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‘It’s Your Duty’

Former officer talks about pulling the trigger

By PHILLIP BANTZ
Sentinel Staff
The Keene Sentinel: February 06, 2010

A retired Keene police officer who shot a man during a confrontation in 1998 said he questioned himself after the shooting but quickly came to terms with what he did.

Carl Patten Jr., 53, of Troy agreed to speak with The Sentinel about the shooting to offer insight on what an officer goes through when he pulls the trigger.

On Tuesday, a Keene officer shot and killed 39-year-old Charles E. “Chuck” Turcotte during what authorities have described as a hostage situation and standoff. Turcotte was allegedly holding a knife to his ex-girlfriend’s throat when the officer fired a bullet into his head.

Patten shot David A. Ward, then 30, after Ward pulled a gun on him and another officer outside a city convenience store in September 1998. Ward, who was wanted for parole violations, aimed his gun at Patten and squeezed the trigger, but it misfired.

Patten returned fire, hitting Ward multiple times in his shoulder and legs.

When Patten saw Ward point a handgun at him, he said, he had a split-second to react.

“It comes down to training and instinct,” said Patten, who had 17 years of police experience when the shooting occurred. “You’ve got to make that decision and you can’t think about it for five minutes. You’ve got to do it now.”

Ward survived the shooting. He was eventually convicted of an array of charges and sent to prison.

After the shooting, Patten handed his gun, which had become evidence, over to a supervisor. Then he was interviewed by members of the state Attorney General’s Office.

“They want to know the facts about what happened,” he said. “The interview is long, an hour or two, and there could also be follow-up interviews. They also go out and interview everyone else who was involved so they can corroborate your story.”

Patten was placed on administrative leave for about two months. An avid outdoorsman, he said he spent the time hunting deer and pheasant. He also thought about the shooting.

“Everybody deals with it differently,” he said. “You run the scenario through your mind. You ask yourself if you could have done something differently.”

He returned to work after being cleared by a mental health counselor and the Attorney General’s Office, which determined that he was justified in using lethal force.

Under state law, officers may use deadly force if they are defending themselves or another person from what they reasonably believe is a lethal threat.

“Once you understand that you did what you had to do, what you were supposed to do, you move on,” he said. “You’ve taken an oath to protect lives and the safety of others. It’s your duty. It’s your obligation.”

Patten retired in 2004.

When N.H. State Police Trooper David Hinkell shot and killed Sasha A. Yuksel, 35, during a July 2006 traffic stop, Patten said he offered his support. Hinkell was being attacked by Yuksel and had tried to use his Taser and pepper spray before he shot the man.

Patten also contacted Swanzey police Cpl. Robert Eccleston after he shot Jeffrey E. Richardson, 24, while he was being dragged by Richardson’s car last July.

Eccleston and Hinkell did not return messages from The Sentinel seeking comment.

Patten said he would like to speak with the Keene police officer involved in the most recent shooting. The Attorney General’s Office is withholding the officer’s name until the preliminary investigation is released Monday.

“Most guys go through their whole career and don’t pull the trigger,” Patten said. “It’s an unfortunate thing when you have to do that, but I guess it happens every day across the country.”

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By PHILLIP BANTZ
Sentinel Staff
The Keene Sentinel: November 10, 2009
Constance and Guido Boldini

Constance and Guido Boldini

In a tragic twist, the intended victim of a foiled murder-for-hire plot hatched by a Hancock mother and son has died.

Michelle L. Hudon, 37, lost her battle with cancer Sept. 3, according to an obituary. Her ex-boyfriend Guido Boldini and his mother, Constance, were in N.H. State Prison when Hudon died. A year earlier, they were meeting with an undercover officer posing as a hit man, arranging to have Hudon killed.

Guido Boldini, 43, wanted Hudon dead because they were involved in a custody battle over their 4-year-old boy, according to testimony during his sentencing hearing in April.

Constance Boldini, 76, solicited the hit man — she walked into Gino’s Bar & Grill on Court Street in Keene and told the owner, Gino C. Mola, that she “understood he was a man who could get things done,” Cheshire County Attorney Peter W. Heed said during her sentencing hearing in May.

