Bell sentenced in accidental shooting case

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BENNINGTON - A Manchester man who fatally shot his best friend nearly two years ago, had trouble standing and shook with grief as he apologized to the family of Jeffrey R. Charbonneau.

Nicholas D. Bell, 25, of Manchester, pleaded no contest to manslaughter, simple assault with a weapon, and reckless endangerment in late May. An agreement had been concluded between the state and Bell, calling for him to serve one year in prison for the two lesser charges, while getting a seven-year deferred sentence for the manslaughter charge.

Police said that on Nov. 25, 2010 - Thanksgiving Day - Bell and Charbonneau were staying at the home of a mutual friend, as their respective homes were crowded. Police received a 911 call from Bell, saying he'd shot Charbonneau in the chest as he slept with what he mistakenly thought was a BB gun. The weapon turned out to be a loaded .22 caliber rifle.

"There are no words I can say that can tell you how truly sorry I am," said Bell, Tuesday, during his allocution. "I am responsible for Jeffrey's death," Bell said, not speaking for more than a few sentences at a time, pausing for breath in between.

He leaned on the defense counsel table for support, and struggled to keep his head up as he spoke. "I was stupid and careless. I was stupid; I did not realize I was holding a real gun. I did not realize it was loaded. In the brief few seconds I held the gun, I did not realize it was pointed at Jeffrey. Those brief moments drastically altered my life, and many other lives. Most importantly, the lives of the Charbonneau family. I am so, so sorry. I am so sorry."

Both the Charbonneau and Bell families were heavily represented in the courtroom Tuesday.

"November 25, 2010, my son was killed," said Richard Charbonneau, Jeffrey Charbonneau's father. "For a few days, the reality of what happened had not set in. When I put my son's ashes in the ground, it was a reality. No more time together. No more golf course, ski area, or anything. Jeff was dead."

His father and other relatives told Judge David Howard they wished to see Bell sentenced to the maximum length of time possible. They spoke of the bright future Jeffrey Charbonneau had ahead of him which was cut short, and the missed family milestones such as weddings and births.

"Jeff was my big brother," said Danielle Charbonneau, one of Jeffrey Charbonneau's three sisters. "I turned to him for answers to the heaviest of problems and because of him I am confident of where I am, motivated for my future, and determined to make the best of each day."

Amy Charbonneau, another of Jeffrey Charbonneau's sisters, said she felt the pain of all her relatives, but also felt for her young daughter who "lost an incredible role model. "She talks about Jeff. She liked orange juice like Uncle Jeff, and makes cereal with milk just like Uncle Jeff. She remembers his guitar and sings 'Jingle Bells,' which she was learning from him around the time he died," she said.

Jeffrey Charbonneau's role as a peacemaker and listener for his family was a theme among his sisters, and was hinted at by his uncle.

"Jeffrey was our family's practical and reasonable voice," said Kelly Charbonneau, Jeffrey Charbonneau's older sister. "He was the one I would call and talk to about anything and know I would be getting great advice. He was my only brother, and would put a lot of thought into what he was saying. Jeff was always concerned about the welfare and safety of his sisters."

They also spoke of the unease and anxiety they have felt since losing their brother. Charbonneau's mother, B.J. Charbonneau, said sleep does not come easy for her anymore. "I've spent countless number of nights sobbing myself to sleep," she said. "I'm lucky to get a few hours of rest. I still have nightmares about other loved ones dying."

Wayne Bell, Nick Bell's father, was allowed to speak on his son's behalf. He said he realized the pain the Charbonneau family is feeling, as the Bell family had lost a young member some years ago to an "equally senseless accident."

"We knew and loved their son also," he said. "When he was in Manchester, he was part of our family, and our home."

Charbonneau generated a similar reaction in his community as well, and shortly after his death, hundreds turned out for a memorial service in Manchester.

Howard said Bell's punishment is largely punitive, as Bell has shown no need for rehabilitation services, and does not appear likely to put himself in a similar situation again. He said that the sentences he accepts in cases such as this do not attempt to equal the value of the life lost.

"Frustration would be a poor word to describe what the court is feeling," Howard said, adding that it's clear Bell's inexperience with firearms may be a possible explanation for his actions, but they are still difficult to comprehend.

He said the law has always made a distinction between deaths caused with the intent to kill or injure behind them, and those where harm was not intended, and this was a case of the latter.

Bell's sentence began after the court proceedings were over, and he was led away by members of the Bennington County Sheriff's Department.


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