ROCHESTER - During the recent weeklong Eric Langlais manslaughter trial in Strafford County Superior Court the TVs at Gary's Sports Bar never showed a stitch of news.
"I didn't want the customers to see it," owner Gary Hillsgrove as he sat in a chair at the bar Saturday shortly after opening for business.
As a handful of people sipped on beer at the bar or quietly played pool, Hillsgrove said it had been a tough year and a half for the longtime Rochester sports tavern, which has seen what he called a "substantial" drop in business since Bang N Jane drummer Jim Unfonak was killed early the morning of Jan. 31, 2016, by a single punch from Eric Langlais, 42, of Barnstead.
About a week after the incident Hillsgrove wrote a letter describing the sadness and grief felt by everyone at Gary's Sports Bar and explaining how bar personnel tried to do everything they could to avoid such a tragedy. He said he wrote the letter and kept it on him in case any media outlets came to him to ask him about it, but no one ever did.
"They were too busy saying crazy stuff like there was drugs or gangs involved," he said on Saturday. "None of that was true."
"We did what we could do to prevent it," he said of the tragedy.
In that open letter he wrote in early February 2016, he wrote, "When a problem arose inside the club, the staff removed the people immediately and then told them that they needed to leave the property. When they would not leave, the Rochester Police Department was called to have them removed."
Testimony at trial revealed conflicting accounts of when police were first called, but Hillsgrove believes they were called on a non-emergency line around 1:15 a.m., but other statements at trial revealed the first non-emergency call came in around 1:28 a.m. followed by a 911 call at around 1:33 a.m., which would've been after the incident and is the only entry for police service at Gary's on the Rochester Police Department's police log for Jan. 31.
While Hillsgrove, himself, wasn't at the bar that night, he staunchly defends his staff's performance.
He said they urged Unfonak and longtime girlfriend Kelsey Mountain to wait for police to arrive before leaving but the couple wanted to leave, so they walked them out to their waiting car and headed back inside when Unfonak was at the car door. At that point Langlais emerged from the back of the car and struck Unfonak in the face, which caused him to fall and hit his head on the parking lot's pavement. He never regained consciousness from a severe brain injury and was taken off life support the following day.
Hillsgrove said there's no one to be blamed for the tragedy but Langlais, who on Wednesday was found guilty of negligent homicide after a weeklong jury trial.
Langlais could've been found guilty of manslaughter and riot, which would've called for a maximum 37-year prison term, but the jury found him not guilty on those charges. The negligent homicide verdicts mean he could still spend up to seven years in prison, but if he gets the minimum three and a half, he'd be out in two years due to his time already served at Strafford County Jail.
"Jim Unfonak was a great guy and everybody here at Gary's knew and liked him. He has played with Bang N Jane here for the last 19 years and was one of our regular customers. He will be deeply missed by all," he wrote in his February 2016 letter.
On Saturday he said he hopes Langlais gets the full seven.
"It's startling that people like (Langlais) get out and cause such problems and punch people at a bar," he said. "They need to grow up."
He also noted that the sports bar has been the venue for dozens of fund-raisers over the years for the Make-A-Wish foundation, families with children suffering life-threatening diseases, Christmas toy drives and Gerry's Food Pantry to name just a few.
Motorists driving by may notice the For Sale sign at the foot of Gary's driveway. The building the sports tavern is housed in is up for sale, but not Gary's, Hillsgrove said.