Two women attacked, robbed on future WOW Trail spot


LACONIA — Police have placed the highest priority on finding the man who robbed two women Monday at 5 p.m. along a portion of what will be the Laconia-to-Belmont leg of the WOW trail. The attack happened somewhere near the border between the two.

Two women, ages 30 and 35, said a man attacked them by pushing one woman to the ground and taking the purse of the other one while brandishing a small black handgun. The purse contained a passport and identifications for both women. Police said the victim told them he ran toward the Belknap Mall.

Chief Chris Adams said the two women appeared to be of Asian-Indian decent and are residents of Laconia. He said they were walking along the trail toward Laconia. Fire officials said there was some language barriers during their encounters.

The woman who was pushed apparently hit her head when she fell. She was taken by ambulance to Lakes Region General Hospital and later flown to Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon.

Police said the uninjured woman told them that the man was taller than 5 feet 6 inches, of average build, had a skinny face and smelled strongly of alcohol. He was described as wearing blue jeans, a black sweatshirt, a blue-collared jacket and black gloves.

Adams said that detectives and patrol officers from Belmont and Laconia canvassed the area that night and have spoken to a number of people. He said they continue to search the area and interview people who may have some information.

He said any random act of violence like this is always a high priority for the police department.

During the time of the armed robbery, the Laconia City Council was listening to a proposal about Phase 2 of the city portion of the WOW Trail that will go along that stretch of the old railroad corridor.

Mayor Ed Engler said he was saddened to learn of the attack, but says building the trail will enhance the area and statistics have shown that areas where there are maintained recreation trails have had positive effects on surrounding neighborhoods.

He said that Phase 1, from Lakeport to Main Street in Laconia, went through was was once a longstanding area popular with the homeless. He said today the incidence of homeless camps in that area has dropped and increases in recreation population tends to reduce the kind of behavior exhibited by Monday's armed robbery.

While he said there is no way of knowing at this point if Monday's perpetrator is homeless, he said he expects that once Phase 2 of the trail is built, the area will be less secluded and people will be less vulnerable to similar attacks.

"We expect the recreation trail to improve the area and not make it worse," Engler said.

Adams asked that anyone who may have seen this encounter or has any information call the Laconia Police at 524-5252.

More details emerge in deputy case - Manchester trial starts today


LACONIA — The Belknap County Attorney revealed that former sheriff's deputy Ernest Justin Blanchette offered special privileges of cigarettes and cell phone use to many female inmates by taking the transport van to the second floor of the parking garage where they could smoke cigarettes.
She said other places people identified by people interviewed in the course of the criminal investigation against him were behind a huge snow pile in Laconia, a long dirt road in the city, and a secluded driveway in Belmont that was near an abandoned house.
While Blanchette isn't facing any criminal charges for most of these acts, County Attorney Melissa Guldbransen offered this evidence in the state's recent request to combine all of his alleged rape crimes in Belknap County into one trial by saying they all represent a similar pattern of coercion.
In the nine criminal cases for aggravated felonious sexual assault in Belknap County, the state claims Blanchette took a man incarcerated at the State Prison in Boscawen and the prisoner's fiancee, who was an inmate at the Belknap County jail, in the transport van together and encouraged them to have sex in the police van while he took them to family court in Franklin.
Blanchette allegedly claimed he would tilt the camera so he couldn't see the couple and drove for a while. At some point, he pulled the van off the road and the two stopped their sexual activity, although he allegedly told them they didn't have to stop. He separated them at some point near a dump station and handcuffed them before arriving at court.
On the return trip, the state alleges he stopped at the same dump station and removed their handcuffs again, and they were allowed to console each other for a while before he took them to the old train station in Tilton, separated them again and put handcuffs back on them.
Following this first encounter, the state alleges that Blanchette spoke with the male defendant and told him he would allow the one-on-one contact to continue provided he could watch. Between July 1 and Nov. 30 of 2013, Blanchette transported prisoner "J.W." multiple times and on at least two of them, picked up J.W.'s fiancee, "S.W.", who by then was no longer incarcerated, allegedly brought them to secluded places and watched them have intercourse. They both told investigators that Blanchette stood by, crossed his arms and smirked. The state alleges that while J.W. tried to prevent Blanchette from seeing his fiancee, Blanchette allegedly positioned himself so he could.
The state alleges that Blanchette also allowed J.W. to use his phone and also provided him with cigarettes and marijuana.
He also allegedly told them he didn't want them to do anything that would get him fired and said that if "you tell, you're going to get yourself in trouble."
In a case with two different victims, Blanchette allegedly drove such that a female inmate in Merrimack County identified only as "A.F." could see the home where her fiance, who is now her husband, lived. While doing so, he gave her a cell phone and told her to call him, allowing her to get out of the van and hug her former fiance's father.
Learning A.F.'s fiance "W.F.", was at a nearby restaurant, Guldbrandsen alleges Blanchette allowed A.F. to contact him with the cell phone and make arrangements to meet. Once they met, he allegedly gave W.F. the handcuff key and watched while the two of them had sex in the back seat.
On a second transport from Concord of the woman, he allegedly picked up W.F. again while A.F. was in the van and allowed sexual contact. On another occasion, he allegedly allowed A.F. to visit with her children. Again he told them not to tell anyone lest he be fired.

