Fire chief accused of punching man in road rage incident

Harry Nelson, 55, is charged with three misdemeanor counts of simple assault; he also faces a disorderly conduct violation

The Keene Sentinel

KEENE, N.H. — Westmoreland's fire chief, who is also a Keene firefighter, is accused of punching a man in a road rage incident that ended in the city, according to court documents.

Harry E. Nelson, 55, of Westmoreland is charged with three misdemeanor counts of simple assault. He also faces a disorderly conduct violation.

Police allege Nelson caused serious bodily injury to Dale Johnson of Keene in a fight that broke out Sept. 24. Nelson is accused of punching Johnson in the mouth and of possibly breaking Johnson's middle finger, according to court documents filed in 8th Circuit Court District Division in Keene.

The incident began that September afternoon on South Village Road in Westmoreland and continued onto Hurricane Road in Keene, according to Keene police.

Keene police Officer Matt Griffin, who was off duty at the time, overheard the fight and responded to break it up, according to court documents. He then dialed 911.

Johnson told police he was returning to his Hurricane Road home from a doctor's appointment when he came across a slow-moving vehicle, according to an affidavit prepared by Keene police Sgt. Thaddeus "T.J." Derendal.

Johnson passed the vehicle when he believed it was safe to do so, and was at home retrieving his mail when the driver confronted him, Derendal wrote.

The driver, who police identified as Nelson, first engaged in a verbal argument with Johnson, according to the affidavit. Nelson then exited his vehicle and started to punch Johnson, Derendal wrote.

Nelson provided a different account to police. He said he saw a Taurus drive by him at a high rate of speed and was concerned about people's safety, Derendal wrote. Nelson said he yelled at Johnson, who proceeded to approach him and stick a finger through an open window, according to the affidavit.

Punches were thrown by both men, Nelson told police.

When reached by phone Thursday, Nelson declined to comment about the case against him. "It's a personal matter and has nothing to do with the fire department," he said.

In court documents, his attorney, Paul G. Schweizer of Keene, argues that Nelson was defending himself. Schweizer did not return a message left Thursday.

Nelson has been employed with the Keene Fire Department for 29 years, according to court documents prepared by Schweizer.

Keene Fire Chief Mark F. Howard declined to comment on the Sept. 24 incident, citing personnel reasons.

Jack Zeller, chairman of the Westmoreland board of selectmen, said the board was not aware of the case.

He said the matter may be discussed at the board's next meeting, on Dec. 18, during nonpublic session. But, he said, selectmen likely won't take action given that the charges are only misdemeanors, and that Nelson didn't appear to be acting in his capacity as fire chief in the alleged incident. However, selectmen could take action after the court case is resolved, he said.

The position of fire chief is appointed by the selectmen. 

Nelson was released on $10,000 personal recognizance. A trial is scheduled for Feb. 24.

Sentinel staff writer Meghan Foley contributed to this report.

Copyright 2014 The Keene Sentinel
All Rights Reserved

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