Mola contacted Keene police and agreed to let them record his phone conversations with the Boldinis and set up surveillance at his business. The police had an undercover officer act as a hit man and meet with the Boldinis. They also warned Hudon about the plot.

Hudon told police and prosecutors she was leaving Guido Boldini because he was “controlling” and “domineering,” Heed said. Guido Boldini also easily manipulated Constance Boldini, Heed said.

While sitting inside a vehicle parked outside Gino’s and wired with audio and video surveillance, the Boldinis hashed out a deal with the fake hit man: They would pay him $10,000 to kill Hudon and give him what they had in their pockets, $100, as a down payment, according to Heed.

The Boldinis were arrested when they stepped out of the vehicle.

Guido Boldini pleaded guilty to criminal solicitation to commit murder in April and was sentenced to eight to 20 years in N.H. State Prison. Constance Boldini pleaded guilty to the same charge in May and was sentenced to 4 1/2 to 15 years in prison.

Hudon’s parents, Richard and Arlene, of Merrimack, are fighting for custody of the child she had with Guido Boldini and declined comment until the dispute is resolved.

Hudon also had two older sons, Bryan and Gregory, who are living in Merrimack, according to the obituary.

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By PHILLIP BANTZ
Sentinel Staff
The Keene Sentinel:  October 22, 2009

SWANZEY — After nine years of investigating major crimes and specializing in cases involving children, a Swanzey police detective is slated to lose his job so the department can increase wages for its patrol officers, who are being poached by other agencies offering better pay.

“I’m not so much angry or upset as disappointed. I do a job that no one else here is trained to do. It also takes a lot more than training to do the job; you need a decent amount of experience,” said Paul Bertolami, whose position at the Swanzey Police Department is scheduled to be terminated by Dec. 31. He has already submitted a letter of resignation, effective Dec. 25.

Bertolami began his law enforcement career in 1983 with the N.H. State Police. He also worked for the Marlborough Police Department and N.H. Fish and Game Department before he was hired by the Swanzey Police Department in 2000 as a part-time detective and crime scene photographer.

“He’s one of the best investigators in the state regarding offenses against children,” said Cheshire County Attorney Peter W. Heed, who has worked on many cases with Bertolami. “He is uniquely and rarely skilled at being able to talk to children, getting them to relax and trust him.”

Looking back on his time with Swanzey, Bertolami said he’ll never forget the 52-day-old baby who showed up at the pediatric ward with broken bones, some partially healed.

“Only days into his young life, he’d already suffered so much,” he said. “I photographed his injuries at the hospital. His dad was there with other family members and I managed to get a pretty good confession out of him in the four or five hours I was there.”

Police Chief Richard V.C. Busick 4th said he eliminated Bertolami’s position because he’s tired of losing well-trained, full-time patrol officers to other agencies.

He said his department, the second-largest in Cheshire County, is working with a tight budget and this was the only way he could offer competitive pay to his officers. He also eliminated a vacant animal control officer position.

“This was a tough, difficult decision and it will have a significant impact on the department. Detective Bertolami is one of the most talented investigators I’ve come across,” Busick said. “Now we’re going to have to take his caseload, along with the responsibilities of the animal control officer, and distribute it among others in the department.”

The annual wage Bertolami received, about $17,000, will also be distributed among the department’s 11 full-time patrol officers, who will receive a yearly pay increase of $1,200 to $3,000, according to Busick, who said he is not receiving a raise.

“This isn’t about me. It’s about our patrol officers. Swanzey hasn’t been competitive in terms of salary with other agencies of similar size,” he said. “Many departments start their officers out at higher salaries than what veteran patrol officers earn here in Swanzey.”

Swanzey’s patrol officers make $16 to $19.28 an hour, while patrol officers are paid $20.28 to $27.78 an hour in Jaffrey, $19.29 to $28.94 in Peterborough and $17.37 to $24.32 in Rindge, according to this year’s N.H. Local Government Center survey of wage, salary and benefits for municipalities.

In the past four years, at least four Swanzey officers have left the department for better paychecks at other police agencies, Busick said. Testing, hiring, certifying, training and equipping each new replacement officer can take more than seven months and cost about $20,000, he said.

