette stabbed him. Duquette did not testify during the trial.

After the verdict, a juror, who wished to remain anonymous, said she believed the evidence presented by the prosecution and defense was lacking. She said jurors relied heavily on witness testimony.

“We had a lot of debate,” she said. “It was a very difficult case.”

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By PHILLIP BANTZ
Sentinel Staff
The Keene Sentinel: August 06, 2009

The Keene State College student who was knifed at a fraternity party last year described the attack Wednesday during the first day of trial for the Winchester man accused in the stabbing.

Justin Ranucci took the stand in Cheshire County Superior Court and testified he is certain Gary Duquette stabbed him outside the Alpha Pi Tau fraternity house at 29 Coolidge St. the night of July 22, 2008. He pointed across the courtroom at Duquette, who wore a dark suit, and identified him as his attacker.

Duquette is charged with four counts of first-degree assault alleging he stabbed Ranucci at least twice in the back and once in the chest and leg. First-degree assault carries a maximum prison sentence of 15 years.

The jury of nine women and five men, which includes two alternates, visited the house where the stabbing occurred before they heard opening statements from Assistant Cheshire County Attorney John S. Webb and defense attorney Nathan R. Lynch of Walpole. Assistant Cheshire County Attorney Keith W. Clouatre is also prosecuting Duquette.

While Webb told jurors that Ranucci, then 19, and Duquette, then 24, faced off head-to-head, Lynch said they were involved in a drunken brawl reminiscent of a Wild West bar fight. He suggested that someone else stabbed Ranucci during the melee.

“It should be clear by the end of the trial that the state has no idea who stabbed Justin Ranucci,” Lynch said.

The only state witness who can identify Duquette as the stabber is Ranucci, despite the number of potential witnesses who attended the party, Lynch said. He also said Ranucci was drinking heavily and smoking marijuana the night of the fight.

Partygoer Brooke L. McLain testified that the fight broke out inside the fraternity house between members of the fraternity and a group of people she’d never met. Then the fight spilled out the front door and into the street before the stabbing.

“They all rushed out the front door and started beating each other,” she said.

After seeing a fraternity brother punched in the face and laid out on a car, McLain said she decided to leave the party. She was gone during the stabbing.

Between 20 and 25 people ended up fighting in the street, Ranucci said.

He said he was jumped when he tried to help a friend who was being kicked and punched by at least four people. He said he eventually escaped that beating and was walking back toward the fraternity house when Duquette stepped in front of him and got in his face.

A man who was hanging out with Duquette earlier during the party — Ranucci said he had seen Duquette breaking beer bottles over the man’s head — yelled for Duquette to “Grab the knuckles!” and “Stab him! Stab him!” Ranucci said.

Ranucci said he turned toward the man, who was not named in court, and when he looked back toward Duquette the stabbing began.

“I’ve been punched plenty of times in the past. I know what that feels like,” he said. “When he was throwing the blows and punches it felt different. It was more internal. It felt hot. It felt like it went through me.”

Ranucci’s friend Justin Bronner, then 22, was also stabbed when he tried to help Ranucci, police said. But no one has been charged with stabbing Bronner, who suffered minor injuries and was treated and released from the hospital hours after the attack.

Ranucci spent eight days in the hospital and underwent emergency surgery after the stabbing.

“I have a giant scar down my stomach now because they had to cut me open and go through my intestines to make sure anything else wasn’t hit,” he said.

A digital photograph taken during the party and later posted on a social networking Web site helped lead police to Duquette, Webb said. In the photo, Duquette is wearing a baseball cap, backward and crooked, and the man who Ranucci said instigated the stabbing is leaning toward the camera and sticking out his tongue.

McLain testified that she e-mailed the photo to Keene police detective Donald Lundin. Ranucci also received an e-mail of the photo from a friend, and said he felt sick when he first saw it and recognized Duquette as his attacker.

“I had to put it away,” he said. “I couldn’t look at it.”

Lundin later showed Ranucci a photo lineup and Ranucci pointed out Duquette. Lynch is arguing that the lineup was tainted because Ranucci had already seen a photo of Duquette.

Lynch said Ranucci wants someone to pay for the stabbing, and he and his other college friends dislike “townies,” or locals.

“This case is really going to come down to the credibility of witnesses,” he said. “You’ll have to ask yourself if there’s any motive or bias.”

The trial, which is scheduled for three days, continues today.

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