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Grafton Couple Question Plea Deal Proposed for Son’s Killer

Will Hatch and Crystal Farnham were killed by a childhood friend of Hatch’s whom they had taken in when he had no place else to live. (Courtesy photograph)

Will Hatch and Crystal Farnham were killed by a childhood friend of Hatch’s whom they had taken in when he had no place else to live. (Courtesy photograph)

As Ken and Wendy Carter consider the events surrounding the murder of their son and his girlfriend, they can’t help but wonder if they could have done anything differently.

Did Ken Carter err when he gently prodded their son Will Hatch to ask for some rent money from Robert LaCombe Jr., the childhood friend who moved in and never paid a dime? Should Wendy Carter have been so quick to assume that the gunshots she heard coming from Hatch’s home were target shooting?

Mostly, however, the Carters recall with a mixture of sadness and pride the generosity their family showed LaCombe. They had even saved a plate of dinner for him the night before he killed their son.

On the evening of Thursday, June 23, 2011, Hatch and his girlfriend Crystal Farnham, 23, walked outside their two-story house in Grafton to the trailer home on their lawn where the Carters lived and enjoyed a dinner of barbecue chicken and macaroni and cheese.

LaCombe, whom had lived with Hatch, 24, and Farnham for a few months, remained in the house, and the Carters insisted that their son take a plate of food back to him at the end of the night. It was the last time they saw Hatch alive.

“We wouldn’t want anyone to be hungry,” Ken Carter said in a recent interview.

As they prepare for LaCombe’s sentencing hearing later this month , the Carters, who have mostly remained silent since the murders, offered their first extended comments in a recent interview.

They voiced frustration at a plea deal they fear may be overly generous, and anger that LaCombe, who pleaded guilty to the killings, claims that he acted in self-defense. And they shared details of the days leading up to the killing, when they believe the generosity their family showed LaCombe, 25, may have backfired.

LaCombe, who was charged with first-degree murder, instead pleaded guilty to second-degree murder during a Grafton Superior Court hearing last month and, depending on the terms of his sentence, could be out of jail in 40 years . LaCombe told investigators that Hatch had brandished a handgun that night, a claim that, in the absence of eyewitnesses, could have undermined prosecutors’ case at trial.

The Carters say they believe LaCombe is lying.

“I don’t know why the state wants the plea bargain,” Ken Carter said. “Some of it does not make sense to us — why they are willing to (abandon) first-degree murder. Something isn’t clicking there. We never believed self defense. Will wouldn’t hurt a fly, but we put our trust in the state and all of a sudden, everybody wants to cut a deal. It sounds like Will never had a gun. ”

Assistant Attorney General James Vara declined to comment on the case , citing the sentencing hearing scheduled for Feb. 21. However, Vara stressed that prosecutors, as a matter of routine, consult with the families of victims before entering into plea deals.

LaCombe’s attorney, Caroline Smith of Keene, N.H., did not respond to a request for comment, and his parents, who do not live in the Upper Valley, could not be reached for comment. LaCombe is being held in the Grafton County jail in North Haverhill while awaiting sentencing.

Farnham’s mother, Lisa Trussell, did not respond to a request for comment.

LaCombe grew up in the Canaan area and could usually be found hanging out with Hatch and a few other buddies. Like Hatch, LaCombe dropped out of Mascoma High School, and from there, the friends’ paths diverged. Hatch started working for DMS Construction when he was 16, and soon began dating Farnham, bringing her into his relatively close knit family. LaCombe left the Upper Valley, lived with his grandparents in Florida for a time — he was convicted of stealing from them — and spent a period of time homeless.

Still, Hatch stayed loyal — he and Farnham once drove all the way to Florida to visit LaCombe — and when LaCombe returned to the Upper Valley early in 2011, they tried to help him re-establish himself, the Carters said.

When he first returned, LaCombe lived with a friend in West Lebanon. He told friends that he was spending his days looking for work but was discovered to be panhandling instead. Still, Hatch tried to be supportive. When LaCombe got in trouble asking people for money outside a West Lebanon fast food restaurant, Hatch got into a confrontation with the manager.

Despite the signs of trouble, Hatch and Farnham allowed LaCombe to move into their home on Island Road in Grafton in April. The home, built by Hatch and Ken Carter with the help of some friends, had long served as the hub for their network of family and their extended friends. Wendy and Ken Carter lived in the trailer on the lawn, in part to escape the bustle.

Hatch and Farnham provided LaCombe with food and cigarettes, and Hatch even got LaCombe hired onto a construction project he was working on in Bradford.

LaCombe, the Carters said, was ungrateful, and his relationship with Hatch and Farnham became strained.

“He overstayed his welcome,” Wendy Carter said. “He didn’t want to work.”

