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By PHILLIP BANTZ
Sentinel Staff

The Keene Sentinel: February 04, 2009

The world is a different place today than it was when a West Chesterfield mother and daughter disappeared eight years ago.

New wars, presidents and technologies mark the passing of time. Each tick of the clock slowly covers the remaining tracks of Tina and Bethany Sinclair like footprints disappearing in the snow.

No bodies. No activity on bank accounts. The house they lived in off Mountain Road has been demolished.

The only remaining traces of the Sinclairs are haunting photographs, forgotten belongings, a slew of questions and a lingering sadness among those they left behind.

Family members of Tina Sinclair, who was 34 when she disappeared, and Bethany Sinclair, who was 15, remain vigilant in their quest for answers and some sort of closure to a painful mystery that has dragged on far too long.

Tina Sinclair worked at the Keene Beauty Academy and as a visiting nurse for a quadriplegic man. She picked up her daughter, a Keene High School student, from a local movie theater and drove her home the night of Feb. 3, 2001. They were never seen again.

“I still look at their pictures and talk to them. I’m not crazy, but you do that. I miss them terribly and I still wish they would come home,” said Tina Sinclair’s mother, Mary E. Lewis.

“Just the idea of them being gone for eight years … I get discouraged sometimes, but then I think, ‘Maybe we’ll find them.’ You just have to keep going.”

Searchers with the police, private organizations and the Sinclair family have combed forests and explored the Connecticut River with divers and sonar equipment, but remain empty-handed.

One private search party brought in cadaver-sniffing dogs in the fall of 2007. They trekked over hundreds of square miles in Chesterfield for seven days, eventually locating a spot where their dogs detected the scent of human remains.

“We ended up getting an excavator and going out and digging in the woods off Route 9 in the Old Chesterfield Road area,” N.H. State Police Sgt. Russell B. Lamson said. “We must have cut four or five cords of wood just to get the excavator back there. We were there all day, but we didn’t discover any evidence.”

Police investigators have entered the Sinclairs’ dental records and other identifying information into a national database that is used to match unidentified remains with missing persons, Lamson said.

“A few unidentified remains have popped up on the radar. Any time a police agency finds something they call us because they know we’re looking. It happened a couple times last year. Nothing matched,” he said.

“We’re also still getting tips and we always follow up on those. It’s just with each year the number of tips we get decreases.”

The desperate Sinclair family consulted a California psychic a few years ago who claimed to have seen a pair of bodies in a cave on the side of a mountain in Chesterfield. The vision never panned out.

They also hired award-winning private investigator Gil Alba, who worked for 27 years as a New York City police detective.

“We’re still active on the case,” Alba said. “Every time we get a lead we follow it up. I went to Chesterfield in April and did some more interviews. We’re also looking for evidence: body parts, clothing, maybe a murder weapon. Anything we can find.”

Alba is also looking at Eugene V. Bowman Jr. Bowman was dating and living with Tina Sinclair before she went missing. Police have called him a person of interest in the case.

“The problem with a case like this is joining the evidence together with the person of interest,” Alba said. “You have to keep working on them and that’s what we’re doing.”

Bowman is still living in New Hampshire, according to Alba. He said he has not spoken with Bowman. Attempts to reach Bowman for comment were unsuccessful.

Police searched Bowman’s residence a few months after the Sinclairs disappeared, but what they seized and what they were looking for may never be made public because the state Attorney General’s Office refuses to release the warrants.

The Keene Sentinel won an argument in the city’s District Court to view warrants that detailed the search, but the state’s Supreme Court reversed the decision. The Court ruled that the warrants should stay sealed while police are working the case.

Tina Sinclair’s sister, Sharon Garry, stated in an e-mail that she and her family remain disturbed by the disappearances and are frustrated by the lack of information.

“The anger, hatred, confusion and nightmares have shredded through me and made me into a person I don’t even recognize anymore,” Garry wrote. “The holidays, birthdays and family gatherings were like a bad dream because Tina and Bethany weren’t there.”

A memorial for the Sinclairs will be replaced at a bend in the Connecticut River off Route 9 in West Chesterfield to mark the grim anniversary, Garry said.

