By Eric Francis
WHITE RIVER JUNCTION – A Bradford couple who said they pulled in to McDonald’s to buy their five-year-old son a Happy Meal ended up being ordered out of their minivan at gunpoint Monday afternoon by state troopers who mistakenly thought that an armed fugitive they were seeking was behind the wheel.
James Nickels said he and his wife Jess had borrowed the silver minivan they were driving Monday from their landlord in order to go to a doctor’s appointment at the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, not realizing that police in two states were looking for that exact license plate because they had information that fugitive Sean McGurk of Bradford might be inside the vehicle.
McGurk, who now has felony warrants outstanding on both sides of the Connecticut River, remains the focus of an intense manhunt that was punctuated on Sunday afternoon by a series of pursuits with police on Sunday afternoon alone with stolen vehicles that left a pickup truck smashed in Hanover, a box truck in the middle of the Wells River in Bradford, and a U-Haul over a cliff in Haverhill – all of which caused New Hampshire to briefly activate it’s state-wide SWAT team Sunday night after police thought they’d learned where McGurk was hiding.
Vermont State Police Lt. Bill Jenkins said late Monday afternoon that he could not discuss the specific intelligence that led police to think what turned out to be the minivan the Nickels were driving might have been commandeered by McGurk but, he said, “A â€˜be-on-the-lookout’ came out for that vehicle and troopers saw that vehicle that they thought he was in (and) that’s why they ended up taking them out of it like they did.”
Nickels said he initially tried to step out of the van when he saw police behind him after he pulled into a parking space “But (the trooper) held a gun on me and said `Get back in’,” Nickels said, adding “My five-year-old was freaking out thinking his father was going to get shot.”
A half-dozen police cruisers, including Hartford officers and a Windsor County Deputy Sheriff rolled into the lot to back up the troopers and Nickels and his wife were quickly removed from the van and placed into handcuffs.
“I’m not the guy!” Nickels said repeatedly as he sat on the ground while McDonalds patrons eating their hamburgers stared through the plate glass windows at the episode unfolding just a few feet outside. When a trooper asked Nickels not to be frustrated while they checked his ID he replied, “You’d be frustrated if you saw your wife handcuffed,” adding, “I can show you my tattoos!”
After a few minutes the troopers released the couple from what they described as “investigation detention and not an arrest.”
Windsor County Sheriff’s Deputy Jonathan Norton and Hartford Police Officer Fred Peyton said the next day that they had both taken turns staying near the Nickels’ young son, trying to reassure him that things would be all right despite the initial confusion. “He was upset right at first but I assured him his mom wasn’t in trouble and said that hopefully his dad wasn’t either and he was doing fine by the time it was over,” Norton said, adding that during the few minutes the adults were handcuffed, “I talked to him just like I talk to my daughter. We were looking at all the blue lights and saying that the cruisers were pretty neat.”
Nickels said he knew McGurk as “an acquaintance” but said they were not friends and he had no idea why police would think McGurk might have access to his landlord’s van.
Lt. Jenkins said afterwards that such cases of mistaken identity “happen occasionally” when police are searching for suspect vehicles but, he said, “When we’re looking for somebody who is running from us and has a gun obviously we have to take precautions.”
After being released, James Nickels collected his son and guided him toward the door of the restaurant saying, “Come on, we promised you McDonald’s and we’re going to get it.”
By Eric Francis