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NHPR Must Turn Over Spofford Notes Despite Vandalism Case

Even if Eric Spofford is charged as part of the vandalism conspiracy targeting New Hampshire Public Radio reporter Lauren Chooljian, he still has the right to sue the broadcaster for defamation, according to Rockingham Superior Court Judge Daniel St. Hilaire. 

This week’s ruling was a setback for NHPR, which sought to head off Spofford’s attempt to revive the defamation lawsuit. Spofford maintains NHPR and Chooljian were reckless in reporting allegations of sexual misconduct and sexual assault against him.

The public broadcaster argued Spofford’s connection to Eric Labarge and the alleged criminal conspiracy showed his bad faith in the lawsuit. They wanted the court to end his quest to see Chooljian’s work product.

Spofford’s associate, Labarge, 46, was charged this month for allegedly conspiring to vandalize the homes of Chooljian, NHPR journalist Dan Barrick, and their families. Larbarge allegedly coordinated the vandalism with co-defendants Tucker Cockerline, 32, of Salem; Michael Waselchuck, 35, of Seabrook; and Keenan Saniatan, 36, of Nashua.

Labarge, himself the owner of several recovery centers, is described by prosecutors as Spofford’s “close personal associate.”

St. Hilaire denied NHPR’s request to prevent Spofford from accessing Chooljian’s notes and interview transcripts for her story. For St. Hilaire, it was about the presumption of innocence.

“Even if charges were brought against Spofford directly, the Court is not convinced that would warrant reconsideration of the balance of interest in this case given the presumption of innocence at the core of our criminal justice system,” St. Hilaire wrote.

Spofford is not accused of taking part in the vandalism conspiracy himself. According to St. Hilaire, the available documents from the federal case don’t show he was even aware of the vandalism conspiracy.

St. Hilaire dismissed Spofford’s lawsuit this year, finding he had not provided the evidence in his 300-plus page complaint to back his claims. However, Spofford is being allowed to refile the complaint. For that, Spofford said he needs to see Chooljian’s notes and interview transcripts to find the evidence St. Hilaire found lacking the first time.

With the defamation case still open for now, NHPR has been broadcasting a new series by Chooljian, “The 13th Step.” The program focuses on her story of reporting on Spofford, the vandalism, and the lawsuit. It also looks at cases of sexual predators in recovery settings in other states.

Spofford has denied all wrongdoing alleged in Chooljian’s reporting. His lawsuit claimed Chooljian based her reporting on a biased source who was looking to hurt his reputation, ignored sources who contradicted the abuse narrative, and reported as fact things that never happened. 

According to Spofford’s lawsuit, Chooljian was looking for a #metoo scalp to bolster her resume, and she and the liberal-leaning NHPR targeted him because of his conservative views.

Spofford came to prominence as a recovery success story. He was an addict who got clean and started Granite Recover Centers to help others. His business grew as New Hampshire grappled with its opioid addiction crisis, and he became a leading voice on recovery initiatives. Spofford even counseled Gov. Chris Sununu on dealing with the opioid crisis.

Spofford sold Granite Recovery Centers for an undisclosed sum, thought to be in the millions, to a Texas-based company in 2021.

Spofford Associate Charged in NHPR Vandalism Case

Federal charges filed against Eric Labarge in the New Hampshire Public Radio vandalism investigation draw the case closer to Granite Recovery Centers founder Eric Spofford, Labarge’s close associate and NHPR antagonist.

NHJournal was the first outlet in the state to connect Labarge to the vandalism investigation. 

Spofford is suing the station, NHPR reporter Lauren Chooljian, NHPR News Director Dan Barrick, and others for defamation after the broadcaster aired stories last year in which women accused him of sexual misconduct, including assault. 

Eric Spofford speaks to his attorney Michael Strauss last year during a break in a hearing on Spofford’s ongoing defamation lawsuit against NHPR.

A month after the report first aired, Chooljian, Barrick, and their families had their houses vandalized. On Friday, Federal prosecutors with the Massachusetts Attorney’s Office in Boston announced Labarge, 46, and three other New Hampshire men had been indicted for their roles in the vandalism.

According to a statement issued by prosecutors, Labarge agreed to coordinate the frightening vandalism campaign against the journalists with Tucker Cockerline, 32, of Salem, Michael Waselchuck, 35, of Seabrook, and Keenan Saniatan, 36, of Nashua after the story was released.

Spofford has not been charged in the vandalism investigation, and has denied any role in the crimes.

Prosecutors describe Labarge as Spofford’s “close personal associate.” Spofford’s attorney, Michael Strauss, did not respond to NHJournal’s request for comment on the charges against Labarge. Previously, Spofford gave a supportive statement about Labarge.