The first two memorials, a cross and a photograph of the Sinclairs mounted on a plaque, were stolen.

Garry urged others to visit the memorial and light a candle in memory of her sister and niece.

She said she will never stop searching for them.

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By PHILLIP BANTZ
Sentinel Staff

The Keene Sentinel: January 31, 2009

He helped put away an HIV-infected Ecuadorian who videotaped himself raping 200 children, eluded Bahamian police during an undercover human smuggling operation and brought down hundreds of suspected South Florida gang members.

But you would never know it by looking at Richard S. Bendel today.

Bendel, 41, lives in the snow-covered city of Keene with his wife, Beth, and their two kids, ages 5 and 11.

Bendel owns and manages Monadnock Aviation, a company that provides services to pilots and their aircraft at Dillant-Hopkins Airport in North Swanzey. He is far removed from the crowds and crime in the Sunshine State, from the intensity and violence that defined him in another life.

Bendel sat down earlier this week at his airport office to discuss his life, past and present. The occasional plane taxied across the runway outside, viewed through a large plate glass window, as he spoke between the rings of his cellular and office phones.

Bendel is busy now, yes, but it’s a relaxing kind of busy, not the kind of busy that involves sliding down a rope dangling from a helicopter hovering above the roof of some drug kingpin’s lair or smashing down the door of a gang hideout.

These days Bendel’s wife, a former U.S. postal inspector with an intriguing past of her own, doesn’t have to worry when he leaves for work. She used to have trouble sleeping, but not anymore. Now they are insulated by the snow and the mountains and the Monadnock Region’s low crime rate.

“It’s beautiful here,” she said, “and we’re happy.”

***
For 11 adrenaline-fueled years, Bendel, the son of a real estate investor mother and locksmith father, worked as a federal immigration agent. He was hired as an agent in the mid-‘90s following an eight-year stint with the Marines after college.

“The more I did it, the more I liked it,” Bendel said of his work as an agent. “I liked the versatility of it. I think the only crime I’ve never investigated is arson. We could work gun crimes, homicides, robberies, you name it. It was amazing how many crimes we could get involved in, and I wanted them all.”

Bendel’s first assignment was targeting undocumented workers in Miami-Dade County — one job he had a hard time getting excited about.

“A crime is a crime and it’s got to be dealt with,” he said, “but if you understand why these people are doing what they’re doing, well then it can be difficult.”

But Bendel worked hard at it, and was soon sent to fraud investigations and later asked to join a team of agents infiltrating and dismantling human smuggling operations. On a mission in the Bahamas he was nearly arrested while working undercover as a smuggler.

“The Bahamian authorities tried to arrest us because they thought we were smugglers. So we basically grabbed these aliens and took them through a canal in a boat. We just ran with them,” he said. “If we got caught, we couldn’t blow our cover. We’d be sitting in a Bahamian jail.”

Bahamian government officials were not made aware of the mission because federal agents suspected they were corrupt and would tip off the head of the smuggling operation, who turned out to be a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary.

Bendel and his crew escaped the police. They were in a faster boat, he said, one that had been confiscated from drug traffickers. The daring escape earned Bendel’s crew credibility with the head of the smuggling operation, who was eventually arrested.

***

Bendel and his wife worked together on the biggest case of their careers between 2001 and 2002. They were often partners on cases that involved mail crimes and illegal immigrants.

“She’d identified over 200 child victims that had been raped and molested by this Ecuadorian named Angel Mariscal. He videotaped these acts and was selling the tapes on the Internet,” Bendel said. “We identified a few hundred of his customers. There was a teacher. A firefighter. We had some people you would never expect.”

A few of the customers committed suicide after they were found out, Bendel said.

The investigation resulted in 100 years imprisonment for Mariscal, who was living in Miami and traveling to Cuba and Ecuador to rape impoverished children. Only 10 of Mariscal’s victims have been located. None tested positive for HIV.

“There are images of these children I’ll never get out of my head. So much pain,” Bendel said. “It’s quite relieving to know that he’ll never make it out of prison.”

Bendel’s wife received an award from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and was named Officer of the Year for her work in the Mariscal case.

