PLAINFIELD, N.H. — She originally agreed to pay the hit man with a tractor, according to court testimony. But nobody pays the full bill for a murder in advance. It’s half now, half later. And there is no reasonable way to give someone half a tractor.
So they renegotiated in dollars — five thousand up front, and another five grand when her former daughter-in-law was dead. She had bargained $2,000 off the asking price.
“When I get a picture of her gone, you’ll get the rest,” Pauline Chase promised, according to a July police recording of the 83-year-old widow speaking to the man she allegedly tried to hire for murder.
What she didn’t know was that the purported hit man was working with police. Chase and her son, 63-year-old Maurice Temple, were arrested late last month and charged with conspiracy to murder Jean Temple, the beloved postmaster in this sublime little mountain town, who is also Maurice Temple’s ex-wife.
The police recordings made during the investigation, played in court earlier this month, unspooled a darkly riveting, screwball tale of a broken family and the ultimate betrayal, allegedly masterminded by a 5-foot-3 octogenarian:
“You want her dead, not just hurt?” the hit man asked Chase over the phone.
“What?” Chase said.
“You want her dead, not just hurt, correct?” he repeated. “So we’re all on the same page.”
There was a pause. “I can’t hear what you’re saying,” Chase said. “The word is what?
The hit man repeated again, stressing every syllable like you do when you lose patience with your grandma. “You-want-her-dead-not-just-hurt!”
“That’s right,” she said.
At her age, Chase is an unlikely suspect in a murder-for-hire plot. She was born May 23, 1934, the day lawmen in Louisiana killed Bonnie and Clyde. A hearing is scheduled for Oct. 12 to determine if Chase is competent to stand trial, a court spokeswoman said.
Maurice Temple’s case has been bound over to Superior Court. His lawyer has argued that Maurice was an unwilling participant in the plot, entrapped by investigators.
Court filings allege that Maurice was present when Chase gave $5,000 to Mark Horne, a longtime acquaintance, as a down payment to kill Jean.
Problem was, Horne is not a hit man. He is a 63-year-old volunteer firefighter, active in local politics and town affairs. You can find his name in Plainfield selectboard minutes from April, in a discussion over firefighters reducing their use of sirens. He has known Jean Temple for 20 years and said in court that they were friends.
Horne has testified that he called police after Chase asked if he could help send Jean “down the river.” Horne agreed to wear a police wire and play along with the alleged plot in a sting operation. The investigation unfolded over most of July, in the rural bedroom community of about 2,300.
Murder conspiracies aside, Plainfield is a beautiful place, with all the touchstones of a sleepy New England village. White steeples. Red barns. Stacks of split firewood. Rows of cornstalk that melt into sweeping green vistas. It’s the kind of place that feels protected from salacious scandal but has had its share of unwelcome headlines.
“Plainfield is not without precedent for odd events,” said Selectman Robert W. Taylor.
A decade ago, the residents of Plainfield lived through what they now call “the Brown incident.” It began when residents Ed and Elaine Brown decided they were tired of tax bills, and stopped paying. They were eventually prosecuted, but retreated to their 100-acre property, where they held off the law in an armed standoff that lasted nine months. The locals grew accustomed to news trucks and SWAT helicopters. Finally, agents posing as supporters of the couple’s tax revolt arrested the Browns, who went to prison. Fear of booby-traps delayed the tax sale of their property for years.
“We had the Brown incident and now we have murder for hire,” said Paul Yates, 44, proprietor of The Collector’s Armory, an antique firearm and bric-a-brac store on the town’s main drag. “People are crazy. You can’t cure crazy.”
Several townspeople said they were shocked by the arrests and concerned for their postmaster, whom one customer called “the sweetest woman in the town.” They hoped the publicity would not taint Plainfield’s reputation. And they seemed puzzled that anyone would think to hire a local to commit murder in a town where everybody knows everyone.
“What a stupid plan,” another resident said.
. . .
