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Perriello Pleads Guilty: Grantham Man Killed His Wife, a Lebanon High Teacher, in 2012

  • James Perriello is led out of Sullivan County Superior Court watched by his parents Edward and Beryl Perriello, left, after pleading guilty to second degree murder Tuesday, December 3, 2013. Perriello fatally shot his wife Natalie Perriello during an argument in 2012. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    James Perriello is led out of Sullivan County Superior Court watched by his parents Edward and Beryl Perriello, left, after pleading guilty to second degree murder Tuesday, December 3, 2013. Perriello fatally shot his wife Natalie Perriello during an argument in 2012.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • During a recess in the a change of plea hearing for James Perriello in Sullivan County Superior Court, Sr. Assistant Attorney General Jeff Strelzin, middle, talks with Bob LaFlam, second from right, Doug Chapman, right, victim advocate Melissa Grudinski, second from left, and Assistant Attorney General Geoffrey Ward Tuesday, December 3, 2013. Natalie Perriello who was killed by her husband was the sister of LaFlam and the cousin of Chapman. Perriello will be sentenced December 18.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    During a recess in the a change of plea hearing for James Perriello in Sullivan County Superior Court, Sr. Assistant Attorney General Jeff Strelzin, middle, talks with Bob LaFlam, second from right, Doug Chapman, right, victim advocate Melissa Grudinski, second from left, and Assistant Attorney General Geoffrey Ward Tuesday, December 3, 2013. Natalie Perriello who was killed by her husband was the sister of LaFlam and the cousin of Chapman. Perriello will be sentenced December 18.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Edward, left, and Beryl Perriello, right, listen in Sullivan County Superior Court as the prosecution reads its case against their son James Perriello Tuesday, December 3, 2013 for the murder of his wife Natalie Perriello. James Perriello plead guilty to second degree murder during the hearing.  <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Edward, left, and Beryl Perriello, right, listen in Sullivan County Superior Court as the prosecution reads its case against their son James Perriello Tuesday, December 3, 2013 for the murder of his wife Natalie Perriello. James Perriello plead guilty to second degree murder during the hearing.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • James Perriello is led out of Sullivan County Superior Court watched by his parents Edward and Beryl Perriello, left, after pleading guilty to second degree murder Tuesday, December 3, 2013. Perriello fatally shot his wife Natalie Perriello during an argument in 2012. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • During a recess in the a change of plea hearing for James Perriello in Sullivan County Superior Court, Sr. Assistant Attorney General Jeff Strelzin, middle, talks with Bob LaFlam, second from right, Doug Chapman, right, victim advocate Melissa Grudinski, second from left, and Assistant Attorney General Geoffrey Ward Tuesday, December 3, 2013. Natalie Perriello who was killed by her husband was the sister of LaFlam and the cousin of Chapman. Perriello will be sentenced December 18.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Edward, left, and Beryl Perriello, right, listen in Sullivan County Superior Court as the prosecution reads its case against their son James Perriello Tuesday, December 3, 2013 for the murder of his wife Natalie Perriello. James Perriello plead guilty to second degree murder during the hearing.  <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

Newport — James W. Perriello pleaded guilty on Tuesday to second degree murder for the April 2012 shooting death of his wife, Natalie Perriello, a popular teacher at Lebanon High School.

James Perriello, 42, is scheduled to be sentenced on Dec. 18. Under the plea agreement struck with prosecutors, he could be sentenced to a minimum of 18 to 36 years in prison and a maximum sentence of 35 years to life. The judge will have jurisdiction to choose any sentence that fits between those two ranges. If Perriello receives the maximum sentence, he could be eligible for parole after 35 years in prison.

Perriello was previously scheduled to go to trial in January.

The couple had four children, all of whom were at the family’s Grantham home at the time of the shooting.

Natalie Perriello’s brother Bob LaFlam Jr. said in a telephone interview after Tuesday’s hearing that the priority for his sister’s family has been ensuring the children did not have to testify at a trial.

