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'Close-Knit' N.H. Town Struggles To Understand Girl's Death

This article is more than 11 years old.
A memorial for Celina Cass, 11, is seen Tuesday in Stewartstown, N.H. (AP)
A memorial for Celina Cass, 11, is seen Tuesday in Stewartstown, N.H. (AP)

Investigators in New Hampshire continued to sift through evidence taken from the home of 11-year-old Celina Cass, whose body was found in the Connecticut River this week.

Police impounded a pickup truck from the family's driveway Wednesday, but would not say who the owner was or if they suspect a family member.

Investigators are awaiting the results of a toxicology test before making any public conclusions about the cause and manner of her death.

Death Hangs Over Small Town

Cass' hometown, West Stewartstown, N.H., is struggling to make sense of her death.

Entering West Stewartstown, you descend a steep grade. The town lies at the bottom of a narrow valley formed by the Connecticut River. Vermont is just across the river.

As soon as you arrive in the town’s tiny heart, you see the rambling house where Cass lived. Its scalloped shingles are peeling, showing several layers of faded, mismatched paint.

“For Rent” signs are plastered onto the windows.

Cass' family were the only tenants, and now, they have moved out, if only while yellow police tape and state troopers surround the house.

Police watch over the house where Celina Cass lived. (Fred Thys/WBUR)
Police watch over the house where Celina Cass lived. (Fred Thys/WBUR)

Across the street, at the market where people buy cigarettes and newspapers, Faith Beloin runs the cash register.

"We’re all just very sad, sick to our stomachs about the whole thing," Beloin said. "It’s the topic of the town right now, and probably will be for a while. Everyone’s talking about it. Nobody can make any sense of it, because it’s just so senseless."

Pumping gas outside, Maureen Blanchard said she is struggling with how to explain to her own daughter what has happened when she doesn’t understand how it could happen in such a close-knit town.

"(It's a) very close town," Blanchard said. "Everybody knows everybody. You hear about this kind of thing happening, you just don’t think it’s going to happen here. I know the mom pretty well, and I know the stepfather, and I just can’t imagine what they’re going through."

Blanchard says she’s afraid to find out what the investigation will reveal.

"And I want some answers, because I got four children of my own," Blanchard said.

Small Town Quiet Shattered

Sagging porches line West Stewartstown's main street.

Blanchard says many people in town used to work at the Ethan Allen furniture factory, until it closed.

"It’s like they've got minimal employees now," Blanchard said. "My husband lost his job two years ago when it closed and now he works at the hospital in Colebrook. There’s not a lot for employment here."

Still, residents of the town struggle through.

"This is just America’s hometown," resident Margaret Knapp said as she and her husband Richard headed into the Spa Restaurant for dinner.

"It’s very quiet," Margaret Knapp said. "We get excited about local events. We have Stewartstown Day, which is coming up this weekend. We all gather together and support one another. My husband was hurt in a logging accident 14 years ago, and the town rallied around and helped us, and that’s what a small town does. They look out for one another. "

"Yeah," Richard Knapp said, "we’re very close-knit."

The small town is normally fairly quiet.

"It’s a place where all of our children are supposed to feel safe, because we all watch out for our children and everybody else’s children," Margaret Knapp said. "It’s a family. It’s one big family."

Richard Knapp says it's difficult for people in town to make a living now.

"There used to be a mill that employed quite a few people," Knapp said. "That’s gone out of business in the past year and a half, two years ... The logging industry is just about down the tubes. All the paper mills are shut down in the area."

The towns here are so small that they share resources, even across state lines. Like many children in West Stewartstown, Celina Cass went to public school across the river, in Canaan, Vt.

Margaret Knapp says people in the two towns are all one.

"We don’t consider the river a boundary," Knapp says. "It’s just part of us."

It’s a quick drive up the river to a highway marker for the 45th parallel, the halfway point between the equator and the North Pole.

Just before you get there is the dam near where Celina Cass’s body was found.

This program aired on August 4, 2011.

Fred Thys Reporter
Fred Thys reported on politics and higher education for WBUR.



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