KEENE — The man charged with firing off a stolen shotgun that sparked a fire last year in a Winchester fireworks shop is not competent to go to trial, according to records filed in Cheshire Superior Court in Keene.
Joseph Champagne, 75, is charged with reckless conduct, criminal mischief and two counts of falsifying physical evidence for the Sept. 24, 2018, fire that caused more than $660,000 in damages to the Stateline Fireworks store on Route 10 where he occasionally worked odd jobs.
Cheshire Superior Court Judge David Ruoff is now considering a proposed prosecution order to have the charges against Champagne dropped so long as he stays away from Michael Dapkus and Pamela Wilcox-Dapkus, who are the store’s owners as well as Champagne’s former landlords.
According to a court-ordered competency evaluation, Champagne is suffering from age-related dementia, according to the state’s motion. Additionally, since the fire, Champagne has remarried and moved out of state, according to the motion.
Dapkus and Wilcox-Dapkus told the court in an affidavit they have known Champagne for years, and helped him while he cared for his wife when she was dying of cancer. Dapkus and Wilcox-Dapkus eventually paid off Champagne’s mortgage and paid for his utilities and taxes so he could remain in his home, which is across the street from the store, according to the affidavit.
Over the years, Dapkus and Wilcox-Dapkus bought Champagne new boots, paid his electric bill, and even paid his veterinarian’s bill for his cat, according to the affidavit. Since the fire, Champagne has harassed the family, has threatened to shoot the plow drivers they send in winter, and has driven up from Massachusetts to throw garbage on the property, according to the affidavit.
Dapkus and Wilcox-Dapkus themselves faced losing their home after the fire because of the cost to repair the business, and the fact that the store was closed for six months, according to the affidavit.
Dapkus and Wilcox-Dapkus state that in the wake of the fire, Champagne lied about the couple, blaming them for the fire and his problems.
“These stories ranged from accusations that we never paid him for his work while employed with us, how we never did anything for him to ever help him, how we stole his home from him, and how we framed him for our fire,” they state.
Dapkus and Wilcox-Dapkus are asking the court to extend a restraining order they got in July to keep Champagne from contacting them and from coming onto their property, including the store.
Days after the restraining order was granted in July, Champagne entered the Stateline Fireworks store and asked the clerk to come to his house to help him lift something. The clerk instead called police and Champagne was arrested, according to a police report.
According to the documents filed in Cheshire Superior Court, Champagne had allegedly stolen the shotgun that started the fire, along with two other guns, from a former roommate. Police said Champagne told them he had taken three guns from Austin McKelvey, 30, in lieu of rent. Police said McKelvey told them the guns were stolen when he left the shared home.
Champagne initially denied having any guns, but eventually told police he had sold two of them — a pistol and a .22 caliber rifle — for $50 a piece, keeping the shotgun, police said.
On the day of the fire, Champagne told police he tripped inside his home and the loaded shotgun went off, firing a slug through the wall and across the street, into the fireworks store, according to the police report.
Store employee Ryan McAlpine was with Dapkus, loading items into a storage container when they heard what sounded like a gunshot. Moments later, they started hearing fireworks going off in the store as the fire picked up.
Police zeroed in on Champagne’s house after finding the hole in the store where the slug had gone in, and they determined that it had come from Champagne’s house. Champagne had tried to repair the holes in his home, and had buried the shotgun in his backyard, according to police.