Blanchette's attorney, Brad Davis, has filed a motion to dismiss this case because he said that no specific acts of coercion or intimidation were included in the actual indictment. In it, he noted that A.F. and W.F. had learned about the charges from reading about Blanchette's arrest for rape after a correctional officer showed her a newspaper. He said the story asked for people who may have been victims or have information to come forward and that she only came forward because she was concerned about what may be on any tape from the van. Davis said she described Blanchette as a friend and was grateful to him for allowing her and her husband to see each other while she was in jail.

He argues that A.F. was concerned because she thought there may be a tape of what she and W.F. did in the van, but took two years to come forward from the time the alleged crimes happened.

The balance of the cases charge that Blanchette had sex with "B.H.", who was a prisoner in state prison at the time. Trial for a single charge of aggravated felonious sexual assault is scheduled to being Wednesday morning in the Hillsborough North Superior Court in Manchester. The remaining charges alleges similar sexual encounters that took place in Belknap County.
In the state's argument that all of the cases be tried together, Guldbransen said that all of the crimes show the same pattern of events, that the motive was the same, that each case required many of the same witnesses, and that they are logically and factually connected.

Davis also asked that if the judge decides not to dismiss the case, that he get a bill of particulars, which is a tool for providing enough details such a person isn't charged twice for the same crime.

In her reply, Guldbransen said this issue was just addressed this month by the New Hampshire Supreme Court when it ruled that an indictment is enough if it contains the language of the relevant law and doesn't need to specify the means by which the crime was committed.

She said Blanchette's position of authority couple with allowing the couple to use his cell phone and his other actions were "coercive activities used by the defendant to coerce the victim into performing sexual acts with another."

The judge in Belknap County has yet to rule on these latest motions.

The state argues that cases be joined when they meet certain criteria and that in this instance, all of the cases do. Guldbrandsen said in each case, Blanchette offered things like cell phone use, cigarettes and marijuana and used those privileges as coercion to get them to do what he wanted.
Davis said he doesn't object to the cases that involve S.W. and J.W. to be combined because they involve the same alleged victims, but he objects to combining the cases involving B.H. and W.F. and A.F. together because they don't.
He said there is no commonality between the S.W. and J.W. case with the other two, as they have different motives in that in all of the cases involving B.H. the motive appears to be such that Blanchette wanted to have sex with the alleged victim.
He said all cases in involving W.F and A.F., the mode of operation was different, but no single factor prove they are related.
Davis said trying all of the cases at the same time is overly prejudicial and that the allegations took place over different spans of time and alleged different acts. He said combining the cases in Belknap County into one trial would jeopardize Blanchette's right to a fair trial and that should be the overriding consideration.

The question: WOW Trail or parking spaces?


