N.H. Attorney General: No Charges Against Trooper in Fatal Canaan Shooting (Video, PDF)

  • WARNING: This footage depicts images and language that may not be appropriate for all viewers.

  • New Hampshire Attorney General Gordon MacDonald speaks to the media about the findings in the police shooting involving Jesse J. Champney at the Grafton Superior Court in North Haverhill, N.H., on March 14, 2018. MacDonald said Trooper Christopher O’Toole was legally justified when he shot Champney on Dec. 23, 2017, in a field along Route 4 in Canaan. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Enfield, New Hampshire, resident Jesse Champney. (Courtesy photograph)

  • Senior Assistant Attorney General Jeffery Strelzin points at a crime scene photo during a presentation at the Grafton Superior Court in North Haverhill, N.H., on March 14, 2018. The photo shows the foot chase between Jesse Champney and Trooper Christopher O’Toole. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • The audio recording between a dispatcher and Trooper Christopher O’Toole presented at the Grafton Superior Court in North Haverhill, N.H., on March 14, 2018. Attorney General Gordon MacDonald said Trooper O’Toole was legally justified when he shot Jesse Champney on Dec. 23, 2017, in a field along Route 4 in Canaan. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Attorney General Gordon MacDonald, center, and New Hampshire State Police Colonel Christopher Wagner watch dash cam footage from a police chase during a presentation at the Grafton Superior Court in North Haverhill, N.H., on March 14, 2018. The video shows the initial encounter between Jesse Champney and Trooper Christopher O’Toole in Canaan, N.H., on Dec. 23, 2017. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 14, 2018

North Haverhill — A state trooper who shot and killed a 26-year-old man in Canaan shortly before Christmas will not be charged.

Trooper Christopher O’Toole was legally justified when he shot Jesse J. Champney on Dec. 23 in a field along Route 4 in Canaan, New Hampshire Attorney General Gordon J. MacDonald said at a news conference held on Wednesday in North Haverhill to discuss the findings of his office’s investigation of the shooting.

Based in part on interviews with the three people at the scene and what little was captured by audio and video recordings, the investigation concluded that O’Toole “reasonably believed that the use of deadly force was warranted to defend himself against the imminent threat of deadly force from Champney,” according to the attorney general’s 34-page report.

Key to those findings were what O’Toole said were Champney’s repeated threats while being chased on foot to shoot the pursuing trooper, Champney’s refusal to obey O’Toole’s commands and Champney’s decision at one point to turn in O’Toole’s direction.

Although cruiser video captured some of what occurred prior to the foot chase and shooting, and there are several audio recordings of communications between O’Toole and others, there was no direct audio or video evidence of O’Toole’s interaction with Champney in the field.

Canaan police officer Samuel Provenza also was on scene at the time of the incident, but couldn’t see the shooting. Neither could Saeti Tobin, Champney’s fiancee, who was a passenger in a stolen vehicle driven by Champney and followed by O’Toole and Provenza.

The incident began with a vehicle pursuit from Evans Express Mart on Route 4, after O’Toole spotted a vehicle that had been reported to police as stolen. O’Toole had been informed by Provenza about the report of a stolen car and the probability that Champney was driving it.

After O’Toole saw the stolen car at Evans, he notified Provenza, who drove to the convenience store.

Following a brief pursuit at 6:22 p.m., Champney drove into a field at the intersection of Route 4 and Switch Road and took off on foot. O’Toole chased after him. O’Toole quickly gained ground on Champney, who had lost both boots in the deep snow and was in his stocking feet. Champney held his right hand in his jacket pocket and denied repeated commands to show both hands and surrender, the report said.

On at least three occasions, Champney told O’Toole, “I have a gun, I’m going to shoot you,” according to the report. Provenza, meanwhile, had stayed with the stolen vehicle to take Tobin into custody.

In explaining his decision to continue to chase the fleeing Champney in the field, O’Toole told investigators that he didn’t know where Provenza or Tobin were, and that Champney’s threat to use a gun put not only his own safety at risk, but also that of Provenza, Tobin and passing vehicles. At that point, Champney was still walking away from the pursuing O’Toole with his right hand in his jacket pocket, according to the report.

O’Toole at one point considered using his stun gun, but when Champney approached some woods on the edge of the field and was about 60 to 70 feet from the trooper, he began to turn his body toward O’Toole.

“At that moment, O’Toole believed that Champney was turning to shoot at him, which prompted O’Toole to shoot at Champney to protect himself from the perceived deadly threat,” the report said.

O’Toole fired a total of seven shots at Champney, striking him four times: in the back, on his right buttock, on his right forearm and grazing him on the back of his left thigh.

The state medical examiner determined the shot that traveled into Champney’s back and exited his front proved fatal.

