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Sunday, August 17, 2008

Painting memorializes troopers' sacrifices


Raymond T. Alzapiedi, retired state police captain of Troop C, is shown during a visit to the State Police Academy to see the mural of the fallen troopers. (T&G Staff/DAN GOULD)

NEW BRAINTREE- The two state troopers shook hands at the Old Timers bar in Clinton that last time 57 years ago.

Raymond T. Alzapiedi promised he'd be back by Christmas and Alje M. Savela said, "I'll be a father by then."

Ten days later, on Aug. 31, 1951, Trooper Savela was dead.

"He never saw that baby," Mr. Alzapiedi said.

Mr. Alzapiedi, who would later earn the rank of captain with the Massachusetts State Police, was in Georgia, called up for the Korean War, when another man from Boston asked him if he knew the trooper who had been killed.

He said he didn't think so - until his friend showed him The Boston Globe and he read about a trooper who was gunned down with a 9 mm automatic pistol while he sat in his cruiser at Route 122 and Old Hardwick Road in Barre.

"It was Alje," he said, recalling the moment last week as he gestured toward a painting of his state police academy classmate.

On Wednesday, Mr. Alzapiedi met with Trooper Michael Wilmot, an assistant armorer at the State Police Academy range that is named for Trooper Savela, to see a painting depicting his old friend and four others killed by gunfire in the line of duty.

The 13-by-10-foot painting has been lost and found several times and plucked from a trash can on more than one occasion. Not too long ago, a forlorn-looking Lt. Michael Domnarski was at the academy, with the painting rolled out on the gymnasium floor, when Trooper Wilmot happened by and asked what was wrong.

"I said, 'Mike, I had this painting done eight years ago and I'm sad that I could never get it framed and hung up properly,' " Lt. Domnarski said.

Trooper Wilmot took up the task, spending his off-duty hours finding someone to restore and frame the painting. The State Police Association of Massachusetts, the troopers' union, ponied up the money for the project.

John and Maureen Connolly of the Aisling Gallery brought in artist Vincent Crotty to help make the repairs. They built the frame, the largest they'd ever made. And because they'd been acquainted with the family of slain Trooper Mark S. Charbonnier, they charged only what the work cost them: $2,500. Once completed, the painting was hung up at the range.

Lt. Domnarski was pleased to see the painting displayed. He said he'd commissioned it using grant funds when he oversaw operations at the range because he wanted young troopers to have a reminder of the importance of firearms training.

"Every one of these guys died from gunfire," he said.

Trooper Wilmot wanted to take the process a step further, making those who view the tribute to realize they are not so different from the fallen officers. He planned to write a personal biography for each of the men: Trooper Savela, Trooper George L. Hanna, MDC Officer Robert P. Dana, Trooper Charbonnier and Trooper Charles J. Collins.

Though he understands little about the Internet, Trooper Wilmot managed to send an e-mail to someone he thought might help him round up folks who could share stories about the men in the painting.

That e-mail found its way to several places and resulted in more phone calls than he'd anticipated. One of those calls connected him to Mr. Alzapiedi, a spry 90-year-old who gave him an earful when he visited the academy.

He and Trooper Savela had double-dated quite often. They went to dances and dinner with two women who, like the troopers, were friends. Trooper Savela married his girl. Mr. Alzapiedi never tied the knot.

"She was a nurse up in Fitchburg, I think. But you'd have to check," Mr. Alzapiedi said of Trooper Savela's wife.

On the job, Trooper Savela was a perfectionist, he said.

"He was by the book, pretty strict," Mr. Alzapiedi said. "No drinking, no nothing. He loved the job. He was the kind of guy you wanted to have in your barracks."

Mr. Alzapiedi still doesn't understand how someone was able to get close enough to Trooper Savela to fire seven shots into him. He had four years of experience and like everyone else who graduated from the state police academy with him, he'd been in the military. It wouldn't be like the squared-away trooper to allow someone he'd probably pulled over to walk up to his cruiser the way it appears his killer likely did.

"I was surprised, in a way, that the guy walked back to him," Mr. Alzapiedi said.

The person who killed Trooper Savela was never found, although a suspect in the case shot and killed an assistant superintendent from the Florida corrections department during an escape attempt in 1955. That man died in jail several years later, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page.

Trooper Wilmot took notes as Mr. Alzapiedi spoke. He's hoping to do the same for the others, although Trooper Collins was killed so long ago, May 20, 1942, that Trooper Wilmot is having trouble finding people who knew him.

Mr. Alzapiedi had a connection to Trooper Collins because he once "rode with the guy who shot the guy that shot Charlie."

Trooper Collins died when he and another trooper went to a house in Byfield to arrest a man who'd threatened an officer with a gun and carjacked a vehicle. As they entered the house, the man fired on Trooper Collins, killing him. The suspect was shot and killed by the second trooper.

Mr. Alzapiedi had a long career with the state police, retiring in 1968. He worked security and did investigations at a bank, then sold real estate before retiring from it all 16 years ago.

But the job is still in his blood and when troopers at the range handed him a Smith & Wesson .38-caliber gun with a 6-inch barrel, like the one he carried back in the 1940s, he held it like he'd never turned in his badge. When he was shown the semiautomatic gun the troopers carry today, he said he'd rather have it, if he were still working.

Things have changed since he left, but the image of a young Trooper Savela remains unchanged. It was bittersweet to see Mr. Alzapiedi view the painting. He pointed to it and recalled that he'd been to the funeral of Trooper Charbonnier, who was shot and killed Sept. 2, 1994, in Kingston. He reminisced, looking through Trooper Wilmot's copy of "French and Electric Blue," a history of the state police written by Bruce A. Bogosian.

When he was asked to, he signed near a picture of himself and two others taken in 1952 at the training academy.

Trooper Wilmot will have stories to tell about the visit from "the old captain," but he's still hoping to find more information on the others depicted in the mural - not about their deaths, but about their lives.
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