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A mysterious fire. Brutalized animals. Extortion. Rickety Ranch isn’t the haven its owners dreamed of

A small farm in Hollis, N.H., has evolved into a place to rescue animals — as well as a place of local intrigue.
A small farm in Hollis, N.H., has evolved into a place to rescue animals — as well as a place of local intrigue.(Jim Davis/Globe Staff)

HOLLIS, N.H. — When they took over the 2.6-acre plot of land on Nartoff Road a decade and a half ago, Gary and Diana Bergeron had no intention of turning it into an animal rescue farm; things just sort of worked out that way.

Here came Julianna, a horse that had been injured in a tractor-trailer accident. Here came a pair of mini donkeys — Jack and Tex — from a woman who was going through a divorce and no longer had a place to keep them. Here came chickens and alpacas and Chance the piglet, a runt who had been headed toward euthanization before the Bergerons stepped in.

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As the years passed, their little farm would swell to include dozens of animals, maintained with a dedicated collection of helpers — middle- and high-school-aged kids from the area who made daily trips to the property to assist with feeding and cleaning.

Somewhere along the way, it took on a nickname, one befitting its humble origins and imperfect stock: Rickety Ranch, they called it.

Now, though, a place that has long served as a haven for abused and unwanted animals has become the target of what the Federal Bureau of Investigation describes as a “vicious” extortion campaign.

In several incidents over the past two years, an unknown assailant — or assailants — has terrorized the Bergerons’ ranch, brutalizing animals and doing thousands of dollars worth of property damage. At least two of the farm’s horses have had their tails cut off. Other animals have been killed. In January, a barn and truck on the property mysteriously caught fire, leaving both destroyed. (The investigation into the fire remains open, says the local fire chief.)

And then there are the letters.

Fashioned as riddles and littered with misspellings, the typed missives began arriving through the mail in the summer of 2017, demanding as much as $250,000 from the Bergerons in exchange for putting an end to their torment.

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In a bizarre twist, the letters have also suggested that the author has the power to solve an ongoing legal dispute between the Bergerons and the town of Hollis over alleged zoning and construction violations, prompting the town to publicly state that no one acting on its behalf is behind the troubling acts.

“I just want to state unequivocally that no one working for the town would do anything this stupid,” says Mark Le Doux, chairman of the Board of Selectmen.

News of the FBI’s investigation has captured the attention of this town of 8,000, a quiet hamlet of rolling orchards and commercial farms located just north of the Massachusetts state line. Talk has often centered on the bizarre occurrences at the Bergerons’ small farm — a well-known property that has occasionally drawn the ire of neighbors and town officials — and fueled speculation about who might be responsible.

“It’s so crazy,” says Cathy Hyland-Roukas, who has owned the popular Hollis Country Kitchen restaurant for nearly 25 years. “It’s a very quiet, sleepy town. Most people don’t even lock their doors.”

So far, specifics in the case have been hard to come by. Reached this week, Gary Bergeron declined to comment, saying he didn’t want to jeopardize the ongoing investigation. For their part, FBI officials have kept many of the details — including the total number and dates of the letters — under wraps, acknowledging that the events of the past two years have left the Bergerons understandably shaken.

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“These people are really living in fear,” says Brian O’Hara, a special agent with the FBI, which recently announced a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest of the person or people responsible. “A lot of stress, a lot of sleepless nights, and a lot of watching over their back.”

Those who know the Bergerons describe them as hard-working, good-hearted people who deal with the stresses of maintaining a farm for the benefit of animals that might otherwise have to be put down.

In the years they have operated the ranch, supporters say, the middle-aged couple have exposed countless kids to farm life while creating a family-like environment.

“It’s just a shame that such nice people and such generous people have this happening to them,” says Deidre Anderson, a high school senior in Groton who volunteers daily at the farm and who has elected to remain in New England for college in order to continue visiting it on weekends.

But the farm has also found itself the subject of controversy.

In 2016, the Bergerons were named as defendants in a civil lawsuit stemming from a bounce house accident at the ranch that resulted in multiple injuries. According to witness accounts at the time, a bounce house that had been erected for an event wasn’t tethered to the ground and was lifted high into the air by a wind gust and came crashing down, injuring two young children inside. Gary Bergeron also faced misdemeanor charges related to the incident; he reportedly pleaded no contest and was found guilty.

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The property has also come under occasional criticism from neighbors and town officials, whose complaints have ranged from the Bergerons’ purported accumulation of unregistered vehicles to allegations of animal waste or oil-contaminated runoff.

One neighbor, who asked that her name not be used because she didn’t want to get involved with the case, said that the appearance of the property doesn’t sit well with some in the neighborhood of tidy homes on a tree-lined street.

“It’s fine to have a farm, it’s fine to have animals — but not in the area where he’s in,” she says. “I think you need a little more room.”

On a chilly weekday afternoon last week, the ranch was mostly quiet. Goats murmured from a nearby pen. An alpaca eyed a visitor curiously from behind a gate. A man who answered the door at a home on the property said he was only renting and wasn’t associated with the farm.

As word of the Bergerons’ ordeal has spread, many have jumped to offer support. In recent days, the ranch’s Facebook page has received various messages asking how to go about making donations, with at least one person offering to stand guard at the ranch.

As the investigation continues, meanwhile, residents remain hopeful for a quick resolution to what might be the most perplexing crime in the town’s modern history.

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“We just need to get to the bottom of this,” says Le Doux, the selectmen’s chairman. “Notwithstanding all the things that have been mentioned about how weird this is, somebody’s done something here — and they need to be found out.”

Horses are sheltered at the “Rickety Ranch” in Hollis, N.H. At least two of the farm’s horses have had their tails cut off.
Horses are sheltered at the “Rickety Ranch” in Hollis, N.H. At least two of the farm’s horses have had their tails cut off. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)

Dugan Arnett can be reached at dugan.arnett@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @duganarnett.