GREENLAND, N.H. — On April 11, the old friends were bantering.
“You’re not going anywhere,’’ Chief Brian Page of North Hampton told Michael Maloney as they planned traffic for an upcoming golf tournament. “How many times have you said you’re retiring?’’
“Yeah, yeah,’’ said Maloney, the chief in neighboring Greenland. “But this time I’m really ready.’’
Page wasn’t convinced. “You said you’d do it on April 1,’’ he said, referring to a common retirement date for police. “And you’re still here.’’
Maloney hadn’t known anything other than police work really. Only a stint in the Army. But it was time. Perhaps he’d pursue a job in the private sector, definitely spend more time with his first grandson. And he and his wife Peg had scheduled a summertime cruise.
Yes, come April 20, he would retire — after he had taken care of one final piece of business.
Across town, Cullen Mutrie was planning a trip of his own. The 29-year-old sent a Facebook message to his high school buddy, Justin Wright, who lived in Florida. “Hey,’’ he wrote. “We need to catch up and I want to come visit. I have some dough saved up and I could just drive down if you’re not too busy.’’
The message came unexpectedly. The two hadn’t talked in a while. “It almost makes me want to think he knew he was in trouble,’’ Wright said in a recent interview.
Mutrie did have heavy matters on his mind. He was trying to resurrect a long-sought career as a firefighter, derailed by recent drug and assault charges that his attorney was confident he’d beat.
“I’m going to win,’’ Mutrie had told a friend in the fire service when they were out for drinks a week earlier. “Then I’ll be able to come around.’’
In the next sentence, though, Mutrie’s confidence had flagged. “Is anyone saying anything bad about me?’’
Mutrie and Maloney were men a generation apart, often squared off on opposing sides of the law, yet they shared biographical entries — both Winnacunnet High School graduates, both with Boston area roots, both big guys who once played football. Their lives fused in the way that lives do in a place like the New Hampshire Seacoast, an 18-mile stretch marked by tidal marshes and small towns that might as well be one, so far as the gossip mill goes.
Here, Mutrie was captain of the Little Warriors Football team Maloney would coach later when his son played on the team. Maloney’s younger relatives went to Winnacunnet with Mutrie. Maloney’s mother had sought print work from the Copy Center of Hampton, owned by the Mutries.
In their hometowns, miles apart, both would aspire to public service — a path that would lead Maloney to acclaim and Mutrie to desperation, and one that would propel them toward a confrontation on April 12.
Neither would survive.
The Maloney family was among the droves of summertime surf-seekers who annually trekked to Hampton Beach from Massachusetts. They were North Everett people, his maternal grandmother born in Ireland. Maloney’s parents, John and Joan, were outliers for their neighborhood: They were only children. When the two married, they soon reversed that course. First came Kevin, followed by Dennis, Carolyn, Michael, Kathleen, and Tim.
Before Michael Maloney began kindergarten, the family moved to North Hampton, a town over from their summer place. They settled in a new subdivision of garrisons and ranches off Route 1. Maloney soon became a neighborhood concierge — hollering “what are you doing’s?’’ as he rode his bike or climbed neighbors’ white pines.
Terry von Thaden’s introduction to Maloney came with a great banging on her front door one frosty night shortly after her family had moved to the neighborhood when she was in eighth grade.
“A dog fell through the ice!’’ Maloney, also an eighth-grader, yelled before racing off to wrestle the family’s thrashing 90-pound golden retriever from a not-yet-iced pond. When the dog had been hauled to safety, von Thaden’s parents beckoned the dripping teen to come inside and warm up. “No, no, I was just walking by,’’ Maloney said.
A few weeks later, another knocking. It was Maloney again, this time wanting to know if the family would turn on outdoor lights for sledders coasting down a nearby hill.
Maloney turned to von Thaden. “Well, do you want to come?’’ Von Thaden followed and slid behind Maloney on a sled packed with half a dozen kids. “Mike tucks my legs in, gives a pat to make me feel secure and down the hill we go,’’ she recalled.
In his family, Maloney was a fulcrum, too. To his sisters, he was a confidante. With his father, an airline pilot, he shared a fascination with planes. With his brothers, he served as an altar boy.
“He was the heart of the family in so many ways,’’ said one immediate family member.
Maloney stood 5-foot-10, but gave a larger appearance with his broad frame, and played defense for the Winnacunnet Warriors — not to acclaim, but with good effort, the football team coach recalled. If he had plans for becoming a police officer, he kept mum with friends.
