The Bookshelf: A Look Back at the Colebrook Massacre

Dec 11, 2015

The Bookshelf is NHPR's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State. All Things Considered features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. 

If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is books@nhpr.org.

This week, The Bookshelf features Richard Adams Carey. In the aftermath of gun violence like what we saw recently in San Bernardino, California and in Paris, the narrative in the media often turns to identity. Who was the killer? Where did they come from? And who were the people who died or injured? What were their lives like? It takes time for reporters to dig up the stories of both victim and perpetrator. 

For author Richard Adams Carey, it took 13 years to tell the stories of the people in Colebrook, New Hampshire who on one August day in 1997 were stunned by an act of gun violence that took the lives of two police officers, a journalist, and a town selectman. The book, In the Evil Day: Violence Comes to One Small Town, Adams tells the story of what some call the Colebrook massacre. Take a listen to Carey's conversation with All Things Considered host Peter Biello, or scroll down to read the Q&A below his book picks.

Richard's Top 5 Book Recommendations

1.   Ulysses by James Joyce. "A city, a nation, and all humanity are contained in Joyce's mold-shattering tale of one day in Dublin, a narrative so innovative and audacious in its techniques that the rest of us, a century later, are still playing catch-up. Read it once with references and notes, another time just for the music of the language, in either order."

2.   A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter. "Speaking of music, this story of a doomed love affair between an American Yale dropout and a French country girl is written in language at once as clear as spring water, as poetic as a Chopin ballade. Poignant and erotic, its every page is luminous with the radiance of love, desire, and loss."

3.   The Old American by Ernest Hebert. "The author attaches to the historical 1746 captivity narrative of Englishman Nathan Blake the fictional character of Caucus-Meteor--Blake's captor, chief of a ragtag band of the Native American dispossessed, and one of most dazzling characters in modern fiction. King, slave, translator, and philosopher, Caucus-Meteor is possessed of a soul that anticipates the ideals of the American republic, and his riveting story should be in the Great American Novel conversation.

4.   Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez. "The author examines the starkest and most outwardly inhospitable landscape on earth--high-latitude Arctic tundra, and its waterways--through the prism of human history and desire. The book grants pride of place to the Inuit, who find the Arctic entirely hospitable, and its lyrical prose makes that intriguing landscape resonate like a tuning fork with harmonies of the mind and  spirit."

5.   In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. "Certain ethical questions attach to this "nonfiction novel": how much of it is really fiction, how complicit was Capote in the execution of the killers, etc. But as a pure work of art, this sets a standard against which all other true-crime narratives are to be gauged. Capote inhabits in equal measures the perspectives of the killers, the pursuers, the survivors, and thereby captures in the most chilling way humanity's capacity for evil."

Let’s talk about what happened first. It started actually years before the events of 1997, when Carl Drega, a resident of the town of Columbia, just south of Colebrook, began to feel singled because of something relatively small. Could you tell us about that?

Yes, it was 1972 and he had built a barn without filing for a building permit. And it seemed like this was on the way to getting worked out. The selectmen said, you know, just file the paperwork and we’ll approve it and then the question arose as to what kind of a permanent siding would be attached to the barn, and things got stuck there. Drega certainly intended to put permanent siding on, and he did, but he dug in his heels at specifying what it would be at that point and from that little pea in the mattress, this toxic dispute unfolded and broadened over the next 25 years.

And broadened to include his anger against the police, and against Vicki Bunnell, one of the victims who worked in the town office as a selectboard member. And he almost started stalking her.

Yes, yes. Vicki actually lived just over the Colebrook line in Columbia. So she served as a Columbia selectman. It was after this barn dispute had begun, but because she was a member of the board, she got entangled in the dispute during her time there and came to be a particular target of Drega’s acrimony.

It’s a long story, what happened on that day, August 19th, 1997, but take us through the major points of what happened on that day.

Drega had—he was shopping that day. A couple days previous he had shouted violent threats and obscenities in the direction of Vicki Bunnell on Main Street, and trooper Scott Phillips was concerned about this, and resolved to pull Drega over and have just—just have a talk with him about it. This was in front of the IGA of the north end of town. That conversation never began. Drega climbed out of his pickup with an AR-15 assault rifle and opened fire at Scott Phillips. They had a little history together, going back.

Les Lord, another trooper, arrived immediately as back-up, but he drove into the parking lot not aware that gunfire had broken out. He was killed quickly. Drega stole Scott Phillips’ cruiser, drove to downtown Colebrook to the News and Sentinel newspaper building, where Vicki Bunnell kept her office. Vicki saw him coming, got everybody fleeing out the back door, but Drega had circled around to the back. He gunned her down.

Editor Dennis Joos tackled Drega and tried to wrestle the rifle away from him but lost that struggle and was executed there on the grass outside the building. Drega then got back into the cruiser and went to his home in Columbia, set fire to his house. Then he fled into the Vermont woods, set up an ambush, and waited. When law enforcement discovered the cruiser, he opened fire, and several more law enforcement people were wounded before Drega was shot and killed around 6 p.m. that day.

So that’s the surface action of the book. The details, though, that you provide allow us to get into the heads of John Harrigan, the police officers, and you even get into the perspective of the man in Massachusetts who sold Drega the assault rifle. What do you think that level of detail adds to a story like this, when there are so many perspectives of the same incident?

So often these stories are perpetrator-centric. San Bernardino, for example. We are hearing so much about the two perpetrators there, and their fourteen victims are reduced to basically mere statistics.

Drega is part of the story, but he’s not the story, in this particular instance. And with this scale of narrative, you get to know Vicki, Dennis Joos, and Scott, and Les, and you get to know what the community lost.

For an event like this that leaves such deep wounds, a person like you, coming from out of town and asking questions about this, has got to be painful, and they may not want to do it, but you talked to a lot of people about this. How did you manage to get folks in Colebrook and people affected by this to open up and tell you their stories?

I probably began going about it all wrong, by directly approaching the immediate survivors of the four victims. In three of those cases, they did as I probably would have done myself in their circumstances. I was told politely but firmly, “Go away.”

The parents of Vicki Bunnell, Earl and Irene, they said, “Well, we’ll think about it. We’ll have to get to know you first.” They gave me a chance. I went back and forth visiting with the Bunnells and six months later they said they would cooperate with the story. And once the Bunnells came aboard, John Harrigan came aboard, and lots of other people followed.

Why do you think the Bunnells gave you their blessing, so to speak, to talk about this, and to write this story?

The only condition that they attached to their cooperation was that it not be all about Vicki. They felt that media treatment of the story had lent more weight to Vicki than to the other three victims, and they regretted that. They also thought that all four victims had been granted short shrift as to who they were and what exactly had been lost. I think it helped a lot also that Earl Bunnell loved books. He was an avid, veracious, ferocious reader, and he had a lot of respect for what a good book could accomplish.