There had been other signs of trouble.

A friend told police that, weeks before the shooting, he had visited the apartment and saw that LaCombe had taken to tucking a 9mm Glock pistol into his waistband. (Hatch kept a .45 caliber pistol stored in a drawer, according to authorities. The Carters say they were unaware of the gun.)

“(LaCombe) was telling (the friend) he loved the 9 mm, that it was his gun, that he was going to sleep with it and how much damage a 9 mm could do if one shot oneself with it,” Senior Assistant Attorney Janice Rundles said during a recent court hearing.

June 24, a Friday, was payday for Hatch and LaCombe. Their boss gave Hatch a check for $1,100. About $690 was supposed to be for Hatch, and LaCombe was to be paid $400. But while cashing the check at the bank, Hatch, at his father’s urging, told LaCombe that he was going to give him $150 and keep the rest for rent and other expenses he and Farnham had incurred supporting him.

“I stepped in and said, ‘Nobody lives for free,’ just trying to edge him along,” Ken Carter said.

Hatch and LaCombe rode home together. Around 7 p.m., Hatch and Farnham visited her grandparents in Canaan to pay a debt. An hour later, Hatch and LaCombe visited Heather Hatch, Will’s sister, at her home in Grafton, to pick up Will’s dog, who had escaped and been captured.

The men chatted with Heather for an hour or so. LaCombe was drunk, and Hatch had also been drinking. Toward the end of the visit, the conversation grew tense, according to prosecutors.

Hatch told LaCombe that he was sick of him being a “mooch” and that LaCombe needed to move in with his father out of state, authorities said. Angered, LaCombe replied that, “were it not for his mother and sister, he would kill him,” Rundles, the prosecutor, said.

Hatch and LaCombe returned home soon after. Exactly what happened next may never be known.

That night, Wendy Carter thought she heard gunshots, spaced maybe an hour or so apart, coming from the home, but she thought little of it. Hatch and his friends would sometimes take his rifle and target shoot from a second-story deck. And in a rural community like Grafton, the sound of gunfire at odd hours is not uncommon.

When police entered the house early the next morning, on Saturday, they found Hatch lying at the foot of LaCombe’s mattress, with his coat still on. He had been shot four times.

Farnham was found near the foot of her bed and had been shot five or six times. Her cell phone was on the floor, open, “as if she had been beginning to use it,” Rundles said in a recent court hearing.

Several hours later, in the middle of the afternoon, LaCombe was found in a hotel room in Randolph, Mass. He had stolen Farnham’s Jeep and a couple hundred dollars from Hatch and headed south. Investigators found a suicide note in LaCombe’s hotel room, along with the 9 mm Glock, which was deemed the murder weapon, and the .45 pistol, which was never fired.

The Carters felt as if they had lost two family members. Hatch and Farnham dated for seven years, drawing so close that the Carters teased him, “You can’t marry your sister.”

It was only at their first meeting when the couple had failed to get along with Farnham. The Carters returned from a trip out of state, only to find the teenage couple alone together, drinking at the kitchen table. They sent Farnham home.

Before long, however, Farnham considered their home her own and drew especially close to Wendy Carter. They worked together at Hanover Terrace nursing home and commuted together most days.

The Carters say the pain of their loss was exacerbated months after the killing, when they learned that LaCombe planned to argue that he acted in self-defense. During his time on the lam, LaCombe had made phone calls to friends and family members and told some of them that Hatch had brandished a gun, according to court documents.

The Carters say that authorities have told them that LaCombe claimed that Hatch had pulled the .45 pistol on him, and that he had mistaken Crystal’s cell phone, which was apparently in her hand when she died, for another gun.

The Carters think LaCombe is making it all up. There was no blood found on the gun that Hatch was allegedly holding when he was shot, they note. And if Hatch had been holding a gun, why would LaCombe pick it up and take to Massachusetts, they wonder?

“If Will was holding that gun, there should have been blood all over it,” Ken Carter said. “If that weapon was not out, it should be a first-degree murder charge.”

A self-defense claim that a jury finds credible could, in theory, help LaCombe to avoid a first-degree murder conviction, which carries a sentence of life without parole, and result instead in a manslaughter conviction, which carries a minimum sentence of 15 years.

So the Carters are resigned to the fact that, despite their reservations, the plea agreement is likely to be finalized at this month’s sentencing hearing. At that point, the case would be closed, LaCombe would never be questioned again and the evidence locked away.

“Now you’re going to be left (asking) what really happened?” Wendy Carter said. “Then they never have to tell us. We’re supposed to live with that? We feel very confused about the whole situation.”

Mark Davis can be reached at mcdavis@vnews.com or 603-727-3304.