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Federal authorities charge three men suspected of vandalizing homes of NHPR journalists

A screenshot from security camera footage shared by the Middlesex County District Attorney in May 2022.
Middlesex County District Attorney
/
YouTube
A screenshot from security camera footage shared by the Middlesex County District Attorney in May 2022.

Editor’s Note: This story was reported by WBUR’s Anthony Brooks and edited by WBUR’s Beth Healy. No NHPR staff or leadership had oversight or reviewed the story before publication.


Following a year-long investigation, federal authorities have charged three men in connection with an intimidation campaign aimed at two New Hampshire Public Radio journalists.

"The alleged harassment and intimidation of the victims included the vandalism — on five separate occasions — of the victims’ homes," according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney's office in Massachusetts. The vandalism attacks, which included bricks, large rocks and spray paint, also targeted the home of one journalist’s immediate family.

According to the prosecutors, Tucker Cockerline, 32, of Salem, N.H., Michael Waselchuck, 35, of Seabrook, N.H., and Keenan Saniatan, 36, of Nashua, N.H., were each charged with conspiring to commit stalking through interstate travel. Cockerline and Waselchuck were arrested Friday morning and detained after appearing in federal court in Boston. Their next hearing is scheduled for June 20.

Saniatan remains at large.

The case dates back to late April 2022, when a series of vandalism attacks began on the homes of journalist Lauren Chooljian of NHPR, her parents and her editor, Dan Barrick. In one of the attacks, Chooljian arrived at her home in a suburb north of Boston and discovered that a brick had been thrown through a front window. An apparent warning was spray painted in big red letters on her house: “JUST THE BEGINNING!”

Similar attacks were made on Barrick's home and on Chooljian's parents' home, both in New Hampshire; vandals also threw bricks through their windows and spray-painted profanities on the buildings.

The vandalism occurred not long after Chooljian reported on allegations of sexual misconduct against Eric Spofford, a recovering drug addict who built New Hampshire’s largest network of addiction treatment centers. According to Chooljian's reporting, since 2019, the state of New Hampshire has awarded Granite Recovery Centers, which Spofford founded and later sold, more than $3 million in no-bid contracts.

Spofford, who has denied any connection to the vandalism, tried to convince NHPR to retract Chooljian's damning story about him. Spofford's attorneys did not respond to emails from WBUR requesting comment about Friday's arrests.

Last year, Spofford sued NHPR for defamation after Chooljian's investigation of his alleged misconduct was published. A Superior Court judge dismissed the case. But Spofford then sought to have Chooljian's notes released, and the judge this month ordered NHPR to turn them over, for the judge to review privately. NHPR had opposed the request on First Amendment grounds.

In a statement provided by his attorneys in May 2022, Spofford said: “Not only was I completely uninvolved with these incidents of vandalism, I also do not support or condone them. I also don’t need to vandalize someone’s property. I have truth on my side, and I will vindicate myself through lawful means."

While the federal complaint does not mention Spofford by name, it refers to him as "Subject 1," and alleges that an associate of his recruited at least two of the suspects to initiate the vandalism. According to the complaint, federal investigators concluded "there is probable cause to believe that the vandalisms were retaliatory acts intended to harass and intimidate NHPR and its employees." The complaint does not say if Spofford is or has been a target of the investigation.

NHPR has released a podcast, "The 13th Step," about the entire Spofford saga. The threats against the journalists have drawn national attention.

Federal investigators spent more than a year putting the case together before making the arrests on Friday. They tracked the use of Google searches by the suspects to determine that the attackers allegedly hunted for the homes of the journalists and their family members. Investigators also used cell phone records of the suspects to place them near the homes that were vandalized.

“Today’s charges should send a clear message that the Department of Justice will not tolerate harassment or intimidation of journalists," Acting U.S. Attorney Joshua Levy said in a statement.

Jim Schachter, chief executive of NHPR, told WBUR he is grateful for law enforcement's "persistence in investigating these attacks."

"Journalists doing their jobs, reporting open-mindedly in the public interest should not have to worry about threats of violence, or attacks on their homes and their families," Schachter said.

Anthony Brooks has more than twenty five years of experience in public radio, working as a producer, editor, reporter, and most recently, as a fill-in host for NPR. For years, Brooks has worked as a Boston-based reporter for NPR, covering regional issues across New England, including politics, criminal justice, and urban affairs. He has also covered higher education for NPR, and during the 2000 presidential election he was one of NPR's lead political reporters, covering the campaign from the early primaries through the Supreme Court's Bush V. Gore ruling. His reports have been heard for many years on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.