In his high school yearbook, class of 1982, Maloney would write, “Luv ya always, This is true,’’ and with that, was off to join the Army Reserve.
Mutrie grew up in Hampton Falls in the “Peter Weare’’ house, built circa 1712, that stands like a postcard of old New England amid a creep of new suburbia and Route 1’s strip malls. Mutrie’s mother held numerous town posts, including planning board member and library trustee. Mutrie’s father was a real estate developer who early in his career worked in his family’s business, P.B. Mutrie Motor Transportation Co., which specialized in hauling chemicals.
The Waltham company had provided the family financial grounding and social status. Mutrie’s grandfather, Francis P. Mutrie who served as general manager, resided in Wellesley Hills, Palm Beach, and Osterville. He was among the invited guests seated behind the Kennedy family in January 1964 when Cardinal Richard J. Cushing celebrated Mass in memory of President John F. Kennedy at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. His great uncle, the company president, also of Wellesley, was a Harvard man with membership in the Algonquin Club.
Against this backdrop, Mutrie strove to distinguish himself — pushed on by his father.
“His dad held Cullen to a very high standard,’’ said T.J. Guarente a friend who’d known Cullen from their Little Warrior days. “He expected a lot from him.’’
The father and son were extremely close — attending gun shows, hunting, and fishing together.
In school, Mutrie was a quick study, particularly in math. He didn’t make a name in sports, but as an extrovert, he ranked among the popular kids. Blond and square-jawed, girlfriends flocked. It didn’t hurt, either, that he was a big guy. By junior year, he weighed over 200 pounds, had passed the 6-foot mark, and steadily increased his size with a dedication to weightlifting.
“As he got big, it had a real effect,’’ said Casey Elliott, a high school friend. “People would come to him and say, ‘I’m having a problem with this guy.’ And just having him around — this big dude — would intimidate people.’’
Mutrie embraced the role of protector. There was a thrill for Mutrie in acting as savior.
“He lived for the ‘dare to be great’ situation,’’ Guarente said.
Indeed, to his close friend Justin Wright, Mutrie confided that his life goal was to become a firefighter. “For as long as I can remember, that’s the only thing he wanted to be,’’ Wright said.
Elliott said Mutrie was more of a show of force than a use of force. But police recall a young man prone to fighting and aggression.
“Most of the police chiefs knew him and were cautious when dealing with him,’’ Page said. “He was known to be violent and resistant to authority.’’
His senior year, in 2000, Mutrie wrote in the Winnacunnet yearbook, “To my parents thanks for everything.’’ He listed graduation as his sole achievement.
In 1985, when he was 21, Maloney signed on with the North Hampton police force.
The gregarious and inquisitive nature that had propelled Maloney’s neighborhood patrols as a kid made him a natural cop. He regularly called on Tina Cote’s mom, a widow who lived alone. When Rebecca Johnson was 10 and her dad’s truck broke down, Maloney came by and asked, “Gene, are you all right?’’ Johnson’s father explained the problem and Maloney said, “OK, grab the girls, and I’ll give you a ride home.’’
At a community garden where teens worked off community service sentences, Maloney regularly checked in on the teens he had prosecuted, the only cop who did so, said Sheila Nudd, a teacher who oversaw the garden.
Page, the North Hampton chief, recalled working a double homicide with Maloney in 1990. The shooter was suspected of being holed up in a strip mall. The men searched the mall — one going high, the other low, covering the corners.
“It was seamless,’’ Page said. “Mike was the kind of guy you didn’t have to worry about showing up for you tactically.’’
In 1997, Maloney ascended to chief in North Hampton. From time to time, he still could be found after work at Abercrombie and Finch, a local pub. “Short Pants!’’ folks would call out when he entered, referring to Maloney’s preference for shorts in all weather. Sipping his drink of choice, Grey Goose vodka, Maloney chatted up the bartender, Peg.
Soon, the two were a pair, and would marry in a Hawaiian ceremony.
In New Hampshire, full-time firefighter work is competitive. Just 20 percent of towns have full-time fire departments, with open slots going to the most experienced candidates, often those who have put in hours at a volunteer department.
Mutrie started volunteering in 2004 at the Hampton Falls Fire Department. “Overall he was average, but average is what makes the world go round,’’ recalled Jay Lord, the chief.
Mutrie visited the nearby Seabrook Fire Department — which hired full-time firefighters — chitchatting and asking questions as he studied for his required firefighting courses. To pay the bills while he built his firefighting resume, Mutrie worked in construction.
