Attorney General clears Gilford, N.H., officers of criminal wrongdoing after killing 17-year old in psychiatric distress

By TODD BOOKMAN

New Hampshire Public Radio

Published: 01-29-2024 9:30 PM

The New Hampshire Attorney General’s office has cleared two Gilford, N.H., police officers of wrongdoing in the fatal shooting of a teenager inside his home on New Year’s Day 2023.

Attorney General John Formella announced Thursday that no criminal charges will be filed against Sergeant Douglas Wall, a 22-year veteran of the force, who shot and killed 17-year old Merrill Mischa Pataski-Fay. Officer Nathan Ayotte, who deployed a Taser at the same time Wall fired his gun, was also cleared of criminal wrongdoing.

Both officers had prior contact with Fay: Police records show his family called police multiple times to report concerns about their son’s behavior, and the attorney general’s investigation found his parents and clinicians struggled for years to respond to his declining mental health.

The Attorney General’s investigation focused only on whether the officers were legally justified in using deadly force against Fay. They did not look into whether Gilford police used appropriate tactics that evening, including whether they should have entered the home or had their weapons drawn.

“We never want to be in a situation that results in the taking of life,” Formella said. “We especially don’t want to be in a situation that results in the taking of a life of a child.”

In a statement Thursday, Gilford Police Chief Kristian Kelley said their department conducted its own internal investigation, determining that both officers followed policies and procedures.

“Gilford is a small, close-knit community and this was a terrible tragedy for the Fay family and this community. It is a stark reminder of the dangers and unbelievably difficult decisions police officers are faced with,” Kelley wrote. “With that, I stand behind my officers and their actions taken during this tragedy.”

Both officers were initially placed on administrative leave before rejoining the Gilford Police Department.

Timeline of events, according to the Attorney General

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Senior Assistant Attorney General Ben Agati, who led the investigation, delivered a nearly hour-long presentation to reporters on Thursday that included detailed photos and architectural layouts of the house. He also described Gilford police’s previous interactions with the Fay family.

According to state investigators, Fay’s 50-year-old mother called 911 at 9:52 p.m. on Jan. 1, 2023, asking for assistance with her son. Police records reviewed by NHPR shortly after the incident said she told dispatchers he was wielding a knife “and is in a rage.”

Two Gilford police officers, Ayotte and Wall, arrived at the home on Varney Point Road shortly after, at 9:56 p.m. Police records show the two officers had previous contact with the family, also in response to mental health distress calls placed by Fay’s parents.

When they were called on New Year’s Day, police said Fay’s 86-year old father had locked himself in a first floor office out of concern for his son’s behavior. He allegedly damaged furniture in the home, smashed a family photograph and grabbed an 8-inch chef’s knife from the kitchen.

Body camera recordings shown to reporters during a Thursday press conference show the officers entering the home through a basement door, alongside Fay’s mother. They walk up a flight of stairs into the main floor of the home, calling for the teenager to come out.

The graphic video shows Fay, dressed in a top and plaid pajama pants, enter from a darkened room, holding a knife. He remains silent as he approaches the officers, who yell at him to put his hands up. Authorities say Fay was approximately six to eight feet away from both police officers, and still walking towards them, when they fired their weapons, simultaneously.

One of two prongs of Ayotte’s Taser connected with Fay, according to the attorney general’s office, while Wall’s gunshot struck him in his chest.

Officers then performed CPR and attempted to stop the bleeding, according to authorities. He was transferred to Lakes Region General Hospital, where he died. An autopsy report later determined his cause of death was a single gunshot wound to the upper chest.

Before teen’s death, many calls for help

Beginning in 2021, Fay’s mental health began to rapidly decline, resulting in a changed affect, appetite changes and bouts of rage, according to Agati, who conducted interviews with his family.

Previous 911 call logs released by Gilford Police paint a portrait of a child spiraling into mental distress and a system struggling to help him.

According to those files, Gilford police officers, including Wall, responded to four 911 calls from Fay’s family over a six-day period in February 2022. During that time, Fay’s parents expressed fear over what they described as a teenager “out of control” and “starting to unwind again.” He was ultimately transferred to DHMC for treatment.

In September 2022, police records show, Wall and Ayotte responded to a similar call in which Fay’s father told officers his son had “trashed the house.” When he responded to the call, Wall said Fay attempted to touch his Taser and had to be redirected away. When asked why he had moved towards the officer, Agati said Fay told Wall he “was angry.” Fay was taken to Concord Hospital for treatment.

Fay’s parents struggled to obtain a clear diagnosis, according to the investigation, and were told their son’s behavior could stem from a range of psychiatric conditions.

The teenager was in and out of psychiatric hospitals, including Hampstead Hospital, over a two-year period leading up to his death. Autopsy results showed he had three different medications in his system at the time of the shooting, but all doses appeared to be at therapeutic levels.

Fay’s family noted in his obituary that he had suffered from “two years of declining health” and thanked medical providers who provided him care.