Mariscal has sent her hate mail from prison.

***
After a few years in illegal immigration and smuggling, Bendel requested a transfer to the violent gang task force in the Fort Lauderdale area of Broward County, located just north of Miami.

“I could not get enough of it. There was nothing like chasing gang members. They were involved in everything: guns, drugs, kidnappings, murders,” Bendel said. “But we mainly did lots of narcotics work and surveillance.”

An informant once helped Bendel and other agents lure a group of heavily armed gang members who were planning a home invasion to a warehouse that was bugged with audio and video surveillance. The warehouse also had a false wall that lifted like a garage door to reveal a SWAT team.

“During a similar operation, a guy we were going after reached for a gun and he was stitched up by a SWAT member with the Broward County Sheriff’s Office,” Bendel said. “He went for the gun as the SWAT team came out and he was killed.”

***

The good guys aren’t always quicker on the draw. Bendel attended 13 funerals for friends killed in the line of duty during his 11 years as an agent.

He remembers running alongside Broward Sheriff’s Deputy Todd Fatta in 2004 as they chased a drug dealer one night — they were laughing, full of adrenaline, doing what they loved, Bendel said.

“I looked over at him and he was smiling,” he said. “I can still see him smiling.”

A child pornography suspect fired a bullet into Fatta’s heart two weeks later when he attempted to execute a search warrant at the man’s house.

“Todd was a guy who could make it through anything, and he got killed,” Bendel said. “I think my invincibility was starting to come into question after that.”

Screams came from Bendel’s radio one night as he pulled into his driveway. Just a few miles away, Broward Sheriff’s Deputy Ryan Seguin had been killed instantly when an unlicensed driver’s car plowed into him during a traffic stop. His partner was screaming for help and Bendel pealed out of his driveway to find her.

Broward Sheriff’s Deputy Chris Reyka was ambushed in 2007 while checking the license plate on a suspicious vehicle behind a Walgreens store. He was shot seven times execution-style with an assault rifle, Bendel said. The murder remains unsolved.

“Of all of the deaths, that one disturbed me the most because you can’t put a face on that killer. I just wanted to be the guy that caught him. To a certain extent, I felt guilty for leaving,” Bendel said. “But I felt that I had to make that decision. The job was consuming me and it was changing the way I viewed the world. I didn’t want to bring it into my family.”

***

The Bendels decided to pile into a RV and take a road trip up the East Coast, stopping in towns and cities that interested them along the way.

When they drove into Keene and saw the city’s buildings and houses situated in the valley beneath Mount Monadnock like a porcelain Christmas village, they knew it was going to be their new home.

Five months ago, the Bendels, both pilots, opened their business at the airport, merging their longtime hobbies of aviation with their livelihood.

They spend more time together and have more time for their children, who were being raised by strangers in day cares.

Bendel admits he sometimes misses what he left behind, but not enough to go back. He leads a quieter life now, and a good one at that.

“What a deal,” Bendel said. “It’s damn near a dream come true.”

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By PHILLIP BANTZ
Sentinel Staff
The Keene Sentinel: January 27, 2009

NORTH SWANZEY — When a plane had electrical problems Sunday in the inky black sky above Keene, a young pilot inside a dark cockpit relied on a flashlight, her training and help from air-traffic controllers and a local pilot.

The local pilot, Richard S. Bendel, was working at the Keene-owned Dillant-Hopkins Airport in North Swanzey when a telephone call came in around 6:30 p.m. from the Boston Center National Air Traffic Control Association.

Bendel was told to turn on the runway lights. A 19-year-old pilot, Sarah Steves, was in the middle of an in-flight emergency and she was headed his way in a Cessna 172 Skyhawk.

“They told me it was an electrical issue. She was having problems with the lights, radio and navigation. At this point it’s imperative that she gets on the ground,” Bendel said. “You could continue to fly, but without a navigation system it becomes kind of dicey.”

Bendel chose not to communicate with Steves, a first-year aviation student at Daniel Webster College in Nashua, because she needed to leave her radio open to talk with Boston air-traffic controllers. They were acting as her ears and eyes.