He was also getting even bigger, fast. Shortly after high school, Mutrie had begun taking steroids, friends said. He soon earned the nickname “Fathead.’’ The muscles, a friend said, were a chick magnet, but also armor — a kind of cover for Mutrie’s lagging self-esteem. “For some reason, he never felt that he was good enough,’’ said Katie Winter, a friend.
His girlfriend at the time, who would become his fiance, complained to Mutrie about his steroid use, and Mutrie tried quitting, unsuccessfully.
“He’d see himself losing 15 pounds and he’d think it was 60,’’ said a friend, who asked not to be identified. “It was almost like reverse anorexia.’’
Using his heft, Mutrie continued intervening in fights on behalf of friends, often in bars. Friends saw Mutrie’s intervention as valiant, the stuff of a loyal comrade. On a November night in 2006, he was doing just that when he sought to protect a friend who was in an altercation with a bouncer at a Portsmouth bar, friends said. Police saw it differently, and charged Mutrie with simple assault for punching the man in the head. With his father by his side, he pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor. Soon after, he panicked.
“He came in here talking about the plea, saying, ‘It’s going to ruin my chances in firefighting,’ ’’ recalled Jeremy Wright, a Seabrook firefighter.
Mutrie handwrote a letter begging a judge to let him withdraw the plea. The judge permitted the withdrawal and under a new agreement, Mutrie pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of disorderly conduct, a violation.
A local paper covered Mutrie’s plea and word soon got around. “Jay [the Hampton Falls fire chief] had his talk with [Mutrie] and it was one of those oopses,’’ said a Seabrook firefighter who asked not to be identified.
For good measure, in the summer of 2009, he enrolled in Northern Essex Community College’s paramedic training program, a credential departments look upon favorably.
Mutrie had righted his career, for the moment.
By 2010, Maloney’s life had assumed a familiar rhythm: Maloney started his shift at 5:30 a.m. At 7:45 a.m. he met with the town administrator. From there, desk chores often awaited, but he made sure to get out and about, checking in on people in Greenland, where he had become chief a decade earlier.
He and Peg would celebrate happy news that year: Maloney’s son from a previous marriage was going to make them grandparents.
For Mutrie, 2010 began with two devastating blows. His fiance ended their relationship and his father fell suddenly ill and died on Jan. 10 while Mutrie attempted to revive him.
“I’m really struggling,’’ he wrote in a text message to Winter, three days later.
She asked him to come over to her house and at her kitchen table, Mutrie wept.
“He talked about how his dad was his best friend and the one person he could confide in and how he felt he had failed his dad because he hadn’t finished anything in his life,’’ Winter recalled. “How all he wanted to do was make something of himself and make his dad proud and he never got a chance to do that.’’
The economic tailspin took a toll on Mutrie, too. Construction jobs dried up, and Mutrie began helping to manage the family’s copy shop — a task that allowed him more time with his mother as she grieved for her husband.
And then came July 24.
The day started with Mutrie and his girlfriend shopping for a wetsuit, having lunch at the Old Salt in Hampton, and then returning to the white cape on Post Road that his parents had bought for him four years earlier. The pair began drinking, and a fight ensued over whether he was cheating on her.
What happened next remains up for debate: She claimed he dragged her out of the house by her hair and arm and knocked her head against her car. He denied this and said he had only grabbed her wrist in an effort to keep her from keying his car.
Police arrested him for simple assault, and a judge issued an emergency restraining order against him.
Mutrie’s mother sought to help him, arriving at the house and telling police that the house belonged to her and that she did not consent to a search for weapons, a routine procedure under a restraining order. Police disagreed, and a search turned up not only guns, but also vials containing anabolic steroids. Mutrie was charged with possession and later would be indicted on four felony counts carrying a possible prison term of 28 years.
A few days after the incident, Mutrie showed up at the Seabrook Fire Department. He was livid and condemned the girlfriend.
“’I can’t believe she did that to me!’’’ Jeremy Wright recalled Mutrie saying. “She set me up!’’
A judge disagreed and in October 2010 found Mutrie guilty on the assault charge. Mutrie’s firefighting prospects imploded. The Seabrook Fire Department terminated him in November. Northern Essex ejected him from its paramedic training program in February 2011; that same month, Exeter Hospital booted him from its clinical rotation.
Mutrie knew that an additional problem could prove forever devastating to his firefighting career: The state fire marshal had opened, though not made public, an investigation into a car fire in which Mutrie was a “person of interest.’’ The case remains open today.
Mutrie stopped calling friends. His text messages became brief and impersonal. “He distanced himself real quick,’’ said a friend on the Seabrook Fire Department.
