Book Excerpt: ‘In the Evil Day’ by Richard Adams Carey

Last modified: Sunday, September 13, 2015
(Editor’s note: On Aug. 19, 1997, Carl Drega of Bow went on a shooting rampage in the North Country that left four people dead: troopers Scott Phillips and Leslie Lord, lawyer Vickie Bunnell and newspaper editor Dennis Joos. Drega was killed later in the day, but not before wounding four other troopers. What follows is a selection from the book “In the Evil Day” by Richard Adams Carey, which will be released on Tuesday. Due to its graphic nature, the excerpt may not be suitable for all readers.)

Carl Drega had dreamed about Rita the night before. The dream, or some parts of it, came back to him as he pulled out of Clarkeie’s and headed up Cooper Hill. He was in their house in Bow, but it was different, and bigger, a maze of dark hallways and plunging stairwells. Rita needed him for some reason, but he couldn’t find her. Finally he came into a low-ceilinged room that contained a table and an empty chair. Playing cards were spread across the table in an unfinished game of solitaire. There was also an invoice for a payment on Rita’s life insurance – ​stamped “PAST DUE”  – and a note signed by Rita: “Don’t forget the groceries. I’ll see you tonight.” He woke with cuts in his palms from the nails on his fingers as they had clamped and knotted into fists.

He glanced at the bag of groceries on the passenger seat of his truck – ​chicken breasts, a gallon of milk, frozen peas, a bag of red grapes, some cucumbers – ​and all else heaped on that seat and in its foot well: tools, assorted receipts and bills, a greasy Colebrook House of Pizza box, a manila envelope plumped with his 79 pages of grievances, his 9 mm P85 Ruger pistol and its holster, wrapped in a towel, and the Colt AR-15 he had bought in Massachusetts last February. He was done walking around with just pepper spray, he had decided. No more handcuffs in a parking lot. Drega didn’t know, but except for the weapons the front seat looked a lot like Les Lord’s.

The AR-15 rested on its stock in the foot well, its muzzle against the door handle. The sun fell in splinters of light along the road ahead, and Drega handled the wheel in something like nervous euphoria. He wondered if it was because he had slept so badly. Nothing different about that, though. There was glare off the grill of the logging truck behind him, off the windshields and fenders of passing cars and trucks. Even with his sunglasses, it all felt like phosphorus in Drega’s eyes.

He broke into a cold sweat at the sight of the stabbing blue lights of the state police cruiser that swept into the opposite lane around the logging truck. Then the cruiser snuffed its lights as it came up close on his rear bumper. At first the driver was just a dark form behind the windshield, but then Drega saw the crisp Stetson, the upright carriage, the forehead that flashed in the sun for just an instant like a bleached bone. By then he knew it was Scott Phillips, but he didn’t know if Phillips was pulling him over or not.

Drega decided to turn off the road to see what Phillips did, to swing into the parking lot of the IGA, a mile north of the business district, as though he needed more groceries. The cruiser did the same, and as it did so, an odd sort of feeling swept over Carl Drega: a sense that his truck, amid its vapor of blue smoke, was traveling on iron rails, navigating on automatic pilot – ​down the entrance ramp and straight along the median divider, with its shrubs and stunted trees, and then left and past some parked cars to a stop, straddling two empty spaces near a tan old-model Thunderbird.

The cruiser followed, still with no lights, drawing to a halt 20 feet behind the truck at a diagonal between the lot’s first two rows of cars. Drega sat at the wheel of his pickup and took a deep breath – ​the air was veined with scents of salt and earth. In his rearview mirror, he watched Phillips throw open his cruiser door and in that crisp Stetson take a – ​swaggering? – ​step this way, the light prickling in thorns from the handcuffs on his belt.

That feeling – ​was it Drega’s own hand, or someone else’s, that pushed the groceries aside and reached for the barrel of the loaded assault rifle? He felt somehow lost to himself, as though he had been the occupant of that empty chair in the dream – ​and at the same time, after 25 years and at this precise moment, never had he felt so true. The pain in his eyes? Their scales had fallen away. Why should he be surprised that suddenly it was now, in a supermarket parking lot with this hammer in his hands?

He wondered at the last moment if he had sent his August check to the Monastery of the Precious Blood. He mailed 25 dollars each month, in good times or bad, to that small order of nuns in Manchester. In his check register he wrote “GIFT” under each such entry. But last month, July, he had written “PEACE OF MIND” instead. It was like a prayer.

A voice from his childhood, a nun’s voice pitched to a whisper, rose like the April roar of the Connecticut into his mind: “Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of death.”

What you thought you heard inside the supermarket at 2:41 p.m. depended on where you were. Head cashier Rachel Hurley thought it was someone pounding on an outside wall. In the produce section, shopper Eleanor Goddard thought someone was using a nail gun, while in the deli section, server Linda Leduc heard banging on the roof. In the bakery, Patsy Smith glanced up at what seemed to be pinging from the metal pipes in the kitchen. Store manager Lance Walling, busy with paperwork in his office, heard a rapid series of thumps.

