23-year-old Nicholas Bell, a native of Manchester, wiped tears from his face as he answered to manslaughter charges stemming from the Thanksgiving Day shooting death of his close buddy. "It's an absolutely tragic day for everyone involved," said Bennington County State's Attorney Erica Marthage. "It certainly highlights the importance of gun safety."
Manchester Police say Bell and 24-year-old Jeffrey Charbonneau had spent the night at another friend's house. Bell called 911 for help, telling the dispatcher he tried to wake Charbonneau up Thursday morning using what he thought was a non-lethal pellet gun, but what was really a .22 caliber rifle aimed at Charbonneau's chest.
"It was just on the wall in his little brother's room," Bell said in 911 transcripts included in court records. "I thought it was an Air Soft gun or something, and the next thing I knew, it fired, I squeezed it and it fired. I didn't think it was loaded. I had no idea."
"We filled the courthouse because he's our dear friend," explained Victoria Kraft of Dorset.
Kraft was one of more than 3-dozen friends and relatives supporting both Bell and the man he's charged with fatally shooting. "We want [Nick Bell] to know he can honor Jeff for his whole life, just like we all will do," Kraft said.
Bell pled not guilty to the charges that could bring a 1-to-15 year prison sentence. Prosecutors say Charbonneau's death was an accident, but one that demands punishment. "It's difficult to imagine this would be considered an appropriate prank in any home in Vermont," Marthage said.
Police and prosecutors are not sure whether Bell was drunk at the time of the shooting, but he told investigators the men went out to a restaurant and bar the night before.
High school classmates of both Charbonneau and Bell call the apparent mixup a heartbreaking blow to their tight circle of friends. The group gathered in the courtroom remembers Charbonneau as an avid traveler, a UVM economics grad, and a high school hockey and soccer player. Members of the group said they'll miss Charbonneau dearly, but added Bell is no villain.
"We've just known him all of our lives, and just know what an awesome, wonderful individual he is," said Calley Schubert of Manchester. "And we're just here to show our support and our love and back him up in these really difficult times for everybody."
"I hope it's a very large lesson learned to our community at large as to what can happen when we're not careful," Kraft said.
Nick Bell's father posted $25,000 bail. Under the conditions of Bell's release, he'll have a curfew, is not to have contact with the Charbonneaus, and is not to handle any guns.
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