Court testimony suggests the alleged plan stems from Maurice and Jean’s long and complicated divorce. The case of Temple v. Temple has seen nearly 300 legal motions, objections, court orders, hearings, counter-motions, new objections — spanning a decade.
It wasn’t always this way. We can presume they fell for each other once. They married on Nov. 23, 1974. He was 21; she was 19. Maurice owned an excavating company and stayed busy through long New Hampshire winters plowing snow. Jean kept the books for her husband’s business, and around 1987 became the town’s postmaster, court documents say. He was the chief breadwinner in the early days of the marriage, but in later years Jean was the more consistent earner.
It was Jean who filed for divorce, in 2007, after 33 years of marriage, and having raised two children. She cited irreconcilable differences.
The estranged spouses battled for two years in court before the order dividing their assets was signed in 2009. But their arduous legal fight was just beginning.
Court actions continued all way to this year, right to the start of the alleged plot.
Legal filings say Maurice owed Jean close to $18,000, including interest, from their divorce settlement, which he declined to pay. This past May, a court warned Maurice to begin making payments or risk arrest. On June 23, the police came to Maurice’s house at 455 Old County Rd., to bring him in.
Police were greeted by Chase, who lived with her son. A neighbor described Chase to the Globe as a bitter, “snarly” person, best avoided.
Chase claimed Maurice was not home, according to a police report. But like a detective in a pulp novel, an officer felt the hood of a Dodge truck parked in the yard. The hood was warm, a sign that the truck had recently been driven. The police found Maurice in the basement.
Maurice, who is 6 feet tall and a meaty 255 pounds, sounded ready to fight.
“The only way I’m leaving here is in a body bag,” he warned police.
Four officers struggled to handcuff him. They took him down to the floor.
Chase smacked an officer on the leg with her cane, police said.
“Look what you’re doing to him,” she yelled.
. . .
On June 25, Jean Temple attended a retirement party for the fire chief, according to testimony, where she ran into Mark Horne. Jean mentioned that Maurice had just been arrested for defying the court order to pay the money he owed her. Maurice would be released after paying $3,000 toward his debt.
Horne is a barrel-chested man with a deeply tanned face and a silver moustache. He has known Chase and Maurice for at least two decades, and he testified that he called Chase to ask about her son.
Chase was upset. She claimed the police got rough with Maurice, and she disputed the legitimacy of Maurice’s debt to his ex-wife. She complained that Jean was torturing her son, and said she wanted her to disappear, according to testimony from two witnesses this month at Maurice’s probable cause hearing. Pressed to be specific about Chase’s words, Horne testified: “She wanted the bitch to go down the river.”
Chase wanted his help getting rid of Jean, and “seemed pretty determined,” Horne said. Working with the police to gather evidence, Horne made several subsequent calls to Chase that were surreptitiously recorded by the authorities.
At first, Chase agreed to compensate Horne for the murder by giving him a tractor she owned, but seemed to push back when he asked for the paperwork to transfer the title, according to testimony and the recordings.
“I want something before I let it go,” Chase told Horne on one tape.
They reworked the deal for cash, $5,000 up front and $5,000 later.
From the recordings:
“Five thousand, right?” said Horne.
“Yeah,” Chase answered.
“And then Jean’s gone?” she said.
“OK. Boy, that’ll be great.”
Horne wore a hidden camera when he collected the money, and sounded calm and businesslike counting out the $100 bills. Court filings say Maurice searched Horne for a wire, but apparently never found one.
At a hearing earlier this month in a tiny Claremont, N.H., courtroom, Maurice Temple was fresh from jail in a loud orange jumpsuit, matching Crocs, and silver shackles. His right leg bounced under the defense table.
Jean Temple sat nearby.
Only at the end of the hearing did Maurice turn around, looking haggard and hangdog, as his ex-wife hurried out. Maurice gave a lingering look toward the woman he once promised to love until death.Mark Arsenault can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark.