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Family of Canaan man killed by state trooper disagrees that shooting was justified

Union Leader Correspondent

March 15. 2018 8:46PM
At a news conference Wednesday, Senior Assistant Attorney General Jeffery Strelzin displays a transcript of police radio communication indicating that Jesse Champney said he was armed and was going to shoot during his December confrontation with police. (JOHN KOZIOL/UNION LEADER CORRESPONDENT)

CANAAN — The family of Jesse Champney, the 26-year-old shot and killed by a New Hampshire state trooper in December after a police pursuit, says his shooting was not justified, despite the findings of a report released Wednesday by Attorney General Gordon MacDonald.

“The report set forth the state’s conclusion of a state-conducted investigation regarding the actions of a state employee,” wrote George Ostler, a Norwich, Vt.-based attorney who represents Champney’s mother, Cheryl Mason, and stepfather, Oscar “Fred” Butman.

“We don’t agree with the state’s conclusion,” Ostler continued in an e-mail response Thursday to an inquiry from the Union Leader. “This is a tragedy of immense proportions; a young man is dead because of the action of a state police officer under circumstances that were utterly avoidable.”

On Wednesday, during a news conference at Grafton County Superior Court in North Haverhill, MacDonald released a 34-page report that detailed the investigation into the shooting of Champney in a field at the intersection of Route 4 and Switch Road.

On Dec. 23, a resident called Canaan police to report that her red 1995 Chrysler LeBaron convertible had been stolen. According to the AG’s report, the resident told Canaan police officer Samuel Provenza that she believed Champney took the car because he had been at her house helping her grandson do some work.

The car was later spotted by Trooper Christopher O’Toole at Evans Express Mart. After Provenza arrived at the store to join O’Toole, the trooper, gun drawn, approached the car, the report said. Champney backed up and then drove forward to the front of the store where Saeti Tobin, his fiancée, got in. The car sped out of the parking lot and headed west on Route 4, followed by O’Toole and then Provenza.

A little more than three miles down the road, Champney’s car “appeared to drive in a purposeful manner” into a snow-covered field, the report said, and made it about 70 feet before becoming bogged down. While Tobin stayed in the car, Champney, pursued by O’Toole, ran toward the woods at the north end of the field, losing his shoes in the first few steps.

Oscar “Fred” Butman and Cheryl Mason hold a picture of Jesse James Champney. Champney was Mason's son and Butman's stepson. (File/JOHN KOZIOL/Union Leader Correspondent)

When O’Toole told Champney that “there were other ways to handle this than what he (Champney) was choosing to do,” Champney, the report said, responded by putting his right hand into his jacket pocket and saying “I have a gun, I’m going to shoot you.”

It appeared to O’Toole, the report said, that Champney had his right hand in his jacket pocket either to “stabilize something there” or to “keep the hand obscured.”

Champney continued toward the woods, disregarding the trooper’s repeated orders to stop and show his right hand, according to the report.

Twice more, Champney said he had a gun and was going to shoot O’Toole, the report said. After crossing a stream, he turned his entire body to the left, toward O’Toole, the report said.

As Champney turned, his right hand was still obscured and “at that point, O’Toole believed that Champney was going to shoot him, so O’Toole said he fired, the report states. 

O’Toole saw Champney on his back on the ground; while his right hand was now visible, his left was not, the report said. Believing that his rounds had missed or were ineffective, and because Champney ignored his orders to show his hands, stop moving and put his hands up, O’Toole fired three more times.

Both O’Toole and Provenza gave the gravely injured Champney CPR, but he died at the scene. He did not have a gun, but did have three knives in his possession.

The Attorney General’s report concluded that because of Champney’s repeated threats to shoot O’Toole while behaving as if he did have a gun, “it was reasonable for him (O’Toole) to conclude that he faced an imminent threat of deadly force from Champney ...” 

Accordingly, the report said O’Toole was “legally justified in using deadly force against Champney and no criminal charges will be filed against O’Toole as a result of the incident that resulted in Champney’s death.”No charges will be filed against Tobin, said Jeffrey Strelzin, the state’s senior assistant attorney general and chief of the AG’s Homicide Unit, after Wednesday’s news conference.

Champney had served time at the New Hampshire State Prison for burglary, receiving stolen property and delivery of articles to prisoners. At the time of this death, Champney faced a Nov. 30, 2017 warrant for his arrest for failure to appear in Grafton County Superior Court. In May 2016, Lebanon police charged Champney with possession of heroin with intent to distribute and misdemeanor resisting arrest after allegedly selling the drug to a person cooperating with the department. 

Champney potentially also faced a charge for being a felon in possession of a prohibited weapon — the dagger that was one of the knives he had with him on Dec. 23.

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