This was Steves’ first solo night flight to another airport. She’d flown out of Nicholas N. Tamposi Aviation Center in Nashua, where the college has a flight training center, landed in Glens Falls, N.Y., and was coming back to Nashua when she realized the plane was having electrical problems.

“She figured out early enough that she was losing power and started turning off nonessential electrical items to start shedding the load to save as much battery power as possible,” Bendel said. “This is all part of flight school training.”

Bendel manages Monadnock Aviation, which has a contract with Dillant-Hopkins to provide services to pilots and their aircraft. He also works as a flight instructor.

As Steves closed in on Dillant-Hopkins, air-traffic controllers relayed information to her on wind speed and direction and approach patterns, Bendel said.

The chance of the plane descending too quickly and crashing into homes or terrain as it approached the runway was slim, he said.

“If you know the pattern of the airport, and she did, because it’s fairly standard, then I don’t see an issue with flying the pattern at night,” Bendel said. “As a pilot, if you think they’re worried about me running into their house, trust me, I’m worried about running into their house.”

Bendel could only listen to Steves’ responses to Boston Center as she descended into the valley, and then her communication with air-traffic controllers ceased.

The mountains act as a shield, blocking radio signals being sent long distances after a plane reaches a certain altitude, Bendel said.

“She had to do everything in the dark. She had no landing light. She had no panel or instrument lights. The only light she had was a handheld light, which she had in the cockpit,” Bendel said. “It’s extremely difficult to fly at night without lights.”

While Steves had the flashlight, Bendel said it would have been hard to use while steering the plane and using the radio. That’s why she had to trust the air-traffic controllers, and her skill, he said.

All Bendel could do was wait and listen for the rumble of the plane’s engine in the darkness.

“Then I get another call from Boston Center. They’re saying she has landed. I couldn’t see her at this point. It was very dark that night,” Bendel said. “I’m out there listening for her and then I can hear the engine in the background. Sure enough, here she comes around the corner.”

Bendel directed Steves to a spot where she could park the plane, and then he helped her step out onto the runway.

“She opened the aircraft and she just started crying,” he said. “The first thing I did was hug her. I just let her know I was really, really glad she was safe. I was obviously very worried about her. It was a tough, traumatic experience for her, but she did an absolutely fantastic job.”

Bendel was not scheduled to be at the airport that night, but he was called back earlier in the evening to help another pilot whose plane was having electrical problems before takeoff. He’d just gotten the plane fixed and off the ground, and was closing his office when Boston Center called.

“I don’t know what would have happened if I wasn’t there. I guess she would have landed at an empty airport,” Bendel said. “I was basically there for emotional support more than anything else. She can still key up the (runway) lights with her radio, but that’s only if she can communicate.”

The plane’s alternator may have died in mid-flight, according to Bendel and Tom L. Teller, a professor of aeronautics at Daniel Webster.

The cause of the electrical malfunction will not be known until the plane, which Teller said was not damaged during the landing, is inspected.

Daniel Webster’s maintenance coordinator was working with officials at Dillant-Hopkins to make sure the plane is checked out and mechanically sound before it’s flown back to Nashua.

Every plane at Daniel Webster is given a pre-flight inspection to ensure it is in working order before it leaves the runway, but that check does not include the alternator, Teller said.

More thorough mechanical inspections are conducted periodically, and records from the past three years showed no reports of in-flight electrical malfunctions with any of the college’s 25 planes, he said.

The Federal Aviation Administration has launched an investigation into the incident, which is standard procedure, said New England Region spokeswoman Arlene Salac.

“We have to look at the aircraft, talk to the pilot and any witnesses and then put together a report,” Salac said. “The main concern is the actions of the pilot. We’ll also look at the aircraft to see what, if any, mechanical problems exist.”

Steves obtained her pilot’s license last summer when she was 17. She works at the Nashua airport moving planes in and out of hangars, and aspires to a career as a commercial or corporate pilot, said her father, John W. Steves of North Granville, N.Y.

Sarah Steves, who could not be reached for comment, had a brief visit with her family before she tried to fly back to Nashua. She called them after her harrowing landing.

“She was a little upset,” John Steves said, “but we told her she did a good job and to use it as a lesson so you’ll know what to do next time when something happens.”