“We’ve invested time and resources to get excellent officers, only to lose them to another agency for more money,” Busick said. “This needs to stop.”

When it comes to losing officers to better-funded agencies, Swanzey is not alone.

In Hinsdale, where patrol officers are paid $16.76 to $20.61 an hour, five officers have left in the past five years for other police agencies, predominantly Brattleboro and Keene, according to Chief Wayne T. Gallagher.

Patrol officers make $16.33 to $23.96 an hour in Brattleboro and $19.06 to $26.78 an hour in Keene, according to Brattleboro Police Chief Eugene Wrinn and the local government center survey.

“In the history of the Hinsdale Police Department, we’ve only had one officer retire from here,” Gallagher said. “They get their training and certification and spend a few years here and then they leave. The people who come down here, they enjoy working here, but they can’t make a decent living.”

To make ends meet, many Hinsdale patrol officers moonlight as traffic directors for local construction companies, Gallagher said.

Patrol officers in Winchester are among the lowest paid in the Monadnock Region, earning $16.63 to $16.91 an hour, followed by Charlestown’s $16 to $17 an hour and Fitzwilliam’s $15.12 to $20.26 an hour, according to the local government center survey.

Because recruiting experienced officers is cheaper than hiring and training new ones, many police agencies offer sign-on bonuses in addition to pay raises to officers coming from other departments in New England.

“We’re always looking to hire certified officers,” said Wrinn, whose department offers $2,000 sign-on bonuses. “It’s truly a benefit when you hire someone who is already certified.”

Even as Busick works to retain the department’s patrol officers, one of his most valuable and experienced officers is on another area police agency’s short list for recruitment, he said. He declined to identify the officer or the agency seeking him.

Meanwhile, Busick knows he must eventually hire a full-time detective or pluck an officer from the department’s ranks and train him to become a detective to replace Bertolami. He’s also building the department’s budget for next year and has been working with the town’s three selectmen, who did not return messages seeking comment on the axing of Bertolami’s position.

“We’ll need to identify a full-time detective because we have a lot of investigations that require interviews and follow-ups. It’s definitely more specialized work,” Busick said. “But patrol is my big focus now. Patrol is the backbone of this organization. We need to keep our resources in patrol so we can respond to calls and have quality officers.”

While Busick prepares for the loss of his only detective, Bertolami will be searching for another law enforcement job in the region, preferably one that allows him to continue to help victimized children.

“Children live in a very simple world. That’s what I find so appealing about working with them — their innocence, their sense of things,” he said. “They’re very interesting little creatures.”

No matter where Bertolami ends up or what he ends up doing, he said he already knows he’ll miss working with the residents of Swanzey.

“What it all amounts to is this: I love the people in this town,” he said. “We have some of the best people in the state, and I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to help many of them.”

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By PHILLIP BANTZ

Sentinel Staff

The Keene Sentinel: October 19, 2009

A curious Swedish teenager and a historian in Oklahoma helped return a worn leather wallet to a World War II veteran living in Keene, more than 65 years after he lost it in the wake of a fierce air battle.

The wallet arrived at Robert H. Brookman’s apartment earlier this month, bringing an end to a long and incredible journey that began in April 1944, when Sgt. Brookman was a 19-year-old tail gunner on a B-17 bomber flying over Germany.

Enemy fire hit the bomber, named “Bottled in Bond,” severely damaging the aircraft’s engine, and its pilot set a course for Sweden, a nearby neutral country. The bomber was hit again with anti-aircraft fire as it descended into Sweden.

“I’m out there at the end of the aircraft. I don’t know nothing. I’m just listening to the intercom,” said Brookman, now 85. “I was scared. I wanted to jump out. I wanted to leave. I’m not a hero.”

The bomber crash-landed, sliding on its belly across a field. Brookman walked away with minor facial injuries, but said his assistant gunner, Sgt. Joseph L. Masqula, had his “head blown off,” either during the fight over Germany or as the bomber entered Sweden. He said he never learned why the Swedes fired on the bomber.

The Swedish Army watched over Brookman and the rest of his crew after the harrowing landing. It also assigned soldiers to guard the downed bomber until it was repaired or salvaged for parts.

