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4 go through the mill over a rumor

Gossip about their boss cost women their town hall jobs. Now everybody's talking.

July 24, 2007|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

HOOKSETT, N.H. — Here is the rumor that got four women fired in this old mill town:

On a chilly day in March, a man walked into the building department on the second floor of town hall. After finishing his business, he asked a secretary: "Did you hear?" Word on the street was that the town administrator was having an affair. The mistress was a municipal employee. Was it true?

The gossiper left.

"You're not going to believe what I just heard," the secretary said later to three co-workers downstairs in the assessor's office. The four women chattered on. Could that explain the late nights their boss spent at work? Could that be why the town employee had been promoted, even though others had more experience?

As they speculated, another employee listened. Then, she told the town administrator. The administrator told the Town Council. The Town Council launched an investigation. After interviewing most of the town hall's 16 workers, officials concluded the four women were guilty. The charge? Gossiping.

The rumor was false, the town administrator said, and it had damaged him and humiliated his wife.

On a Wednesday in April, the council members -- eight men and one woman -- voted in closed session to fire the four workers. The next day, an ice storm raged through town. Three of the women made it to work. When they arrived at town hall, a counselor told each separately: "Your services are no longer needed." The fourth found out the next day.

Local newspapers dubbed the fired women the "Hooksett Four."

Now, people in this town of 13,000 can hardly avoid gossiping about the rumor that has since spread across the nation. The Hooksett Banner devoted two front-page stories to the women: "Fired four a 'frenzy over nothing' " and "Two of four in court."

Gerry Lachamce, 68, read the latest Hooksett Four articles over a cup of coffee at Robie's Country Store, a red barn deli that sells Tootsie Roll, licorice whips, pickles and homemade potato salad. He shook his head, unhappy with the attention his home town has received.

"No matter where we go lately, everyone says, 'Oh, you're from Hooksett, that's where those four gals are from,' " he said. "That's kind of embarrassing. That shouldn't be happening in this town."

In a living room a town away, the four former co-workers -- who have become tightknit friends -- gather over banana bread and chips and dip for their weekly support session.

They compared job hunts and combed through the latest articles featuring them. They laughed about how much time they have to weed their gardens. They have designed matching gray T-shirts for themselves with a bull's eye and the slogan: Support the Hooksett 4.

Talk turned to the council members.

"They want remorse," said Michelle Bonsteel, 55, the former code enforcement officer who inspected buildings, homes and businesses for Hooksett for two years.

"Remorse for what?" said Sandra Piper, 59, who used to be the head of the assessing department. Piper and Bonsteel reported to the town assessor.

"Was there a murder here that I didn't know about?" said Joann Drewniak, 47, a town secretary for nine years.

The women laughed.

But their smiles didn't last long.

"Four lives were destroyed," said Bonsteel, who can't find an employer willing to risk the publicity by hiring her. "I mean we're in the paper everyday."

"The media, and everything, following us around and questioning us," Drewniak said. She keeps a suitcase full of every article that has been published about the firings. On this afternoon, she had opened her Manchester home for the gathering, making sure the women stayed in the living room so as not to disturb her husband and teenage daughter.

"We're frustrated," said Piper, who often speaks on behalf of the Hooksett Four and is the only one of them who lives in Hooksett. Every time she visits the grocery store or Wal-Mart people stop her, so she has been staying at a summer home with her husband in another town.

In 27 years of service with the town, Piper had seen five town administrators come and go. When she was hired, there was no town council, only a board of three selectmen who she said "ran the town like Dodge City." Through it all, she loved her job and wanted to retire there.

"You get the depression," Piper said. "You get the anger."

Jessica Skorupski, 30, stayed quiet. The former town secretary looked like she might cry. She had worked there for seven years and had hoped for a promotion.

Bonsteel, who is divorced with two adult daughters, said she had received a glowing review and a raise a month before she was fired. "I send out my resume on average one a day," she said. "I am ready to apply at Lowe's and Home Depot, just to be able to put food on the table."

"This is high school baloney," Piper said. "This is like grammar school children, 'yah, yah, yah, Johnny said this about me.'

"This," she added, "was a witch hunt."

Store is gossip central

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