Sarah Steves — who was flying the day after her emergency — learned more Sunday night than many pilots learn after hundreds of hours of flight experience, Bendel said.

“While it was traumatic for her, it was important that she went through that,” he said. “The pilots that are able to put a passenger jet in the Hudson River and everybody walks away, they started out with small things like that.”

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By PHILLIP BANTZ
Sentinel Staff
The Keene Sentinel: January 09, 2009
Years before Michael Addison murdered a police officer and became the first state resident in half a century to face execution, he showed up at a center for troubled youths seeking help.

Gilsum resident Steve Bernstein was running that center, Compassionate Connections in Manchester, and said he saw hope in Addison.

Addison was in his early 20s and had the rap sheet and rough upbringing that was ubiquitous among the young people Bernstein knew.

What set Addison apart from some of the others, Bernstein said, was his optimism and drive to succeed. He said Addison wanted an education and to learn a trade.

“He had a rapid realization that there was hope. A lot of people would be doubtful and skeptical and cynical in his situation,” Bernstein said. “This is a young man, at that time, with all the baggage he was carrying around, who really wanted to change his life.”

Addison came to Bernstein’s center in 2001 with a group of acquaintances with gang ties and significant criminal backgrounds, Bernstein said.

He said he saw many new faces come through the center’s doors, but they often failed to return or their visits were sporadic at best.

“Michael came in one day and more or less never left for a good year or so,” he said. “If people would come and show up and show up and show up I knew they were more serious than not. And he kept showing up.

“This is a guy who would wake up every day and have to weigh out if he was going to go out and do drugs and sell drugs or if he was going to come down to my teen center and not make any money.”

What Bernstein had to offer Addison and others like him was a career opportunity through his connections with various employers in the community. He would determine what they enjoyed, whether it was carpentry or tattoo artistry, and hook them up with a professional in that field.

“Michael was looking at me and my work as a way to better himself,” Bernstein said. “My sense is that he never got that kind of one-on-one attention before and he never got that kind of interest in him as a person before.”

Growing up in the crime-infested South Bronx “jungle” of New York City gave Bernstein firsthand knowledge of the allure and negative consequences tied to the street life.

Bernstein said he began committing petty crimes when he was young and eventually landed in jail.

“They fortunately had a wonderful mentoring program where I was able to do jail alternatively and I was taught a trade,” said Bernstein, now a master plumber. “My mentor was a guy who was in my shoes when he was younger. My work now is largely related to my experience with him.”

Under Bernstein’s guidance, Addison obtained his driver’s license, sought counseling for his behavioral problems and began pursuing his GED. Addison also expressed interest in becoming an electrician, and Bernstein said he was working on setting him up with an internship.

“I saw a sociability developing,” Bernstein said. “I would say he was getting more comfortable with his surroundings, and that was largely based on him developing a sense of hope for his future. That was certainly not in the cards for him before.”

Domestic violence, drug addiction, alcoholism and neglect shaped Addison’s upbringing, according to Bernstein and court testimony in Addison’s capital murder trial.

“Here was a young man who showed up to change his destiny,” Bernstein said. “He was as good if not better than most that I’ve ever met.”

Addison never left the center. The center left him. After working with Addison for about a year and a half, Bernstein said the grant money that was the lifeblood of his center dried up and he was forced to close its doors.

The next time he saw Addison’s face it was on the news.

Manchester police Officer Michael Briggs was trying to stop Addison in October 2006 in an inner city alley when Addison turned on him and fired a bullet into his head. Briggs later died at a nearby hospital, leaving behind his wife and their two sons.

“This was a good guy, a great cop and a great person,” Bernstein said.

Briggs may have been among the dozens of police officers who visited the center to interact on neutral ground with the city’s troubled youths, he added.

Bernstein now sees Addison, 28, through prison glass. The two visited before and during the trial.

They talked about sports and current events, especially the presidential election. Addison enjoyed seeing Barack Obama elected, Bernstein said.

“He was excited about an African American becoming our president. Not with respect to him (Obama) maybe cutting him some slack,” he said. “He was just very articulate about politics. It wasn’t racially motivated. If this guy had gone to school I think he would have been a very eloquent speaker.”

