By Maggie Cassidy
Valley News Staff Writer
Newport — James W. Perriello received the maximum sentence for the shooting death of his wife, teacher Natalie Perriello, following a heart-wrenching hearing on Wednesday where the oldest of the couple’s four children confronted her father for the first time since the murder, and Perriello apologized for what he had done.
More than 40 people crowded into Sullivan Superior Court where Natalie Perriello’s friends and family took turns giving statements about the impact her death has had on their lives, and none was more powerful than the one delivered by 14-year-old Jillian Perriello, who read an open letter to her father as he sat with his head hung low at the nearby defense table.
“Dear Dad, I still hear them, the bangs, the booms, the crashes, the shots,” Jillian said.
It was the first time since his arrest that James Perriello had seen any of his children, who were all at home in Grantham at the time of the April 2012 shooting.
“The words, the shouts, the crying, the footsteps,” Jillian continued. “The rain pounding down the window. The sirens.
“I still see them. … The two frantic boys across the hall. The petrified look on your face. … The flashing lights. … The Mickey Mouse comforter that still snuggles my body at night.”
Jillian, 12 at the time of the murder, then referenced her youngest brother, Max, then 3, who was with Natalie Perriello asleep in her bedroom when she was killed.
“I still feel them, the chills that flowed down my spine … the trembling bodies of my small brothers next to me under that comforter,” she said. “The terror striking through me as I realized that the youngest was still in that bedroom, the one that survived, his small body still smiling and breathing. … The way Max seemed to fit perfectly in my arms. The way he woke up and asked if I was Mom.
“I remember feeling the tears forming and watching the world submerge in water. The way his little hand tugged on my hair, somehow also tugging at my heart strings.”
She concluded, looking at her father: “I remember it all. But the question is, do you?”
At the end of Wednesday’s two-hour hearing, Judge Brian Tucker sentenced James Perriello to 35 years to life in prison, the maximum sentence allowed under a plea agreement struck with prosecutors earlier this month, when Perriello pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.
The deal spared Perriello, 42, from a potential sentence of life without parole, while protecting the Perriello children from testifying at a trial, which had been scheduled for January. Accounting for time served since his arrest, Perriello will be eligible for parole at age 75.
On Wednesday, Perriello stood to read his own prepared statement, in which he apologized to his children and his wife’s family, friends, colleagues and students.
“Our children, whom I love more than anything in the world and who loved their mother, will now grow up without her and without me,” he said. “I’ve lived with this every day since that awful night, and I will live with it every day of my life. … What I did was wrong, terribly wrong.”
Natalie Perriello, 42 at the time of her death, had worked at Lebanon High School for four years following 14 years at Canaan Elementary School, where she was once nominated as New Hampshire teacher of the year.
Senior Assistant Attorney General Jeff Strelzin on Tuesday described a disintegrating home life with a long-troubled marriage as its centerpiece. The couple had been having marital issues for years, and financial pressures had been exacerbated by the birth of their fourth child. The couple had lived apart at various times, and were sleeping in separate beds at their Grantham home at the time of the murder.
But people close to Natalie Perriello said on Wednesday that she worked to hide the severity of the situation from family and friends. Some weren’t aware that she had been working for years to safely leave her husband.
“She wanted to protect us,” said her mother, Ann LaFlam, during her victim impact statement. “I wish she had told us.”
At the family’s home, however, Jillian had taken to hiding kitchen knives in a toy box for fear that her father might use them to harm her mother, Strelzin said.
Police have said that Perriello shot his wife in a jealous rage after discovering she was having an affair. Perriello had began tracking his wife’s cell phone conversations, and on the night of the murder, he was listening to a surreptitious recording he had made. In the midst of confronting his wife, he brought a gun into the bedroom, later telling police he had planned only to scare her and that the gun went off accidentally.
Prosecutors said Natalie Perriello was shot once in the hand, indicating a defensive wound as she got up from the bed, before James Perriello pulled her shirt up over her face and shot her six times in the head. An eighth bullet missed and lodged in the wall above their son. A ninth bullet jammed in the chamber.
“By his choices, Natalie died in fear and she died a brutal death,” Strelzin said.