While guarding the plane during a moonlit night two days after the crash, Bo Andersson found a wallet near a tree stump — how it got there remains unknown. Andersson, then 20, slipped the wallet in his pocket, according to Gary D. Simmons, the historian from Oklahoma.

Years later, Andersson brought the wallet out from its hiding place in an old cabinet and showed it to his children, telling them the story of how he came to find the war souvenir. One of Andersson’s children, Tord, grew up and had a son of his own, Emil, who heard the story of the wallet while visiting his grandparents.

Fascinated by the wallet and the mystery of its contents — an immunization record, bicycle registration, loan payment receipts, an off-base pass, B-17 crew member pass, utility blade, a photo of a young woman and the name and address of an Army nurse scrawled on a scrap of paper — Emil Andersson, 18, decided the story from his grandfather wasn’t enough. He wanted to find the wallet’s owner.

He tracked down Simmons, who has a Web site chronicling the history of the Ardmore (Okla.) Army Air Field and Air Force Base, where Brookman was stationed before his deployment, and asked for help in his quest.

After six months of searching online records, which indicated Brookman lived in the Monadnock Region, and talking with local historians and town officials, Simmons finally found Brookman’s contact information.

“It was a good feeling to know he was alive and that there was a possibility of returning his long-lost wallet after 65 years,” Simmons said.

Simmons had found the right Brookman. But Brookman was suspicious when he first heard from Simmons: A Swedish teenager has my wallet? You’re calling from where? Oklahoma? What’s this all about? Is this some kind of scam?

“I would have been a little suspicious, too,” Simmons said. “He didn’t know me from Adam.”

But when Simmons detailed the contents of the wallet, Brookman lowered his guard.

He’s holding the wallet now, sitting at his kitchen table on a raw, rainy Sunday afternoon. His wife, Nora, sits on the couch behind him, watching TV. He has the contents of the wallet spread out on the table in front of him. His left hand is wrapped in gauze; he says he broke one of his fingers during a recent fall. He says he has colon cancer. The items from the wallet seem foreign to him, dug up from a time capsule from another life.

“Christ, I can’t remember all this stuff,” he says. “It will probably mean more to my great-grandchildren than it does to me.”

The young woman in the photo and the Army nurse, Barbara Kolas — he doesn’t remember her, doesn’t know if the name matches the photo. The name means nothing to him now, buried deep beneath the layers of all those years.

“I don’t know why all this is coming up. Everything was fine,” he says. “I don’t need it.”

But Emil Andersson did. He tacked an ending onto a story that had been passed down from one generation to the next.

“I have to say that I’m stunned by (the) information you got!” he wrote in an e-mail to Simmons. “Me, my father and my grandfather are very happy that you found all this.”

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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: June 03, 2009
WESTMORELAND — Edward Baldasaro. Michael Baldasaro. John DiGregorio. Giovanni Mageri. Karl Spear. William Symare. Geo. Two Ton.

His real name is John P. Baldasaro, a quick-witted, articulate 45-year-old convicted felon detained at the Cheshire County jail in Westmoreland, accused of robbing a pair of local convenience store owners while masquerading as a U.S. marshal.

Baldasaro, who has a history of impersonating federal agents and police, is wanted throughout New England on charges ranging from vehicle theft to kidnapping to being a fugitive from justice.

When he leaves New Hampshire, he expects to serve 19 years in a federal penitentiary for violating parole in Vermont. He’s already spent more than half his life behind bars.

“Am I worried about what’s on the other side of that fence — a prison? No,” Baldasaro said during a recent jailhouse interview.

In the mid-’90s, Baldasaro was convicted of robbing and kidnapping a couple in Vermont while posing as a state trooper. He was featured on the television show “America’s Most Wanted” for the crime, which landed him in prison for 12 years. He was released last September.

“I committed the crime, without a doubt,” Baldasaro said. “At the time I thought they were drug dealers. Unfortunately the people that got robbed were the wrong folks.”

Baldasaro has a wife who works at a law firm in Boston. They were married in a Virginia prison. His wife has a young foster son who calls Baldasaro his father. The boy often asks when he’ll see his dad again. Baldasaro also has an adult son who lives in Texas. And one of Baldasaro’s brothers is a member of the N.H. House.

