Somber memories 20 years after small-town shootings in NH
Twenty years ago, an angry loner with a gun murdered four people, two of them state troopers, in the New Hampshire town of Colebrook, wounded four other officers and was killed in a shootout with police in Vermont.
Today, people still hesitate to mention Carl Drega's name, but they strive to remember the four lost on Aug. 19, 1997.
"One thing we try to avoid is talking about Carl Drega," said Lt. Gary Prince, commander of Troop F in Twin Mountain, where the two fallen troopers were based. "What happens is that name is the only name that people know. ... We try to make it about the victims and their families, as opposed to the perpetrator of it."
Troop F is organizing a 55-mile relay run Friday in New Hampshire from the supermarket where troopers Les Lord and Scott Phillips were shot, along Route 3 to the Twin Mountain barracks. Runners will take turns through the night to "bring memories of their fallen brothers from the north country back to their barracks." It will culminate with an annual flag-raising ceremony that has come to honor all fallen officers.
"Nobody was working here at the time when they were killed, but yet here we are still, keeping their memory alive, so that's important," Prince said.
Also being remembered are Vickie Bunnell, an attorney and part-time judge killed outside her office at the Colebrook News & Sentinel, and editor Dennis Joos, who tried to wrestle away Drega's assault rifle. A monument to the four with their images is near the paper.
For a small group who knew the four well, though, the memories of the shooting are still raw.
"It's a stumbling block for me, in a way," said John Harrigan, of Colebrook, who was publisher of the News & Sentinel. "I replay the whole thing every now and then in my mind and just wonder why I was not one of the dead. I was supposed to stay in my office in the afternoon and go fishing with Vickie's dad."
Drega, 62, a carpenter in nearby Columbia, had a long history of conflict with town officials over property issues. Some believed he blamed his wife's 1972 death from cancer on stress from the disputes. The town took him to court over a zoning violation because he refused to finish a tar paper-covered house.
One night in 1991, Drega wouldn't leave town hall as he rummaged through property files. Bunnell, then a town selectwoman, called state police, who handcuffed and removed him. On another occasion, Bunnell and a tax assessor went to Drega's house, where Drega fired shots to scare them off.
That Aug. 19, Phillips wanted to talk to Drega about his rusted-out pickup. He saw it parked at the supermarket and pulled in, radioing Lord that he was there. As Phillips got out of his cruiser, Drega raised an assault rifle and started shooting. Phillips ran for cover. Lord, who didn't know what had happened, pulled into the parking lot. Drega opened fire. He went back to Phillips and shot him several more times before driving away in Phillips' cruiser.
Shortly afterward, Drega shot Bunnell and Joos. Drega then drove to his home in Columbia and set it on fire. He headed into Vermont with police following, wounded four officers and was killed in gunfire in the woods.
John Pfeifer, a U.S. Border Patrol agent who was coming to the aid of a wounded trooper, was struck in the shoulder by a bullet. It pierced his lung before exiting out his back.
"I'm waiting for help because where my position is now, no one can come up to get me because they're going to expose themselves to this guy shooting at them," Pfeifer recalled. I don't know the timeline. It seemed like forever. ... My whole left side was starting to go numb. And I just wanted to stay conscious so that I could defend myself if he came down over the bank."
Police later found thousands of rounds of armor-piercing ammunition, dozens of pipe-bomb casings and motion sensors at Drega's home.
"He had been probably conspiring to do something at a higher level, and he just so happened to be pulled over that day, and went sideways," said Pfeifer, who now commands the Border Patrol sector running 295 miles from Ogdensburg, New York, to the New Hampshire-Maine line. "But what his ultimate plans were, I'm not sure if anybody ever knew or knows what they were."
In addition to the monument, a mountain has been named for Bunnell. Portions of Route 3 in northern New Hampshire have been named after Lord and Phillips. A library in Colebrook was named for Joos.
Their loss still lingers.
"This is still a very horrible time," said Scott Stepanian, the school resource officer in Colebrook who worked as a trooper alongside with Lord and Phillips.
"All four people were just the salt of the earth."
Associated Press writer Wilson Ring in Colebrook, New Hampshire, contributed to this report.