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After Years of Bucking National Trends, NH Murder Rate Rising — Fast

Early Sunday morning, Hooksett Police found the body of Jason Wirtz, stabbed in the neck and bleeding, on Main Street. Later that day, they arrested Dillon Sleeper, age 26, formerly of Franklin, and charged him with second-degree murder.

It was the 17th homicide in New Hampshire, a state that’s averaged 18 murders a year since 2017. And it’s still July.

New Hampshire is generally one of the safest states in the country when it comes to violent crime in general and homicide in particular, according to FBI records. It’s certain to blow past its average murder rate this year.

“We’ve responded to 14 separate callouts for investigations that have involved 16 different deceased individuals,” said Michael Garrity, director of communications for Attorney General John Formella said Friday. “These include matters where investigations involved allegations of self-defense/defense of another.”

Among the dead this year is a Hudson infant who died last month in what is now considered suspicious circumstances. The 15-day-old infant was taken from the parents’ home, at an apartment on Burns Hill Road in Hudson, to a local hospital in medical distress. While the case is deemed suspicious, the official cause and manner of death are still pending an autopsy.

Most suspicious deaths are resolved quickly by law enforcement. For example, earlier this month Timothy Hill, 72, of Winchester, was found shot in his home. Police soon arrested Keegan Duhaime, 26, of Winchester, and charged him with two counts of second-degree murder.

In some cases, the alleged killer is already dead by the time police arrive, as in the recent Alstead incident where authorities were called to a reported murder-suicide involving a man killing his domestic partner, then himself.

However, there are still unsolved cases in New Hampshire this year. The April murders of Concord couple Stephen and Djeswende Reid remain a mystery. Police recently announced a reward of $50,000 for information that leads to an arrest and indictment of whoever is responsible for their deaths.

According to law enforcement, the Reids left their home in the Alton Woods apartment complex on the afternoon of Monday, April 18, and went for a walk to the area of the Broken Ground Trails which are off Portsmouth Street in Concord. Family and friends did not see or hear from them. The Reids’ bodies were found in the early evening of April 21 in a wooded area near the Marsh Loop Trail.

Now, with a little more than five months left in the year, New Hampshire is on pace to beat the current five-year average of 18 homicides by the end of 2022.

The most recent FBI data runs through 2020, and it shows New Hampshire had one of the lowest homicide rates in the country that year with 12 total. In 2019, New Hampshire had a spike in homicide with 30. In 2018 there were 19 homicides, in 2017 there were 12, and in 2017 12 homicides were recorded.

While this year could reveal an uptick in murder, New Hampshire has historically seen a low ratio of violent crimes, as New Hampshire’s violent crime rate has dropped every year since 2017.

The state recorded the second-lowest violent crime rate in the country in 2020. According to the FBI data compiled from New Hampshire law enforcement agencies, the violent crime rate in New Hampshire was 195.7 incidents per 100,000 people in 2017. It fell to 146.4 per 100,000 in 2020.

Even as New Hampshire’s crime rate fell, it skyrocketed nationally. The FBI found a 30 percent spike in murders in 2020, and the violent crime rate went up to 398.5 incidents per 100,000 people.

President Joe Biden and his allies in Congress have proposed gun control laws to address the nation’s spike in violence. Last week the House Judiciary Committee passed a ban on rifles labeled “assault weapons” by politicians. The ban is backed by all four members of the New Hampshire congressional delegation.

However, Second Amendment advocates note the Granite State’s low crime rate is accompanied by one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the country–the second-highest number of guns per capita according to one survey. New Hampshire also makes it easy to buy guns. It’s also a relatively easy place to buy and own guns.

New Hampshire is the only New England state in the top 25 rankings for gun rights. Guns and Ammo rank the Granite State number 17 on its Best States for Gun Owners list, ahead of Alabama, South Carolina, and Florida. There are no bans on so-called “assault weapons” in New Hampshire.

Shaheen Calls Sununu ‘Cowardly’ On Guns. But Remember Carl Drega?

In the wake of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen took to Twitter to accurse Gov. Chris Sununu of cowardice. But her own record as governor is problematic.

In response to a tweet from Sununu regarding the Robb Elementary School shooting, Shaheen wrote, “How can anyone be complacent with this status quo? Refusing to enact common-sense gun reforms is cowardly, irresponsible, and deadly.

“Buffalo. Uvalde. Tulsa. Las Vegas. Orlando. Newtown. Parkland. Aurora. Columbine,” Shaheen added. “The list goes on.”