“We had good parents. He just chose a different road. He had issues mentally growing up,” said state Rep. Alfred P. Baldasaro, 52, of Londonderry. “He was always hyper. He was always on the go.”

‘Champagne taste with beer money’

A sword-pierced heart and “Death Before Dishonor” is tattooed on John Baldasaro’s right forearm. Another tattoo placed higher on the same arm claims allegiance to the Dirty White Boys prison gang, which associates with the Aryan Brotherhood and Texas Syndicate, but does not follow strict white supremacist philosophies.

On his left forearm is a tattoo of a baby devil clutching a pitchfork between the words “Born To Be Busted.”

“When I got that tattoo I was 15. I was a little punk kid. We can sit here and look back from 40 years later and say, ‘Was this destiny?’ I’m not going to take that position,” he said.

John Baldasaro grew up in Cambridge, Mass. — his grandfather was once the city’s mayor — with four sisters and three brothers. He said he spent a lot of time on the streets of South Boston.

“I had an extensive juvenile record,” he said.

Now 6 feet tall and 260 pounds, John Baldasaro was also a large kid, which earned him the enduring nickname “Two Ton” around the same time he was running the streets and committing small crimes.

A doctor prescribed the young John Baldasaro a drug similar to Ritalin to control his hyperactivity, and his parents did all they could to keep him out of trouble, Alfred Baldasaro said.

“Our mother especially was a wreck when he was out on the streets, worrying if he was going to get into trouble,” he said. “He was the type that would not get a real gun, but a fake gun. She worried that he would be shot with real bullets.”

In the early ’80s, five years after Alfred Baldasaro joined the Marines, John Baldasaro visited him at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

John Baldasaro befriended a Marine who had just cashed a paycheck, lured him away from the base during a night of drinking, and then robbed him and left him stranded, Alfred Baldasaro said.

“My brother is a scammer. My brother has mental issues. His mind races too fast. But he’s no dummy. He’s a very intelligent kid,” he said.

“John wants the big cars and the money and the nice house. He wants that champagne taste with beer money.”

In January, four months before John Baldasaro’s latest arrest, Alfred Baldasaro spoke with his troubled brother for the first time in 18 years.

“I wouldn’t give him my cell number or home address because I was worried that he might come over and help himself to what I’ve got at my house,” Alfred Baldasaro said. “He should have never been released. They should have kept him on a program to help him and treat his psychiatric issues.”

‘He was just really, really smart’

On the morning of May 11, John Baldasaro flashed a holstered gun and badge and convinced the owners of Khyber Convenience Store and the Big Deal store on Route 9 in Chesterfield that he was a U.S. marshal investigating a counterfeit money operation, according to police.

“The guy was professional. He was just really, really smart,” Paul Saba, owner of Big Deal, said shortly after he was robbed. “I was working with him as an agent. I was trying to help this federal agent with what he was trying to do.”

After both store owners handed over money from their cash registers, Baldasaro took Khyber owner Fayyaz Awan to his bank and convinced him to withdraw money from his account for supposed counterfeit testing, according to prosecutors.

Baldasaro allegedly scammed Saba and Awan out of more than $10,860.

He adamantly denies committing any type of robbery or kidnapping in Chesterfield.

“Did I put a gun to somebody and rob them? No. Did I actually threaten to take something from somebody? No. Did I tell somebody, ‘You must go do this?’ No,” he said.

“I find it ludicrous that the police department would state that it was I who committed this particular crime. I was clearly just a known subject that they decided they wanted to put a particular crime on.”

Prosecutors say they have surveillance images of Baldasaro in a bank when the robber was taking money from Awan’s account. He admits to being in the bank, but said he wasn’t doing anything illegal.

Preparing for yet another legal battle

Law libraries in the various prisons where Baldasaro has lived off and on for 28 years have given him a working knowledge of the legal system. He worked as a law clerk in one prison library. He also obtained his GED in prison.

He represented himself in court during a trial in White River Junction, Vt., that resulted in his latest stint in prison. He was already serving a three-year sentence in Connecticut for impersonating a U.S. marshal when the trial began.

