Ray Duckler: Retelling a day of horror and bravery that lingers

Last modified: Sunday, October 04, 2015
‘We have a few characters from that day who are present tonight,” author Richard Adams Carey told us.

We turned our heads and searched the book store, eyes wide and scanning, waiting for Carey to introduce people connected to the Colebrook shootings 18 years ago.

Soon we met Col. Kevin Jordan of Brentwood, chief of law enforcement for the Fish and Game Department; Sam Sprague of Unity, a former Fish and Game officer; and David King of Loudon, a lawyer and part time judge.

They’re in Carey’s book, In the Evil Day, which recalls Aug. 19, 1997, the day a vengeful man shot and killed four people before police killed him.

It took more than 12 years for Carey, a teacher at Southern New Hampshire University, to research and write his book. It took the gunman a few hours to emotionally scar an entire region and steal its innocence.

Killed that day were state troopers Scott Phillips of Colebrook and Leslie Lord of Pittsburg, part-time judge and attorney Vickie Bunnell of Columbia, and local newspaper editor Dennis Joos of Colebrook.

I mention those killed before the killer because the people I met at Gibson’s Bookstore Wednesday convinced me it was the right thing to do.

“It was important for us who were directly involved in it to have the book spun correctly,” said Jordan, who assumed he’d be killed on that hot summer day. “I get really tired of hearing about Carl Drega.”

We heard about that man, 67, when police finally stopped him, through the words of Carey. Then I heard more, through the eyes of three people who were at Gibson’s, each source willing to rewind their minds before returning to the present.

Before Columbine, before Virginia Tech, before Newtown and, of course, before Oregon, there was Colebrook. About 15 hours prior to nine deaths in the Oregon shootings, Carey touched on the desensitization of America, how mass murder these days is nothing more than a “blip” on the media radar.

I’m not sure I agree with that, figuring the Colebrook incident would have gotten big headlines today, as it did in ’97, so chilling was the story of the Coos County killings.

The two state troopers were, essentially, executed in a grocery store parking lot. Bunnell, already cognizant that she might be a target because of her court battles with the shooter, was killed while fleeing, shot in the back after warning those she worked with to run. Joos, working in the same building as Bunnell, jumped at the man to stop the carnage but was murdered for his trouble.

“You should have minded your own f------ business,” the killer told Joos, according to Jordan, before shooting him three times.

“I found all these courageous people,” Carey told his audience. “Colebrook was splendid that day.”

Carey’s task was gigantic. Beyond reporting and writing and fighting with editors and publishers, he had to gain the trust of people forever suspicious of motives when a stranger, a member of the media, comes to town.

How dare someone, anyone, come here to profit off our misery? How dare someone, anyone, give this murderer a stage, a forum, a voice? That’s how Carey was viewed.

“I didn’t want anything to do with him, to be honest with you, and I had pretty strong feelings about it,” Jordan told me. “We had been put on tour, got a lot of awards and medals and that went on for years, and there were people, a collective few of us, who felt some were profiting on a tragedy, making a hero out of Drega without trying to learn about the victims.”

Jordan helped clear a path of trust. He had a cup of coffee with Carey, and word soon spread about the gentle author with the gentle voice and clean soul.

So they told their stories to Carey after assurances that he would pay proper tribute to the victims, that he would not sensationalize what the killer had done, that he wasn’t a vulture looking to cash in on a wound that will never close.

He told the story of Jordan, who attended high school in Lancaster and lived in Groveton, just outside Colebrook, at the time of the killings.

Jordan spoke to me with great openness, adding nuance that gave the incident context. He was off duty that day, at home when he heard his police radio crackle about a stolen cruiser.

Only later did he learn that Phillips and Lord had already been killed by then. Only later did he learn that the shootings that had occurred were deliberately omitted from the radio call as part of police strategy, in case a negotiation process lay on the horizon.

“They knew Carl had a radio,” Jordan told me. “If he didn’t know those guys had died, it would be a tool they could use later. If you can get into negotiations you can say, ‘You didn’t kill anyone, and you can give this up and it’s not too late.’ But he knew he had killed them. He shot them point blank.”

Later, just over the border in Vermont, after the magnitude of the crime had become clear and the danger this man presented was obvious and the national media had begun phoning town officials, Jordan positioned himself with other officers, still dressed in his day-off clothes of white T-shirt, red flannel button-down, jeans and boots.

The shooter had abandoned the stolen cruiser, with his shirt sleeves draped over the steering wheel to give the illusion that he was in the driver’s seat, part of his plan to lure officers to the car, where he’d pick them off from a thickly covered hillside, sniper style.

Jordan, essentially, shot at noise, a sense of where the murderer might be. A crossfire of bullets, between law enforcement and the bad guy, was under way.

“There were 112 rounds fired by people on the ground, and we were caught in the middle of it,” Jordan said. “Fifty feet away from us was Drega, but we didn’t know it at the time. We were sure we were going to die.”

