Lying on the Merrimack River in south-central New Hampshire, the town of Hookset is between Concord, the Granite State’s capital, and Manchester, its largest city. With a population of approximately 14,000, the community views itself as a quintessential New England town.
Hookset is home to Robie’s Country Store, a National Historic Landmark, and a venue frequented by presidential candidates during New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary. While Robie’s Country Store is Hookset’s claim to fame, the fortunes of the Paquette family are its claim to infamy.
In 1964, 13-year-old Danny Paquette found his mother burned to death in a suspicious fire. Rena Paquette’s death was ruled a suicide, but many believed she had been murdered.
Over twenty-one years later, on November 9, 1985, Danny Paquette was shot to death only a few blocks from where he had found his mother. Despite over two decades between the incidents, residents believed the deaths were related. It was ultimately proven they were not. One of the Paquette deaths has been solved, but the other remains shrouded in mystery.
Two brutal murders occurred in Hookset during the 1960s when the town’s population totaled only 2,500 people.
On February 1, 1960, 18-year-old Sandra Valade disappeared after leaving a YMCA swimming class in Manchester. Nine days later, her body was found in a snowbank. She had been sexually assaulted and shot.
On January 12, 1964, fourteen-year-old Pamela Mason responded to a newspaper ad asking for a babysitter. The following day, she was picked up at her home by the person who had placed the ad. Her remains were found eight days later in a ditch along what is now Interstate 93 near Manchester. She had been beaten, stabbed four times, and shot twice in the head.
Authorities believed the same person had killed the two young women and that he was someone local.
Rena Paquette, a 54-year-old housewife, told friends and family she believed she knew who had murdered the girls. She also believed one of them had been killed in the barn on the Paquette family farm. She told the police of her suspicions, but they deemed her claims uncredible.
When Danny Paquette, Rena’s youngest child and the only one still living at home, awoke on February 3, 1964, he was surprised to find no sign of his mother. As his father, Arthur, was away on a business trip, Danny called his uncle Charlie, a Manchester policeman.
Charlie had not seen or heard from his sister. It was a cold morning, and he became alarmed when he arrived at the home and found Rena’s winter clothing accessories still in the house.
Danny and Charlie had searched for over an hour before Danny noticed smoke coming from the barn, one mile from the family home. Inside the barn where Rena had told police one of the girls had been murdered, her son found her lifeless body.
Rena had mental issues; she would likely today be diagnosed as suffering from depression. The police ruled her death a suicide, concluding she had set herself on fire and then crawled into the barn to die.
The Paquette family did not share the police sentiments, chiefly because no flammable substances or containers were near the barn’s vicinity. They were certain Rena had been murdered, possibly by the same person who killed Sandra Valade and Pamela Mason.
In January 1966, 11 weeks after Rena’s death, 28-year-old local delivery man Ed Coolidge was arrested for the murder of Pamela Mason. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Coolidge’s conviction, however, was overturned in 1971 when the Supreme Court claimed the evidence was illegally obtained. He then pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and received a reduced sentence. Coolidge was never formally charged with the murder of Sandra Valade.
Coolidge was the person Rena Paquette believed had murdered the teenage girls. He was cleared of any involvement in Rena’s death, which remained ruled a suicide.
After serving 25 years as a “model prisoner,” Ed Coolidge was paroled in 1991.
All of Rena’s children were devastated by her death, but it was the most traumatic for Danny as he was tormented by the experience of finding his mother’s burned body.
Danny grew from a troubled teen into an even more troubled adult. He married and had children but was devastated when he lost custody of them after his wife Denise divorced him in 1981.
Shortly after the divorce was finalized that summer, Danny went to Denise’s home, demanding to see his children. After he tried to beat down the door, she called the police, and Danny was arrested.
Danny was sent to a psychiatric hospital to undergo hypnosis to help alleviate his anger. The session, however, resulted in a shocking allegation.
Under hypnosis, Danny said that shortly after waking up on the morning of February 3, 1964, the day over twenty years earlier when he would find his mom dead, he had seen her arguing with a delivery man. He then said he briefly returned to bed before awakening again to an empty house.
In a subsequent session, Danny claimed the man he saw was Ed Coolidge and that he had threatened to kill Danny’s mother.
After the revelations, police re-examined their investigation into Rena Paquette’s death.
They again found no evidence linking Coolidge to the incident and stood by the suicide ruling.
Danny Paquette was released from the psychiatric hospital after five months. By mid-1985, he had remarried, and his mental state had improved.
On November 9, 1985, Danny was repairing a bulldozer at his home while his friend Kevin Cote worked in the garage. At around 11:00 a.m., Kevin heard a loud pop. When he went outside, he found Danny lying on the ground. Paramedics quickly arrived but pronounced Danny dead at the scene.
Kevin initially believed Danny had been electrocuted, but an autopsy found he had been shot in the heart. Phone service had stopped when Danny was shot, and authorities pulled the fatal bullet from the telephone cable.
As it was the first day of hunting season, police suspected Danny had been accidentally shot by men hunting in a local gravel pit, approximately one mile away. Ballistics experts, however, determined such a shot was impossible. They concluded the shot was fired deliberately from close range, a finding supported by two sets of footprints found near the crime scene. After shooting Danny, the culprit had fled into the woods.
Many Hookset residents believed Danny’s murder was related to his mother’s death over 21 years before.
Rena Paquette’s body was exhumed in 1991.
New Hampshire State Medical Examiner Roger Fossum found the burn patterns on her body inconsistent with self-immobilization patterns. He believed Rena might have been stabbed or suffocated in another location and then moved to the barn.
Dr. Fossum changed the cause of Rena Paquette’s death from “suicide” to “undetermined.” It has, however, been determined that Danny’s murder was not related to his mom’s death.
In 2005, 20 years after the murder of Danny Paquette, Eric Windhurst was charged with the crime.
Windhurst was dating a high school friend of Danny’s. At the time of the 1985 murder, he was dating Danny’s 17-year-old stepdaughter Melanie Cooper.
The couple was questioned after Danny’s death. They said they were attending a field hockey game at the time of the murder. Twenty years later, however, Cooper admitted she was with Windhurst when he killed Danny because, she claimed, her stepfather was sexually abusing her.
After his arrest, Windhurst’s relatives told police it had been an “open secret” among the family that he had committed the murder.
Melanie Cooper was sentenced to fifteen months in prison for hindering the investigation into her stepfather’s murder. Eric Windhurst pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to fifteen to thirty-six years in jail.
Melanie Cooper was released from prison in 2008.
Eric Windhorst has recently gained his freedom, having been released in October 2020.
Some sources say Danny did sexually abuse Melanie, but others say he didn’t. We may never know, and he was never formally charged with the crime.
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