Baldasaro said he represented himself during an armed robbery trial in Boston, and the jury found him not guilty.

“Any good court case, I guess it’s like playing chess,” he said. “It’s about strategy. That’s what it really comes down to.”

Baldasaro said he plans to defend himself against the charges tied to the Chesterfield robberies.

“Do I think that Cheshire County would be so naive to think I would get a public ‘pretender’ who’s going to come in and tell me he’s got 70 other cases and he’s going to give my case about five minutes a week?” he said. “I’m not going to allow that to happen.”

An evidence hearing in Keene District Court was scheduled today for Baldasaro.

Cheshire County Attorney Peter W. Heed said today that he was unaware of Baldasaro’s intent to represent himself in court.

“If he wants to handle his own defense, that will be up to the judge to decide whether he’s competent to do that,” Heed said.

If probable cause is found at today’s hearing, Baldasaro’s case will be moved to Cheshire County Superior Court.

Baldasaro said he will not negotiate a guilty plea with prosecutors. He wants to face off with Heed.

“I can guarantee that this is going to be an interesting trial,” he said. “Him and I are going to have a battle.”

An endless boat ride; no place to dock

Vanessa D. Baldasaro waited a dozen years for her husband to be released from prison. They spent the time talking and dreaming. They wanted to save their money to buy a house. John Baldasaro wanted an automotive shop.

“We had all these plans and dreams of owning our future, starting from scratch and working our way up,” she said. “And then he came out. I’d waited 12 years for this and in 12 seconds it was gone.”

They met through one of John Baldasaro’s sisters. He was in prison, but they talked over the phone and, once she thought she knew him well enough, visited him in 2000 for the first time.

“I’m African-American and he’s Italian. But we just hit it off. He actually listened to me. We took the time to really know each other first. I just understood John,” Vanessa Baldasaro said.

They were married a year after their first face-to-face meeting.

“You just call and tell the prison you want to get married on a certain day. I drove 10 hours down there and that’s what we did,” she said. “The pastor was there. He married us right there in the visiting room.”

When John Baldasaro finally left prison behind to start another life with his wife, he said he was slapped with the reality that the world had changed dramatically and no one wanted to hire him.

“Employment, I guess, in a sense, was probably not forthcoming. When I went to prison there were no cell phones, no computers,” he said. “You get out of prison after 17 years — you’re not going to be getting a job.”

Vanessa Baldasaro noticed her husband’s frustration. He became more and more restless. The life they’d planned together began to unravel.

“He wanted to catch up with what he lost and his mind just started to go too fast,” she said. “His mind just goes so fast. It could be 5 o’clock in the morning and I wake up looking for him and he’s sitting out in the living room, just thinking.”

In the mornings, he dropped her off at work at the law firm and then drove her car to his job as an oversize load escort on the highways — or at least that’s what he told her.

She said she eventually figured out that he was lying.

“The streets make him kind of crazy,” she said. “If he’s not confined … when he’s out there there’s only so much to do. He needs that confinement.”

Then her car disappeared in November. John Baldasaro said it broke down in New York and he needed her to wire him $1,000 to have it fixed. Vanessa Baldasaro said she rented a car and drove to an address in the Bronx where her husband said her car was parked.

“It was a bogus address. My car was in Boston the whole time. My sister had already wired him the money,” she said. “I was surprised he was doing all that to me. I know I’m supposed to forgive, but inside I’m still angry.”

Then one evening she was watching TV and saw John Baldasaro’s mug shot on the local news. She hadn’t seen her husband since the incident with her car. Federal agents and police throughout New England were searching for him, the newscaster said.

Her anger gave way to fear.

“When the (U.S. Marshals Service) task force was really going after him, I told them the gun they thought he had was a toy,” she said. “I was scared for him.”

John Baldasaro was arrested a few days after the Chesterfield robberies at a Manhattan hotel.

It wasn’t the first time he was nabbed in the Big Apple. Many years earlier, the authorities found him in the city and he leaped from a second-story window to avoid arrest and broke both his ankles, Alfred Baldasaro said.

