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.[PAGEBREAK]
Having shot a third officer, Drega drove the New Hampshire unit south to a remote area in Vermont where he parked near a farm and cranked up the volume of the police radio so as to call attention to the car.
When the farm' s owner called authorities to report that he'd located the stolen cruiser parked on his property, a multi-agency command post was established nearby. To compensate for a lack of interagency radio frequencies, a New Hampshire cruiser and a Vermont cruiser were parked side-by-side at the staging area to facilitate communication. The farmer and his son were soon at the command post to point out the general direction of the cruiser and a search team was quickly put together to investigate.
Among the officers that responded to the staging area was New Hampshire State Trooper Charles West. The 14-year veteran emerged from his unmarked car just as a multi-agency team of officers was descending on the road leading to the stolen patrol unit. The team included U.S. Border Patrol Agent John Pfeifer, Vermont State Troopers Russ Robinson (with his K-9) and Eric Albright, Vermont Sheriff Amos Colby, and New Hampshire State Troopers Jeff Caulder and Robert Haase.
West donned a State Police windbreaker and quickly jumped in behind the group headed down the road. He didn't like the tactics, but he suppressed his reservations he had about making a staggered line approach down the middle of the road in deference to the command coordinators. For one, he hadn't been party to the briefing that'd taken place prior to his arrival. For another, he was aware of his own tactical concession: The lack of any ballistic protection. He rationalized that since the suspect was armed with an assault rifle, it was probably a moot point.
According to the farmers, Trooper Phillips' car was parked at the end of a dirt road, backed in to face anyone who might approach it from the road. West would later learn that the command post suspected that Drega had abandoned the car and possibly left the area on foot. That the farmers themselves hadn't been shot only served to strengthen the suspicion. It was from this mindset that the plan was made for the men to approach the car on foot in the hopes that the K-9 could pick up Drega's scent and track the man from there.
What nobody knew was that Drega had doubled back about 75 yards toward the access road before insinuating himself among trees on one of the banks that flanked the road.
The officers were essentially walking into an ambush.
Vermont State Trooper Russ Robinson's K-9 alerted to something off to the group's right. Robinson fell back as Pfeifer and Caulder took the point.
Caulder saw the man emerge from behind a tree. For a split-second, he was taken aback by the incongruous image of a man wearing a trooper's hat pointing a rifle at him.
Struck near the groin, Caulder fell. Seconds later, another shot rang out. And Pfeifer went down just as he moved to render aid to Caulder.
Despite their critical injuries, Caulder and Pfeifer sought cover against the lower edge of the bank where Drega was firing from. Pfeifer's chest wound left him on the ground a short way from the bank, but out of reach of his fellow officers. From the back of the line, West slowly scooted along the bank to meet Caulder, who slowly inched toward him.
As others pressed their bodies against the bank and continued to lay down a barrage of cover fire, West eventually reached Caulder. Using the drag strap on the back of Caulder's vest, the pair began a low crawl back toward the staging area.[PAGEBREAK]
As they passed Robinson and his K-9, West offered a suggestion to let the dog loose to flush out the attacker. But Robinson was concerned that the heavy gunfire may have confused the dog. The last thing he wanted was for the K-9 to confuse a fellow officer for an aggressor and further complicate what was already shaping up to be a nightmarish situation.
West assisted Caulder back out of the kill zone, continually scanning the bank for the suspect. But heavy gunfire clouded the issue and West wasn't sure that anyone had even gotten a bead on the suspect's exact location.
When they were almost back to the staging area, Caulder and West were met by EMTs, who had bravely pulled onto the road escorted by two U.S. Border Patrol agents. The EMTs assumed control of Caulder and were escorted back to safety by the agents.
West began a low crawl back down the road to rejoin the search team and to help the seriously wounded Pfeifer. Haase had suffered a foot injury, but remained on the scene. The officers agreed that their most pressing priority was to get Pfeifer out to safety.
As some officers provided cover, others-West included-doubled back to the staging area to retrieve the sheriff's Jeep. They planned to use the Jeep as cover to reach the injured Pfeifer before he bled out.
West, U.S. Border Patrol Agents Stephen Brooks and Marty Hewson, and New Hampshire Fish and Game Warden Sam Sprague walked alongside the Jeep with their rifles resting on the rooftop aimed toward the bank. Sheriff Amos Colby backed the Jeep down the road as quickly as was tactically prudent.