But there is another town she could have added to the list: Colebrook, N.H.

In August 1997, Carl Drega shot and killed four people in Colebrook, including two New Hampshire State troopers in the state’s only mass shooting. 

Carl Drega

Described as a disgruntled loner who blamed local officials for his wife’s death from cancer, the 62-year-old Drega had repeatedly been involved in disputes over zoning regulations and property taxes with the town of Columbia, N.H. Years of frustration boiled over into deadly rage on August 19 when state troopers Les Lord and Scott Phillips pulled him over for excessive rust on his truck.

Drega stole the dead officers’ police car and drove to Colebrook District Court to hunt down Judge Vicki Bunnell, who was also a Columbia selectwoman and had a restraining order against him. Drega shot her eight times in the back. When Dennis Joos, editor of the Colebrook News and Sentinel, tried to wrestle the AR-15 away from him, Drega killed him, too.

Drega went to his house in Columbia and set it on fire. He was confronted by N.H. Fish and Game warden Wayne Saunders, who Drega shot and wounded. He then fled across the river to Vermont for a last stand, during which three more law enforcement officers were wounded before Drega was finally shot to death.

It was a shocking crime in a small community. A library in Stewartstown was later named for Joos in honor of his courage. Books have been written about the horrific events of that August day.

And who was governor in 1997? Democrat Jeanne Shaheen.

In the aftermath of New Hampshire’s only mass shooting, then-Gov. Shaheen didn’t sign any laws restricting gun ownership or making it more difficult to buy AR-15s. Indeed, Democrats have held the corner office for 19 of the 25 years since Drega’s rampage and New Hampshire still has some of the least restrictive gun laws in the nation. 

NHJournal repeatedly contacted Shaheen’s office for a comment about her gun control record, her accusation of cowardice against Gov. Sununu, and what she would do in response to the mass shooting in Texas. She declined to respond.

Associate Attorney General Jeff Strelzin, Director of the Public Protection Division, said the FBI defines mass shooting incidents as those with four victims, not including the shooter or shooters.

“The Congressional Research Service defines mass shootings as multiple, firearm, homicide incidents, involving four or more victims at one or more locations close to one another,” Strelzin said.

While Drega’s shooting is the only one to meet the FBI’s definition of a mass shooting, Strelzin said there are two other incidents in which three people were shot.

In July 2007, Michael Woodbury shot and killed three men in a store in Conway. In 2010, Ken Arsenault shot three people in Pittsburg. One victim later died.

Both of those shootings also occurred on the watch of Democratic Gov. John Lynch. During his record four terms, no significant gun restrictions were put into place.

Hassan’s contribution to gun control as governor was vetoing the constitutional carry bill that Sununu would go on to sign into law.

The Gifford Law Center, a non-profit dedicated to preventing gun violence, gives New Hampshire an F in gun control laws.

“New Hampshire lacks many basic gun safety protections and, in fact, has weakened its gun laws in recent years—state lawmakers must reverse this deadly trend,” the Giffords ranking states. “New Hampshire has not passed any meaningful gun safety laws in years, and recently enacted a law that allows people to carry loaded, hidden handguns in public without a background check or permit.”

But according to Jim Goulden, a Nashua defense attorney who specializes in gun crime cases, New Hampshire politicians who support gun control usually end up out of office.

“I don’t know of any New Hampshire politician who has pushed for greater gun control,” he said.

New Hampshire’s gun laws tend to focus on punishing people who use firearms in the commission of a crime, or who possess firearms while being legally prohibited from doing so, he said. Goulden said the results of New Hampshire’s laws are evident.

“If we’re going by crimes involving firearms, New Hampshire has very good gun control, we have very few gun crimes,” he said.

Last year, the FBI released crime statistics for 2020, finding a 30 percent surge in murders nationwide, but not in New Hampshire. According to the FBI’s data, there were 6.5 murders per 100,000 people nationally. In New Hampshire, it was 0.9 per 100,000 or 12 murders for all of 2020.

The 2020 statistic may be an anomaly. Michael Garrity, director of communication for the New Hampshire Department of Justice, said the state typically averages about 19 murders per year, and 2022 is following the trend.

“There have been 11 so far this year, so there has been no spike in homicides,” he said.

Goulden said no matter the gun laws anyone wants to propose, the only real change will happen when people start getting serious about addressing mental illness.

“Until people start taking personal responsibility for themselves and their own families, mental illness, always going to be an outlier,” he said.