“We just want it behind us,” LaFlam said. “Everything we do is about the kids. ... That was our main concern all along, keeping the kids from having to go through that and having to relive some of the things from that night.”

The children have been living with LaFlam’s parents since the murder.

James Perriello was indicted on both first- and second-degree murder charges, giving prosecutors the leeway to pursue a conviction on either charge at a trial. The second-degree charge was categorized as “reckless.”

On Tuesday during an hour long hearing in Sullivan County Superior Court, however, Perriello pleaded guilty to “knowing” second degree murder, which indicates a more coherent mental state at the time of the killing, Senior Assistant Attorney General Jeff Strelzin said in an interview after the hearing.

“We wanted him to plead to the higher mental state, meaning he was more conscious of what he did,” Strelzin said.

Police said that Perriello shot his wife after discovering she was romantically involved with a one-time student whom she had taught several years prior in Canaan.

Lebanon High School principal Nan Parsons, a close friend of Natalie Perriello’s who recruited her in Lebanon, said the plea deal meant little to her.

“For me, none of that was really important. The important thing is that Natalie is gone,” Parsons said through tears during a phone interview Tuesday. “And whether he stays in, stays out, none of that’s important, it’s that a life was taken. ...

“I think I’ve lost my rage,” she added later. “I don’t feel as vengeful as I did when she was first murdered. I just want the kids to go and have an amazingly wonderful life and a loving family.”

James Perriello’s parents, Beryl and Edward Perriello, sat quietly Tuesday morning in the front of the courtroom, near the door that their son used to enter and leave. They declined to comment after the hearing.

LaFlam said the Perriellos have played a “very active” role in helping care for their grandchildren and are “involved in all aspects.”

Under court order, the children have not been allowed to see their father. However, LaFlam said once the court order is lifted, “I’m sure my parents and the Perriellos will sit and talk and they’ll put their heads together and they’ll make the best decision for the kids.”

James Perriello entered the courtroom Tuesday morning wearing a white T-shirt over a long-sleeve, cream-colored shirt, orange pants, work boots and shackles on his ankles. He looked briefly at his parents and then at LaFlam and Natalie Perriello’s cousin Doug Chapman, but made no acknowledgment of either pair.

Standing behind the defendant’s table between his attorneys, Perriello responded to the judge’s questions with a loud and clear “yes sir” or “no sir” throughout most of the hour-long hearing.

He did stray from those perfunctory responses during a series of questions from Judge Brian Tucker about his mental health and the medications he takes for depression and anxiety.

There was an unexpected interruption toward the end of the proceedings, when Tucker asked Perriello if he agreed with Strelzin’s detailed description of the night of the murder.

Perriello let out a loud sigh and looked at public defender Kimberly Kossick, who looked back at him. After a long pause, Perriello leaned in to talk to Kossick and his other attorney, Steve Mirkin. Mirkin then asked the judge for a recess.

When Perriello and his defense team left the room, Strelzin gathered in a corner of the courtroom with LaFlam and Chapman. James Perriello’s parents remained seated on the opposite side of the courtroom throughout the recess.

After 10 minutes, Perriello and his lawyers returned, and Tucker repeated his question.

“I don’t really agree with everything the prosecutors just said, but I told police that I was very angry. And I did shoot Natalie multiple times, and I am very sorry about that,” Perriello said.

The judge then asked if Perriello acknowledged that he caused Natalie Perriello’s death and that he shot her in the head. Perriello acknowledged both of those things, but hesitated when the judge asked if he acknowledged that he knew when he shot his wife that he was causing her death.

“At first I wasn’t sure, but afterward I realized I had,” Perriello said.

That answer didn’t satisfy Tucker, who restated his question. Perriello conferred with his attorneys briefly before finally answering yes.

After the hearing, Kossick explained that Perriello took issue with some of Strelzin’s statements during Tuesday’s hearing because they alluded to allegations that would have needed to be proved in court to secure a first-degree murder conviction.

LaFlam stared at Perriello for most of the hearing. He shook his head softly when Strelzin described part of the 911 call in which Perriello told the dispatcher that he “would not put up a fight” against police and “that there would be no need to shoot.”

He shook his head again when the prosecutor described how James Perriello began tracking his wife’s phone, and frowned when Strelzin said Perriello considered trying to scare Natalie Perriello with a knife but that she would “stand her ground,” so he decided to scare her with a gun instead.

“I was just watching his expressions and mood changes to get a sense of whether he really meant some of the things (he said),” LaFlam said afterward.

Prosecutors on Tuesday provided more details about the April 26, 2012, shooting, including that James Perriello had pulled his wife’s shirt over her head before he shot her at close range. Perriello initially told police his gun first fired by accident.

Prosecutors also said that if the case had gone to trial, witnesses would have testified that James Perriello made comments to coworkers about killing his wife. Two or three days before the killing, Perriello, who was a concrete contractor, was on a job site with coworkers and told them that his wife ruined his life and he was at rock bottom and he should just kill her, Strelzin said.

The state also would have called Parson’s husband, Larry Kirkpatrick, to testify that Natalie Perriello showed up at his home with her children two and a half months before the murder. According to Strelzin, Kirkpatrick told police that Perriello said that she and her husband had a big fight and she felt she needed to leave because Perriello threatened to kill himself and his family.

Prosecutors gave the following account of the murder.

James Perriello called 911 around 9:50 p.m. and reported that he had shot his wife. The couple had lived apart at various times, were sleeping in separate beds and had planned to divorce. James Perriello had planted devices in Natalie Perriello’s car to record her cell phone conversations, and was listening to segments of a conversation of his wife talking to a 20-year-old former student with whom she had developed a romantic relationship.

He went back and forth between listening to segments of the conversation and going into the bedroom where his wife was with their 3-year-old son.

At one point, Natalie Perriello told him he should stop listening because he was about to hear something he wouldn’t want to hear — a portion of the conversation where she and the man talked about missing each other and planned a rendezvous, according to court documents.

At one point, when Perriello entered his wife’s room, Strelzin said, she screamed at him to get out and said, “We’re through anyway.”

He later told police that he just “lost his cool.” An autopsy showed that Natalie Perriello had a defensive bullet wound in her ring finger and that James Perriello had pulled her shirt up over her head when shooting her six times in the head. Prosecutors said James Perriello tried to fire a total of nine bullets, but the ninth bullet jammed.

Upon arrival, officers found Natalie Perriello dead on her bedroom floor, with the couple’s 3-year-old child asleep in the bed nearby. The other three children were uninjured in a separate room of the house. According to police affidavits, when an officer arrived, he heard voices of the children shouting ‘Over here!’ and ‘We’re in here.’ Perriello had said goodbye to his children after calling 911, according to the affidavit.

At the end of the hearing, Strelzin said that he had already met with members of the LaFlam family who agreed to the terms of the plea agreement and felt it to be in the best interest of the children.

Natalie Perriello, 42 when she died, worked for four years at Lebanon High School, where she taught computer technology. She spent 15 years at Canaan Elementary School, where her teaching traditions included dressing students as superheroes based on positive academic traits, such as ‘accuracy’ and ‘persistence,’ to parade around the halls on test days. She was a candidate for New Hampshire teacher of the year in 2007.

Parsons said her friend and colleague’s presence is still missed at Lebanon High.

“I guess I haven’t stopped thinking about her every day. And every day when I see the kids who don’t have her here, and I see her daughter who doesn’t have her here, (court proceedings don’t) change anything for me,” she said. “I still feel it every day.”

LaFlam said he and his family are now girding themselves for the sentencing hearing in two weeks, when he expects many people will read victim’s impact statements and speak to the effect of the loss of his sister on their lives.

“It’s just another chapter closer to being able to put this book away,” he said.

Sarah Brubeck can be reached at sbrubeck@vnews.com or 603-727-3223. Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.