Alton couple laid to rest as community comes together to support family

  • James Eckert, and his wife, Lizette Eckert, are shown. The couple was fatally shot March 15 in their Alton home. Courtesy

  • Two hearses sit outside Saint Katharine Drexel Catholic Church in Alton as mourners stream in during a heavy snow shower for the service of Lizette and James Eckert on Friday, March 22, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Two hearses sit outside St. Katharine Drexel Catholic Church in Alton as mourners stream in during a heavy snow shower for the service of Lizette and James Eckert on Friday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 3/22/2019 4:09:35 PM

The police cruisers sped by in a blur of blue lights as Alton Town Administrator Elizabeth Dionne drove along Route 28 on her way to work March 15.

She didn’t know at the time what or where the officers were responding to, only that it must be serious with so many police heading in the same direction at once.

A week later, hundreds of cars slowly drove up Route 28 in the snow to St. Katharine Drexel Parish. They went to pay their final respects for James Eckert, and his wife, Lizette Eckert, both chiropractors who promoted healthy living. The couple and their young family were members of the church and had been putting down roots in the community since moving from Maine in 2012.

The Eckerts were shot to death in their home on March 15 and an 11-year-old boy was charged with the offense. Their deaths, and the age of the only suspect, were hard to fathom in this town of about 5,300 people along Lake Winnipesaukee, which bustles with tourists in the summer months.

Lizette Eckert was dead when first responders arrived at the family’s home at 76 Dobbins Way. James Eckert died Friday night after he was rushed to Portsmouth Regional Hospital in critical condition.

The boy was charged with juvenile offenses of second-degree murder in both of their deaths. He is believed to be the youngest person to be charged with murder in state history.

“The entire town is just shocked and saddened by this,” Dionne said in her office Wednesday. “It’s on everyone’s minds every day. Some people are talking about it openly and some are not. Everyone handles it differently.”

Emotions have run the gamut in the past week, but the funeral allowed Alton to come together as a community, town officials said.

“The healing started when the community pulled together to make arrangements for the family as they processed the situation,” Alton police Chief Ryan Heath said. “To have each other to lean on was a big component and everyone felt like they were doing something to help this family put the pieces back together.”

Friday, March 15

As the town administrator, Dionne speaks with reporters regularly but never has it been about a situation like this. The first call came from a Boston TV station within a half-hour after the shooting was first reported.

Dionne started communicating with Heath via text message shortly after her secretary cut into a meeting to tell her there was a shooting situation in town. Police had found the victims and were searching the woods in the area for the suspect.

“He did not have a lot of information yet and they had not found the juvenile in the woods at that point,” she said. “I just was gathering information from other sources and let the chief do what he had to do.”

Those few details were enough to explain the police presence Dionne saw on Route 28 on her way in to work. She looked out the window from her second-floor office at town hall and saw two more police SUVs heading south on Main Street. They turned onto School Street, and Dionne knew they must be heading for Alton Central School, which had gone into lockdown.

Closer to the scene, neighbors wondered why Valley Road, which accesses Dobbins Way, had been blocked off.

Marvin Phillips, who lives with his wife on Valley Road, said he stepped outside about 8 a.m. that morning as he noticed police cars rolling down the street. He didn’t know it yet, but police were still searching for the suspected shooter, who was found in the woods nearby.

A state police trooper stopped when he saw Phillips standing outside in his driveway.

“He got out of his car and said to go inside and lock and the door,” Phillips said. “We didn’t know what happened or where. ... It’s scary, and then we heard the details on the news. I’d never heard anything like this before. It’s really sad.”

Information trickled out through the day. Heath instructed Dionne to direct questions from the news media to the Attorney General’s Office.

Law enforcement held a press conference Friday night, where senior assistant Attorney General Geoff Ward said a juvenile was taken into custody about 9:30 a.m., two hours after police responded to a 911 call reporting the shooting.

The victims

James and Lizette Eckert were both chiropractors. James owned and operated his own practice in Alton and Lizette worked at Sanctuary Body Works in Pittsfield, according to the couple’s obituary in the Laconia Daily Sun.

After meeting at chiropractic school in Iowa, the couple married in June 1997. They lived in Maine for several years while running Innate Chiropractic in South Portland, according to the Portland Press Herald.

The Eckerts moved to Alton in 2012, according to their obituary. They had three children, including two 11-year-old adopted boys and an older daughter, Community Church of Alton Pastor Sam Hollo told the Boston Globe.

They were members of St. Katherine Drexel Parish, where Friday’s funeral services were held. The Rev. Robert Cole told the Globe that the Eckerts were “a beautiful family” that could be depended on. He said they never missed a Sunday service.

The Eckerts raised farm animals on their property on Dobbins Way, one of Lizette’s favorite things to do at their home, according to the obituary. James was described as an avid runner who competed in road races across the region.

Information about the crime and the boy remains limited because he is a minor.

While residents want to talk about what happened, they are trying to respect the family’s wishes to grieve privately and protect the couple’s children as much as possible.

A staff member at Gilman Library in Alton who declined to give her name said everyone in town is curious about what happened, but want to respect the privacy of the family.

Alton select board Chairwoman Cydney Shapleigh said she was encouraged to see the dialogue shift from the shooting to focusing on how the community can support the remaining family members.

At Monday’s select board meeting, just four days after the shooting, the board held a moment of silence to honor the family but did not discuss the event.

“I think it’s important that we lead by example in terms of how to discuss this situation because it’s really not for discussion,” she said. “I’m glad and relieved to see the focus is on the family and those who are left behind. I think that is appropriate.”

Community comes together

After the Attorney General’s Office stepped in to lead the investigation, Heath said his focus shifted to organizing support services for the family, community and first-responders.

On Friday, the state Disaster Behavioral Health Response Team was set up in the Alton Bay Community Center for people to visit if they needed help processing the trauma of the event. Heath said resources are also available for police officers, EMS and firefighters.

Community members quickly started coming up with ways to support the family after the shooting last weekend. A bank account was opened in town for donations, and area stores were accepting donations for the family as well as ways to support the Eckert’s farm animals.

A gift-wrapped box sat in the main room of the library with an opening in the top for people to drop in cards of condolences or gift cards for groceries, gas or dining. The box is adorned with two silver bows and a blue one in the middle, as well as a quote printed beneath from a person described only as an “immediate family member” that reads “Thank you to this amazing community. We are humbled by your generosity.”

A GoFundMe account for the Eckert children raised more than $23,000 in just two days.

“It’s been a long and emotional week,” Heath said after the funeral Friday. “We’re all thankful for what we have now. We want to say goodbye to James and Lizette and be supportive of their families.”

(Nick Stoico can be reached at 369-3321, or on Twitter @NickStoico.)

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