Man who killed friend’s stepfather in 1985 released on parole

  • Eric Windhurst sits with his lawyers in Concord in 2016. AP file

  • Melanie Paquette is sentenced in 2006. AP file

  • A button in memory of murder victim Danny Paquette is shown in 2006. AP

Monitor columnist
Published: 10/24/2020 6:54:55 PM

Victor Paquette held up the photo from his home in Florida, hoping the picture of his late brother, Danny Paquette, would be worth 1,000 words, plus an additional 20 years for the man who killed him.

He stared at Eric Windhurst, 1,500 miles away, through wire-rimmed gasses, trying to convince the New Hampshire Parole Board via Zoom that Windhurst planned his brother’s murder in 1985, hid the truth for 20 years and should serve the maximum sentence, 36 years.

“Look familiar? Eric,” Victor Paquette asked. “Is this the man you saw through your rifle sights? Let me help you with this. Loving brother. Respected and well liked businessman, and most of all a loving, caring father who, believe it or not, family meant everything.”

No matter how much he tried, however, Victor Paquette was unable to convince the three-person parole board to keep Windhurst locked up for another 20 years, telling disappointed family members that his 15-year report card at the State Prison – attending counseling, working with the League of NH Craftsmen, furthering his carpentry skills – was too clean, too impressive and too hopeful to keep him incarcerated any longer.

His crime: Windhurst was a junior at Hopkinton High School when he shot and killed Danny Paquette to defend the honor of his 15-year-old friend and Danny’s stepdaughter, Melanie Paquette. She claimed Danny had sexually molested her in years past.

“Clearly you are a different person than you were when you were 17,” said Donna Sytek, the spokeswoman for the three-person parole board. “The adequacy of your parole plan, you’ve got employment and a solid place to live.”

Windhurst will move home to care for his elderly mother and continue working full time at a motorcycle shop in Windham, where he had been employed this year through a work-release program.

Meanwhile, Danny Paquette’s family, led by unofficial spokesman Victor Paquette, will continue fuming over what they say was an outrageously unjust decision.

“He didn’t even serve 14 years and he was released into a work program,” Victor said by phone about an hour after the hearing. “He didn’t actually serve 15 years behind bars.”

This is the latest and perhaps last piece of news from a bizarre case in 1985, when Windhurst, then 17, was encouraged by his friend, 15-year-old Melanie Paquette, to kill her stepfather, Danny Paquette.

Melanie confided in Windhurst, her teammate on the Hopkinton High boys’ soccer team, telling him that Danny had sexually abused her when she was younger.

Windhurst shot Danny through the heart from 300 yards away, the length of three football fields. Then, nothing. Until 2005, when police zeroed in on Melanie Paquette and got the truth about what had happened.

After news spread that Melanie claimed her stepfather had molested her, fueling Windhurst’s crime, and media reports of allegations of past abuse by Danny Paquette surfaced, the case took on bigger meaning.

The one about women – and in this case, a girl – fearful for their lives, seeking safety through drastic measures, knowing it’s the lone way to end the cycle of violence that could lead to their own deaths.

Or, in this case, was this revenge for crimes committed long ago? Either way, can you ever justify vigilantism?

Asked directly if his brother had abused Melanie in some way, Victor said, “The Attorney General’s Office never as far as I know could ever produce anything to substantiate that charge, and I was in their faces to show me one paragraph or one page that could substantiate that, and they never brought anyone forward to substantiate that.”

As if murdering Danny and accusing him of pedophilia weren’t enough to create hostile feelings, the 20-year gap of silence had a huge effect on Victor and the rest of his family.

They saw a coward who accepted responsibility and showed remorse only after Melanie had made a deal with the Attorney General, serving 15 months on a reduced charge of hindering arrest.

“This murder going unsolved for 20 years has caused immeasurable suffering for the Paquette family,” Lance Larrabee, Danny’s nephew, said on the Zoom broadcast.

“Mr. Windhurst enjoyed 20 years of freedom. . . lying every day about killing someone you’ve never met, while we lived in a constant fear of why did this happen, who did it, and always wondering if someone else might be killed.”

Larrabee’s eyes were trained on Windhurst, who wore a gray vest and gray tie. Sometimes stoic, other times sniffling, always still in his seat.

“If I can take every bit of it back I would, if I could undo every bit of it, I would,” Windhurst said. “Danny is in my thoughts. I wake up, it’s the first thing I think about. My entire day is consumed with thoughts of what I’ve done, what I’ve done to the Paquette family.

“It’s just the weakest way,” he continued, “to say you’re sorry after doing what I’ve done. But it’s the only words I have.”

At the end, in a riveting scene that took two minutes but must have seemed like two hours to all involved, the three board members bowed their heads and typed, their clicking, texting sounds cutting through the silence on Zoom, their words deciding the upcoming path of a man’s life.

Board members are not permitted to comment on parole decisions, said Jennifer Sargent, chair of the parole board. She wouldn’t reveal the final tally.

But the decision announced by Sytek was crystal clear, saying Windhurst’s record was squeaky clean, and his drive for self improvement was strong.

“The board,” Sytek said, “is right to grant the privilege of parole, Mr. Windhurst,”

Later, Victor said his family’s decision to accept a plea deal – second-degree murder and its 15- to 36-year sentence, not first degree murder and, potentially, life without parole – was a coordinated effort to spare a family member with cancer the emotional distress of a first-degree murder trial.

In essence, the Paquette’s rolled the dice, hoping the maximum sentence would be enforced for a premeditated murder.

“She asked me and another family member if we would agree to the plea, so she would not have to sit through that,” Victor said. “We agreed it was more important to save her life.”

He actually saved two.

“The decision of the board is that we are going to grant you the privilege of parole,” Sytek said.

“I can’t thank you enough,” Windhurst replied.

By then, Victor’s image on Zoom was gone.

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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