Mutrie’s mounting anxiety was on view in November 2010 when he called police complaining that a woman whom he had dated would not leave his house. When police arrived, Mutrie went on a tirade, complaining that his assault arrest had “ruined his reputation and his career.’’
The officer suggested that Mutrie take up the matter with Chief Maloney.
In 2011, his career in shambles, his once socially kinetic world shrunken, Mutrie sought cover in the fog of painkillers, which he had begun taking after a 10-foot wall at a construction site fell on him and tore ligaments in his leg.
“He slipped into this deep drug circle,’’ said a friend who asked not to be identified. His habit became so regular that he began dealing the painkillers to pay for it, the friend said.
Neighbors complained that cars were coming and going from the white cape at all hours, arousing the suspicions of police, who tasked an undercover informant with arranging to buy 30 milligrams of oxycodone from Mutrie and his then-girlfriend, Brittany Tibbetts, for $250. That same day the informant bought the pills from Tibbetts.
At Christmas, Mutrie confided to Winter that he had hit bottom. “He felt like everything had come crashing down on him,’’ she said. “He wanted his life back to the way it was.’’
Mutrie’s lawyer offered a strand of hope. The attorney had appealed Mutrie’s assault conviction stemming from the July 24 incident with his girlfriend, and on April 10 of this year, the lawyer had filed a motion saying the evidence in the steroids possession case had been illegally obtained and shouldn’t be used at trial set for September.
That same day, Mutrie sent the Facebook message to Justin Wright in Florida saying he wanted to visit. The two talked by telephone and left it that Mutrie would call with a firm date. It would be soon, he promised. Very soon.
Maloney was making departure plans too. Days earlier, Maloney had gone before the board of selectman. All was in order, he told them, and ready for hand-off to a new chief. Everything save one last item. He declined to say what that was.
On April 12, shortly after dinner, word began to spread in Greenland that something big was going down. Maloney’s mother heard the sirens in her home a few blocks away. It couldn’t have anything to do with her Mike. He was days from retirement.
Police from across the state were flooding Greenland, descending on the white cape on Post Road. Mutrie and Tibbetts were inside. At 6:20 p.m., two Greenland police who knew Mutrie had knocked on the door to serve a search warrant for oxycodone. The low-key approach seemed reasonable for a guy like Mutrie.
“Officers had knocked on the door many times before and Cullen had always answered the door and they’d been able to talk,’’ said Tara Laurent, the new Greenland police chief.
This time, though, no one answered. Six drug task force officers from a unit that routinely assists local departments in drug investigations moved in. Instead of knocking, they forced open the door and encountered a barrage of gunfire unleashed by Mutrie as he stood in the front hallway.
Maloney, who had arrived on scene with the drug task force, helped pull the four wounded officers to safety, then rushed back to his cruiser and crouched behind its hood.
All was quiet for a time. Until a new round of gunfire erupted and a bullet hit Maloney in the head.
Maloney was rushed to nearby Portsmouth Hospital. Police placed the building in lockdown and doctors worked feverishly to revive the 48-year-old as his family hovered nearby. Word soon came that doctors’ efforts had failed.
At 11:15, Winter sent Mutrie a text message on Tibbetts’s phone.
“Just tell me one thing. Answer one thing, Cullen, my best friend, who walked me down the aisle. If I fall asleep tonight, will you be alive when I wake up? I can’t fall asleep and wake up and you be gone. Please talk to me.’’
There would be no response.
At 1:20 a.m., a police robot moved into the white cape. In the basement, the robot discovered two bodies: Tibbetts, who had been shot by Mutrie, and Mutrie, dead of a self-inflicted gunshot — an ending Mutrie had presaged earlier, a police affidavit shows, when he called a friend and said he’d shot officers and didn’t plan to come out alive.
In the weeks since, Maloney’s life has been celebrated. Thousands attended his funeral. Hundreds ran in a memorial race in his honor. The town’s recreational fields have been named for him. Public judgment of Mutrie has been equally unequivocal. His mother was hounded for saying Mutrie had been a good son. Soon after, she made plans to close the Copy Center.
But those who knew both men say quietly, in private conversations, that assessing Mutrie is a far more tortured calculus. Before he was an alleged killer, robber of a community’s police chief and a family’s core, he was a would-be firefighter, trying to make a name for himself and please his father, undone by the drugs he used to insulate himself.
“Do you mourn Cullen’s loss?’’ asked Allison Cardin, a high school acquaintance of Mutrie’s who also knows Maloney’s family. “Or do you say screw him, rot in hell?’’