Slaying kills N.H. town's innocence Taking of life was first among tiny populace in 217 years

August 07, 1993|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

WASHINGTON, N.H. -- A .357 Magnum handgun lay on a living room chair, and John Castrios was sprawled on the floor.

His crutches were askew, his body punctured by five bullets, his blood staining the carpet. He was 45 and dying in the two-story home he built with his hands off the dirt and gravel byway called Valley Road.

Out front, France Castrios, 42, surrendered to state and local police, later telling them that she had shot her husband after an argument.

It was a Friday, July 30, in the heat of a New England summer.

In a chunk of urban America, this would be considered just another domestic dispute turned deadly. But in Washington, population 650, the first incorporated town named after George Washington, in 1776, murder is not simply most foul, it is most unusual.

This was murder No. 1.

"You see things like this on television, and they always happen somewhere else," said James X. Dodge Sr., the town police chief and only full-time officer. "The harsh reality of it is that it hit here."

The act of violence cut quickly through Washington, a 52-square-mile town tucked into the woods of New Hampshire's southern tier. Here the lakes and ponds outnumber the paved roads by 8 to 1.

There is no cable television, no town doctor and no practicing lawyer.

But there is a village green, maybe the prettiest and most photographed in New England, with a white clapboard church, a two-room school house that closed in February after more than 100 years of use, and a town hall, framed by a mountain of pines.

"It's the kind of town where you never lock your front door or your car," said Bill Lofgren, owner of the town's general store. "We're outdoors all the time. Volleyball games and church picnics in the summer. Snowmobiling in the winter."

And now, a murder in July.

"Our innocence has been shattered," said Ronald Jager, an author and town historian.

It was Mr. Jager who disclosed that the slaying of Mr. Castrios was the town's first.

"The typical rural atmosphere is not a violent one," he said. "Someone might swing a fist or throw a rock. But you don't just hurt someone. A farmer just doesn't kill a farmer."

Not immune from crime

As picturesque, quaint and safe as Washington is, it has, of course, not remained immune from crime and death. Over the decades, there has been a rape, a couple of light-plane crashes in the woods, an assortment of petty break-ins, fender-bender auto accidents, suicides, drownings and even an accidental electrocution on one of the lakes when the mast of a sail boat touched a power line.

But for more than 200 years, the town was murder-free.

"I guess people around here just didn't like the idea that you might get your neck stretched if you killed someone," said Fred Otterson, 76, the town's oldest male native and a former police chief.

"When I was 4 years old, we had one fellow who died, Luther Pollard, and I can still remember people running down the roads yelling, 'Luther Pollard shot himself,' " he said. "But folks always suspected it was his wife who helped him along with his suicide."

This time, the only mystery that remains with the death of Mr. Castrios is why?

Few in town said they knew the family, even though Mr. Castrios had lived in Washington for 20 years.

"As small as the town is, there are a lot of people you never see and you never hear about," Mr. Dodge said. "These were those kind of people."

Friendly bikers

Those who knew Mr. Castrios best were his fellow members in the Undivided, the biker club he co-founded 20 years ago on 200 acres of land he co-owned with a local stonemason, John Hollanbeck.

Everyone from the police chief on down, pronounces the Undivided "perfect neighbors."

"They follow the laws, they're quiet, they donate money to Toys for Tots," Mr. Dodge said. "They do a lot to help their image. It's not an outlaw biker gang. It's a pretty good group."

And the group followed the lead of Mr. Castrios.

Friends called Mr. Castrios "Maker," because he was the kind of man who could turn an old, rusty mailbox into a wood-burning stove. He was also a tool and die maker and ran a backhoe business on the side.

Mrs. Castrios, a native French Canadian described by those who know her as "pretty, quiet, blond-haired, with glasses," once worked at a nearby Sylvania GTE plant.

This was a second marriage for each, and both had two children with their previous spouses.

Tough times

Times were clearly tough for the Castrios family in the last few months, though. He was laid up after hip replacement surgery during the winter and court documents showed they had $1,560 in bank accounts at the time of the slaying.

No one could have predicted that an argument between husband and wife would end in swift, sudden violence.

"We don't know what happened," Mr. Hollanbeck said. "We're not from the city. Something like this happens up here, you wonder,'how do you deal with it?' "

Nearly everyone in town remembers where they were around noon that Friday when news of the slaying broke.

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