A second chance: City employee hopes to change society’s view of felons

  • Melanie McDonough, center, who is Chief Innovation Officer for the City of Lebanon, meets with Executive Assistant Beth Beraldi, left, and Deputy City Manager Paula Maville to discuss issues and improvements with a variety of technologies the city uses during a meeting at City Hall in Lebanon, N.H., on Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021. McDonough was released in 2008 after serving 15 months at the New Hampshire women's prison in Goffstown, N.H., and struggled to find work after being labeled a felon. “I got lucky,” she said, when Josh Kahan gave her a chance and hired her to work at Pennock Hill Consulting. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

  • Melanie McDonough, Chief Innovation Officer for the City of Lebanon, works in her home office in Lebanon, N.H., on Monday, Dec. 13, 2021. McDonough is open about her status as a felon because she wants to challenge society’s perceptions of people with a criminal history, and she knows that many formerly incarcerated people aren’t in a position where they can safely be open about their background. “At the core we’re all the same,” she said. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Melanie McDonough pets one of her chickens, named Thirsty X-Man by her grandson, at her home in Lebanon, N.H., on Monday, Dec. 13, 2021. McDonough has five children, two grandchildren and one more on the way. “They’re a huge part of my life,” she said, even though they don’t live close by. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

  • On her day off, Melanie McDonough sets up a 3D printer while her cat Abby sits beside her at her home in Lebanon, N.H., on Friday, Dec. 17, 2021. McDonough says she has liked taking things apart to see how they work since she was a young girl, and she hopes that after she retires from the city she can work with children to teach them skills like 3D printing and coding. “You can identify the kids who are struggling,” she said, and giving them an outlet can help break a cycle of incarceration. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America photographs — Alex Driehaus

  • Melanie McDonought, then known as Melanie Cooper, listens during her plea and sentencing hearing in Merrimack County Superior Court in Concord, N.H., Friday, Dec. 1, 2006. Despite her history of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her step-father, Danny Paquette, and her help to solve the 20-year-old murder, Cooper was sentenced to three-to-six years for lying to police. (AP Photo/Jim Cole) ap — Jim Cole

  • Melanie McDonough, then known as Melanie Paquette, is shown in a 1988 Hopkinton, N.H., High School yearbook photo. McDonough, the stepdaughter of Danny Paquette, who was murdered in 1985, admitted she was there when Eric Windhurst pulled the trigger, according to court papers released Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2005, in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Hopkinton Public Library via Concord Monitor) Hopkinton Public Library

Valley News Columnist
Published: 1/1/2022 9:16:45 PM
Modified: 1/3/2022 9:23:07 PM

Melanie McDonough was broke and her marriage splintered beyond repair. With no other housing options, she moved in with relatives in southern New Hampshire — 2,300 miles from her children.

Hoping for a fresh start in a different part of the state, McDonough began looking for jobs in the Upper Valley in 2009. She searched online and in this newspaper’s classified ads section.

She filled out applications and dropped off her resume at medical offices, retail stores and banks. She applied for a housekeeping position at the Hanover Inn.

“Sometimes I’d get a phone call back, but never an interview,” McDonough said.

In 2009, the U.S. was still in the midst of the Great Recession, resulting in a tighter than usual Upper Valley job market.

But that wasn’t McDonough’s biggest obstacle.

She couldn’t escape her scarlet letter — the Big F. For many employers, a felony conviction is an automatic disqualifier.

When McDonough came to the question on job applications pertaining to criminal history, she’d “check the box.”

“I’d always be upfront,” she said. “I didn’t want to go through a hiring process that wasn’t going anywhere.”

“That’s what prison does to a person,” she told me during a recent interview after finishing up a workday at her office in Lebanon City Hall.

How she got from down-and-out to that office is the story of grit and wit and good luck overcoming the consequences of a tragic mistake.

Retribution

In the early 1980s — when McDonough was 12 and her last name was Paquette — her mother came to her one night.

“Here’s a box, pack everything you need,” Denise Paquette told her oldest daughter.

There was no time to lose.

Danny Paquette — Denise’s ex-husband and Melanie’s stepfather — was about to be released from a psychiatric hospital.

He had abused Denise and Melanie over the years. (In media reports, Paquette’s relatives have said the abuse allegations against him were never substantiated.)

