TO MANY New Hampshire residents, “Live Free or Die” is more than the state motto: It remains a way of life. And nowhere, arguably, is that attitude more prevalent than in the North Country, an area that comprises a third of the Granite State's land mass but a mere 5 percent of its population. It is against this backdrop that Richard Adams Carey's most recent book, “In the Evil Day: Violence Comes to One Small Town,” is set and may help explain in part how a private man became an anti-social, violent misanthrope.
“In the Evil Day” is true crime told in novel form and based on the vicious events that happened on Aug. 19, 1997, when Carl Drega, 67, unleashed all of his personal darkness and shattered the peace and safety that Colebrook and the region had held dear for generations. He brutally murdered four innocent people in full view of their neighbors, friends and loved ones.
Carey spent 13 years researching, interviewing witnesses and writing “In the Evil Day.” He does a masterful job of describing the bucolic but rugged setting of New Hampshire's own “wild frontier” and the people and personalities attracted to it.
One such person was Drega. He was born in the 1930s (his actual year of birth is disputed) and grew up in a blue-collar town in Connecticut, the youngest of seven children of Polish immigrants. After dropping out of high school in 10th grade, Drega worked as a carpenter and traveled across the country doing odd jobs. He eventually decided to put roots down in New Hampshire. In 1965 he met his future wife Rita, a Groveton native, and in 1970 the couple bought a two-bedroom cabin in Columbia.
Carey describes how Drega worked tirelessly and with precision, making improvements and additions to his home and land. Among his accomplishments were a solarium greenhouse, and an impressive three-story barn with carports and palladium window. It was the building permit for the barn — or rather the lack of a permit — that sparked the first significant conflict between Drega and local and state officials. That initial problem with the permit would fester and grow into other confrontations with authority. It's as if Drega twisted “Live Free or Die” for his own warped ends.
But all that is prologue to the August morning when Drega's rage exploded in gunfire and resulted in one of New Hampshire's most violent episodes.
Drega shot and killed Troopers Scott Phillips and Leslie Lord during a traffic stop. He then targeted Judge Vickie Bunnell because of past encounters over legal matters.
The fourth victim, Dennis Joos, was the co-editor of the local Colebrook News and Sentinel. He was working nearby when he heard the sound of gunfire outside his office. By the time he got outside, Vickie Bunnell had already been shot numerous times in the back as she tried to run away. He saw her dying in the street.
Unarmed, Joos threw himself at Drega, knocking them both to the ground. Joos was shot twice while they wrestled; after a third shot to the stomach, he collapsed. Before Drega walked away, he shot Joos four more times in the back.
Carey is assistant director of the Master of Fine Arts program at Southern New Hampshire University. His previous books include “Against the Tide: The Fate of the New England Fisherman.”
Throughout the book Carey takes great care to show the history and characters of all four victims and the many contributions they made to their community of 2,500. Their personalities are explored and their legacies are thoughtfully explained.
Where Carey's storytelling occasionally comes up short is when it goes on too long. There are several instances where historical details about the town or information about tertiary characters are unnecessary and slow the story's pace. The book's non-linear, novel-like format is exceptionally well done, but in a work that makes mention of so many people it becomes difficult to recall who every person is and how they relate to what is happening.
Carey also missteps in his attempt to write from Drega's personal perspective. The author takes particular care to stress that these interior monologues are merely an informed guess at the thought process and mindset of Drega, but it's jarring and disrupts the momentum of the narrative Carey had so expertly crafted.
These criticisms are minor, however, given the scope and power of the book. Carey respectfully but vividly details the final shootout that left four other officers wounded and Drega dead. That incident is told from the perspective of several individuals involved, each giving their personal account.
At the end of each narrative Carey begins a new version from another witness that is only slightly shifted in time and space and yet not a single word or thought seems redundant. That entire 130-page section is woven together seamlessly and the resulting narrative is riveting and absolutely heartbreaking.
A story is often more compelling when the reader has some sort of personal connection to the material. For anyone who lives in the North Country, or has spent any time in the area, this book will certainly resonate. But readers do not have to be familiar with New Hampshire to appreciate “In the Evil Day.”
Erin Dodier is a high school English teacher currently taking time off to raise twin girls.