“I worked closely with Eric Labarge to help him overcome his addiction in the early days of his sobriety,” Spofford said. “I’ve had the opportunity to watch him grow through the ups and downs of recovery for almost ten years. He’s done great things for the recovery community, and I believe he will continue to for years to come.”

Like Spofford, Labarge owns several recovery centers in New Hampshire. Labarge also has a criminal history that includes violence against women attempted murder. He’s currently facing trial in an assault case in Manchester.

According to court records, On or about April 22, 2022, Labarge solicited Cockerline to vandalize Chooljian’s former home in Hanover, using a brick and red spray paint. On the evening of April 24, 2022, Cockerline allegedly spray-painted the word “C*NT” in large red letters on the front door and allegedly threw a brick through an exterior window of the home.

On or about April 22, 2022, Saniatan allegedly agreed to vandalize Barrick’s home in Concord, and Chooljian’s parents’ home in Hampstead, using large rocks and red spray paint. After that, on the evening of April 24, 2022, Saniatan allegedly spray painted the word “C*NT” in large red letters on the front door and threw a large rock at the exterior of Barrick’s home; and he allegedly threw a softball-sized rock through a front exterior window and spray painted the word “C*NT” in large red letters on one of the garage doors of Chooljian’s parents’ home.

On or about May 18, 2022, Labarge allegedly solicited Cockerline to vandalize Chooljian’s parents’ home in Hampstead, and Chooljian’s home in Melrose, Massachusetts, using bricks and red spray paint. Cockerline, in turn, allegedly recruited Waselchuck to vandalize Chooljian’s residence.

On the evening of May 20, 2022, Cockerline allegedly spraypainted the word “C*NT” in large red letters on one of the garage doors of Chooljian’s parents’ home, and left a brick on the ground near the front door. Several hours later, Waselchuck allegedly threw a brick through an exterior window of Chooljian’s home and painted the phrase “JUST THE BEGINNING” in large red letters on the front of the house.

The men are all charged with conspiracy to commit stalking through interstate travel and/or the use of a facility of interstate commerce. Each charge in the indictment carries a maximum sentence of up to five years in prison, three years of supervised release, a $250,000 fine and restitution.

Fentanyl Blamed for Soaring Nashua Overdose Deaths

The number of opioid-related overdoses first responders treated in Nashua rose sharply in March, up nearly 80 percent over the previous month, according to stats compiled by American Medical Resources (AMR). It is yet another sign the state’s opioid crisis continues in its two largest cities.

Chris Stawasz, the Northeast Regional Director of Government Affairs at AMR, said medics responded to 87 suspected opioid overdoses in March; 62 in Manchester – up 13 percent from February and 25 in Nashua – up 79 percent from February.

While the total number of opioid-related overdoses for the year in both cities is trending lower than last year’s record-setting high, 2023’s death count continues to rise. Last month, there were 10 suspected opioid deaths in Nashua and Manchester, with three in Manchester and seven in Nashua. 

Nashua is getting hit particularly hard this year, according to Stawasz. Suspected fatal opioid overdoses in Nashua are trending 29 percent higher than last year. Even more alarming: one in four suspected opioid overdoses (27 percent) in Nashua this year have been fatal.

AMR medics have responded to 224 suspected opioid overdoses in Nashua and Manchester through the end of Marc,h with 35 resulting in suspected opioid OD deaths; 21 in Manchester and 14 in Nashua.

Jay Ruais, who’s running for mayor of Manchester and has had his own struggles with addiction, points a finger at Mayor Joyce Craig’s management during the ongoing crisis.

“Our city needs to alter our approach to this crisis, the current trajectory is clearly unsustainable. We must grow our police department and fully empower them to go after drug dealers while building better systems for vulnerable individuals at critical intervening moments in our hospitals, jails, and schools.

“As Mayor, I will work to ensure we are coordinating with all those fighting to improve our community and save lives,” Ruais said.

Why are such a high percentage of overdoses becoming deaths? Stawasz believes fentanyl is the culprit.

“The significant increase in deaths is attributed to very potent synthetic fentanyl,l which is now found in all types of illicit substances,” Stawasz said. “People who are using illicit substances can have no idea that what they are using contains synthetic fentanyl – or how potent the synthetic fentanyl in the product is. Synthetic fentanyl can be lethal the first time you use it, knowingly or unknowingly.”

In all, there were 62 suspected opioid overdoses in Manchester during March, bringing the year-to-date first-quarter total to 173. The total number of suspected opioid overdoses in Manchester is currently trending the same as last year on an annual basis, with 12 percent of all suspected opioid overdoses responded to by first responders in Manchester this year having been fatal.

