From Day 1 to Day 10,911

Veteran reporter looks back at marathon murder case

Staff file photo by Dean Shalhoup Just hours after Brenda Warner and Charlene Ranstrom were found murdered in their Mason Street apartment on Oct. 3, 1988, now-retired Nashua police detective was photographed talking with a neighbor named Anthony Barnaby -- who would soon be named a suspect. Barnaby was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison last week, nearly 30 years after the murders.

I can’t recall exactly what time I turned my old orange Toyota Supra hatchback onto Mason Street, slipped it in between a couple of vintage 1970s and 1980s behemoths, pulled out my camera stuff and went to work on that otherwise non-descript Monday morning nearly 30 years ago.

Nor did I have any clue – indeed, nobody assembled in and around the giant Mason Street apartment building had any clue – that the gruesome murder scene we’d found out about just hours earlier would launch perhaps the most convoluted, meandering law enforcement investigation in Nashua’s collective memory.

Probably the most bizarre – surely the most fascinating – aspect of the whole 10,911-day saga is the fact it actually came to an end after just a few years.

As any Nashuan who doesn’t live in seclusion knows by now, the suspects, Anthony Barnaby and David Caplin, would both be set free: Barnaby, after three trials all ended in hung juries, and Caplin, after prosecutors dropped the charges for lack of sufficient evidence.

So on their merry ways went the state’s only suspects, who not surprisingly headed north back to Quebec and the Restiguche First Nation (Canada’s equivalent of Native American) reservation, where they were born and raised.

Case closed, right? Well, not exactly. Enter now-retired Nashua police detective Frank Bourgeois.

After taking a cold-case seminar, Bourgeois pulled the old files off the shelf and began poring over the dusty contents. A few years and a lot of complications later, older, grayer versions of Barnaby and Caplin were back in New Hampshire – and back in the headlines.

Fast-forward to Feb. 14: Caplin pleads guilty to two second-degree murder counts and is sentenced to several years in prison.

Last Wednesday, about six weeks shy of the 30th anniversary of the murders, Barnaby was likewise sentenced to prison – after various deductions and time-served credit, he’ll do about 4 1/2 years in prison.

In the hubbub outside the courtroom on Wednesday, I spoke with Amy Boisvert, Brenda Warner’s niece and one of several family members who never wavered from their determination to see justice served for Warner and her partner Charlene Ranstrom.

When Amy gave her age – 38 – to a TV reporter, and added, “yeah, I was just 8 when it happened,” it got me thinking back to that early October Monday morning and how much has changed in so many ways since.

Obviously there’s nothing humorous about a homicide scene, especially when it’s so brutal and so heartbreaking as was this one. But what does bring a smile and comments like, “oh wow, look at those cars … and that ambulance,” are the old black and white photos I took back then.

Ray Landry was chief of police at the time, and Cliff Largy a deputy chief. One of the first few photos I took showed now-retired detective Wayne McDonald talking to a tall, young guy as the kid leaned on a car and smoked a cigarette in the building’s parking lot.

I had no idea who he was, but since a cop was talking to him for more than a few minutes, I figured he was worth part of a roll of film.

Oh, yeah, about film – that’s the stuff that came rolled up in little metal containers called, appropriately enough, “film canisters,” which we photographers put into their cameras.

We took photos until the canister was empty, then rewound the strip of film back into the canister. Back at the office, we’d go into the darkroom, turn out the lights, open the canister, gently roll the strip of film onto a larger reel, which was then placed in a machine that developed it.

Then there were prints to make, but I won’t bore you with those details. Suffice to say, the advent of digital photography – although resisted by some at first – made our photographing days a whole lot easier.

We’ve lost a couple of former police officers who worked the investigation, but most are around, a lot of those still in the area.

Many times the victims’ families have publicly thanked the former officers and detectives who kept in touch over the years, and more than a few times appeared in court for important hearings for Barnaby and Caplin.

If I remember, former Telegraph colleague and fellow photographer Kathy Seward MacKay also was at the scene on Oct. 3. I think she was working an earlier shift, and I went to spell her in the afternoon.

I recall spending the rest of the afternoon and into the evening on Mason Street, and the kindness of the next-door neighbors who let me into the second or third floors of their home to photograph from a different, and better, perspective.

Meanwhile, when word came down a week and a half ago that Barnaby had reached an agreement with prosecutors and the trial that could have run for nearly two months wouldn’t be happening, I wondered how the victims’ families and friends would react. Regrettably, Joel Ranstrom, who died earlier this year, had been Charlene Ranstrom’s last surviving family member.

But the Warner family remembered her often in the victim impact statements they delivered at Barnaby’s sentencing. Amy Boisvert summed it all up in two sentences.

“It’s over. We don’t have to sit around thinking about it anymore.”

Dean Shalhoup’s column appears Sundays in The Telegraph. He can be reached at 594-1256, dshalhoup@nashuatelegraph.com or@Telegraph_DeanS.