As the subject of numerous newspaper editorials, Carl Drega's run-ins with Columbia, N.H., government officials had long been part of local lore. His courtroom antics also served as a catalyst for Judge Vickie Bunnell's decision to carry a gun.
His grudges against civic authorities dated back to the early '70s when he bumped heads over the use of tarpaper in his summer home. In 1981, he dumped and packed dirt to the rear of his property next to the Connecticut River, explaining it away as his attempt to repair erosion damage. Government officials saw it differently, characterizing it as an attempt to change the very course of the river.
When town officials visited Drega's property in 1995 in response to an assessment dispute, Drega fired shots into the air over their heads to drive them away. Since then, an increasingly paranoid Drega had equipped his property with early-warning electronic noise and motion detectors and added an AR-15 and a ballistic vest to his arsenal.
Shortly after 2 p.m. on Aug. 19, 1997, New Hampshire State Police Trooper Scott Phillips attempted to effect a traffic stop of Drega's pickup truck for multiple vehicle code violations. Trooper Phillips knew of the man's eccentricities from prior contacts. Still, he could not have expected that with the activation of his police lights he'd unwittingly put into motion a terrible and protracted tragedy.
The Kill Zone
Seeing Phillips' traffic lights in his rearview mirror, Drega pulled his truck into the parking lot of LaPerle's IGA, a local supermarket. As Phillips' patrol vehicle came to a stop behind him, both men exited their vehicles.
Only Drega was carrying an optically sighted AR-15 with him.
Drega leveled the assault rifle on Phillips and fired. The trooper immediately returned fire with his sidearm, emptying it. Phillips' rounds missed their target, but Drega's didn't. Wounded in the hand and unable to reload his weapon, Phillips staggered toward the tall grass flanking the parking lot. He fell into the grass just as another trooper, Leslie Lord, arrived on scene.
From half a football field's distance away, Trooper Lord watched through his windshield as Drega spun and pointed the AR-15 in his direction. Lord put his car in reverse to get out of the kill zone. But before he could get his foot on the accelerator Drega fired, instantly killing the 45-year-old father of two.
The 62-year-old Drega then walked over to where Phillips lay wounded in the tall grass and executed the trooper with a gunshot to the head.
On a Rampage
Drega walked back to his pickup, but couldn't get it to start. As stunned and horrified witnesses stared on, he got into Phillips' patrol vehicle. Putting the trooper's car in gear, he proceeded to the offices of the Colebrook News and Sentinel, a local newspaper. The building also housed the office of Vickie Bunnell, the same part-time judge known to carry a handgun because of Drega.
Spotting Drega's armed approach to the building, Bunnell ran through the hallways shouting a warning to other occupants before attempting to flee herself. As she sprinted out a back door, Drega rounded a rear corner of the building and spotted her. He fired once, striking Bunnell in the back and killing her.
Colebrook News and Sentinel editor Dennis Joos had authored several columns on Drega's eccentricities. He probably should have fled at the sound of gunfire. But the soft-spoken Joos proved to be cut from a different cloth. He ran outside to take the fight to Drega.
Tackling the armed man, Joos grappled desperately with Drega for control of the AR-15. But the cards were stacked against him. At 6 foot 2, 200 pounds, and operating under adrenaline-enhanced fury, Drega retained control of the weapon and fired at Joos, shooting him eight times in the torso and back. The editor died at the scene.
Drega drove Phillips' patrol car back to his home where he shaved and changed his clothes. Setting the dwelling ablaze and leaving a variety of explosive devices behind, he drove over the Vermont border as officers from various agencies descended upon the area.
Vermont Fish and Game Officer Wayne Saunders was in his marked SUV when he recognized the stolen New Hampshire cruiser ahead of him. Saunders followed the unit at a slow speed until it disappeared around a train trestle. Saunders stopped short of the trestle, trying to determine what Drega was up to. Just then, Drega stepped out and opened fire with the AR-15. A bullet struck the Fish and Game officer in the shoulder as he put his SUV in reverse. Losing control of the vehicle, Saunders swerved off the roadway and crashed.