A Crime that changed Manchester: Remembering Dana L. Thompson 45 years later

MANCHESTER — Mike Donoghue can still remember the blue lights of countless police cruisers flashing through the flurries outside of Manchester's First Congregational Church 45 years ago. Donoghue, just 22 at the time, was covering what he describes as "one of the highest profile cases in my fifty years." Manchester's Police Chief Dana L. Thompson had been fatally shot in the line of duty the night of Tuesday, Dec. 12, 1972 — 45 years ago this week.

That Friday, hundreds of mourners filed into the church with approximately 400 police officers in their midst. The Journal's original account estimated that there were 1,000 in attendance, some spilling out onto the church's snowy lawn. Most businesses in downtown Manchester closed for two hours during the service, and flags were at half-mast throughout the area.

"We will remember him," said town manager and friend Oakley Porter in his eulogy, "not for the big things he might have accomplished had he lived, but for the many small, good things he has already done."

Remembering Dana L. Thompson

In his eulogy Porter remembered Thompson as a humble and family-oriented man, the type of person that would go out of his way to help others.

"He tried not to judge a person by the way he wore his hair or his clothes, but tried to search out the inner man," he said. "Dana loved people, and was loved by many people."

Born on February 8, 1911 in Dorset, Thompson graduated from Burr and Burton Seminary in 1931 and married the former Hilda Lomberg of Sandgate three years later. Together they had five children, three girls and two boys, and at the time of his death Thompson had 17 grandchildren.

For 25 years he served as a deputy game warden, and enjoyed a lifelong enthusiasm for hunting and fishing. Beyond being a member of the First Congregational Church, Thompson belonged to the Scottish Rite and was a member of the Mt. Equinox Grange.

Thompson worked for a time as a dairy farmer, but in 1954 transitioned to police work, for which he was passionate. By 1957, Thompson had worked his way up to Chief of Police, an office that Porter said he carried with both firmness and understanding.

During his time in the Manchester Police Department, Thompson trained in FBI and state police schools, as well as the Governor's Crime Commission, "in efforts to effect the prevention of crime rather than emphasizing methods to apprehend criminals," according to Porter.

"He was a man that was well loved, respected as a police chief and as a man," remembered Ronald Wilcox, whose father employed Thompson for a time on his farm. "He was very honorable, and he was the pulse of the town. He was loved by the town, and loved by myself. I grew up with him here, I grew up with his children."

December 12, 1972

On the evening of Dec. 12, Thompson had been on duty alone. Shortly after 10 p.m., the Chief responded to a burglary alarm at Whipple Pharmacy, in the plaza which now houses Mother Myrick's Confectionery and Perfectpiece Consignments.

Thompson, 61 at the time, responded alongside Manchester Village Police Chief George Hoag, 45. One of the pharmacy's owners, Cheryl Wilcox, unlocked the door. Waiting inside was 25 year-old Edward M. Battick, who had broken into the pharmacy to steal drugs, according to later testimony. His accomplice, Brian O'Keefe, fled the scene soon after.

"It's one of those nights you don't like to talk too much about," said Ronald Wilcox on Monday. Wilcox was away at an EMT course that night, so his wife responded alone. To this day she has difficulty reliving the events of Dec. 12, 1972.

"The testimony was that [Hoag], while he was standing at the front door, was shot in the stomach," Donoghue said. "He returned fire in the general direction of the card rack that Battick was hiding behind."

"I started firing through the counter, thinking that the special police ammunition could easily go through the wood," Hoag recounted in 1972. "I yelled to Dana that I was hit, and to watch out."

Hoag managed to take another shot at Battick "destroying his hip" as he recounted. Battick fell down just as Thompson was coming his way.

"When I hit [Battick] he fell down, and he had an angle for a headshot on Dana," Hoag continued. "I heard a shot, yelled for Dana, but there was no answer."

"I can remember the pictures from the trial," Donoghue said. "It's a picture I'll never forget: Dana Thompson on the floor of Whipple's Pharmacy."

Hoag recounted that he dragged himself outside, though his stomach wound "felt like a hot poker through me," and hid behind the tire of Cheryl Wilcox's vehicle. A wounded Battick also managed to leave the pharmacy, hiding behind Thompson's vehicle.

"He came out and I started to shoot," said Hoag. "But my gun was empty."

"Around that time other people are coming in, [Manchester police officers] Gene Gaiotti and Jim Webb were among the first ones there," Donoghue said. "That was a pretty wild shootout."

