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Jim Kenyon: After Police Shooting in Canaan, Seven Weeks And Waiting

  • Officers with the Canaan Police Department chop and melt ice in a field in Canaan, N.H., near the memorial for Jesse Champney, of Enfield, N.H., on Feb. 7, 2018. Champney was shot and killed by a state trooper on Dec. 23, 2017. The officers could be seen using metal detectors while looking through the ice and snow. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • About 100 of Jesse Champney's friends and family surround a makeshift memorial and hold a moment of silence at 6:27 p.m. on Dec. 30, 2017, the time Champney was shot and killed the week before by a New Hampshire State Police trooper near the intersection of Switch Road and Route 4 in Canaan, N.H. "I loved him so much," said Champney's relative Amber Redmond, of Lebanon, N.H., at right. "He had a heart of gold." (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Saeti Tobin, of Grafton, N.H., looks at a photo of her fiance Jesse Champney, who was fatally shot by a New Hampshire State Trooper in Canaan, N.H., on the night Saturday, Dec. 23, 2017, while talking to a reporter about Champney's life and the cirucumstances leading up to his death on Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2017, at a home in Danbury, N.H. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) 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)


Saturday, February 10, 2018

Fifty days and counting. That’s how long it’s been since a New Hampshire state police trooper shot and killed 26-year-old Jesse Champney in Canaan.

But the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office still hasn’t told the public whether it has concluded the shooting was legally justified. In fact, it hasn’t told the public much of anything, including the basic circumstances of the shooting.

What’s taking so long?

Surprise, surprise. Authorities aren’t saying.

In response to an email that I sent Thursday, Senior Assistant Attorney General Jeffery Strelzin, chief of the homicide unit, told me that investigators “hope to have (their) work completed within the next couple of weeks.”

Under that timeline, the investigation would be entering its third month.

By comparison, the AG’s 2015 investigation into the fatal shooting of Hagen Esty-Lennon by two Haverhill police officers took 25 days. Both officers were cleared of any wrongdoing.

In 2016, the investigation into the fatal shooting of Cody Lafont, 25, by a Claremont police officer was wrapped up in 24 days.

The Champney and Lafont cases bear some similarity. In both instances, the officer who used deadly force wasn’t wearing a body camera. There were no eyewitnesses, either.

In the Lafont case, then-AG Joseph Foster determined that Claremont Police Cpl. Ian Kibbe’s use of deadly force was legally justified.

According to the investigators’ report, Claremont Police Cpl. Ian Kibbe said that when he responded to an early morning 911 call at Lafont’s residence, the victim came to the door with a revolver in hand. Despite Kibbe’s repeated orders to do so, Lafont refused to drop his weapon, the report said.

The revolver that Lafont pointed at Kibbe was found at the scene, the report said. It was unloaded, but Kibbe, of course, could not have known that.

Which brings me back to the Champney case.

Investigators haven’t said whether Champney was armed. It seems like a fairly easy question to answer. If he was, it would go a long way in reassuring the public that state trooper Christopher O’Toole’s decision to shoot Champney four times was justified.

But so far, state authorities have said little. The AG’s last news release was put out Dec. 27.

The public has only been told that O’Toole and Canaan police officer Samuel Provenza were following Champney and his fiancee, Saeti Tobin, at around 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 23.

At the time, Champney, who had served prison time for theft, faced a warrant for failing to appear in court, after being charged with possession of heroin with intent to sell and resisting arrest in 2016.

On Route 4, between Canaan and Enfield, Champney apparently drove off the road, getting stuck in a snow-covered field. He jumped out of the car and ran toward the woods.

O’Toole gave chase on foot. Provenza stayed behind, handcuffing Tobin. (She was later released without being charged.)

Shortly thereafter, Champney suffered four gunshot wounds, a Dec. 24 AG news release indicated. O’Toole was not injured.

Last month, I asked state police for some basic information about O’Toole. Through a public records request, I learned that this wasn’t the first time that he’d been involved in a “use of force” encounter.

For O’Toole, who has been a state trooper since Aug. 30, 2013, it was his third time, according to David Hilts, the attorney for the Department of Safety.

Does the fact that O’Toole has been involved in three use-of-force incidents in less than five years indicate that he’s trigger-happy? Impossible to say.

Under New Hampshire law, use-of-force reports are not public information. Reports are an “internal personnel record,” Hilts emailed me.

Whenever a law enforcement officer uses force, which can cover a wide range of conduct, the public is kept mostly in the dark. Except when a citizen ends up dead, which then spawns an AG investigation.

The lack of transparency falls squarely on the shoulders of elected officials. Legislators and governors are only too willing to do law enforcement’s bidding when it comes to carving out exemptions to the state’s already weak public records law.

Case in point: I couldn’t get O’Toole’s age. The information is part of his personnel record, which is “exempt from disclosure,” Hilts told me.

On Wednesday, anyone driving along Roue 4 in Canaan got a rare glimpse into the investigation into Champney’s death. A photograph in the next day’s Valley News shows several Canaan police officers chopping and melting ice in the field where Champney died. The officers could be seen using metal detectors while searching through the ice and snow.

“It seems a little funny,” said Champney’s mother, Cheryl Mason, when I called her. “They were out there digging in what was the biggest snowstorm of the year.”

Why were they searching the site seven weeks after the shooting? Why were Canaan police involved? Did they find anything?

All Strelzin, the assistant attorney general overseeing the case, would say is that the activity was “probably” related to the ongoing investigation.

In other words, the public, not to mention Jesse Champney’s family, will get information about an officer’s use of deadly force when the Attorney General’s Office decides it’s time to do so.

Fifty days and counting...

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.