Wednesday, 11 May 2016 02:14

Criminal Charges Dismissed Against Troy Auto Shop Owners in NH; Fine Levied

County prosecutors have dismissed all criminal charges against the co-owners of a Troy auto shop and the business itself in an alleged insurance fraud scheme from 2012.

In exchange, J&J Auto Body, represented by co-owners Jodi A. Champney and Jay Coppo, pleaded guilty May 6 in Cheshire County Superior Court in Keene to a non-criminal violation of unattended vehicle, a 1987 Peterbilt wrecker that ultimately burned.

The shop was fined $992 in fees and penalties as part of a plea agreement. Furthermore, the business was ordered to pay the state a total of $4,000 in restitution for its investigation. Coppo and Champney made those payments in full following Friday's plea and sentencing hearing.

Champney, 46, of Winchester and Coppo, 51, of Troy had each faced three counts of insurance fraud and one count of theft by deception, but those felony charges were not carried forward. Additionally, prosecutors dismissed one count each of obstructing report of a crime and simple assault -- both while released on bail -- previously filed against Coppo. The pair must remain of good behavior for the next two years, according to the agreement.

A charge of theft by deception against the business was also dismissed.

Prosecutors had alleged a fire was intentionally set to the Peterbilt wrecker Jan. 26, 2012, at the Troy business on South Street, for the purpose of collecting about $60,000 in insurance money.

Two people employed at J&J Auto Body at that time faced related charges, and also chose to resolve their cases by accepting plea deals. However, they now have a criminal record.

Craig Fields, 34, of Swanzey pleaded guilty in October 2014 to a felony count of accomplice to arson, and Christopher Pratt, 34, of Gilsum pleaded guilty Nov. 5 to a felony count of criminal mischief. Both avoided jail time; Fields was ordered to serve his six-month sentence on electronic monitoring with home confinement, and Pratt's nine-month sentence was suspended on conditions of good behavior.

During Friday's hearing, Judge John C. Kissinger Jr. acknowledged the complexities of the case, which was first brought against Coppo and Champney in April 2014.

Some of those complexities were discussed in a late-September motion to dismiss the case, filed by Richard C. Guerriero Jr. of Keene, who represented Champney and the business. He maintained that state investigators failed to preserve the burned truck, thereby denying Champney her right to a fair trial because the vehicle is no longer in Troy.

N.H. State Police troopers and officers with the Cheshire County Sheriff's Office and Troy Police Department worked on the investigation.

Former Assistant Cheshire County Attorney John M. Gasaway Jr., who previously prosecuted the case, objected to Guerriero's motion, saying that Champney and Coppo sold the wrecker in 2012 to an out-of-state buyer for $55,000 cash as part of a cover-up. He said at the time police lacked evidence to charge the brother and sister, but that by 2014 new information had surfaced.

Friday's hearing was prosecuted by Assistant Cheshire County Attorney Keith W. Clouatre as Gasaway now works as a fraud attorney for the N.H. Insurance Department.

Coppo was represented by attorney Mark Sisti. Sisti said he wanted to commend the Cheshire County Attorney's Office for taking a second, objective look at the case, which made the resolution possible.

By email after the hearing, Guerriero expressed a similar sentiment: "We appreciate the willingness of the (Cheshire) County Attorney's Office to further review the matter in light of the evidence and issues we raised. Jodi and Jay are glad this matter is behind them and look forward to getting back to work providing towing and other services at J&J."

Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or adandrea@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @ADandreaKS.

Thank you to The Keene Sentinel for permission to reprint this story.

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