Vanessa Baldasaro has begun listening to her friends who had warned her to stay away from John Baldasaro.

She said she is trying to erase him from her life, but it’s difficult. She still cries when she thinks about him going back to prison.

“I am moving on,” she said. “I still think about what we could have been together.”

Her 5-year-old foster son, Louis, who looks at John Baldasaro as a father figure, is still waiting for his dad to come home. Vanessa Baldasaro said she hints that it will be a long time before he returns, but she cannot bring herself to tell the boy the truth.

“I tell him he’s on a boat,” she said. “He’s on a boat ride and he cannot dock.”

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By PHILLIP BANTZ
Sentinel Staff

The Keene Sentinel: April 19, 2009

If the marijuana protest and guerilla gardening in downtown Keene failed to raise many eyebrows, the sight of a handful of handcuffed Free Staters being taken out of the city’s District Court earlier this week surely had plenty of residents scratching their heads.

The reader comments piled up under online coverage of Monday’s protest at the District Court on The Sentinel’s Web site, where some people ridiculed and criticized the Free Staters for wasting taxpayer dollars and the time of city police officers.

“Time and again, the Free Staters come off as insolent children who stomp their feet and hold their breath until their faces turn blue because they don’t like being told what to do,” commenter Arch wrote.

The Free Staters hit back, outnumbering the opposition with post after post, saying that District Court Judge Edward J. Burke had blatantly stomped on their personal freedoms when he banned the use of video cameras in the District Court lobby.

“What many commenters here are showing is how slavery is enforced. Slavery was enforced by the slaves themselves. It isn’t the government that keeps people down — it is the people,” wrote commenter Frake.

The District Court blowup unfolded during the arraignment of Manchester videographer Dave Ridley, who was arrested in March because he refused to turn off his video camera in the court lobby. Ridley and others showed up to cover the arraignment of Free Stater and marijuana activist Andrew Carroll.

Carroll was arrested in January when he stood in Keene’s Railroad Square carrying a small amount of marijuana while surrounded by Free Staters and curious onlookers.

Though state law allows media representatives to record public court proceedings in most cases, lobbies and hallways are gray areas. Police officials say there is a fear that rape victims and juveniles could be captured on film while in these areas, which are generally off-limits for videotaping and photography, according to state judicial branch spokeswoman Laura A. Kiernan.

“We’ve talked about this at length and the Free Staters know that,” Kiernan said in a previous interview. She did not return a phone message seeking additional clarification on the law.

Free State movement still on recruiting trail

The Free State Project, the brainchild of Dr. Jason Sorens in 2001, a Yale-educated assistant professor of political science at the University at Buffalo in New York, aims to convince 20,000 activists to uproot their lives and move to the “Live Free or Die” state.

So far, about 700 have relocated to the state and more than 9,200 have committed to making the move, according to the project’s Web site. Sorens said he’ll make the move when he gets 20,000 signatures from people willing to do the same.

“If I can get an academic job in or near New Hampshire before then, that would be great,” he said.

Ian “Freeman” Bernard, an outspoken Free Stater and the host of “Free Talk Live,” a nationally syndicated radio talk show based in Keene, described the group as decentralized, with members pursuing their own agendas.

“There are more people coming here all the time,” he said. “These are self-starters. These are people seeing a gap where something needs to be done.”

Pam K. Martens, a Westmoreland writer who spent 21 years covering free market capitalism on Wall Street, recently set her sights on the Free Staters. Most project members support a free market without government intervention.

Martens penned an unflattering article on the group, which compared them to an invading army that can only be stopped with stricter zoning laws to prevent them from moving into small towns, buying up property and trying to infiltrate the local government.

“I felt it was more appropriate, and actually overdue to study them,” Martens said. “Why should we sit here being studied by this group and do nothing about it?”

In her article — Free Staters say it is inaccurate and slanderous — Martens focuses on a group that organized the Free Town Project in an attempt to take over the small New Hampshire town of Grafton, in the Lake Sunapee area, population of about 1,100. The project failed, and the group tried again in the desolate Texas county of Loving, where they were also ousted.

The Free Town Project’s Web site advocates the legalization of victimless crimes, such as “dueling, gambling, incest, price-gouging, cannibalism and drug handling.”