LACONIA — The WOW Trail committee wants discuss the elimination of a dozen parallel parking spaces and a dedicated right turn lane on New Salem Street at a public hearing by the City Council this week. The change would accommodate construction of the second phase of the WOW Trail between the Laconia Public Library and the Belmont town line.

Alan Beetle, president of the WOW Trail committee, told the council Monday night that, save for the parking spaces and turning lane, all the easements, exceptions and permits required for construction of the 5,000 foot walking and biking path are in place The trail will run alongside the railway for virtually its entire length, swinging around a pair of historic railway sheds and crossing property on Water Street to join the Fair Street Bridge.

Likewise, Beetle said that the committee has arranged financing for the construction of the trail. The package includes $100,000 from the Community Development Finance Authority, $400,000 in Tax Increment Financing, and $623,000 raised by the WOW Trail committee. He said that the total of $1,123,000 leaves them short by what he called "an unfunded estimate" of $76,000 for the estimated construction costs of $1,199,000. The winning bid of $856,000 by John H. Lyman & Sons Inc. of Gilford to build the trail is the largest share. But, he insisted, "No way will that hold us up," adding that he expected work to begin in July and be complete in October.

Eliminating the right-turn lane from New Salem Street onto Main Street, Beetle said would ensure a safe crossing of Main Street required to link the first and second phases of the trail. A traffic study, he said, indicated that "the overall effect of eliminating the turn lane will not be noticeable."

The parking spaces on New Salem Street, Beetle acknowledged, posed a greater challenge. "We understand how sensitive the issue of parking parking downtown is," he said.

Beetle explained that where New Salem Street parallels the railway line, from just below its intersection with Pleasant Street to Salvation Army Thrift Store, there is not enough space between the roadway and the track to accommodate both the 12 parking spaces and the 10-foot-wide trail. There is 25 feet between the center line of the street and the fencing along the railway, which the New Hampshire Department of Transportation has required to separate the trail from the track, room enough for either the trail or the parking, but not both.

Beetle said that during business hours less than a handful of the spaces are occupied, but conceded that eliminating them would have a significant impact on Pitman's Freight Room. He said he counted more than 250 parking spaces in the vicinity, most in privately owned lots that empty in the evening when the entertainment venue is generally operating.

"The opportunity is now to proceed on phase 2," Beetle said. He described the trail as "a key piece of the revitalization of downtown Laconia" and referred to an economic impact study that projected 152,000 people would walk the trail each year, among 38,000 visitors to the city who altogether would spend $1.8 million. "if the project is delayed, funding may expire," he warned, and asked "Is giving up the benefit for downtown worth deferring for 12 parking spaces?"

Pat Wood, who sits on the Downtown Tax Increment Financing Advisory Board, said that the members unanimously favor eliminating the right-hand turn lane, but are divided over the future of the parking spaces. He wondered if the Laconia Police Department would be willing to discuss the use of the 20 parking spaces in the lot at the station.

"It's not just about Pitman's," said Bree Henderson of Polished & Proper, "Those spaces are for everyone." Calling the issue "a can of worms," she told the councilors, "I don't care how, but you've got to fix it."

John Moriarty of the Main Street Initiative said he had spoken to more than 70 people about the issue and while no one spoke in opposition to the trail, 68 said that "under no circumstances should parking spaces be reduced." He said that the number of parking spaces downtown has shrunk by nearly a fifth in recent years and with the closure of the upper deck of the parking garage the total has dwindled further to 825.

"We need more parking, not less," said Maureen Bieniarz, owner of the Imagine Gallery, who added Dick Mitchell, the owner of Pitman's Freight Room, would lose not only the 12 spaces on New Salem Street but also 40 other spaces on what she called 'his" property when the WOW Trail is built.

Bienarz was referring to spaces within the railroad right-of-way adjacent to Pitman's Freight Room. Not only is that land owned by the state, but it is also the designated route of the WOW trail. Mitchell also owns a half-acre grass lot separated from the parcel where his building stands by a spur line of the railroad. Construction of the trail would sever the connection between the spur and mainline, which could enable Mitchell to use the adjacent lot for parking.