Police caution NH residents who step in to help stop crime
MANCHESTER - It was an August day in 2011 when Peter Vaillancourt noticed a stranger fiddling with the doors and windows at the firefighters union hall, across the street from his Manchester car shop.
Feeling "something was up," Vaillancourt called police, then grabbed his double-barrel sawed-off shotgun and headed across the street.
He saw a man opening a window and, while keeping the shotgun on his shoulder, told the man to sit on the ground. "I said he should probably wait there until the police show up," said Vaillancourt, 56.
The would-be burglar obeyed. Police arrived minutes later and arrested the 19-year-old Manchester man on burglary charges, along with two other people waiting in a parked car nearby.
Police say they welcome the public's assistance in stopping crime, but they don't want people to intervene as Vaillancourt did.
"When something happens, we appreciate any details people can give us," said Manchester police Lt. Maureen Tessier. "It's when they take it to the next level that we're not comfortable with it. Police have the training, the equipment and, quite frankly, the backup to handle those situations."
Lt. E. Zenus Paulson of the Nashua Police Department said, "There are too many unknowns in these situations - is the person armed, their state of mind. It's too risky.
"We appreciate the assistance and any information they provide that helps lead to an arrest," he said. "You can't say we don't. But someone's safety should always be the top priority."
While police may prefer that residents not physically confront or detain individuals they suspect of committing a serious crime, it is allowed under state statute.
According to RSA 627:7:IV: "A private person acting on his own is justified in using non-deadly force upon another when and to the extent that he reasonably believes it necessary to arrest or prevent the escape from custody of such other whom he reasonably believes to have committed a felony and who in fact has committed that felony."
Vaillancourt said the gun never left his shoulder.
"I think just seeing it was intimidating," said Vaillancourt, who got the shotgun 26 years ago to protect his home and business, Camaros Plus. He had checked with Manchester police to confirm the legal length (18½ inches) before cutting it down.
He has never needed to use the gun, but says he wouldn't be afraid to if he was ever again in a similar situation.
"I wouldn't do anything different. Not at all," said Vaillancourt. "If the guy was armed with a rifle or a pistol, things might have turned out a little different, but I would feel sorry for him. I had a 12-gauge, double-barrel sawed-off shotgun - and I wouldn't have missed."
RSA 627:5:IV also says private citizens are justified in using deadly force to defend themselves or a third person from what they believe to be the imminent use of deadly force.
Gary Hobbs tackled an alleged thief in the driveway of his Manchester home in September 2011, pinning the man to the ground until police arrived.
Hobbs, 42, was sitting in his kitchen one morning eating French toast with his then-9-year-old daughter when a neighbor called, saying someone was outside going through the cars. He stepped outside and saw a man rummaging through a Volvo.
Wearing flip-flops at the time, Hobbs - who stands 6 feet 3 inches and weighs 265 pounds - took a few steps toward the man.
"He took off," said Hobbs. "I started to run, and after about 15 steps, I caught him. I put him on the ground, put a knee in the small of his back, got him in a chicken-wing hold and that was the end of it.
"I'm a big guy, but I'm faster than I look."
Hobbs called police and kept the individual, identified as Theodore Macenas, 20, of Manchester, pinned to the ground until officers arrived. Macenas was arrested and charged with theft, receiving stolen property and criminal trespass.
Now, 17 months removed from the heat of the moment, Hobbs says he has never second-guessed his actions.
"I've never shied away from something like that," he said. "I never worried about the danger. You think for a second, 'Could he have a weapon?' But I was thinking of my daughter inside and just acted."
State police often receive calls from drivers reporting a motorist operating erratically or in an unsafe manner, said Lt. Nicole Armaganian.
"We prefer callers leave it at that and not pursue the driver," said Armaganian. "Let us handle it from there, and don't put yourself in what can become a dangerous situation."
When the public does help out, it makes news. In recent headlines:
--Two Queen City teens witnessed a drugstore holdup, then trailed the alleged robber to Derry, relaying details of the man's location until police could move in and make an arrest.
-- A Manchester resident directed police to a home across the street where he believed a burglary was in progress, resulting in two arrests.
That's the kind of help police said they welcome.
"If you see something, we want you to say something," said Capt. Vern Thomas of the Derry Police Department. "But we prefer you be a good witness than confront someone. Getting us information about what someone was wearing, what they looked like, where they were headed - all of that is valuable to an investigation.
"And you probably won't get punched, kicked, or worse getting it."
Hobbs, who works in the repossession business and occasionally accompanies bail bondsmen, said since his incident he has been the victim of some property damage, though he wasn't prepared to label them acts of retaliation for helping catch a thief.
"There was some damage done to my car (scratches). I've had something thrown through a window," said Hobbs. "Minor stuff. Your name is out there, people hear where you live, and that's the chance you take - that someone will come looking to get back at you.
"But I can't say for sure these were related to taking down that guy. They could just be coincidental."