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Was logger’s death a homicide?

State officials have said little in case

Mark Kelso

Mark Kelso

By JEREMY BLACKMAN Monitor staff
Sunday, July 27, 2014
(Published in print: Sunday, July 27, 2014)

Mark Kelso, the logger found fatally injured beside his skidder Feb. 23 in Canterbury, suffered a gunshot wound to the head, the circumstances around which were initially investigated as a homicide, according to a death certificate and interviews with relatives.

The disclosures, made last week by several immediate family members, elicit a host of questions about an already cryptic death, about which state officials have remained all but silent.

Five months later and still without hard facts, loved ones have been left largely in the dark, their grieving stunted by doubt: Was Mark’s death an accident, a suicide or something else? And why is it taking so long to get answers?

“I just want to know,” said Raymond Kelso, Kelso’s 28-year-old son. “Just like any family member would want to know what happened to their father, mother, brother.”

Kelso was rushed to Concord Hospital about 2 p.m. that Sunday after the owner of the Borough Road property where he was found, Peter Fife, called 911. The 53-year-old died hours later after being resuscitated several times, his sister Kathy Vidaver said.

“We had no idea,” Vidaver said of what relatives knew then about his injuries. “Supposedly he got hurt from the skidder.”

But what she and others observed when they were finally ushered into Kelso’s hospital room didn’t fit that description, they said. His face was badly disfigured and swollen. A deep gash ran diagonally up from his nose into an eye socket.

“I was completely shocked by what I saw,” Vidaver recalled. “I saw a man who looked like he’d been beaten up.”

Kelso’s corpse was covered from the shoulders down, and a gloved police officer in the room told them not to touch it.

The family left that night in a tearful, restless fog.

“We knew nothing other than he was gone,” Kelso’s mother, Linda Kelso, said.

Shortly after 7 p.m. the next day, officials from the attorney general’s office gathered the family together in Canterbury and explained that they were investigating his death as a “homicide.”

One of those officials, a victim’s advocate named Brigit Feeney, told them “to be prepared, that there’d be a release, a statement on the news – making it sound like it was going to happen quickly,” Vidaver said. It never came.

Raymond Kelso recalled being asked whether his father knew anyone who might have wanted to hurt him.

“In my mind it was like, ‘Holy crap, we’re just pretty peaceful people who work in the woods our whole lives,’ ” he said.

Four days later, on Feb. 28, the day Kelso’s body was cremated, a death certificate was filed with the state. That document, since obtained by the Monitor, identifies the cause of Kelso’s death as a “gunshot wound to head with multiple skull fractures and brain injury.” The manner of death: “pending investigation.”

Earlier that week, when news about the incident broke, Fife told a Monitor reporter he had found Kelso laying badly wounded next to the skidder, but declined to comment further. Asked this week about the gunshot wound, Fife said he did not see a gun fired but was close by and heard a noise that “I’m sure that’s what it was.”

Raymond Kelso, a logger like his father, said Kelso often carried a gun with him, sometimes directly on him, other times stored in his truck. Like others, he said he had no reason to believe Kelso would have taken his own life.

The state has released no information about a gunshot or whose weapon, if any, was fired. But Fife claimed this week that Kelso was carrying the firearm used. He declined to elaborate, adding only that Kelso had arrived outside his home a short time before the incident occurred.

Assistant Attorney General Jay McCormack declined this week to discuss Kelso’s death, but said the state was actively investigating the “circumstances around” it, and that the office was awaiting a final autopsy report. McCormack would not verify whether Kelso was shot, or that there was ever a homicide investigation into his death.

McCormack said the report could be completed in as little as a couple of weeks or a month, but that the state would not necessarily be able to disclose information immediately after it receives it.

Sgt. Joseph Dirusso, the state police’s lead investigator in the case, on Thursday deferred all comments to the attorney general’s office.

Kelso and Fife, who is in his 70s, were longstanding friends at the time of the incident, according to family members. Kelso grew up in Canterbury and had worked with Fife off and on for decades, they said.

On the morning of the incident, Kelso told relatives he was headed to Fife’s remote, hilltop property to retrieve his truck, which he had left there a day or so before. He had been using one of Fife’s vehicles in the interim, Vidaver said.

Just before he left, Kelso visited his son and young grandson, who recently turned 1. The two men, more brothers than father and child, sat outside and lamented the relentless winter.

