PHOTOS: Investigation exonerates NH trooper who shot an Enfield man just before Christmas


Submitted 9 months ago
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Eric Francis

Autopsy found Jesse Champney was experiencing "acute methamphetamine intoxication" at the time of his death

NORTH HAVERHILL - An Enfield man who died at the back of a snowy field in Canaan after being shot four times by a New Hampshire State Police trooper early on the evening of December 23rd had not only taken off running after leading police on a car chase out Route 4 toward Enfield but he had stated that he had a gun and was going to shoot in the moments before he made a sudden furtive move with his right hand, which he'd been concealing in or near his jacket pocket, an investigation into the officer-involved shooting concluded.

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    The finding that Trooper Christopher O'Toole had reasonable grounds to believe that Jesse Champney was serious about his threats to shoot, even though police would discover moments later that Champney did not actually have a gun, was at the core of the decision not to file any criminal charges or take any disciplinary action against the trooper, New Hampshire Attorney General Gordon MacDonald announced Wednesday afternoon at a press briefing which was held at the Grafton County Superior Courthouse.

New Hampshire Attorney General Gordon MacDonald announces that Trooper O'Tooles' decision to fire a total of seven rounds was "legally justified" under the circumstances that night

    MacDonald and his assistants gave reporters a detailed account of the pursuit of Jesse Champney, 26, which had begun less than two hours before the shooting with a report to the Canaan Police Department that Champney was driving a stolen red Chrysler LaBaron around Canaan and ended less than a minute after Champney missed the turn off of Route 4 onto Switch Road and planted that same car about 70 feet out into a snowy field and took off running on foot, leaving his girlfriend, Saeti Tobin, behind in the passenger seat of the LaBaron as Trooper O'Toole ran after Champney toward the distant tree line.

A frame from a cruiser dash-cam shows the red car off the road where Champney abandoned it and took off running

    O'Toole, Tobin and Canaan Police Officer Samuel Provenza all gave interviews to investigators in the week after the fatal shooting and those were cross referenced with dash-cam footage from the Canaan cruiser, a wireless microphone clipped to Provenza and tapes of radio traffic between the two officers and their respective dispatch centers.

    While O'Toole was not wearing a body camera, his radio calls to dispatchers in the moments before and after he fired two groups of shots at Champney just a few seconds apart were recorded.

Jesse Champney had been jailed on drug related offenses and was wanted for questioning in connection with a theft state police were investigating

    The attorney general's complete 34-page report, as well as the video and audio clips that were played for reporters, are available to the public at https://www.doj.nh.gov/media-center/video/canaan-disclaimer.htm

    Champney was pronounced dead in the field approximately 600 feet from where the car had first left Route 4 and he had just crossed an icy creek and nearly made it to the woodline at the point where he was shot and fell, the report noted.

    Drug paraphernalia, including several syringes, were later found in the red car and three knives were found in Champney's pockets as he was patted down by officers and handcuffed in the moments after he was shot four times.

Key points in the report were displayed to the news media during Wednesday's presentation

    An autopsy found that one of those four shots, which entered through the upper back, was the fatal injury that killed Champney.  The autopsy also found that he had amphetamines and Suboxone in his system at the time of his death along with meth to the point that the medical examiner concluded he was experiencing "acute methamphetamine intoxication" that evening.

    Jeffrey Strelzin, Chief of the Homicide Unit at the Attorney General's Office, said it wasn't possible to conclude exactly why Champney decided to run from police and then pretend that he had a gun; but Strelzin speculated that the combination of Champney's drug use, the fact that a felony warrant was outstanding for his arrest, and statements that Tobin, his girlfriend, said Champney made to her as he was being pursued that he was "not going back to jail," gave some insight into Champney's mindset when Trooper O'Toole spotted the missing car parked in front of the Evans Express Mart.

    The two police cruisers pulled up in front of the convenience store and Trooper O'Toole flipped on his blue lights and got out and started to walk toward the red car when it suddenly drove forward, picked up Tobin who had just bought cigarettes inside the store, and began to drive off even as the officers shouted for it to stop.

    Minutes later, after the car became "bogged down" and stuck in the snowy field, Trooper O'Toole began chasing Champney on foot while Provenza ran to the passenger side and took Tobin into protective custody, handcuffing her and waiting while the other two men ran out of sight behind two large mounds of dirt that were near the back of the field.

    Trooper O'Toole told investigators that he had already drawn his service weapon, a .45 caliber semiautomatic pistol, in part because it has a bright flashlight mounted on it but he was thinking about "transitioning" to his Taser, which would have required him to holster his pistol, draw the Taser and get out a separate flashlight when he said (according to the report) "Champney put his right hand in his jacket pocket and said 'I have a gun.  I'm going to shoot you'."

Strelzin shows reporters how O'Toole said Champney's right hand was positioned as he walked away about 60 feet ahead of the trooper in the dark

    O'Toole radioed the threat in to his dispatchers and proceeded after Champney who had slowed down to "a normal walking pace" about 30 yards ahead of him, keeping his pistol up and yelling "Jesse, this isn't worth it.  Jesse, you are not going to win," even as Champney repeated that he was going to shoot.

    O'Toole told investigators he was considering what would happen if Champney made it to the cover of the woods which were getting closer and closer where he would have the trees for cover and could shoot back at the officers when Champney crossed a frozen stream about 60 feet ahead of O'Toole and then for the first time in the encounter "began to turn his entire body to the left toward O'Toole...enough that O'Toole (felt he) needed to respond immediately."

    Still unable to see Champney's right hand, O'Toole fired what was later determined to be four shots, three of which apparently hit Champney in the back, arm and buttock and then, because the smoke from the gun was picking up the light from his gun-mounted flashlight and making it difficult to see, O'Toole said he stepped to his left a couple of paces, spotted Champney lying on the ground on his back with his body "canted toward" him.  O'Toole said he yelled once again to Champney to show him his hands and not to move.  "Champeny attempted to stand up.  O'Toole believing he must not have struck him (or that they were ineffective hits), fired three more times at Champney," (grazing one of his legs).

    "(Trooper O'Toole) then ordered Champney to show his hands (and then finally) Champney raised both hands," the report recounted.

Strelzin said Champney put his hands up in the "surrender position" only after the second group of shots were fired

    Hearing the shots fired, Officer Provenza left Tobin and ran to assist O'Toole who was out of sight behind one of the large dirt mounds.  The audio recordings have both O'Toole and Provenza radioing to their dispatchers that shots had been fired - and then that O'Toole is alright but Champney is not.

    O'Toole said that as he walked up to Champney he asked him "Where's your gun?" to which Champney replied that he didn't have one.  "Why did you do that?" O'Toole said he asked as Champney tried to sit up on his elbows but Champney didn't reply and did not say anything further.  

    In the minutes that followed the officers removed the three knives from Champney's pockets and began administering CPR in an effort to save Champney while an ambulance was still enroute to the scene.

Colonel Christopher Wagner of the New Hamsphire State Police said Trooper O'Toole will return to regular duties soon in another part of the state and he warned that police work is getting more dangerous as the years go by

Vermont News can be contacted at vermontnews802@gmail.com         

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