As police investigate a pair of murders in a tiny New Hampshire town, residents are coming to terms with the shocking nature of the crime: a child is accused of fatally shooting a couple one cloudy Friday morning inside their rural home.
The 911 call came around 7:30 a.m. on March 15. Cops arrived to the Eckert family’s farm and discovered Lizette, a 50-year-old mother of three, dead of a gunshot wound. Her husband James, 48, was rushed to the hospital in critical condition. He died later that evening.
Friends described the couple as healers. They were both health-conscious chiropractors and runners who left their practice in Portland, Maine, to operate a small farm in Alton, where they raised cows, pigs, rabbits and chickens.
Lizette and James, who often went by Jim, were also devoted parents to their 15-year-old daughter and adoptive sons, 11- and 13-year-old brothers, according to one friend.
After a two-hour manhunt and lockdown of local schools, investigators had their suspect: an unnamed 11-year-old boy. Police discovered the child around 9:30 a.m. in the woods surrounding the Eckert family residence on Dobbins Way.
The New Hampshire Attorney General’s office has released few details on the case, citing the confidentiality laws of the juvenile court system.
At a press conference last week, Assistant Attorney General Geoffrey Ward was unable to comment on the boy’s connection to the victims, although friends of the family believe the alleged shooter was one of the Eckerts’ sons.
“I think it goes without saying that this is an incredibly tragic incident with a child involved, a juvenile perpetrator involved and adult victims involved,” Ward said.
Ward declined to comment on who made the 911 call, what type of weapon was used, how the 11-year-old was identified as a suspect, and whether he was injured. (The Alton Police Department had no records of previous calls to the Eckert home.)
The boy is likely the youngest person to face murder charges in the state's history, the Concord Monitor reported.
Autopsies revealed both James and Lizette died of a single gunshot to the head.
Shortly after the shootings, prosecutors charged the boy with one count of second-degree murder and attempted murder. On Tuesday, the suspect was charged with another count of second-degree murder.
Funeral services for the Eckerts were held Friday at St. Katharine Drexel Parish, which was packed despite the forecast of snow and sleet. And during Thursday’s wake, the line to pay respects nearly extended outside the church.
Several friends who attended the funeral said even through their grief, the service was largely an upbeat celebration of Jim and Lizette’s life and their focus on family.
Alton Police Chief Ryan Heath deployed a grief response team to aid anyone who might be struggling following the service. “It’s been a traumatic incident for the community and for the officers and all first responders involved,” Heath told The Daily Beast. “It’s never easy to deal with a scene like that.”
Still, Heath said he was proud of Alton residents for coming together to aid the couple’s families, who flew in from across the country. The community helped find lodging for the relatives, plan funeral services and care for the Eckerts’ farm animals.
“We are small,” Heath said of his town, “so it affects all of us.”
Many of the Eckerts’ friends say they didn’t see any outward signs of trouble at home.
One fellow St. Katharine Drexel parishioner, Gertrude Hammond, told the New Hampshire Union Leader that the weekend before Lizette and Jim died, they were in attendance at Mass, followed by the annual bingo night.
“The boys are altar servers. They’re just an integral part of the parish,” Hammond said, adding that the Eckert brothers ran around with dust pans, helping their older sister, who was sweeping during the bingo event.
The Rev. Sam Hollo, of Community Church of Alton, where members also knew the Eckerts, said they appeared to be a loving family. “Every indication we had is that Jim and his wife were a wonderful couple and very good parents from everything we know, and that adds to the shock of this,” Hollo told the Union Leader.
While the victims’ families have shied from the media, friends and former clients have shared more details on the couple and their kids.
Some friends, in interviews with The Daily Beast and in public Facebook comments, said they believed the couple’s boys were adopted from Russia.
“They were just very kind people,” one former patient and friend, Margie Sayward, told The Daily Beast. “I knew them from church. They were pretty devout Catholics.”
Sayward connected with the Eckerts when they ran a clinic in South Portland.
She had adopted a son, too, so she often spoke to Lizette about the Eckerts’ plans for adoption. “I talked to her a lot about these two boys she was gonna adopt,” Sayward said. “She was excited about that.”
