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Pembroke's Dale Collinge sentenced to 10-20 years on manslaughter charges

Dale Collinge looks towards the jury after it announced him guilty of manslaughter in Merrimack County Superior Court ; Friday, May 24, 2013.
ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff

Dale Collinge looks towards the jury after it announced him guilty of manslaughter in Merrimack County Superior Court ; Friday, May 24, 2013. ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff

Dale Collinge was sentenced yesterday to 10 to 20 years in prison, two years suspended upon good behavior, for shooting and killing his girlfriend nearly two years ago after he said she pointed a rifle at him and pulled the trigger.

“This is a tragic case. It’s a tragic mix of firearms and alcohol,” Merrimack County Superior Court Judge Richard McNamara said. “A woman, a mother, is gone forever, and that loss will permanently affect her family. . . . Nothing this court can do today will bring that woman back.”

In May, a jury convicted Collinge of manslaughter in the November 2011 shooting, which took place inside the couple’s Pembroke apartment. The 49-year-old told the police the night it happened that he had shot Karen Boelzner after she threatened him with the gun, which he thought was unloaded. Both had been drinking before the incident, though Collinge’s blood alcohol level was lower than Boelzner’s, and he said he was trying to show her what it felt like to have a gun pointed at her.

Defense attorneys said in court that Collinge had acted semi-unconsciously after he watched Boelzner, who he knew to be suicidal and unstable at times, pull the trigger, releasing an empty click.

Though the charge carries a maximum 30-year prison sentence, prosecutors requested yesterday that Collinge be given 12 to 24 years. They said that duration was in line with previous cases and was appropriate given other factors, including Collinge’s experience using firearms and clear remorse for his actions.

Assistant Attorney General Peter Hinckley said after the hearing that he had “no qualms” about McNamara’s ruling.

“It’s never been disputed that Mr. Collinge was remorseful about what he did,” Hinckley said. “It’s not an animus or hostility type of case. He took the life of somebody he loved through conduct that was stupid, that was regretful and was criminal. The jury found that. The judge sentenced accordingly.”

Collinge was also ordered to pay $4,025 toward funeral expenses for Boelzner and to enroll in alcohol and drug abuse classes.

The hearing, which lasted about two hours, was filled with statements by family and friends of both Boelzner and Collinge, many of whom described a difficult web of emotions over the incident, the couple’s relationship and Collinge’s overall character.

“It just really sucks because obviously nothing will bring my mother and best friend back,” Boelzner’s son, Dennis Sweeney, said. “I do know that Dale and Karen loved each other a lot. That’s why it makes this whole situation harder.”

Boelzner’s daughter, Ashley Sweeney, stressed a similar point, but in the end urged McNamara to account for the full weight of Collinge’s actions.

“I know my mom would not want me to spend the rest of my life hating Dale for what he did,” she said in a statement read by a court representative. “But my life will never be the same, and I can’t imagine him living happily ever after if my mom can’t.”

Defense attorney Donna Brown painted Collinge as a tenacious family man who had overcome a rough childhood that included the loss of his mother at an early age and several traumatizing years in foster care. She argued that Collinge’s history didn’t excuse his actions, but that it did help explain why he responded to an intensely threatening situation with an equally extreme, careless act.

And Brown stressed that, unlike other cases, Collinge had neither instigated the exchange nor brought the rifle into it.

“The thing that differentiates this case from all other cases is how it started,” she said. “A response as opposed to playing around with guns or initiating or bringing guns into the situation.”

Several of Collinge’s and Boelzner’s relatives gave additional statements.

“We all loved Karen,” Boelzner’s brother-in-law Al Martin said. “She was a great person. But she had an illness. Through good times and bad times, with love, understanding and patience, (Collinge) was there. He never judged her. In my mind, Dale is a kind and generous person who I, your honor, am proud to call my friend.”

Collinge, who had appeared stoic through the beginning of the hearing, grabbed a tissue and wiped his eyes. Martin continued, asking that McNamara consider a minimum sentence “for a man who has done absolutely nothing in his entire life except for help people, help the family, be there when we needed him, and asked absolutely nothing in return.”

Collinge’s niece Alicia Aldrich described her uncle as a warm, caring man whom she admired and came to in times of stress.

“I would trust him with anything,” she said. “I would trust him with my life.”

Collinge’s sister, Joyce Aldrich, addressed Boelzner’s children directly. “Karen was a beautiful woman, and I’m so sorry for her family,” she said, as Collinge lowered his head. But her brother, she added, turning back to McNamara, “is a good man, he’s a good man.”

After about a dozen people spoke, Collinge rose and walked to a podium at the center of the court. He looked ahead for a moment and then turned to Boelzner’s children, who were sitting a few feet away to his right.

“I’m not going to try to come up and say all kinds of excuses or try to twist things around,” he said. “It’s not who I am, and it’s not what I’m going to do.”

“I want to say I’m sorry, because I am. I also know how lame that it’s going to sound. The truth is, nothing I can say is going to change what happened, or bring her back. There is nothing to describe the pain, regret, shame and guilt that I feel. I’m going to live with it for the rest of my life. I stand here before you with a broken heart and heavy shoulders for the cross that I carry.”

He called the shooting “an accident of the worst kind.”

“I would never hurt Karen on purpose,” he said. “I love her, I miss her. I miss her as much as anyone, if not more.”

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

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