About 30 minutes had passed with no shots fired. The team suspected that Drega had abandoned his ambush spot and fled the woods. The Jeep reached Pfeifer, who was lying on the ground with a serious chest wound. As West, Brooks, and Sprague picked up the injured officer, Drega opened fire again.
Once again, the officers pitched themselves against the bank. Each knew it was up to them to somehow take Drega out before Pfeifer bled out. But Drega had the high ground-and cover.
The officers realized that their only option was to take the fight to the man.
"You know we're going to have to do this," asserted Brooks.
"I don't really want to," said West, whose nervous smile assured Brooks that he wasn't alone in his misgivings. "This is gonna sting," Brooks said.
And with that, the two officers started up the slope.
They'd advanced only a couple of feet when Drega-wearing a ballistic vest and Trooper Phillips' campaign hat-stepped from behind a tree. West ordered the man to drop his rifle, but Drega raised the weapon in their direction.
Both officers returned fire simultaneously, with Brooks firing several rounds from his M14 as West fired a slug from his Remington 870 shotgun. Drega dropped where he'd stood and died at the scene.[PAGEBREAK]
Like all such incidents, tactical concerns can be identified more readily with the advantage of hindsight and the luxury of time. None of the officers that responded to Drega's crime spree escaped the day unscathed; some have even left the profession entirely.
But the same empathy that West holds for every officer impacted by these traumatic events prompts him to speak candidly on the matter. He does so in the hopes that it will mitigate the possibility of another officer being similarly affected; he also hopes that no officer will judge too harshly the actions of anyone involved that day and accept his comments in the spirit that they are intended. Ultimately, West and many of his fellow officers acknowledge that several things could have been handled differently.
A couple of hours had passed between the initial spate of shootings and the time that the stolen cruiser was located. The call from the farmhouse was one of many that police agencies throughout the vicinity were following. By the time West arrived on the scene, the entry team already had a game plan. But West was concerned about the approach.
"I was in the military," he explains. "And I knew that it may not be the best tactic to walk right down the middle of the road, but I wasn't going to second guess the decision that anyone was making at the time. We knew this guy had killed several people and was a dangerous individual. We didn't know how far down the road the vehicle was. As we stood at the command post, he could open fire at any time, so we needed to act quickly."
West also notes that Drega was different than many suspects. For one, he'd taken the time to put on Phillips' trooper hat so as to confuse the officers that first spotted him on the bank. For another, he was content to stay and shoot it out with the intent to take out as many cops as possible.
"A lot of times, people commit suicide in these types of situations, but this guy was different. We picked up over the radio that he shot Wayne Saunders and his house was on fire, so he was on a rampage. We could have flanked him on both sides of the road and swept the area as opposed to walking in line formation down the road," West says.
Ironically, the same rifle scope that'd served Drega well in his earlier acts of madness may have been his undoing during the frontal assault by West and Brooks. In trying to acquire the officers in his scope as opposed to picking up his front sights, Drega left himself vulnerable a split-second longer than he might have otherwise. And although West had considered the possibility that Drega had done another ambush hit and run with his first volley, footprints they found in the woods indicated that the man had been situated in pretty much the same place for the whole time.
"I think he was waiting for an opportunity to take another shot," West says.
West emphasizes the importance of officers laying down cover fire in rescue operations and notes that it was fortunate that Drega didn't come over the top of the side of the bank that backed up to the command post, some 200 yards from where he'd parked the cruiser.
"He was in the woods in a shallow ravine and could have walked up the embankment and seen the entire command post," the trooper explains.
West is appreciative of the firearms and tactical training that he'd acquired throughout his years in the military and law enforcement. "Training came into play a great deal. As a kid, I was a hunter and went trap shooting. Air force, SWAT training, firing range-it all comes into play."
As a result of this shooting, the New Hampshire State Police Department began to issue rifles to officers. Radio communications among neighboring agencies were also put into place.
Officer Saunders' badge had saved him from what would have been a fatal wound, and both Pfeifer and Caulder recovered from their own injuries and are back to work.
For his heroic actions that warm August afternoon, West was named the 1998 Police Officer of the Year by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. He and Brooks also received the Medal of Valor from the New Hampshire State Police as well as Vermont's Medal of Honor. West bravely continues to serve the citizens of New Hampshire.