CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — A New Hampshire man who got away with murder for 20 years now wants his sentence reduced to the 10 years he already has served.
Eric Windhurst was 17 when he fatally shot a friend’s stepfather, Danny Paquette, after the friend told him that Paquette had sexually abused her.
Windhurst, now 48, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in 2006 and was sentenced to 15 to 36 years in prison. He has petitioned to have the balance of his sentence suspended. A hearing is set for April 21.
Paquette’s stepdaughter, Melanie Cooper, provided information leading to Windhurst’s arrest in 2005. Her three- to six-year sentence for hindering apprehension was reduced to 15 months and she was released in March 2008.
His lawyer argues that Windhurst should be freed as well, saying Cooper manipulated him into killing Paquette. Attorney Mark Sisti, who represented Windhurst when he pleaded guilty, described Cooper as the one who put Windhurst up to the crime.
Cooper, who was 15 and was named Melanie Paquette at the time of the killing, was on the Hopkinton High School soccer team with Windhurst and accompanied him to the murder scene. She told investigators that she heard the gunshot but did not witness the killing.
For two decades, both maintained they were at a field hockey game in Plymouth when Paquette was gunned down in Hooksett while he was welding a tractor.
Prosecutors and Paquette’s family strongly oppose Windhurst’s release.
“It was the considered, premeditated and targeted murder of a complete stranger in the ultimate act of vigilantism,” said Senior Assistant Attorney General Jeffery Strelzin, who prosecuted Windhurst 10 years ago.
“Eric truly acted as Danny’s judge, jury and executioner,” Strelzin added, in court documents objecting to his release.
An investigation into Paquette’s killing was reopened in 2004, after authorities received several anonymous tips suggesting that Windhurst was the shooter. Several of Windhurst’s family members confirmed that he had told them about the shooting years earlier.
“It was the family secret that everybody knew,” Strelzin said Thursday. “Everybody knew but nobody talked.”
Strelzin said it was Windhurst who manipulated Cooper into keeping silent about the crime and did not tell her that he was motivated to shoot Paquette because he had just learned his own father was sexually abusing his sisters. One sister confirmed this to authorities, but too much time had passed to prosecute the elder Windhurst, according to Strelzin.
“It was really about what his own father had done to his sisters,” Strelzin said of the shooting.
Windhurst, a skilled carpenter in Hooksett, was arrested on Dec. 14, 2005. He remained in custody until his guilty plea and sentencing in August 2006.
Numerous Hopkinton residents and friends have written letters to the court supporting Windhurst’s petition to have his sentence suspended, with several offering him a place to live.
Cooper, who works in Lebanon, New Hampshire, declined to comment and referred questions to her lawyer, Paul McDonough, who said he has no comment either. McDonough said neither he, nor Cooper, would attend Thursday’s hearing.