They talked about the murder mystery and detective novels Addison likes to read. They even talked a little about what was happening in the courtroom, but were restricted from discussing details of the shooting or the case because of the ongoing trial.

“Michael never talked about his guilt or innocence, the goodness or badness of his deeds. It was more like, ‘I’m here.’ I got the impression that the last thing he wanted to talk about is what he did,” Bernstein said. “He talked around it. He told me what he didn’t do, that he didn’t premeditate the murder.”

A member of Addison’s team of public defenders, Richard C. Guerriero of Concord, said Addison and Bernstein have a close relationship. He said Addison feels he can depend on Bernstein.

“Steve has been very supportive and a trustworthy and reliable friend to Michael and it’s very much appreciated,” Guerriero said. “He’s in a fairly desperate situation and regardless of what you think of the case it’s good to have people support you.”

Bernstein recently received authorization to visit Addison for the first time since he was sentenced to death. He said he expects they’ll pick up where they left off, which is exactly what happened during their first prison visit when they’d been apart for more than four years.

As Addison’s attorneys appeal his sentence, Bernstein is still fighting to change lives.

He oversees the AIM High apprenticeship, internship and mentorship program in Keene, which is similar to his first program in Manchester.

Fifteen youths are enrolled at Bernstein’s center. Many of them are high school dropouts. Some have substance abuse problems. Others come from broken homes.

Bernstein is determined to give them all an opportunity at a better life.

“The doors don’t open for the Michael Addisons of the world,” he said, “that’s why my work exists.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fitzgerald was told about the death by mutual aid dispatchers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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By PHILLIP BANTZ

The Keene Sentinel: February 16, 2008

One raw winter night years ago, Fay L. Gemmell was called to an apartment in Keene. The minister was needed.

An infant had frozen to death in its crib.

The young parents were shivering when Gemmell arrived. Their breath was visible in the frigid air. In the corner, a dog and her puppies huddled together to stay alive.

“That dog could take better care of its puppies than the couple could take of their child,” Gemmell said. “It was indescribably awful.”

Then drift from that hellish place to a celebration, a wedding.

Gemmell is marrying two young people, perhaps future parents. He sees them staring into each other’s eyes, envisioning their futures entwined.

“Sometimes I see things that are so holy,” Gemmell said, “that I think I must divert my eyes.”

For Gemmell, now 87, there is no such thing as a literal heaven and hell. But he says there are glimpses of each during our waking lives.

“I don’t believe in heaven and hell concepts. I believe I’ve had heavenly moments and hellish moments,” Gemmell said while sitting with his dachshund on a leather couch at Langdon Place of Keene one recent afternoon.

“Sometimes right here in this place, some little old lady or little old man will say something to me with a smile on their face that’s so sublime,” said Gemmell, his grayish-blue eyes lighting up. “To me, that is heavenly.”

The son of Nebraska farmers, Gemmell spent his childhood in a “little house on the prairie.” It was a lonely and contemplative life, he said, but one that fed his rampant imagination.

“Early on I learned to draw something from the immenseness of the prairie,” Gemmell said. “I think the rim of the prairie was the end of the world for my parents. As a child, I was always curious about what was over that horizon.”

It was the loneliness of life in the flatlands that led Gemmell to his local church. The congregation would become his extended family. And a succession of young ministers would lead him to his calling, however reluctant he was.

“One minister who was very friendly told me that I should be a minister,” Gemmell said. “I said, ‘Yes, I agree … but I don’t believe in all that stuff.’ ”

And he still doesn’t.

Gemmell’s struggle with religion and some traditional Christian beliefs, such as the concept of an afterlife, has consumed him for decades.

“I have real arguments in my soul about religion, especially fanaticism,” he said. “Some of the evil that has been caused by religion tears and rips at me. Sometimes I’m ashamed of religion.”

Religion, though, has been an endless source of fascination for the curious Gemmell.

As a young man, he pursued a bachelor’s degree in humanities from Nebraska Wesleyan University, and then he left the prairie to seek out a master’s degree in theology from Boston University.