Down below, U.S. border patrol agent John Pfeifer lay on the ground wounded, a bullet in his chest. Trooper Jeffrey Caulder was there too, shot in his pelvis.

Sprague helped get them out, realizing only later how close he came to getting shot in the head.

A Fish and Game officer at the time of the tragedy, Sprague told me he knew something was terribly wrong when he heard the initial report, which said Trooper Phillips’s cruiser had been stolen from the IGA in Colebrook.

“Scottie Phillips was a friend of mine,” Sprague told me. “He was as squared away as anyone, and no one was going to take that (cruiser) without a fight, so at that point I knew something dire had happened. I headed north like everyone else.”

First, Sprague and others used a stretcher to carry Trooper Caulder to safety, then returned to get Pfeifer out. It’s then that the shooting resumed after a brief timeout.

“We started to pick him up, and that’s when the shooting started again,” Sprague said. “We didn’t have a good view up there.”

He helped load Pfeifer into the back of a sheriff’s SUV. In the ensuing days, Sprague picked up his uniforms from the dry cleaners and noticed a note saying nothing could be done about the “tear” near his collar.

It was a bullet hole.

“It was pretty clear what it was,” Sprague said. “I went a little weak at that point.”

By the time I spoke to Sprague, Jordan had told me that the incident helped nudge him out of law enforcement once he reached retirement age. I asked Sprague about it, and he said that it had, along with the 2007 killing of Cpl. Bruce McKay in Franconia.

“Enough was enough,” Sprague said.

I asked Sprague about the lives he saved, creating a nervous laughter that told me he wanted no part of being labeled a hero.

“You’re put into a position where there is really one course of action you can take,” Sprague told me. “It’s not like you have the choice to say, ‘I’m going to be brave.’ This is the only thing you can do. It’s like careening down a highway and there’s a truck stopped in front of you. Your only option is to hit the brakes.”

Or get a gun and lock the door, then wait, conscious of each beat of your heart, each second that passes.

That’s the way it went for King that day, a different form of terror, like something from a Hitchcock movie, suspenseful and quiet in nature, with plenty of time for your mind to become your worst enemy.

Like the dead troopers, who had pulled the killer over because of his history of threatening and intimidating residents, King was familiar with this man, all too well.

Many in town were. Jordan said warning signs were everywhere, yet some in town viewed him as a colorful character of the North Country, nothing more.

Not King. He knew the guy had filed frivolous lawsuits against the town and lost, knew Bunnell, who as a judge had presided over some of those lawsuits, carried a .38 revolver in her purse because she feared this man, knew he had once chased someone off his driveway while carrying a shotgun, knew he had found King’s address among records down town.

“It was unpleasant where I was always a little weary of the guy,” King said.

King was on the phone with his wife when the first shots were fired. She asked about the popping sound in the background and her husband mentioned kids, probably lighting firecrackers across the street, in the mobile home park.

When the town buzzed with news of the first two murders and Drega’s name surfaced, King told me that he “felt a cold chill go down my spine. I remember it like it was yesterday.”

He told his co-workers to go home. He told his wife to grab their two sons, 9 and 7, bring them into the basement and lock the door. He’d stay there, keeping his family out of danger.

Then he dashed across the parking lot to a friend’s home, borrowed a double-barreled shotgun and some buckshot, packaged in a Ziploc bag, returned to his office, shut the lights off and peeked out the window, waiting for a tornado to pull into the parking lot.

Outside, Drega zipped past the law office in trooper Phillips’s cruiser, on his way to kill Bunnell and, as it turned out, Joos. Phone messages poured in, including one from a Boston Globe reporter seeking information, comment, something about the chaos that by now had begun to spread in a seemingly slow manner, at least compared to today’s lightning-fast world.

Finally, King’s father, who was Phillips’s neighbor, came to the door to check on his son. The two spent the rest of the day in front of the TV. King heard about Phillips, his running partner. He heard about Bunnell, his associate early in their careers.

“I remember my 9-year-old son was getting ready to go to bed and he said, ‘You always said Colebrook was a safe place to live,’ ” King said. “The town was turned upside down. It was a hard thing to go through.”

So hard, in fact, that King began to feel uneasy as Carey read passages from his new book. King got home that night, with a complimentary copy, flipped through it, then put it aside.

“I told my wife, ‘I don’t think I can read this,’ ” King said. Honestly I don’t think I can read it. It’s bringing back a lot of horrible memories.”

I asked Sprague about his feelings today. “It almost seems like a story, like a chapter in my life that I’ve eventually moved past,” he said. “I don’t seem like the same person I was then. I feel like I have truly moved on from those dark days.”

Meanwhile, Jordan remains haunted. The other night, while Carey read from his book, Jordan knew what was coming later, after he went to sleep.

He’d squeeze the trigger, trying to defend himself, but the gun wouldn’t fire. The man facing him would then raise his weapon and point it at Jordan.

“It’s been a consistent dream for 18 years,” Jordan told me. “The same exact dream. It’s terrifying.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter