Weare, N.H., Police Shooting Probe Complex
Weare, N.H. — The New Hampshire Attorney General’s investigation of the fatal shooting of a drug suspect in Weare last summer is turning out to be one of the more protracted probes into an officer-involved shooting in 15 years, according to documents obtained through a Right-to-Know request.
There had been 37 officer-involved shootings in New Hampshire between 1998 and August, when Alex Cora DeJesus was shot to death by Weare police, according to the records obtained by The Associated Press.
Since he became the 38th, Weare has hired a reform-minded police chief, fired one officer for undisclosed violations of department policy and said little about exactly what happened the night DeJesus died.
And it could be some time before they say more.
It may take until April to wrap up the DeJesus investigation, according to prosecutors. That would make it the fourth-longest of the 28 for which release dates were available; two were non-fatal shootings in which reports weren’t released until criminal prosecutions were completed.
By contrast, it took Attorney General Joseph Foster two weeks to determine a trooper was justified in the 39th officer-involved shooting: the Sept. 30 death of 45-year-old Wendy Lawrence in Manchester. Trooper Chad Lavoie said he believed Lawrence was going to run him down with her car to avoid arrest.
In the past 15 years, only one officer-involved shooting was deemed unjustified, according to Senior Assistant Attorney General Jeffery Strelzin, who said the case was “unprosecutable.”
That case, from 2005, involved a Barrington sergeant who fired six shots into a vehicle that had already been hemmed in by other police cars. The driver, who had led police on a 35-mile chase at speeds nearing 100 mph, was unarmed. He survived.
“You don’t get to armchair quarterback,” Strelzin said, of deciding whether a self-defense claim is reasonable. “You have to look at it from (the officers’) perspective.”
Foster took the unusual step earlier this month of issuing a statement saying the investigation into the DeJesus shooting is “lengthy and complex” but didn’t elaborate. He also identified — for the first time — the officers involved: Sgts. Joseph Kelley and Kenneth Cox, Detective Frank Hebert and Officers Nicolas Nadeau and Brandon Montplaisir.
“I don’t recall that ever happening,” lawyer Larry Vogelman said of Foster’s status report. Vogelman represents DeJesus’ father and has represented families in a number of officer-involved shootings.
Vogelman said that, as far as he knows, DeJesus was unarmed.
Weare Police Chief John Velleca — hired two months after the DeJesus shooting — fired Kelley in November but did not provide details, saying only that it involved “violations of internal policies and procedures.”
Weare, a town of nearly 10,000 residents spread over 63 square miles, is largely immune from major crime, Velleca said. Still, its 12 officers field more than 10,000 calls a year involving mostly domestic violence, neighbor disputes, drug and alcohol abuse and motor vehicle violations.
Officials say DeJesus was shot during an undercover drug sting in a plaza along a main road around 10 p.m. Two shots were fired, one of which hit DeJesus in the head. He fled in his car and crashed in a stand of trees. The exact sequence of the events has not been disclosed.
Velleca is widely touted as having cleaned up corruption in the narcotics unit in the New Haven, Conn., police department before retiring as acting chief in 2011.
He took over a Weare department plagued by scandal, citizen distrust and federal lawsuits alleging excessive force and abuse of power. In the past year, the former chief and a lieutenant resigned.
“Everybody’s pretty vocal about the history here,” said Velleca. “It kind of ramped up in the past two years, but for 20 years there have been issues with the police department.”
He said the buzz he hears from residents ranges from unflinching support of the officers involved in the shooting to accusations they were wrong.
“It’s pretty common knowledge they fished this guy out of another town and brought him here,” Velleca said of the sting that ended in the shooting.
The investigation is expected to rule on whether the shooting was justified and if Weare officers misled investigators.
State law permits a police officer to use deadly force “when he reasonably believes that such force is necessary to defend himself or a third person from what he reasonably believes is the imminent use of deadly force.”
The law is weighted in favor of the officer. As the New Hampshire Supreme Court noted in a 1980 ruling, “We must never allow the theoretical, sanitized world of our imagination to replace the dangerous and complex world that policemen face every day.”