Kidnaped girl, 7, thrown into river, saved Boston Globe 10 Apr 1976 by Ken O. Botwright and Richard W. O'Donnell
A 7-year-old Derry, N.H. girl was thrown from a 45-foot-high bridge into the Merrimack River at Haverhill around dawn yesterday by a man who took her from her bed three hours earlier.
As she plunged into the icy water she thought of missing her mother's birthday, and that gave Christine Johnson the courage to "wake up," struggle to the surface and -- with the aid of a floating branch-- swim on her back to shore.
The wet, shivering, weeping little girl in yellow pajamas was rescued unharmed by a New England Telephone employee and a Massachusetts state trooper.
Within a few hours, a distant relative of her mother's, Carl C. LeChel, 32, of Raymond, N.H., was arrested on a kidnaping charge by New Hampshire police and faced another of attempted murder in Massachusetts.
Christine's father, Donald Johnson, 38, of Derry, was arrested at Haverhill's Hale Hospital, where she had been treated after her rescue, and was charged with two counts of illegal possession of firearms. Police said he was searching for Christine and had two pistols in his car.
LeChel was held in $50,000 bail in Rockingham County Jail after his arraignment in Derry District Court. Because he had no lawyer, Judge George Grinell refused to accept a plea and continued the case until April 22.
Massachusetts State Police Sgt. Robert G. Sullivan said LeChel once worked for Johnson, an auto dealer, but he added he knew of no motive for the abduction.
Another Massachusetts trooper said there was "apparently a vendetta" between LeChel and Johnson.
Johnson pleaded innocent in Haverhill District Court when he was arraigned under Massachusetts's gun registration law and was released on his own recognizance. His case was continued until April 26.
Derry Police Chief Edward Garone said Christine was snatched from her bed about 2 a.m. in the small blue house, five miles from the center of town, where she lived with her mother, Mrs. Joyce Johnson, two stepsisters and two stepbrothers.
Mrs. Johnson, estranged from her husband, was visiting in New York, and the children were in the care of a friend, George Tracy of Raymond, N.H. Tracy told the police he was roused from sleep about 2:15 by the other children, who told him Christine had been taken away by a man.
After her rescue, "Chrissie" told Garone that she and the man had ridden around in a car for three hours. She was not hurt or molested.
She said the man stopped the car on the Rte I-495 bridge over the Merrimack at Haverhill, "took her in his arms and just let go of her," Garone related in an interview. She hit the water, 45 feet below, head first, and believed she was drowning.
"Chrissie told me that as she was going under she thought of missing her mother's birthday in three days. She said that made her wake up and she struggled to the surface, holding her breath.
'She began swimming to shore on her back... brushed against a branch and used it to help keep afloat as she worked her way to shore. When she got to shore she yelled for help, and the Massachusetts state trooper and the telephone man came to her rescue."
Ken Gaudette, 45, of Lawrence, a senior New England Telephone stockman, was on his way to Newburyport when he came to the bridge, looked down the embankment and saw what he first thought was a "rag doll." He stopped his truck, went down to the riverside and saw Christine"in yellow pajamas, cold, wet and crying, on the other side of a fence."
He began digging a hole in the earth under the fence and was joined by Trooper Thomas Quigley, who happened to be passing in a cruiser. The two soon had Christine bundled in their jackets, and Quigley drove her to the Hale Hospital.
"Thank you, Mister," she told Gaudette before they parted.
She gave the police the name of a man, and on that information two Rockingham County deputy sheriffs arrested LeChel shortly after 8 a.m. at the Englewood Trailer Park in Raymond.
Massachusetts police said LeChel was a foreman at a Lowell synthetic fiber plant.
Police retrace abduction of 7-year-old N.H. girl who was dropped into river Boston Globe Apr 11 1976 by Paul Langner
Father innocent of gun charge in girl-in-river case Boston Globe by Richard W. O'Donnell 20 July 1976
Raymond man gets life in Derry abduction case Nashua Telegraph Nov 18, 1976
Could someone please explain how a man who gets sentenced to life in prison in 1976 is a free man in 1981? And who would have had the motive to kill him? I can think of at least one guy.
Someone has posted several pictures of him at http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=pv&GRid=121012920 Looks like he was a father to several children when he threw Christine off the bridge. Makes his actions that much harder to understand.