Monday, September 14, 2015

Six Books for Helen

Main Street in Colebrook, New Hampshire

by Richard Adams Carey
author of In the Evil Day: Violence Comes to One Small Town

The first spooky moment was meeting Steve Brooks in the parking lot outside the Tillotson Arts Center in Colebrook, NH, as he arrived early for my talk and book signing there.

Now retired from his work as a Border Patrol agent, Brooks is as brave a man as you could hope to meet. On August 19, 1997, he was one of three—along with state trooper Chuck West and Fish & Game conservation officer Sam Sprague—who put themselves directly in Carl Drega’s line of fire in order to rescue wounded BP agent John Pfeifer.

Drega, a 62-year-old carpenter and millwright, had carried on a 25-year property dispute with selectmen in the town of Columbia, next door to Colebrook. On that day in August, at a traffic stop at a supermarket in Colebrook, Drega had gotten out his pickup with an assault rifle and murdered troopers Scott Phillips and Les Lord. Then he drove to downtown Colebrook, where he murdered lawyer and former Columbia selectman Vickie Bunnell, and also newspaper editor Dennis Joos, who tried to save Vickie.

Richard Adams Carey
After several more incidents, Drega disappeared into the Vermont woods. There he set up an ambush in which Pfeifer and two NH state troopers were wounded. Brooks also proved himself a cool marksman. A bullet from his M16 was one of the two rounds that hit Drega at once, killing him instantly. Chuck West fired the other.

That‘s only a sliver of all that happened that day. There was also all that led up to it, and then the aftermath of a rampage that ran up and down the Upper Connecticut Valley and caught up hundreds of people as bystanders, witnesses, potential victims.

Grief and anger still run like a subterranean river beneath Colebrook, which is the primary reason that my book In the Evil Day took 13 years to research and write. Well, there were so many people to talk to, and I never did get to them all. But mostly I was delayed by how difficult it was for anyone to talk about what happened, to go over that bloody ground again.

Some just couldn’t, and politely refused my interview requests. Some of those—politely—objected to anyone writing a book about the incident. It would only stir up the grief, rub salt in the wounds, they said.

Most, however, did agree to talk. In many of those interviews a whole lot of grief was stirred up, and tears shed again by people of both genders. I found through those interviews a story that had the breadth and twists of a novel and that needed to be told—not on behalf of the grief, but rather the extraordinary grace and courage that so many ordinary people displayed that day. Some, like Steve Brooks, had been trained to confront mortal peril. Most were not, but did so anyway.

In the Evil Day was published on September 1, and eight days later it was introduced to the town in an event sponsored by the Colebrook Area Historical Society. The CAHS wasn’t sure how the book would be received, but they decided to take a chance on it. Nor was I at all confident.

I had interviewed Steve Brooks in 2009 and not seen him since then. But I had also spent every day of the last six years with him, weaving the man and his experiences into the fabric of my story. He had become like a fictional character to me, and that was why—seeing him again in flesh-and-blood outside the Tillotson Center—I had that spooky sensation. I felt like Thornton Wilder suddenly confronted by, say, Dr. Gibbs from Our Town. were many more “characters” from my story present that night. Two of the most important were John Harrigan and Charlie Jordan. Harrigan was the owner of the News and Sentinel newspaper, where Vickie and Dennis were killed. He had been called out of town, and then came back to find the woman he loved lying dead in the parking lot. Finally he mustered the survivors of his staff and put out an issue of the Sentinel that would earn a Pulitzer nomination.

Jordan was a fellow journalist who happened to have his camera handy and was first on the scene at the newspaper building, taking photos even as he feared the killer’s possible return. He stayed to help get the paper out that night, and then took Dennis’s place as its editor.

They took the podium before I did—first Charlie, then John. They both had read drafts of the manuscript and praised the book not just as a work of history, but as a salve, not salt, to these wounds. I followed them, talking about my research and reading from chapter one. I could feel myself being taken in, my book being welcomed.

More spooky moments ensued as people from my story appeared in the line for signed copies. Most excruciating was my encounter with Helen Lord, the mother of Les Lord. She had copies for herself, her three daughters, and for Les’s son and grandson. My heart clenched to think of this radiant, loving woman reading a description of the murder of her only son.

That son had been a kindhearted prankster with a legendary laugh, beloved throughout the North Country, a place where the line between trooper and the guy next door is indiscernible. As I signed books for Helen, though, I remembered that this story is less about how Les Lord died, more about how he lived and who he was—the written historical record of why people thought so much of him, and why their grief endures.

Of course we wouldn’t grieve so hard if we didn’t love so well. It’s only in memory, in honoring and preserving it, that the love outlasts the grief—and that the courage outlasts it as well.

Helen Lord, a very brave woman herself, gave me a hug before she gathered up her books and went outside. By then it was dark, but the stars were out.


  1. I do not recall reading as moving a book before...I have received an education, a benediction, helping me to understand what it means to live.

  2. Derek, many thanks to you for coming to this story with such an open heart.

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