Julie Roy saw it happen. She was carrying a can of coffee and trailing Kim Richards and Cody through the IGA’s automatic exit door. A bearded man in a blue plaid shirt and a red baseball cap stood outside the driver-side door to that pickup she had seen at Clarkeie’s. A state trooper, having left his cruiser’s door swung open, walked in that man’s direction. Julie was near enough to hear them speak – ​but as she recalls, no one did so. Not a word was exchanged. The bearded man simply hoisted something to his shoulder. It was a small black rifle, with a scope and a sling dangling from its stock, and it was pointed at the trooper – ​who stopped, lifting his hands, palms out. With no apparent provocation, the bearded man started firing.

This looked like a pantomime of some sort, but with sound effects – ​some stark and brutal ritual that had nothing to do, certainly, with the world in which Julie or Kim lived. Julie saw the trooper step back, fall to one knee, and reach for his sidearm while the first volley of bullets raked over the cruiser and cut into his legs. The firecracker pop of the rifle could not be linked, somehow, to the leveled flame of pale, forked fire that issued from its barrel. Nothing seemed to connect to anything else or to where she stood stunned outside the exit door of this familiar place at the tail end of an ordinary day.

She saw the trooper’s Stetson fall to the pavement. He staggered to his feet, limping around the passenger side of the cruiser, and then crouched behind its trunk. He managed to draw his pistol as more bullets rained over and through the cruiser, punching out its side and rear windows. In that hail of lead he couldn’t return fire, or stay where he was.

Julie found herself huddled behind the bulk of a soft-drink vending machine. Kim and Cody had already stepped into the open when the gunfire started. Julie saw Kim’s groceries fall and skitter across the asphalt as she snatched Cody and yanked him forward several yards to the cover of her truck. There she pressed herself against its door and wrapped her arms around the boy, Julie would say later, “like a mother bear.”

Now the trooper was moving crablike, not toward the store, but instead toward the eastern edge of the lot, using the last row of parked cars as a spotty sort of cover. He was firing his pistol with his left hand, but he was unable to aim, with his right hand down on the pavement to help him stay upright. The man with the rifle took no cover himself. He stood fence-post stiff at the door of his truck, squeezing off rounds at the trooper as if at a duck glimpsed at intervals in a shooting arcade.

The trooper flinched with another hit, maybe another one as well, but somehow he kept moving – ​to the last of the parked cars, and finally on a covered angle from that car into the high grass fringing the lot. And now the gunman was moving, walking slowly in that direction and firing as he went.

Julie turned and ran, back to the exit door of the supermarket, which wouldn’t open from the outside. Another shopper popped it open, and Julie stood on its threshold, screaming for someone to call 911. Faces in the aisles and at the cash registers snapped toward her in unison – ​“They think I’m nuts,” Julie thought. But one of the clerks, Albert Riff, knew better. He had walked outside ahead of her when he had seen a cruiser pull into the parking lot. He ran in and told her to get inside. “I can’t,” Julie said. “My girlfriend’s out there.”

Not for long – ​Kim picked Cody up and dashed for the door. Julie followed her inside, staring back over her shoulder. Her last glimpse of the parking lot was this: the bearded man back at the door of his truck, attaching a new ammunition clip to his rifle, as a second state police cruiser turned off Route 3 and glided placidly down the entrance ramp.

Directly across the road from the IGA stood the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative’s Colebrook warehouse and offices, which was where Woody Crawford and Mark Monahan parked their vehicles each morning. As Monahan stomped on the line truck’s gas pedal, Crawford wondered about the .243 Browning BLR deer rifle that his partner always kept in the gun rack of his pickup. “You got your gun?” he shouted.

“Nope,” Monahan said. “It’s home today. Been working on its sights.”

No point in pulling into the warehouse, then. Monahan shot the truck past the supermarket entrance and spun it into a leaning, looping turn – ​and screeching stop – ​in a swath of empty gravel at the parking lot’s west end. Crawford had had no luck in raising the Colebrook Police Department on the truck’s radio. Both men leaped out and stared at what Crawford still hoped was a police exercise of some sort: people huddled by vehicles or else running like hell into the supermarket, a trooper in staggering retreat, his pistol flashing, and a man with an assault rifle pursuing him.

This was very realistic – ​too much so. “Mother of God,” Crawford said. “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?”

Yes, and Monahan also saw the little girl they had passed on the road, now coasting down the entrance ramp. He cried at the top of his lungs for her to stop, and the girl braked so suddenly she fell over. She got up gaping at Mark, and he waved her into cover behind a Dodge van parked just off the ramp.

At nearly the same time another vehicle came down the ramp, rolling obliviously past Monahan’s shouts. “Oh, Christ, that’s Claude Wheeler,” he told Crawford. “Claude!” The vehicle kept going, turning beyond the divider and slipping neatly into a parking space that only seconds ago had entertained gunfire from both directions.

