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Shock of double murder lingers, 22 years later

Sunday News Correspondent

February 25. 2018 1:39PM

Robert Dingman, left, and Jeffrey Dingman 

ROCHESTER - Spaulding High School's 1996 yearbook features rows of smiling faces and the year's big stories - Princess Diana, O.J. Simpson and the Unabomber.

But among those smiling faces was Class of 1997's Robert Dingman, who would turn out to be the biggest hometown headline when he and his brother, Jeffrey, murdered their parents - Vance and Eve Dingman, both 40 - in the family's Old Dover Road home on Feb. 9, 1996.

After shooting their parents multiple times with a .22 caliber pistol, the Dingman boys hid their parents' bodies in the attic and basement before prepping for a weekend of partying.

Jeffrey Dingman had just turned 14 at the time of the murders and was still in middle school. He pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder and was granted parole in March 2014 after serving 18 years behind bars.

In May 1997, Robert Dingman was tried as an adult, convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

This month, Robert Dingman's legal team was in Strafford County Superior Court fighting for his freedom. At age 39, Robert Dingman wants a chance to have a "normal life," including keeping a job and raising a family.

A shocking discovery

The bodies of Vance and Eve Dingman were discovered on Feb. 12, 1996. Co-workers of the couple called police when they didn't show up for their jobs. He was an electrician. She was a customer service representative at a fabric plant.

Robert Dingman was in class that Monday. He rarely missed school, according to English teacher Pam Hubbard.

"Robert always got his work in. He was polite. He always seemed to get along with the other kids," Hubbard said.

Hubbard said Robert Dingman had tiny, neat handwriting and was always nicely dressed for school.

When word spread in the school community that Robert Dingman was being arrested for double murder, students had questions for their teachers, who were stunned.

"It was like a thunderbolt hit the room. And every day we looked at that empty seat in the classroom," Hubbard said.

Superintendent Michael Hopkins has been with the school system for 40 years. In 1996, Hopkins was assistant superintendent.

"The staff at that time were surprised and shocked by the incident," Hopkins said.

There was no social media then, he said, and it was before guidance counselors took an active role on counseling students affected by violent crimes.

Robert Dingman is seen here in Spaulding High School's 1996 yearbook. He murdered his parents that year.

"We talked to the teachers that had (Robert and Jeffrey) as students at the high school and middle school," Hopkins said of how they handled the situation.

Meanwhile, Rod Doherty, the now-retired executive editor of Foster's Daily Democrat, was busy working to get a reporter on the story as soon as possible once the news broke.

"It was just hard to believe," Doherty said. "In the community itself, people were asking, 'How could this happen here?'"

Signs of trouble

As the truth unfolded, teens who knew Robert Dingman began to describe troubling details about his behavior prior to the murders. They testified about statements Robert Dingman made during his first-degree murder trial.

Devin McCowan, who was 18, lived next door to the Dingman family and had known Robert since he was a child. He called Robert Dingman his best friend.

Under questioning by prosecutor John A. Kissinger from the Attorney General's office, McCowan told the jury Dingman expressed a desire to kill his parents or that he wished they were dead a couple of times in the weeks before the double murder. On the day of the murders, Robert Dingman again said he wanted to kill his parents, but McCowan thought he was just blowing off steam.

McCowan said Robert Dingman believed his parents were more strict with him than other parents.

Jodi Chabot was dating Robert Dingman at the time of the murders. At 16 years old, she told the jury they spent a lot of time talking on the phone and watching movies together. Robert Dingman told her he "wanted them dead" a few times.

Chabot said Robert Dingman wanted some privacy.

Tim Glidden, then 19, and Ryan Blaney, also 19, both testified that Robert Dingman boasted about life behind bars a month before the murders.

The trio was in a car driving around and talking about their futures. What Dingman said was a surprise to them.

"I could kill my parents. Jail is the life. You get three square meals a day, play basketball, hoops, pump some iron," Glidden recalled Robert Dingman saying.

Those are words that must still ring in Dingman's ears. He's serving his life sentence at the Northern New Hampshire Correctional Facility in Berlin.

Fight for freedom

Stephanie Fall, who knew Robert, says she thinks he deserves the same opportunities for freedom as his brother.

"Personally, I grew up with Robert. He was very withdrawn, quiet, well-behaved. He should be punished. However, he deserves a chance at parole, just like Jeffrey," Fall said.

Fall said Robert Dingman was enrolled in Catholic school with her from first to sixth grade, then they attended Spaulding High School together. Jeffrey Dingman was in her younger sister's class.

Fall said juveniles often lack full brain development and should not be tried as adults.

"Obviously, some children and teens commit heinous crimes, including murder. They should absolutely be punished, and I believe many can be rehabilitated, and may still serve lengthy sentences, but ultimately be released," Fall said.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences without parole for those younger than 18 at the time of their crime violates the constitution.

The state of New Hampshire is offering to resentence Robert Dingman to 50 years to life in prison, saying that meets constitutional muster.

Robert Dingman's attorney, Meredith Lugo, argued Feb. 12 that 50 years would be a de facto life sentence.

"The 50-year sentence denies any actual or real life post release or post incarceration," Lugo told Judge Tina Nadeau.

Erin Fitzgerald, who works for the Attorney General's office, argued they are offering a meaningful opportunity for release.

"The state is not seeking life without parole. The state is seeking two 25-year sentences," Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald said that when parole eligibility is considered, Robert Dingman could be out of prison in 25 to 40 years.

John Kacavas worked for the Attorney General's office and prosecuted the Dingman case with Kissinger in 1997. He says he would not be surprised if Robert Dingman was resentenced to a number of years.

"I would be surprised if he were released," Kacavas said.

Kacavas, who now works as chief legal officer and general counsel for Dartmouth-Hitchcock, said even 22 years later, he still is not sure anyone will ever know why this heinous crime happened.

"The motivations for these murders was so trivial," Kacavas said. "I'm not sure if there was ever clarity, or if there will ever be clarity."

Attempts to reach Jeffrey Dingman were not successful. Immediately after release he lived and worked at a laundry in Manchester.

Another hearing in Robert Dingman's case is scheduled for June.

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