Coming to New England was initially an unpleasant experience.

The mountains made Gemmell feel claustrophobic. He longed for the wide-open expanse of the prairie.

“And then I saw the ocean,” he said. “And I saw the prairie in the ocean. I was okay.”

In Boston, Gemmell studied alongside a man who would later become the most famous human-rights activist in American history.

His classmate was Martin Luther King Jr.

“I remember those days as I watched him grow into fame,” Gemmell said. “I had no idea of the greatness that would come to him, but you couldn’t help but notice him. He had amazing courage. He spoke out from the beginning.”

Gemmell also spoke out, though not as loudly or famously as his classmate. He became a minister free of orthodox ties. Not a “pulpit-pounding preacher,” but a free thinker who encouraged others to do the same.

“I’m not orthodox anything,” he said. “I’m not a literalist. I wouldn’t think about cramming my views down other people’s throats. What really matters, the only thing that matters, is that you are nice and do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Gemmell spent 30 years as a minister in various parishes in New Hampshire and Massachusetts before founding the campus ministry at Keene State College in 1963. He was the campus minister and counselor for 24 years.

“He’s ministered to the whole community in Keene. He’s been the older brother, the father figure for the whole community,” said Paul E. Cullity, the current campus minister and Gemmell’s longtime friend. “I think he’s more known and widely loved as a minister than anyone’s ever been in this area. He’s just incredible.”

Inside their rambling house in Keene, Gemmell and his wife, Charlotte, raised four children.

They enjoyed writing and art. They had countless discussions on religion and theology.

For more than two decades, Gemmell wrote a homespun philosophy column, “Proxy Pulpit,” for The Sentinel.

“It was just one man’s opinion about things great and small,” he said.

The Gemmells were also avid and talented gardeners.

Five years ago, Charlotte died. It happened just a few months before the Keene State College ministry building was dedicated to her and her husband. They had been married for 59 ½ years.

“I always stress that half a year proudly, like a boy when he says he’s 3 ½,” Gemmell said.

Charlotte suffered greatly before her death. Her stomach was removed because of the cancer. She lost a lot of weight. In the final days, she had dementia.

“It was a strange place to be … being relieved that she was gone. That the suffering was over,” said Gemmell, his head tilted up toward the ceiling of his small room. “People would say, ‘Aren’t you looking forward to seeing Charlotte again?’

“In one way, of course I would, but what Charlotte?” he said. “The 60-pound emaciated one? The beautiful girl at our marriage? Or the strong and vibrant 40-year-old pregnant woman?”

Then last September, death dealt another blow to Gemmell. His 61-year-old son Jon, an elementary school teacher, succumbed to complications from rheumatoid arthritis.

“It was a great loss and there was a great sadness,” Gemmell said. “I had to bury my son, a wonderful man.”

The minister who believes in neither heaven nor hell, who admits to being somewhat afraid of both, said he still enjoys entertaining the thought of an afterlife.

“It’s hard to conceive that my 87 years would be the end of it,” he said. “But the last thing I would fear would be oblivion. That would be better than some alternatives.”

Leaving his home for Langdon Place, an assisted living facility, was a heart-wrenching chapter in Gemmell’s life.

He left behind truckloads of memories. He threw away reams of his writings.

“What you bring is a few of your favorite things,” Gemmell said. “It’s very hard. Everything becomes a little more precious.

“It’s a dignified way of giving in and giving up, but not with great negativism,” he said. “It’s knowing what’s to come is the other side of life, more great experiences.”

As Gemmell speaks, his African grey parrot, a gift from friends, rocks back and forth on a perch in its cage.

Prince has a 100-word vocabulary. Each day after the sun sets, the bird mimics Gemmell’s habitual phrase, taken from an old children’s prayer, before the two go to bed.

“Now I lay me down to sleep,” Prince says.

“Now I lay me down to sleep,” Gemmell says.

When Gemmell drifts off, he’s already thinking about the next sunrise, the new light coursing over a distant prairie, moving toward the horizon.

“Each day when I wake up,” he said, “I think about what amazing thing is going to happen to me today.”

New England Press Association: Second place, human interest category.

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