“He was his same old ornery self,” Raymond Kelso recalled. “He was sick of the cold weather.”

About 2 p.m., Linda Kelso and her husband, Bill, saw an ambulance rush past their small one-story house on Route 132, in southern Canterbury, headed north. Forty-five minutes later, they recalled, a police officer knocked on the door. He had tragic news.

No closure

In the months since Mark Kelso’s death, family members have struggled to fully mourn. They buried some of his ashes near his grandmother’s grave in Orange, at his request, and scattered others closer to home.

Last month, two days before what would have been his 54th birthday, they held a memorial in Canterbury. More than 200 people showed, Vidaver said. Fellow lumberjacks ripped their chainsaws to life and lifted them to the sky in tribute.

But without answers, nothing has brought closure.

“It’s kind of hard to answer people when they ask what happened to your dad and you’re not sure,” Raymond Kelso said.

Bill Kelso described the uncertainty as “pure hell.”

“I wake up in agony,” he said. “I have all this sh-- that goes through my mind – what may have happened, what could have happened.”

Rumors have indeed spread – within the family, around town, amongst local law enforcement officials – and with it, tension. Linda recoils at conjecture.

Bill is awash with it. Raven Gael, Kelso’s second sister, said she and her father can’t be in the same room – at least not until they have something concrete to discuss, something other than sheer speculation.

“All of us have dealt with it in different ways,” Linda Kelso said during a telephone call, her voice shaking. “Some of my children are angry. But me, I’m just hurt, sad.”

Frankly, she added, “I don’t care (how long the investigation takes), as long as they’re still working on it and they get things right.”

But others want answers, and fast. Raymond Kelso, the family’s point person throughout the investigation, said he is tired of sporadic “courtesy calls” from officials, of being told repeatedly that something might soon be released.

“I just want to see what they got,” he said of the state’s evidence.

“I’m not afraid of it,” he said. “I want to know what happened to my dad.”

Remembering Mark

As they wait for answers, the family has tried to focus on remembering the man they knew, the hefty woodsman who could be stubborn at times, gruff at others, but who had a heart of gold.

“His insides were marshmallow,” Linda Kelso said yesterday, flipping through a scrapbook that she has been putting together in the months since the death. It is brimming with cards and pictures of Kelso: in his younger years, standing bare-chested in front of a pile of timber; with his three siblings; alongside Bill and Raymond and Raymond’s son – four generations lined as one.

Kelso was an outdoorsman from the start. He loved to be outside, relatives said, and he began chopping wood seriously in his early teens. After high school, he set out on his own, moving to Danbury in his 20s and starting a small logging operation.

He was always protective of his siblings, Gael said. And he cared deeply for his parents. When they were struggling to pay off their mortgage, in order to retire, Kelso stepped in, cutting timber on their land for weeks and donating the proceeds to them, Bill Kelso said.

Just over a week before he died, Kelso showed up unannounced at his parents’ house and began scattering sand on their icy driveway.

“And he says to Linda he’s ‘not putting too much down, I just don’t want to see you fall,’ ” Bill Kelso recalled.

Kelso was always a welcome presence at get-togethers, his parents said. He loved to grill, and was known to dress up as Santa Claus during the holidays.

Kelso never had a serious logging accident, Vidaver said. But he ran into his share of predicaments. Like the time he cut his toe once off with a chainsaw. He popped the bloody digit in his mouth to keep it warm, Bill Kelso recalled. A doctor reattached it and he went right back to work.

“He said, ‘I was born with this toe and I’m taking it with me,’ ” Bill Kelso said.

Kelso was well known in the logging community. Linda Kelso said he used to teach younger men the tricks of the trade – how to notch a tree, how to care for their saws.

Kelso was married until his death but had been separated from his wife for nearly two decades. He later became close to another woman, and they lived together in Danbury. Bill Kelso said he asked his son once why he didn’t get a divorce. Kelso turned red, he remembered: “He said, ‘That’s the mother of my children.’ ”

Kelso never stopped logging, but when he turned 50 he handed most of the business to his son. After four decades of heavy manual labor, he was slowing down.

“His life was just getting to the point where we were starting to see him more,” Gael said. “It’s just really tough to know that it’s not going to be the way we all hoped it was.”

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

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