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Jim Kenyon: Claremont Police Shooting Gets Second Look

  • 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.


Saturday, April 21, 2018

Just before dawn on Sept. 25, 2016, a Claremont police officer shot and killed 25-year-old Cody LaFont in the front doorway of his home on Congress Street.

Cpl. Ian Kibbe told state investigators that LaFont had pointed a revolver at him and did not comply with his repeated demands to drop the weapon. Fearing for his life, Kibbe said he unholstered his semi-automatic pistol and fired three shots at LaFont.

LaFont was hit all three times in the chest and died at the scene.

After a 3½-week investigation, then-New Hampshire Attorney General Joe Foster announced that Kibbe’s use of deadly force was “legally justified.”

But 19 months after the shooting, Foster’s successor, Gordon MacDonald, has ordered a review of the case.

In light of recent events, it’s much needed.

A month or so ago, Claremont Police Chief Mark Chase sent information to the state Attorney General’s Office about the conduct of Kibbe and another officer, Mark Burch, in a case unrelated to LaFont’s death. The AG’s Office is looking into allegations that the two officers “falsified documentation related to a search” that took place in late February.

No other information has been released, although Chase confirmed last month that Kibbe and Burch no longer work for Claremont police.

I’m not sure the review of the LaFont case will turn up anything new. But anytime the AG’s Office is investigating possible criminal conduct of a police officer, it raises the question of whether the conduct was an isolated incident.

Now for a look back at what happened, according to the 2016 AG’s report:

After a night of heavy drinking with friends, LaFont had placed four calls to 911 early that Sunday morning. He didn’t seem to have an emergency, but just wanted to talk with a police officer. It wasn’t the first time he’d used 911 to make such a request.

Shortly before 5 a.m., Kibbe was dispatched to LaFont’s house to get him to stop calling 911. Kibbe knocked on the front door. When LaFont opened the door, he was holding a revolver. Kibbe also had to contend with LaFont’s barking dog, which had run outside when the door opened.

Kibbe walked backward onto the lawn. LaFont stepped toward him, starting to point his gun at the officer. He refused to put it down.

The entire encounter lasted about a minute.

There were no eyewitnesses — LaFont lived alone — on the dead-end street. Also, Claremont police officers don’t wear body cameras or audio recorders, and the city’s cruisers aren’t equipped with dashboard cameras.

Investigators with the AG’s Office and the New Hampshire State Police Major Crime Unit were left to rely on Kibbe’s account.

With no video evidence or eyewitnesses, it’s not surprising that LaFont’s family still has questions.

For starters, they wonder about the gun that Kibbe said LaFont pointed at him. Family and friends were unaware that LaFont had any firearms in his house, the AG’s 2016 report indicated.

At an October meeting at the Claremont police station with investigators, Ken LaFont asked if the old revolver, which was later found to be unloaded, had been dusted for his son’s fingerprints.

LaFont recalled an investigator saying something about this case being real life, not a TV crime show.

“I know it’s real life,” Ken responded. “I don’t have a son.”

Last Wednesday morning, I sat down with Ken and his wife, Melissa, Cody’s stepmother, at their home in Claremont. Ken had just gotten off working his third-shift job as a machinist. His GMC pickup was parked in the driveway.

In the cab’s rear window, Ken has placed a large “in loving memory” decal that gives the date of his son’s death.

“I think about him every day,” he told me. “The (auto) races and ballgames that we’d still be going to together.”

After being notified of Cody’s death a few hours after the shooting, the family was asked by police to repair the front door of the Congress Street house, so the home could be secured, Ken said.

Ken and Melissa still don’t know how the door was broken. “Why would the door need to be broken down, if Cody had opened it for (Kibbe) when he came to the house?” Ken asked.

The AG’s 2016 report makes no mention of a broken door.

According to the report, Sgt. Brent Wilmot, the only other Claremont officer on duty that night, arrived within minutes after Kibbe radioed “shots fired.” But the 23-page report fails to mention when Claremont police notified state police and how long it took investigators to arrive.

“That seems like important information to us,” Ken said.

Kibbe, who is in his early 30s, was a cop in Windsor for about two years before joining the Claremont force in 2014. Ken and Melissa weren’t familar with Kibbe, but Cody had had previous dealings with him.

Claremont police were aware that Cody struggled with depression, which was exacerbated by his bouts of drinking.

He’d been arrested for misusing 911 — asking police for rides or just wanting to talk. In the hour before the shooting, he told a police dispatcher about an upcoming court appearance in the 911 case and said he was afraid of going to jail, according to the AG’s report.

In 2015, his drinking led Claremont police to take him into protective custody on six occasions. Ken would then sometimes pick him up at the station. “Claremont police had so many interactions with Cody, they knew he had difficulties,” Melissa LaFont said.

After his driver’s license was suspended for a while due to a DUI conviction, Melissa drove him to weekly sessions with a mental health counselor in Windsor. “He enjoyed their talks,” she told me. “I think it helped.”

But the counseling wasn’t covered by his insurance, so family members pitched in. “I think it bothered him to ask for financial help,” Melissa said.

Cody’s mother, Tracy McEachern, and stepfather, Aaron Fitzherbert, also were integral parts of his support system. He worked as a shipping supervisor for a small company run by his mother, who I’m told now lives in Florida.

A few months after the shooting, Ken and Melissa were at their daughter’s basketball game at Stevens High School. On Ken’s way to the restroom, he noticed the name tag of the police officer standing at the entrance.

“So you’re the cop who shot my son,” Ken said. “Wasn’t there something you could have done differently?”

Kibbe suggested that he keep moving along, Ken told me. When Melissa saw what was going on, she headed over to the entrance. Kibbe’s hand was on his holstered pistol, she said. Kibbe told her that she needed to get her husband out of the gym.

The couple left.

Ken and Melissa got word to Chase about the encounter. Chase grew up in Claremont, as they did, and has worked in the city’s police department for 25 years. At the time of the shooting, Chase wasn’t chief, but he’s the only one in the department to ever offer condolences, the LaFonts said.

“He’s always been nice when we see him,” Melissa said.

He assured the LaFonts that Kibbe wouldn’t be assigned to basketball games that their daughter was involved in. “It was a fluke that (Kibbe) was there,” Chase told me. “That was an easy fix.”

I wanted to talk with Kibbe, but couldn’t find him in my travels around town last week. Chase told me that Kibbe doesn’t live in Claremont and expressed doubts that he’d agree to an interview.

While I had Chase on the phone, I asked why Claremont still doesn’t equip its officers and cruisers with cameras. “Video is the best evidence you can have,” he acknowledged.

But the city just hasn’t had the money in recent years, Chase said. Although body cameras don’t seem to be coming anytime soon, Chase said he has put aside $40,000 in this year’s budget for dashboard cameras. He hopes to have them installed by fall.

Meanwhile, the AG’s investigation of Kibbe and Burch is still ongoing, Senior Assistant Attorney General Geoffrey Ward told me on Thursday.

Ward, who is overseeing the investigation, also said review of the LaFont shooting has not yet been completed.

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