Denise’s last encounter with Paquette ended with her calling police. She had reason to believe that he’d want to continue the fight. In the middle of the night, Denise and her three daughters fled New Hampshire.

They stopped when they reached Alaska. For a while, they lived in a tent. Even after they had a roof over their heads, they sometimes got by without electricity or running water.

In 1985, Denise Paquette’s brother came from New Hampshire to check on them. He persuaded Denise that Melanie would be better off returning to New Hampshire to live with him and his wife.

Melanie, a good student and gifted soccer player, enrolled at Hopkinton High School, west of Concord, and a few towns over from her stepfather in Hooksett, N.H.

Hopkinton didn’t have a girls’ soccer team. Melanie was the only girl to make the boys’ varsity squad. In the autumn of 1985, when Melanie was 15, she confided in a friend about the sexual abuse she had suffered at the hands of her stepfather.

Eric Windhurst, a junior on the soccer team, was the friend. Melanie had developed a “crush” on Windhurst, who was two years older. When he suggested they go for a Saturday drive, she thought it might be the start of something more than friendship.

“It was a chance to hang out with him for the day,” she said.

On Nov. 9, 1985, with Melanie in the passenger’s seat, Windhurst drove to Hooksett, where Paquette was working outdoors on his farm.

Aware of the sexual abuse that Melanie had suffered growing up, Windhurst suggested the ultimate retribution. Melanie didn’t take her friend’s talk about killing Paquette seriously — until he brought out a hunting rifle.

It didn’t surface until years later, but Windhurst had just learned about sexual abuse allegations in his own family.

With Melanie a couple hundred yards away in the woods, Windhurst fired a single shot from long distance. “I heard a gunshot, but I didn’t know what had happened,” she said.

At first, police thought the 36-year-old Paquette was killed by a hunter’s stray bullet. After an accidental shooting was ruled out, Paquette’s murder went unsolved for 20 years.

The past catches up

After graduating high school, McDonough enrolled at the University of New Hampshire. She lasted a year.

On top of everything else, McDonough battled depression — stemming from the sexual abuse she’d endured as a child — that had gone untreated. In her family, “it was nothing we talked about or worked through,” she said.

A friend at UNH who had transferred to Brigham Young University invited her to move to Utah. By age 20, Melanie was married, a mother, and had joined her husband in the Mormon church.

In 1992, after Paquette’s relatives went on TV to talk about the unsolved murder, his family and police received anonymous letters that named Windhurst as the shooter.

By this time, Melanie, whose married last name was Cooper, had a growing family. She and her husband eventually settled in Evanston, Wyo., a small city roughly the size of Lebanon on the Bear River that’s known for its outdoor recreational opportunities.

The couple opened a motor sports sales and service dealership. She handled the sales and bookkeeping side of the shop.

Until starting the business, Melanie had been a stay-at-home mom for the couple’s five children. “I loved it,” she said. “For me, the Mormon church was all about family, which I’d never had much of growing up.”

Eventually, though, her past caught up to her. New Hampshire State Police had re-opened the investigation into Paquette’s murder. Windhurst was the prime suspect. (I drew on stories written by The Associated Press in the early and mid-2000s to help piece together this story.)

In 2004, Melanie agreed to cooperate with the investigation. Windhurst pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in 2006. He was sentenced to 15 years to 36 years in state prison. He was released on parole in 2020.

After Windhurst’s sentencing, McDonough pleaded guilty to hindering arrest, a felony in New Hampshire. Citing her lack of a criminal record and extensive cooperation in solving the 20-year-old cold case, the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office recommended she spend no time in prison. State police investigators agreed, testifying on her behalf.

“It is very clear to me that you have done some tremendous things with your life since this tragedy,” said Merrimack Superior Court Judge Robert Lynn, who presided over her sentencing hearing.

But Lynn, who later became a state Supreme Court justice, wasn’t moved enough to follow the recommendations of prosecutors and state police.

Lynn sentenced her to three to six years for lying to investigators in 1992. While living in California, McDonough received a letter from state police, asking for written responses to questions, which she didn’t answer truthfully.

Among the abused

On a rainy December day in 2006, McDonough left a Concord courtroom in handcuffs and was placed in the back of a police cruiser.

The state prison for women in Goffstown was meant to hold about 100 women, but its population swelled to nearly 150 at times. Women slept on bunks in hallways. Women who couldn’t afford to buy bottled water at the commissary risked getting sick, McDonough said.