For approximately fifteen minutes "countless shots were fired," according to Donoghue. By the time Battick surrendered, he had sustained 20 gunshot wounds in the arms, legs, hip, and throat. Alongside the injured Chief Hoag, Battick was transported to what was then Putnam Memorial Hospital in Bennington.

Neil Moss, a 30 year-old State's Attorney for Bennington County at the time, arrived soon after.

"I remember I got the call and went up there, the police had just responded," explained Moss, who now practices at a private firm in Bennington. "It was depressing and shocking that something of this violent magnitude could happen. It was a shocking crime to the community."

"For me it was a shock to come home and see everything taking place," said Wilcox, who knew Thompson well. "It was a very sad night without any question."

Thompson's wife Hilda had been at home that night, watching the television when reports of the burglary first surfaced. Later that evening, Selectman Clyde Bryant and his wife delivered the news of Thompson's death. Soon after, Hilda called their children.

"That was bad," said Hilda in 1997. "It was 25 years ago and I still can't talk about it; I haven't been able to."

At the same time, Police suspected that Battick had had an accomplice, and began to set up roadblocks throughout the area.

During their search, police located a campsite off of Lye Brook Road, owned by Battick's relatives. They determined that Battick and O'Keefe, both Connecticut natives, had been living at the campsite.

"Brian O'Keefe ended up surrendering up near a camp where the two of them had been staying," Donoghue said. "There had been some drinking, and they had been smoking marijuana that night. Battick decided to break in, and O'Keefe was not inclined to do it apparently."

Hoag would eventually recover from his injury, though Battick would require a number of operations over 36 weeks. In September of the following year, the case went to trial.

Statewide outrage

The case began to "consume the entire state of Vermont," recounted Donoghue, who is still a journalist with the Burlington Free Press, as he was in 1972. While O'Keefe would eventually plead guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter in July of 1973, Battick's trial was moved to Burlington.

"There was elaborate coverage, I think they figured they just had to get it out of Bennington County," said Donoghue, recalling a front-page editorial in the Vermont Sunday News demanding the death sentence. "The killing of a police officer was extremely rare in Vermont."

"It was thought by the court that the defendant probably couldn't get a fair trial in Bennington County given how overwhelming and appaling the crime was to the community," said Moss, who prosecuted the case alongside Assistant Attorney General William Keefe. "We started the trail of Battick in Burlington, but partway through the trial he pled guilty."

In October 1973, Battick was sentenced to life without parole for first degree murder by Superior Court Judge Robert W. Larrow.

During his time in prison Battick wrote apology letters to Thompson's widow, made furniture for the handicapped, and earned his college degree. In 1983 he was moved to a minimum security facility in Windsor for good behavior.

"I've regretted not going over to see him," said Hilda in 1997. Years after Thompson's death, she married Laurence Wilcox, a distant cousin of Ron Wilcox. "I've forgiven him. I'm a Christian woman, and I do forgive."

After corrections officers found that Battick had been plotting to escape, he was relocated to a higher security facility in St. Albans where he was later placed in solitary confinement.

On April 1, 1989, Battick hung himself in his prison cell. He was 42 years old.

A name to remember

Shortly after the funeral, the town of Manchester dedicated the Dana L. Thompson Memorial Park. That year the Manchester Police Department made some changes as well: their force was raised from five full-time officers to seven, with two officers to be on duty each night.

Forty-five years later, the recreation park and a portrait in the police station serve to remind residents of Thompson's sacrifice.

"Often when I pass through Manchester, I wonder how many people in the town know the history on Dana," said Donoghue. "We see names on scholarships, buildings, or facilities and we know it's there, but we have no idea who that man or woman might be; what the history is behind that name."

"For me personally, it was something I never forgot. Everyday I turned the key in the store..." said Wilcox, who sold Whipple Pharmacy in 2006. "He was a man who could go into a situation and just his presence there calmed everything. It shattered the town."

For many, Manchester would never be the same after Dec. 12, 1972.

"It was just shocking. You never thought it could happen here, and there it was," said Moss. "It really brought us into the modern crime world in a way that we, at least in Bennington County, had not been before."

"Vermont was a pretty innocent state back then," Donoghue said. "There was a total expectation that when police officers went to work, they would come home. That case certainly became an eye opener that Vermont had changed."

On December 12, 2017, just as on the day of Thompson's funeral, snow continued to fall in Manchester.

Reach Cherise Madigan at cmadigan@manchesterjournal.com, or by phone at 802-490-6471.


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