After firing the first four shots, O’Toole saw that Champney was on his back on the ground, he told investigators.

“He could see Champney’s right hand, but his left hand was not visible,” according to the report. “O’Toole ordered Champney to show him his hands, to stop moving and not get up. Champney attempted to stand up. O’Toole, believing he must not have struck him (or that they were ineffective hits) fired three more times at Champney.”

“Because Champney had not been immobilized, had not shown O’Toole his hands, and had made threats that he had a gun and would shoot O’Toole, Champney continued to pose an imminent threat to O’Toole,” the investigation concluded about the trooper’s decision to shoot Champney while he was on the ground.

It’s unclear which shot struck Champney first and in what order the shots that hit him were fired, as well as the exact positioning of the two men when O’Toole fired, the report said. The report theorizes that Champney may have been shot in the back because he turned away from O’Toole after the trooper fired the first shot.

“Where’s your gun?” O’Toole asked Champney, according to the report, to which Champney replied that he didn’t have one.

“Why did you do that?” O’Toole asked. Champney never replied.

Champney was pronounced dead in the field at 6:51 p.m.

Among the evidence considered by the state Attorney General’s Office was video footage from a dashboard camera in Provenza’s cruiser and his wireless microphone, as well as dispatch audio recordings.

Tobin, Champney’s fiancee, told investigators she and Champney, a felon, knew he had a warrant out, and said that Champney didn’t want to go back to prison, especially two days before Christmas.

Toxicology testing showed Champney had Suboxone, amphetamines and a high level of methamphetamine that caused “acute” intoxication in his system at the time of his death. The level of methamphetamine could have caused “violent and irrational behavior,” according to the toxicology report.

The dispatch audio recordings, dialogue of which is contained in the report, appear to corroborate O’Toole’s recollection of Champney verbally warning him that he had a firearm.

O’Toole can be heard telling a dispatcher at 6:25 p.m. that Champney was “advising he is armed,” according to dialogue cited in the report.

“Saying he is armed. Saying he wants to shoot,” O’Toole relayed.

Champney wasn’t armed with a gun, although after the shooting, O’Toole searched Champney and discovered three knives.

In addition to the dispatch audio, Provenza’s wireless microphone and cruiser camera picked up parts of the incident, such as the sounds of gunshots, but provided little insight into what transpired in the field. Neither officer was wearing a body camera.

It was Provenza’s familiarity with Champney that played a role in O’Toole’s involvement in the incident.

Canaan resident Justine Prentice had called police that day and reported that her red Chrysler LeBaron convertible had been stolen, according to the report. Prentice believed Champney had taken the car because he had been at her house earlier in the day, she told police in an interview. Tobin contended Champney borrowed the car with permission from Prentice’s grandson.

Provenza notified O’Toole about the stolen vehicle report because Champney was ‘known to be hostile to law enforcement,’ ” Provenza told authorities, according to the report.

O’Toole was on his way to the Canaan Police Department to meet Provenza when he passed the Evans Express Mart on Route 4 and saw the stolen vehicle.

Provenza’s video camera footage shows Tobin emerging from the store and getting into the passenger seat before Champney pulled out of the parking lot. The chase reached speeds of 40-70 mph before Champney drove — deliberately or not — into the field, got out of the car and ran.

Because of the angle and distance, Provenza’s video camera captured none of what occurred in the field.

Because O’Toole wasn’t wearing an audio mic or body camera, only his communications with the dispatch service is recorded. Champney’s voice is never heard in an audio or video clip.

A man who answered Champney’s mother’s phone on Wednesday referred comment to the family’s lawyer, George Ostler, whose office is in Norwich.

Ostler said he received a copy of the report on Wednesday afternoon and couldn’t comment on its findings because he hadn’t had a chance to review it.

“We are shocked and saddened that Jesse Champney lost his life in these circumstances,” Ostler said.

He also called it “unbelievable” that the New Hampshire State Police doesn’t equip its officers with body cameras.

New Hampshire State Police Col. Christopher Wagner extended his sympathy to the Champney family at the news briefing on Wednesday, and said that no police officer ever wants to be in a position where they have to use deadly force.

“Dynamics of a situation can change in a blink of an eye,” Wagner said, adding that the situation has had a “profound” impact on O’Toole, who is still on leave. “The job of a law enforcement officer is increasingly more dangerous.”

The investigation lasted three months, something Jeffery Strelzin, chief of the homicide unit in the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office, said wasn’t a long time for a homicide investigation.

“There is a great deal of work that goes into this,” Stelzin told a room of police officers and reporters. “We work as expeditiously as we can.”

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.

Jim Kenyon writes that without any real video or audio evidence from the field that night, the Attorney General had much explaining to do.

Continue reading after the report.