Like other new inmates, McDonough was given a test to measure her math, reading and writing skills. She was aware of only one woman besides herself who scored at the 12th-grade level or above.

“It was a real indication that a lack of education was one of the big things holding many of the women back,” said McDonough, whose job in prison was to tutor other inmates.

Along with having a high school diploma and some college, McDonough had another advantage: “I didn’t have a substance abuse problem,” she said.

Roughly 70% of women serving sentences in U.S. prisons and jails struggle with drug use and dependence, the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit think tank based in Northampton, Mass., reported.

The more that McDonough got to know the women she was incarcerated with, the more she discovered they had in common. Many of them were abused as children. Others had suffered mental and physical abuse by husbands or boyfriends.

“Every woman had experienced some kind of trauma,” McDonough said. “That’s how we bonded.”

Under New Hampshire law, McDonough was entitled to a sentence review. A panel of three Superior Court judges reduced her sentence to 15 months, which led to her release in March 2008 at age 39.

“I needed to get out as fast as I could so I could get back to my children,” she said.

Life in the Upper Valley

In Wyoming, McDonough and her husband, who were divorced in 2009, worked to figure out what was best for their kids, three of whom had still not reached high school age.

In early 2009, McDonough returned to New Hampshire. If everything went according to plan, her three youngest children would join her before school started that fall.

For the plan to work, McDonough needed stability. “I saw the challenge ahead of me, especially with a criminal record and no education to speak of,” she said.

In high school, she was a strong enough student academically to be accepted at Dartmouth. At the time, though, she thought UNH was a better fit.

Now, nearly 25 years later, she wondered if Dartmouth would consider her again. It wasn’t out of the question, the admissions office told her.

As a single mom, she’d be eligible for a large financial aid package, including living expenses. But Dartmouth wanted to see how she’d do at another school before considering her as a transfer student.

With three children to care for, McDonough didn’t see that working. She focused on finding an apartment and job in the Upper Valley.

The Mormon church helped with the former. A church member was a landlord who had an apartment available above an office on Main Street in West Lebanon.

After paying her first month’s rent and a security deposit, McDonough was left with $200 in savings. Needing furniture, she drove around the Dartmouth campus at the end of the school year, picking up abandoned items left on sidewalks.

“Thank goodness for college students,” McDonough said. “But I still didn’t have a job.”

A second chance

In the summer of 2009, McDonough was about to expand her job search to Route 12A in West Lebanon, although she was unsure how she’d support her family on a fast-food worker’s wages.

Then a help-wanted ad caught her eye. Pennock Hill Consulting, a small information technology company in Lebanon, needed an administrative assistant.

Not long after applying, she received a call from Josh Kahan, the company’s owner. Before we go any further, there’s one thing you should know about me, she told him.

Kahan wasn’t scared off. A triathlete with a degree in applied mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Kahan takes pride in being unconventional.

“It was a serious crime, but you have to look beyond the labels,” he said. “I hate labels.”

Along with handling office duties, Kahan wanted someone who could help with web development.

As a stay-at-home mom in Wyoming, McDonough worked remotely for About.com, which served as a library, of sorts, in the early days of the internet.

McDonough acknowledged that she was only a “self-taught technology geek,” but her smarts and mettle persuaded Kahan to give her a shot.

The job called for McDonough to spend time at Lebanon City Hall, where Kahan’s company had an office that provided IT services to the city.

Kahan informed city officials about McDonough’s criminal record. “Naturally, it raised some eyebrows,” Kahan said. “Especially, since we were working with (computer systems) in a city that had police and fire departments.”

Kahan and Lebanon police contacted people in state law enforcement who were familiar with McDonough’s story. “Everyone we talked with told us that she didn’t deserve to go to prison,” Kahan said.

McDonough started out at $14 an hour (equivalent to about $18 an hour now), which was more than other jobs she had applied for. Still, with three children to feed and clothe, it didn’t go far. To make ends meet, she picked up a part-time evening job with the city as the recording secretary at government meetings.

After Shaun Mulholland was hired as city manager in 2018, Lebanon moved its IT department in-house. McDonough was asked to stay on as Lebanon’s digital media officer to help city departments develop and generate content for social media.

