Lessons learned from 1997 Colebrook tragedy

Sunday News Correspondent
August 20. 2017 1:53AM
A law enforcement officer gathers evidence near the scene of a shooting rampage in Colebrook in August of 1997. (Bob LaPree/Union Leader file photo)

COLEBROOK - Twenty years after a disgruntled loner went on a murderous rampage in the North Country, the New Hampshire State Police and members of the community are remembering the victims and holding each other a little closer.

On Aug. 19, 1997, Carl Drega, a 62-year-old carpenter living in Columbia, shot and killed two New Hampshire state troopers, a judge and a newspaper editor in Colebrook and then fled to Vermont, where he died in a shootout with law enforcement officers that left four more officers injured.

Members of Troop F honored their fallen brothers during a flag-raising ceremony Saturday that has been an annual remembrance for two decades. State Police Col. Chris Wagner reminded everyone that on that terrible August day, "Everything was normal until it wasn't."

Wagner urged those gathered to cherish life, inviting them to revel "in the insignificant," to "savor morning conversations," and to hug those they love.

According to some who knew him, Drega was on OK terms with New Hampshire State Trooper Scott Phillips, who became Drega's first victim that August afternoon.

On the day he died, Phillips, who was 32, pulled Drega over at 2:30 p.m. in the parking lot at LaPerle's IGA for his excessively rusty truck. Drega exited his vehicle armed with an AR-15 rifle and started firing.

Wounded, Phillips returned fire but was fatally shot. Drega also shot and killed Trooper Leslie Lord, 45, who had followed the younger trooper into the parking lot.

Drega then stole Phillips' cruiser and drove to the Colebrook News and Sentinel building where Vickie Bunnell, 45, a lawyer and District Court judge, had an office. Drega shot and killed both Bunnell and Dennis Joos, 51, the News and Sentinel's editor, who tried to protect her and disarm Drega.

Fleeing the scene, Drega crossed into Vermont where he shot and injured New Hampshire Fish & Game Conservation Officer Wayne Saunders, New Hampshire state troopers Jeffrey Caulder and Robert Haase, and U.S. Border Patrol agent John Pfeifer before Drega himself was fatally shot.

Fish and Game Col. Kevin Jordan saw Saunders just before he headed off to intercept Phillips' cruiser, believing, because of the lack of radio communication, it might have been stolen by a joy-riding teenager.

They expected to get the cruiser back and looked forward to ribbing Phillips, suspecting he left the keys in it.

But it was no teenager behind the wheel. It was Drega, wearing Phillips' hat, Saunders recalled, and Drega was shooting at him.

Several rounds hit Saunders' vehicle; one glanced off his badge and fragmented into his left arm and shoulder where it did extensive vascular damage, Jordan said.

"We had no idea that he (Drega) had killed four people already," said Jordan. "Wayne had no idea what he was driving into."

Saunders is now a lieutenant with Fish and Game and heads the agency's Lancaster office.

After he recovered from his wounds, Saunders said, he didn't change his behavior and approach to his job much at all. But in recent years, the father of an almost-teenager said he has become a little more circumspect about heading into uncertain and potentially dangerous situations.

"I do like to know what I'm charging into now," he said.

Reflecting on the 20th anniversary of an "evil day," Saunders said he misses his friends Lord and Phillips, the latter of whom was partial to jogging in Colebrook while pushing a pram containing his two young children.

That image of Phillips hit home for Saunders on Friday when Troop F in Twin Mountain, where both Lord and Phillips were based, held a 55-mile memorial relay run from Colebrook to the barracks.

Fast-forward two decades, and communications technology is "tenfold" better, Jordan said. Conservation officers now also have bullet-proof vests and improved firearms. They are also better trained, he said, and, because of what happened at LaPerle's IGA, are much warier in the field and, therefore, possibly safer.

"We were living a kind of dream that it was a good, safe job, but we hadn't ever been faced with combatting an individual running around with a semi-automatic rifle when we have a five-shot bolt-action rifle, no bullet-proof vests and a radio system where we couldn't talk to Vermont," said Jordan, who said law enforcement also failed to recognize the serious threat that Drega posed.

"We all laughed at him," said Jordan. "We all thought he was a joke and a little 'out there' and shame on us. That was another lesson that was learned."

There were signs to be seen, said Jordan. "When someone takes a rifle strapped to their back to get to the mail, that's not a normal behavior."

After his death, it was determined that Drega had amassed significant amounts of ammunition and explosives for unknown purposes.

Drega's three-hour rampage started with a traffic stop, but Richard Adams Carey, author of the 2015 book "In the Evil Day: Violence Comes to One Small Town," says the killings had "a 25-year prelude."

Problems in town

Drega, who previously lived in Bow, owned a seasonal home on the Connecticut River in Columbia, just south of Colebrook.

In 1972, on the day that he was supposed to appear before the Columbia Board of Selectmen to discuss a barn he was building, Drega's wife, Rita, died from cancer. Some people think Drega blamed the selectmen for her death, said Carey, and it was clear that he bore them ill will.

Years later, after flooding eroded his riverfront property, Drega got permission from the state to restore the shoreline, but exceeded the amount of material he was permitted to use and was called on it by a Fish and Game conservation officer. Drega sued the officer but lost.

On another occasion, when the tax assessor came to his property, Drega, who was armed, impounded the man's vehicle. When then-Selectman Bunnell arrived to retrieve it, Drega fired a rifle shot over both their heads, prompting Bunnell to call police.

In addition to those run-ins, Drega was known for hiring contractors to do work for him, but not paying them because he was unsatisfied with the quality of the work, Carey said. The disagreements would often land both parties in court.

However, Drega also had friends to whom he was kind and loyal in the North Country, Carey said.

Carey, who is on the Mountainview MFA faculty at Southern New Hampshire University, said he was drawn to write about what happened in Colebrook because of the "shock of recognition" that if it could happen there, "it could happen anywhere in New Hampshire."

Although Drega at one point in his life signed his correspondence as a "Sovereign Citizen," there was no indication, Carey said, that he had been a member of a militia or another established anti-government group.

But since his death, Drega has been embraced by such groups, Carey said, and antipathy toward authority has grown, which leads Carey to believe that "we will see more Dregas."

Authorities who lived through that day 20 years ago share the same concern.

These are "not safe times," Jordan said, "and people need to be aware of that. We don't need to live in fear, but to respect it and be cautious of it."

John Barthelmes, the commissioner of the NH Department of Safety, said there is "greater dissatisfaction" today than 20 years ago and there are also many more military-style weapons in circulation, both things that the state police are trained and equipped to deal with.

But even as Barthelmes hopes there will be no repeat of what happened in Colebrook, he said, "I don't believe that's the case."

"This can happen at any time and any place, and not just in New Hampshire," he said.

General NewsPublic SafetyCrimeDeaths in the newsHistoryColebrookColumbia

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