One of the group’s founders, Lawrence E. Pendarvis, also known as “Zack Bass,” was banned from the Free State Project because of his views and “outlandish statements,” Sorens said. He described Pendarvis as “an Internet crank who advocated extreme positions and claimed to want to implement them in New Hampshire.”

Any person who promotes violence, racial hatred or bigotry can be banished from the project, Sorens said. Fewer than 10 people have been booted since the project’s inception, he said.

The project has a six-member board of directors — Sorens is chairman — along with a president, vice president, treasurer, advertising director, media spokesman, bookkeeper and many other officials.

Internet spreads news of Free State Project

Most Free Staters joined the project after learning about it on the Internet, where YouTube videos of members’ acts of civil disobedience, including the District Court arrests, attract thousands of viewers.

Patrick Shields left his home in Shawnee, Kan., in February and moved to Keene after learning about the Free State Project online. He was among the five people who were arrested at District Court. Two others were given summonses.

Shields volunteers at the Keene Community Kitchen and is considering a run for city council in November, along with a handful of other Free Staters. He said he wants to change the perception that Free Staters do nothing but protest.

“From my experience, people make it seem like Free Staters are gnats annoying people but not doing anything meaningful,” he said.

When asked what meaningful changes Free Staters have brought to Keene, Shields said he had no answer.

“I’m not sure of any right now,” he said. “It’s slowly building momentum.”

Nick Ryder, a Keene native who identifies with the Free Staters, is also gearing up for a run for city council. Ryder said he has a 5 percent chance of being elected.

“People say the first time you run is all about name recognition,” he said. “I guess this (election) is going to be a gauge of how our views our perceived by this community. I think we do have a lot of silent supporters out there.”

Ryder was given a summons during the District Court protest, because he cooperated with the police by providing identification. He said he needed to get back to work — he works as a wedding videographer.

Some Free Staters refuse to carry drivers’ licenses or register their vehicles with the state because they believe the government should not have a say over how they use their property, though others, such as Ryder, choose to do the opposite.

“I have a license and I’m about to re-up my registration,” Ryder said. “I do wedding videos, and if I were pulled over on the way to a wedding, my business would be taken away forever.”

As for legalizing cannibalism, as some fringe Free Staters openly advocate, Ryder said he believes people should be able to eat human flesh if they want and have sole possession of the body they’re consuming.

“If you’ve killed someone and eaten them, then you are guilty of murder,” he said. “If there is no family member or other person who has higher claim to a dead body than you, I guess you can do whatever you want with that. I can’t say that I agree with it, but I can’t say I would throw you in jail if you did it,” Ryder said.

Arrest in Keene court adds fuel to group’s fire

The Free Stater who made the biggest splash during the District Court protest remains at the Cheshire County jail in Westmoreland because he has refused to provide identification for the booking process.

Samuel Dodson, who moved from Texas earlier this year, reportedly went on a hunger strike after he arrived at jail. The Free Staters are holding a candlelight vigil for Dodson tonight in Keene’s Central Square.

Dodson’s screams could be heard through a closed door Monday while he was being arrested in a room adjoining the District Court lobby. Only Dodson and the police know what happened in that room.

Keene police Sgt. Eliezer Rivera said Dodson screamed every time he was touched. Some of the Free Staters who heard his screams thought he was being brutalized by the police. An audio file of his screams has been posted on one of the Free State Web sites.

“My personal opinion is that he was not hurt as bad as he was sounding, but any time you are carried like that (Dodson and other protestors went limp when the police tried to arrest them) it’s going to be uncomfortable,” Ryder said. “Maybe he did it to draw attention, but maybe it was because he did not want to become an unfree person at that time.”

Regardless of whether Dodson was acting or really injured, his actions and the District Court protest has undoubtedly added fuel to the Free Staters’ fire. Postings on the group’s online message boards indicate that people who have viewed video footage from the incident are already making plans to join the Free Staters and move to Keene.

“Keene has already had a burst of movers because of the recent crackdown activity,” Bernard, the Free Stater and radio talk show host said. “It seems the more they crack down, the more people want to come here.”

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