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Few answers yet in N.H. officer’s death

Search also continues for cause of fire, explosion

BRENTWOOD, N.H. — The disturbance seemed routine, a reported argument between a father and son in the middle of the afternoon, down a quiet street in a quiet town.

But when a Brentwood police officer, Steve Arkell, entered the Mill Pond Road home Monday, authorities say, he was instantly ambushed, gunned down in an unexplained attack that led to an explosive fire and the alleged shooter’s death.

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Arkell, 48, was shot multiple times by Michael Nolan, a 47-year-old who lived in the home with his elderly father. Police had not previously been called to the home, which is in a community for residents 55 and older, and Nolan had no criminal record.

“It certainly seemed that Officer Arkell walked into a situation that he didn’t anticipate, “ Jane Young, chief of the New Hampshire attorney general’s criminal bureau, said Tuesday afternoon at a news media conference. “This is a pretty quiet town. It’s 4 o’clock on a Monday. As somebody said, ‘This doesn’t happen here.’ ”

Just minutes after the initial shooting, Nolan fired at a second officer, driving him from the home, Young said. Police surrounded the residence, then watched as it burst into flames, a powerful blaze punctuated by a massive explosion.

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On Tuesday, investigators combed through the rubble in search of clues to Nolan’s bizarre actions, a process authorities said would take several days. They disclosed little information about Nolan, and did not say what may have motivated the fatal outburst. It was not known whether Nolan and Arkell’s paths had previously crossed.

“A lot of questions remain unanswered,” said Joseph Foster, New Hampshire’s attorney general.

Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

Brentwood, N.H. Police Chief Wayne Robinson showed emotion during a press conference Tuesday.

Agents from the FBI and US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, along with investigators with the New Hampshire State Police major crimes unit, were at the scene.

The shooting of a small-town officer echoed the 2012 death of Michael Maloney, the police chief in Greenland, N.H., about 20 miles away. Maloney was killed and four other officers were wounded in a drug raid.

In Brentwood, a town of 4,200, authorities said a neighbor reported hearing “verbal altercations” between Nolan and his father, 86-year-old Walter Nolan.

Another neighbor, Felisa Blazek, who heard screaming from the home on Monday before police arrived, said Michael Nolan was abusive toward his father, and had previously threatened her children.

“This guy was a loose cannon,” she said.

Nolan’s father had asked her not to press charges over the episode with her children, saying his son was “mentally unstable,” she said.

Walter Nolan was outside the home when Arkell arrived and was not harmed. Investigators were interviewing him to learn more about his son but did not consider him a suspect.

Nolan’s body was recovered in the rubble of the garage, authorities said. A preliminary autopsy was completed Tuesday, but the cause of death was unclear.

As authorities delved into Nolan’s past, the community mourned the loss of Arkell, who had served on the police force “with distinction” for 15 years.

“He gave of himself, and he put himself in harm’s way to keep us safe,” Foster said. “He gave the ultimate sacrifice. For that, we are grateful and deeply sad.”

Flags waved at half-staff, and the small town shut down for the day. Town offices and the police station closed. Even storytime at the library was canceled.

“It’s very quiet. We’re all mourning,” said Andrea O’Loughlin, 48, who came to the police station to lay a single red rose at the end of the driveway.

O’Loughlin lives near the Mill Pond Road home, and on Monday worried that the shooter might still be alive.

“Last night was the first time I really locked my doors,” she said. “This community is rocked.”

On Tuesday night, hundreds of people gathered on a field at the town’s recreation area and community center to pay tribute to Arkell with a candlelight vigil that drew neighbors, fellow officers, and young lacrosse players that he coached.

Governor Maggie Hassan said Brentwood has the support of the entire state.

Ryan O'Leary/The Portsmouth Herald/AP

Officer Steve Arkell, 48, was shot and killed.

“They’ll be with Brentwood and the Police Department here every day because we’re all going to have to keep coming together to get through this. There aren’t any words that are going to make this loss any easier,” she said.

Courtney Preneta, the girls lacrosse coach at Exeter High School, where Arkell was an assistant coach the past two years, said, “In the end he was a hero. He was taken far too soon.”

This year, both of his daughters, a senior and a freshman, are on the lacrosse team.

Earlier Tuesday, Police Chief Wayne Robinson said the 10-officer Brentwood department, five of them part-time officers, is hurting, but determined to be there for Arkell’s family.

“All my guys, they’re there for Steve,” he said. “Steve was a very good cop.”

Young, head of the attorney general’s criminal bureau, said Arkell’s family is also devastated.

“Words cannot describe the pain that they have,” she said, her voice strained with emotion.

At the conference for members of the news media, Young provided a detailed timeline of events, which unfolded with frightening speed.

On Monday, Arkell was called to Mill Pond Road in response to a report of a “verbal domestic dispute,” and met Walter Nolan, who allowed him to go inside the house.

Seconds later, witnesses heard “three volleys of gunfire,” Young said.

Minutes later, a second officer arrived. He tried to get information from Walter Nolan, but was “not able to get responses,” she said. After handcuffing him, he went inside and found Arkell lying dead on the floor. A wall had been riddled with bullets.

The officer, Derek Franek, then came under intense gunfire that forced him out the back of the house, where he took cover and called for backup.

Police surrounded the home, and over the next 30 minutes Nolan fired additional shots, sometimes striking neighboring homes, authorities said. The officers did not have a clear shot and did not return fire.

Around 5 p.m., smoke was reported from the back of the home, which soon burst into flames. At 5:49, the house exploded, forcing first responders to retreat.

Young said the cause of the fire was unknown, but it appeared to be intentionally set.

“Based on what we saw, accidental is probably not likely,” she said. Some homes in the development use propane for heating, she noted.

The duplex home was destroyed. The couple who lived upstairs were unharmed but stunned by what happened.

“He’s in shock,” said the brother of James Maguire, who lived there with his wife. “He lost everything that he owned in his whole life. They have nothing except the clothes on their back.”

The couple is staying with family, he said.

Before moving to Mill Pond Road several years ago, the Nolans lived on Christina Road in Raymond, N.H. Former neighbor Jennifer Finnegan, 42, said the elder Nolan and his wife, who died in 2012, were a “sweet couple.”

Erica Thompson, 42, another neighbor, said the Nolans used to give small presents to her infant son.

“They were just a super sweet couple, sort of grandmotherly figures,” she said.

More coverage:

Photos: Fire, explosion in N.H.

Video of the house fire and explosion

Laura Crimaldi and Maria Cramer of the Globe staff, and Globe correspondents Jacqueline Tempera and Catalina Gaitán contributed to this report.
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