As for McDonough’s criminal record, “she’s been open about it,” said Deputy City Manager Paula Maville, who is McDonough’s boss. “It wasn’t a concern. Her capabilities have impressed me from the first day we met.”

Last year, Lebanon officials decided to add a position to its City Hall management team. The chief innovation officer would be tasked with “finding solutions to the inefficiencies that exist within city government,” Maville said.

In other words, “build a better mousetrap.”

Maville recognized the city already had a person on its staff well-suited for the $91,000-a-year position.

McDonough was instrumental in making the city’s website more user-friendly and allowing residents to conduct business online 24/7.

McDonough, who started her new job in November, is now working on an electronic payment system that residents can use at the Lebanon landfill, eliminating the need for punch cards.

Before she began working for the city, McDonough didn’t think much about the role that local government played in people’s daily lives.

Streets closed for repairs could change a person’s route to work or how a mom gets her kids to school. The amount of time that passes after a snowstorm before sidewalks are plowed can impact elderly residents’ ability to walk in their neighborhoods. The hours that a public library is open on weekends can figure into a family’s schedule.

“Everything that goes into what the city does really captured me,” McDonough said.

Advocating for inmates

McDonough, who has been out of prison for nearly 14 years, still gets calls from true-crime and reality TV programs. She politely turns down their offers to tell her story to millions of viewers.

She’s not interested in publicity for herself or rehashing what happened in November 1985.

But that doesn’t mean McDonough has nothing to say.

Since walking out of the New Hampshire State Prison for Women on March 1, 2008, McDonough has been outspoken in her criticism of the difficulties facing former inmates.

“People ask why I don’t hide my felon status,” she posted on Twitter in 2019. “I do it to break the cozy comfort of discrimination that exists in our society. If we all hide, then we are part of the problem. We should succeed — smash the stereotypes — then help others to succeed, if only by example.”

She posts on Twitter and her blog, melbamorph.me, in hopes that it will help others who have been incarcerated. Maybe it will lead to the public, employers in particular, gaining a better understanding of what people with felony records are up against.

For almost a decade, she’s volunteered at Lebanon’s polling places on election days, in part to answer questions that might arise about whether felons have the right to vote in New Hampshire.

“The answer is just yes,” McDonough said during a 2020 interview with New Hampshire Public Radio. “That is the message that kind of needs to come through loud and clear for people.”

“It’s not a box you have to check on a form.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire asked McDonough after her release to speak about conditions and the lack of rehabilitative services at the Goffstown prison.

In 2018, following a three-decade legal battle, the state opened a $50 million prison for women in Concord. McDonough was pleased the state finally acknowledged that women under its control deserved better. She’s not sure, however, that a new, bigger prison is a sign of progress.

Women convicted of crimes “need some sort of consequences, but putting them in prison is not the answer,” she said.

GPS monitors, such as ankle bracelets, would be sufficient in many cases, she said. “It would allow women to work and make money. They could also be around their children.”

Breaking the stigma

There’s no doubt that McDonough is a success story. At 51, she has a satisfying, high-paying job in the public sector. In 2018, she remarried. Her husband, Paul McDonough, a Lebanon attorney, represented her in 2006.

When it comes to felons, however, she’s an exception, said Wanda Bertram, spokeswoman for Prison Policy Initiative.

“People who are formerly incarcerated are stuck in an unfortunate position,” Bertram said in a phone interview. “They are desperate to work, but employers won’t hire them. There’s an entrenched stigma attached to anyone coming out of prison.”

A 2018 Prison Policy Initiative report found an unemployment rate of more than 27% for the 5 million formerly incarcerated people living in the U.S.

There’s no data available that shows how former prison inmates have fared during the “pandemic job market,” Bertram said.

With millions of Americans quitting their jobs during the pandemic, it stands to reason that more employers — out of necessity — are rethinking their no-felons-need-apply attitude.

The jobs, however, tend to be ones that “other people have walked away from” and don’t pay a decent wage, Bertram said.

McDonough told me that “Yes, I’ve worked hard, but I got lucky.”

Kahan, the IT contractor, and Maville, Lebanon’s deputy city manager, looked past her felony record. “They didn’t just write me off,” she said.

She is proof that people coming out of prison can rebuild their lives to become productive members of society.

“But first,” McDonough said, “there have to be employers willing to give them an opportunity to show what they can do.”

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




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