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Family Friend: AG’s Report on Canaan Shooting Is ‘Salt in the Wound’

  • Enfield, New Hampshire, resident Jesse Champney. (Courtesy photograph)



Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, March 16, 2018

Canaan — An attorney representing the family of Jesse Champney said on Thursday that the 26-year-old’s death at the hands of a New Hampshire state trooper in December was “utterly avoidable.”

The fatal shooting is a “tragedy of immense proportions,” Norwich attorney George Ostler said in an email.

“A young man is dead because of a state police officer under circumstances that were utterly avoidable,” he said.

New Hampshire Attorney General Gordon MacDonald announced on Wednesday that Trooper Christoper O’Toole was justified in the shooting, which occurred in a field along Route 4 in Canaan.

O’Toole “reasonably believed that the use of deadly force was warranted to defend himself against the imminent threat of deadly force from Champney,” according to a 34-page report released by MacDonald at Wednesday’s news conference in North Haverhill.

But Ostler said he disagrees with the report’s conclusion, as do Champney’s family and friends.

O’Toole and Canaan police officer Samuel Provenza both took part in a short pursuit of Champney on the night of Dec. 23, after he was seen at the Evans Express Mart in a vehicle that had been reported stolen.

The chase ended at the intersection of Route 4 and Switch Road, where Champney drove the vehicle into a field and took off running on foot, according to the attorney general’s report.

O’Toole followed while Provenza stayed behind with Saeti Tobin, Champney’s fiancee, who remained in the vehicle.

Champney said at least three times during the pursuit “I have a gun. I’m going to shoot you,” O’Toole told investigators. Champney also held his right hand in a jacket pocket and declined repeated commands to show his hands and surrender, the report said.

O’Toole ultimately fired when Champney reached the edge of a wooded area and began to turn his body toward the trooper.

Four shots were fired, followed by another three as Champney attempted to get up and declined to show his hands, the report said.

Champney was hit four times: in the back, right buttock, right forearm and grazed in the left thigh. The shot to the back proved fatal, the state medical examiner determined.

“Yesterday was like pouring salt in the wound,” family friend Phyllis Averine said of the news conference. “I cried all afternoon after hearing it, reading it online and watching the news.”

Averine said Champney’s family also continues to grieve.

“There are lots of tears,” she said. “The news brought the pain right to the surface again.”

A woman who answered the door at Champney’s grandmother’s home in Canaan declined to comment on the matter on Thursday afternoon.

Zackery Averine, Phyllis Averine’s son and Champney’s childhood friend, said he can’t imagine Champney threatening to shoot a police officer.

Champney, a felon who had a warrant out for his arrest, wasn’t a perfect person, Zackery Averine said. However, he couldn’t legally own a gun and wasn’t one to make threats.

“Jesse didn’t operate like that,” Averine said. “It’s not like him.”

The state Attorney General’s Office relied on dispatch recordings and footage and audio from Provenza’s dashcam to make its determination. However, no recording devices picked up the shooting. Neither officer was wearing a body camera.

Instead, O’Toole can be heard telling a dispatcher at 6:25 p.m. that Champney was “advising he is armed,” according to the report.

Toxicology reports also showed Champney had Suboxone, amphetamines and a high level of methamphetamine in his system, which caused “acute” intoxication. The level of methamphetamine could have caused “violent and irrational behavior,” according to the toxicology report.

While Champney was notorious among some for previous arrests, Zackery Averine said, he was quick to stand up for friends and family.

“People either hate him or love him,” Averine said. “There is no in between.”

Canaan police were among Champney’s enemies, he said, adding the officers and his friend had a long-standing feud.

“The only people that know what happened that night: one of them is dead and the other had days to put his story together,” Averine said

Area residents also were dismayed by the attorney general’s findings. Those eating at Papa Z’s on Thursday afternoon said police should face more scrutiny in the wake of a shooting.

“I don’t care what (Champney) had done. He deserves justice just like everybody else does,” said Albert Bassett, a Grafton resident. “He was in his mid-20s. He had the rest of his life to get his life in order and straightened out. Now he doesn’t.”

Bassett took particular issue with investigators’ reliance on O’Toole’s testimony in determining whether the shooting was justified, saying the state trooper was cleared because of his job title.

“If this had been two civilians in the same incident, I’ll guarantee you the civilian that did the shooting would be in jail right now awaiting trial,” he said. “He would have gone before a grand jury.”

Earl “Bucky” Smith, a retired Canaan police officer, questioned why O’Toole felt his life was in danger.

Smith, who retired in 1998 after 34 years on the force, said he wouldn’t have fired until he saw a gun in Champney’s hands.

“I’d have my gun out and pointing at him, but I wouldn’t shoot unless I thought he had a gun,” he said, adding police were once taught that suspects running away didn’t pose a threat.

“I don’t understand why they shot so many times either,” Smith said.

The findings came as a surprise to many in town, where trust in police is deteriorating, Canaan resident Megan Moses said.

“From what I heard of the story, it just seemed like it wasn’t justified,” she said. “I was really shocked.”

Moses, who grew up knowing Champney, said the attorney general’s report left many questions unanswered, including why Provenza, the Canaan officer, didn’t do more to de-escalate the situation.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.