There were 25 suspected opioid overdoses in Nashua during Marc,h bringing the year-to-date first-quarter total to 51. The total annual number of suspected opioid overdoses in Nashua is currently trending 15 percent lower than last year on an annual basis, Stawasz said.

Drugs From Mexico, Deaths in Manchester: NH’s Real Border Crisis

New Hampshire law enforcement is dealing with the one-two punch of fentanyl and methamphetamine, as opioid deaths continue to surge and methamphetamine fuels deadly violence. 

And the source of those drugs is 2,400 miles away at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Last month, Manchester and Nashua reported a combined 95 opioid-related overdoses, a 13 percent increase from December. Nine deaths are believed to be linked to these overdoses.

The figures from last year show a sharp rise in opioid overdoses and deaths, after an initial dip due to the 2020 COVID-19 related lockdowns.

November overdose totals in Manchester and Nashua were up 110 percent from the same time in 2020, according to American Medical Response regional director Chris Stawasz.

“I know there are a lot of competing priorities with COVID-19 and the variants that are out there, but this is, unfortunately, if not more deadly, as deadly as the COVID-19 crisis is,” Stawasz told WMUR.

Manchester had more than 500 suspected overdoses in 2021, 30 percent more than the previous, and Nashua had 250 suspected overdoses in 2021, which was 29 percent more than 2020.

Opioid fatalities are typically linked to fentanyl, the powerful synthetic drug being manufactured by Chinese syndicates and distributed by Mexican drug cartels. Those cartels continue to find ways to smuggle the drugs over the border, flooding American streets.

According to The Washington Post, The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol’s Laredo field office alone seized 588 pounds of fentanyl during the 2021 fiscal year, an eleven-fold increase over the 50 pounds it snared in 2020.

United States Attorney for New Hampshire John Farley said that while fentanyl is still the state’s main drug problem, methamphetamine is making gains among Granite Staters as well. It is now the second most common drug on the streets. Again, methamphetamine is a product from the cartels, he said.

“What we’ve seen is a real growth in the Mexican cartels manufacturing and distributing methamphetamine,” Farley said. “They are able to produce a cheap and very pure form of methamphetamine, what people call crystal meth, and they are very aggressive in distributing that highly addictive drug.”

One main method of distributing those drugs is dark web marketplaces. According to The New York Times, dark web sites are accounting for more and more of the fentanyl traffic in the country.

Farley said local and federal law enforcement are seeing come up from the border, and then getting shipped to the east coast. Many times, dealers are using the dark web to buy and sell large quantities of the drugs. 

“Almost anyone who wants to find a connection can find a connection,” Farley said.

New Hampshire Attorney General John Formella has said methamphetamine keeps popping up in investigations involving people shot by police officers. The last five complete investigations into fatal police shootings have found people with methamphetamine in their system who turned violent in confrontations with police, resulting in their deaths.

“Methamphetamine and fentanyl distribution continue to plague New Hampshire. As the Attorney General, I will continue to partner with federal and local law enforcement agencies to implement the most effective strategies to disrupt the flow of illegal drugs into New Hampshire,” Formella said in a statement. “It is only by this collaborative effort that law enforcement can marshal assets to protect not only our citizens but the  officers who work tirelessly to protect our state.”

Last year, Claremont’s Jeffry Ely, 40, was shot and killed during an armed standoff with New Hampshire State Police troopers. Ely had been suffering greater mental health problems as he increased his drug use, including methamphetamine, according to the shooting investigation. 

David Donovan, 35, was shot and killed by police in Meredith in November 2020 when he charged at police, armed with a knife and covered in blood from having just stabbed his mother’s boyfriend, according to the New Hampshire Attorney General’s report. Donovan’s methamphetamine use caused him to become violent, paranoid, and delusional in the months leading up to his fatal encounter with Meredith police.

In October of 2020, Ethan Freeman, 37, of Thornton, was shot and killed by Thornton Police Officer Matthew Yao when a naked and bleeding Freeman charged Yao during a confrontation. Freemen had a history of methamphetamine and other drug abuse, as well as a significant history of mental health issues.

In December 2020, Mark Clermont, a paranoid felon who was known to carry an assault-style rifle and wear a ballistic vest while hunting for alien spacecraft, was shot and killed by New Hampshire State Police Trooper Matthew Merrill during a gun battle Clermont had started. Clermont was known to use methamphetamines. Merrill suffered gunshot wounds during the incident. He survived.

Those drugs ending up in the hands of armed dealers and users are a real concern of law enforcement, Farley said.

“We’re seeing a lot more drug dealers who are armed,” he said. “When a methamphetamine dealer is armed, or is using, the public safety risk is substantial. The impacts that methamphetamine has on thought processes can really create a public safety risk.”