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Trial kicks off for Pembroke man accused of fatally shooting girlfriend

Dale Collinge (left) stands with his attorney as Judge Richard McNamara walks through the yard where Collinge shot and killed his girlfriend, Karen Boelzner, in November 2011 on the first day of his trial for second-degree murder; Monday, May 20, 2013. Collinge admits that he shot Boelzner that night.

ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff

Dale Collinge (left) stands with his attorney as Judge Richard McNamara walks through the yard where Collinge shot and killed his girlfriend, Karen Boelzner, in November 2011 on the first day of his trial for second-degree murder; Monday, May 20, 2013. Collinge admits that he shot Boelzner that night. ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff

Just minutes after Karen Boelzner was shot dead, her boyfriend stood in clothes covered in her blood and described himself the same way prosecutors are trying to label him at his trial.

“I am a murderer,” Dale Collinge told an officer Nov. 13, 2011.

The sentence, projected on the courtroom wall at the start of Collinge’s trial yesterday, is considered an admission by prosecutors who charged the Pembroke man with second-degree murder. To Collinge’s lawyers, the words were among a string of anguished ramblings made that night by a man who had shot his best friend after she inexplicably pointed the rifle at him and pulled the trigger.

“In the end, nothing could have prepared Dale, no gun safety class in the world, could have prepared him for that moment when he heard that click,” defense attorney Suzanne Ketteridge told the jury at Merrimack County Superior Court. “This was a reaction. This was an accident.”

But Assistant Attorney General Jay McCormack argued there was a motive behind Collinge’s actions: making 50-year-old Boelzner feel the same fear she had instilled in him.

The jury started yesterday’s trial, held more than a year and a half after Boelzner was killed, by visiting the weathered Route 28 farmhouse where she died. It was 49-year-old Collinge’s first time back since that night, and he stood against the garage, his hands tucked in his pockets or folded in front of him, rather than shuffling through the apartment with the jurors.

At one time, the couple had considered that home to be heaven, Ketteridge said yesterday. They had lived there only a few weeks before Boelzner died and found the apartment after a difficult year in which their previous home in Alton had been destroyed in a fire and Boelzner had tried to commit suicide, she said.

Sudden mood shift

One of Collinge’s former landlords, who lives with her husband in one of three apartments that make up the house, testified yesterday that Collinge had spent that day helping with yard work. The mood was light, the two couples sitting on the deck and laughing together, Madeline St. Gelais said.

But in the afternoon, Boelzner had gotten upset while talking on the phone with her daughter, Ashley Sweeney, who testified yesterday that she called her mother to complain about a fight with her father. Collinge continued with his work, Ketteridge said, then walked into the living room and found Boelzner pointing a rifle at him.

He heard the click. His knees buckled. And then he grabbed the gun from her.

Collinge told an officer, who testified yesterday, that he asked Boelzner a question: “You want to play guns?”

“He wanted to teach her a lesson and scare her,” McCormack told the jury. “He didn’t yell at her. He didn’t kick her out of the house. He didn’t call the police. Instead he aimed a high-powered hunting rifle at her from feet away and intentionally pulled the trigger and put a bullet in her face.”

Collinge and his attorneys have said he thought the chamber was still empty when he pulled the trigger. Two Pembroke police officers testified yesterday, though, that Collinge told them that night that he always kept one round in the gun for hunting.

The first officer who arrived at the scene entered the apartment with his gun drawn and had to order Collinge to go outside and leave Boelzner’s lifeless body twice before he complied.

Once in the parking lot, Collinge told his landlords what had happened.

“He just said that he was upset that she did that. You know, he almost passed out himself,” St. Gelais said. “He got short with her and said they struggled with the gun. He said, ‘You don’t fool around with guns. Do you want to see what it feels like when you fool around with guns?’ ”

Prosecutors have said Collinge told consistent stories that night to his landlords and several police officers, and they asked the jury to note that he told the same facts to others beyond the state police detectives who interviewed him a few hours later.

The defense attorneys, before the start of the trial, attacked that interview, saying detectives used unacceptable tactics like not letting Collinge wash Boelzner’s blood from his hands to elicit his confession. They’ve argued that Collinge’s memory failed him in the moments after Boelzner pointed the gun at him, making his statements to the detectives unreliable.

The jury is expected to be shown that interview.

Scene displayed

At the courthouse, Collinge was confronted with images from the home he chose to not re-enter yesterday.

As the crime scene photos were displayed, he looked up at the first few, wide shots of the room or images showing only part of Boelzner’s crumpled body, her feet in black slippers and white socks. Her legs in pink-stripped pajama pants dotted with blood.

Collinge watched between blinks, his eyes fluttering rapidly as if trying to clear out a piece of dust.

Then prosecutors displayed Exhibit 5, this one showing Boelzner’s full body, and Collinge turned to the front of the courtroom, tilted his head down and closed his eyes. As a police officer testified about technical things – the reason why a body isn’t touched during an investigation, how a search warrant is obtained – Collinge stayed that way for a long time.

He took a breath, deep despite his lips staying closed, and turned back to the screen briefly, before shifting his eyes back to the table a moment later.

Collinge and Boelzner had dated for only a few years before her death but knew each other for two decades. Each had been married before and the two couples were friends.

Yesterday, Boelzner’s ex-husband sat in the courtroom beside Sweeney, Boelzner’s daughter. Collinge was the best man at his and Boelzner’s wedding. But he said that now he carries very little compassion for his former friend, who for him has been another casualty of that night.

“It’s hard,” Rick Boelzner said. “Because not only have I lost her, but I’ve lost him.”

The trial will continue this morning.

(Tricia L. Nadolny can be reached at 369-3306 or
tnadolny@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @tricia_nadolny.)

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