By then the gunman had turned around. He was at the passenger window of an old pickup that sat next to a Thunderbird. They saw him reach through the truck’s window and take out a new banana clip – ​as Wheeler strolled past on his way inside. The gunman snapped the clip into place and looked up, directly at the truck and the two linemen, the orbs of his sunglasses like powder pans in the afternoon light. “Woody, shit – ​get the hell back in the truck.”

Their first thought was to park the truck across the supermarket entrance. But then they saw a second state police cruiser approach from the south and make that turn. “Check that,” Crawford said. “We don’t want to block those guys. Go to Hughes – ​we’ll stop traffic there.”

Monahan swung the truck across the southbound lane opposite Hughes Road. They tumbled out of the doors again, and Crawford said, “Pinch me, will you? I think I’m ready to wake up.”

His partner just stared back at the supermarket. Still dreaming, Crawford looked up in time to see the gunman turn in the direction of that other cruiser and once more lift the rifle to his shoulder.

First IGA manager Lance Walling locked all the doors. Then he started herding everyone – ​employees and customers, food company sales reps and truck drivers – ​to the back of the building. Among them was a woman who protested that her son was out in the parking lot. Walling refused to let her out, though, and finally the mother and her daughter went to the back with Julie, Kim, and Cody and the rest.

Albert Riff, 48, the clerk who had been outside with Julie, was helping people get in from the parking lot and shooing others away from the window. He was still at the window himself when the second cruiser arrived and then a woman in a Subaru. He saw the gunman drop to one knee and draw a bead on that cruiser, whose driver seemed unaware of any emergency.

Riff saw two holes open like flower blossoms in its windshield. The cruiser jerked to a stop, rocking forward on its springs, as did the Subaru some 60 feet behind it. Then the cruiser snapped into reverse, backing over a curb and onto grass. Meanwhile the gunman was advancing and spraying fire, 40 to 50 shots, Riff thought. The cruiser came to a stop, just its rear wheels over the curb, as its windows exploded in shimmering clouds of broken glass.

The gunman kept going, all the way to what was left of the cruiser’s passenger-side window. He looked inside, stuck the muzzle of his rifle through the window opening, and fired several more times. Then – ​in no particular hurry, as though he were a shopper running errands – ​he started walking toward the grass where the first trooper had fled.

Once the gunman’s back was turned, the woman in the Subaru opened her door. Riff saw her run to the shattered cruiser, linger just an instant at its driver-side window, and turn away in distress. Then she saw a child crouching and weeping behind the van parked on the side of the ramp. She beckoned for the girl to run to her.

By then a Ford station wagon had pulled to a stop behind the woman’s car. The driver, a middle-aged man, had gotten out of the wagon. The woman shouted a warning as she hustled the child into her car. Riff saw both vehicles back up and speed away at the same time that he heard still more gunfire.

In the backseat foot well of the tan Thunderbird next to Drega’s pickup, a 13-year-old boy clapped his hands over his ears.

Ian Venne had ridden his bike to the IGA that afternoon from the T&T Mobile Home Park in Columbia, opposite the Drega property on Route 3. In Colebrook, he had paused opposite the Brooks Auto Parts store on Main Street and had recognized the orange pickup parked there as belonging to the guy who had lately taken to carrying a gun every time he checked his mailbox. The boy wondered if he drove around town with a gun as well. In either case, the guy was having a hard time starting the pickup, was still cranking it like an eggbeater when Ian started pedaling again.

Ian’s mother and 9-year-old sister were driving the family’s ’79 Thunderbird to the supermarket. They passed him as he turned into the entrance ramp, and then Ian’s mother helped him stow his bike in the trunk. He went to sleep on the back seat while they went shopping.

Then he woke to a popping sound, looked out long enough to see what was happening, and locked the Thunderbird’s backseat doors – ​he didn’t dare try to reach the front.

In the foot well, trembling, he stitched his eyes shut and pressed harder on his ears. That shut out the light, but the sound leaked through: shouts, a woman’s scream, more gunfire, and then what he knew must be the voice of the policeman who was being shot at.

The boy squeezed so hard that his ears hurt. Still he heard the policeman pleading for help, and then for his life.

In the Colebrook Village Cemetery, sexton Roland Martin, his grandson Mike Martin, and Robert Grassette were taking a break from mowing grass when the shooting began in the parking lot, which was about 150 yards from where they were working.

By the time the second cruiser arrived, they had moved to the bluff on which sat the Green Mountain Snack Bar. They could see the gunman firing at something in the direction of the entrance ramp, but from where they stood, they couldn’t see what.

They were spared the sight of that execution, but not this one. They saw the gunman walk from there and into the grass at this east end of the lot. He used the barrel of his rifle to push aside tall stalks of reed and bulrush. The sexton couldn’t see the wounded trooper, but he thought he could hear him saying, “No, no,” once the gunman found him.

The gunman didn’t speak. He pointed the rifle straight down, almost at his own feet, and fired four times.

(Excerpted from “In the Evil Day: Violence Comes to One Small Town” by Richard Adams Carey published by ForeEdge, an imprint of University Press of New England.)