When Sayward moved to Florida in 2009, Lizette went out of her way to research new chiropractors for her. “It is above and beyond,” Sayward said. “That’s the kind of person she was.”
“They were just passionate about the health field, making people feel better,” Sayward added. “I always felt welcome in their clinic. The people who worked with them were so friendly. It was just a good atmosphere to be in.”
Rachel Flehinger, who briefly worked for the couple, said they loved life and were passionate about building community. “It’s a huge loss,” Flehinger said of the murders. “We’re very dumbfounded by the way it happened.”
She said Jim took time off to train for an ultramarathon. The father regularly competed in the Vermont 100 Endurance Race, and in 2018, was 42nd place in a field of 277 runners, according to the Daily UV, a local news website.
Flehinger described Lizette as a “great role model and mentor” and “the kind of woman who took you under her wing and really cared about your success.” She remembers the Eckerts hosting summer parties on their lake house in Maine.
Indeed, a 2011 bankruptcy petition shows the couple listed a boat and jet ski as personal property, along with an RV, chiropractic office equipment, and children’s toys.
They also listed several firearms: two Kel-Tec P-3AT handguns; a .22-caliber rifle; and a 12-gauge shotgun.
Another friend, Rebecca Miller, mourned Lizette in a series of Facebook comments, saying that “all she wanted to be was a mom.”
“Liz waited and put in years of effort to adopt children from Russia she got them very young but all she ever wanted were children,” Miller wrote, and reiterated this in an interview with The Daily Beast.
Miller, a runner herself, bonded with the Eckerts as a client of their Maine chiropractic office. “Lizette was tenacious in her beliefs and her convictions. She taught me a lot about wellness and health and how to question traditional, conventional thought,” Miller told The Daily Beast.
Lizette and Jim both liked to laugh and were independent and gregarious, she said. Jim could have a conversation about anything—politics, government, health—and could talk a lot during a long run. Lizette was “a born teacher and take-charge human being,” Miller said. Both of them came from large families.
Miller said that Lizette especially seemed content in New Hampshire, where she lived off her land and raised animals with her kids, who were homeschooled. The couple’s 15-year-old biological daughter, with whom Lizette was extremely close, had gotten a horse in recent years. “They were trying to live a different way, through like work and labor, a labor of love,” Miller said of the family.
“But who knows what kind of struggles she may have had with him,” Miller said, referring to the couple’s 11-year-old son, who is the presumed shooter and was absent from the funeral. “She was so independent and strong, I don’t know if she would have reached out if stuff was going on. She’s pretty resourceful in her own way and stubborn.”
The Eckert children tagged along at Jim’s races and were photographed wearing runners’ numbers themselves. Their 15-year-old daughter is a member of the Revolution United Soccer Club, which recently held a balloon release in her parents’ memory.
Cory Halvorsen, director of coaching at Revolution United, said the Eckerts were “very active as a family” and belonged to the soccer club for five years. “They’re very outgoing, they love to run, do different cross-country events,” he said.
Jim and Lizette were often spotted on the sidelines for all of their daughters’ games.
“They were a very, very tight-knit family. A lot of things they did were together as a family, not something we would see on the soccer club side,” Halvorsen said. “In that way, they were private.” He said he would see the Eckert boys run around and play with other kids on the sidelines at soccer games.
Halvorsen said he and other parents are grappling with how to discuss the tragedy with their children, and how to support the Eckert family moving forward. He opened a fund for the family at TD Bank, and donations can be made at any bank location.
“There’s kids that have really lost their family and one of their siblings,” Halvorsen said, referring to the child who was arrested. “I think we need to remember that. That’s why it’s been so difficult.”
Meanwhile, Lizette’s mother, Diane Kennedy, created a GoFundMe page to collect donations for the couple’s kids. Kennedy wrote that “the terrible impact of losing Lizette and Jim will be felt by their children for many years to come.”
“Beyond the primary loss of two devoted parents, the cost of education and health care, among many others things, are all burdens that their parents will not be around to shoulder for them,” Kennedy said on the site, which has raised more than $24,000.
“Because the story has been in the news, we are doing all we can to protect the children from excess attention, while still allowing the community that loves them so much and so well to help them in ways that will make a lasting impact,” Kennedy wrote.