James Perriello had owned the gun for seven years, the prosecutor said, and the trigger needed to be pulled every time it was fired, and there were five separate safety features to prevent accidental discharge.
In arguing for the minimum sentence of 18 to 36 years, Perriello’s lawyers described a man “on the edge” — one who had previously attempted suicide and who was trying to keep his family together while struggling to pay the bills — that snapped.
“It’s nothing to celebrate,” Natalie Perriello’s brother Bob LaFlam Jr. said after Tucker issued the maximum sentence.
LaFlam has been helping care for the four Perriello children at his parents’ Meriden home since the shooting.
“We’re just one step closer to being done with this part of it,” he said. “I can’t say anybody’s happy. It’s not that we wanted more time for him or anything.”
James Perriello’s parents, who have aided the LaFlam family in caring for the four children, attended Wednesday’s hearing with other family members. His mother, Beryl Perriello, addressed the court, saying she and her husband are “deeply sorry for the pain this tragedy has caused to so many people in the room.
“Natalie was our dearest friend as well as our daughter-in-law, and she was part of our daily life for 14 years,” she said. “We miss her deeply.”
A court-imposed “no contact” order between James Perriello and his children was automatically lifted with Wednesday’s sentencing. LaFlam said his family is not opposed to James Perriello having contact with the children at some point but wants it to happen in an orderly fashion when counselors believe the children are emotionally prepared.
Many in attendance wept and dabbed at tears throughout the hearing. Some wore purple, a color representing domestic violence awareness, or T-shirts and buttons with Natalie’s face printed on them.
The crying in the courtroom grew louder during a victim impact statement read by Natalie Perriello’s cousin Doug Chapman, who asked the judge to consider what Natalie would miss. Chapman, at times speaking forcefully and facing Perriello, referenced each of the couple’s children and listed milestones their mother would be absent from.
She would never get to hold the hand of Max, the youngest, and walk him to his first day of school, or watch him pick up his diploma years later.
She would never get the chance to sit with Christopher and “watch him act out his battles with foes from other galaxies” or “read the books he’ll someday write.”
She would never be able to watch Anthony join the Lebanon High School basketball team “and make it to the NBA as the smallest, fastest point guard ever.”
And, Chapman said, “She would say … ‘I don’t get the chance to help Jillian pick out a dress … and then send her off to her first prom. I don’t get the chance to sit in a church on her wedding day and watch her take the hand of the man she wants to make a life with.’ ”
After the sentencing, LaFlam called his niece “an absolutely amazing young lady” whose fortitude was felt by all in the courtroom.
“Jill, I think, is doing very well,” he said. “I think she had needed to say something to her father, and I think that was part of what (making her victim impact statement) was about. She made the decision on her own, and came to her counselor and my parents and convinced them that this was what she wanted to do and why she wanted to do it.”
Natalie Perriello’s father, Robert LaFlam, approached the podium with his daughter’s longtime friend and colleague, Lebanon High Principal Nan Parsons, who worked at Canaan Elementary and recruited her to Lebanon.
After Robert LaFlam briefly introduced himself and Parsons, she read a full statement on his behalf.
“It is a constant ache in my heart,” Robert LaFlam wrote in his statement. “I miss the talks we had about the world, the country, and especially about the children, both her own and those she taught. My last image of Natalie is Max and her walking hand-in-hand into Lebanon High School, Max jumping up and down with joy because he was going to Mummy’s school.”
Parsons also read her own statement, which referred to the many students who would miss out on Natalie Perriello’s teaching.
She also spoke to the many years she said her friend had spent preparing to leave her killer, including one night a few months before the murder when Natalie fled to Parsons’ house with the children, and stayed up through the night to make sure her husband didn’t come to hurt them.
Natalie Perriello went to file a restraining order against her husband the next day, but couldn’t go through with it because she felt sorry for him and “never could quite leave,” Parsons said.
“Selfishly, I wanted Natalie to be at (Lebanon High) so that I could continue to have a partner in changing a system that was not always bringing about the best in students … ” she said. “I also wanted Natalie near me so I could keep her safe. What a fool I was. … It is one day at a time, one step at a time, one breath at a time for me. And always, at the back of my mind, I should have been able to save Natalie.”