DEVENS -- On a pleasant Friday evening in September, Groton Police Chief Donald Palma had one simple task on his mind: grilling hamburgers.
It was the night of the Council on Aging's drive-in movie night, a farewell to summer as warm temperatures faded and daylight dwindled. Dozens of senior citizens were gathered at the senior center to enjoy a barbecue dinner and an outdoor screening of "Going in Style," which stars Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine and Alan Arkin as aging retirees planning to rob a bank.
Palma, alongside the department's deputy chief and a detective, was in charge of the food. Hoping to "show off" his culinary fortitude for the attendees, he had purchased himself a formal chef coat for the occasion.
Everything was buzzing along. Palma put 50 hamburgers on the grill and began prepping five pounds of fries.
And then his phone rang with the worst call of his 42-year career.
Orion Krause, a 22-year-old Maine man, had arrived at the Common Street home of Wagner Alcocer, naked and covered in mud, then told Alcocer he had just killed four people. A few houses away, his mother, Elizabeth Krause of Rockport, Maine; her parents, Elizabeth Lackey, 85, and Frank Lackey, 85, who lived in the home; and their health aide, Bertha Mae Parker, 68, lay dead.
The case shocked the town of 11,000, and it was a challenge unlike any the department had ever seen.
"It's something I could have done without for the remainder of my career, but it did happen," Palma said. "It can happen anywhere."
Palma reflected on the case in a presentation, titled "Anatomy of a Homicide," at the Nashoba Valley Chamber of Commerce's annual breakfast Wednesday morning. He spoke with measured language, leaving out graphic details and never referring to Krause by name, and on several times stressed that he could not discuss aspects of the incident that may become "testimonial" when court proceedings resume.
Instead, Palma walked through each step of the police response, focusing on the strain such an incident puts on a small-town department.
"As a society and as a group, we have been desensitized," Palma said. "Everyone believes every crime is solved in 45 minutes with two commercial interruptions."
He played audio from the first 911 call, when Alcocer told police the 22-year-old had came to his property and allegedly admitted to murdering four people. Palma noted the "urgency" apparent in the voices of the caller and the dispatcher.
Once officers checked the house where the homicides allegedly took place and located the four victims, the situation quickly required all hands on deck. Palma and Deputy Chief James Cullen were pulled away from the senior center in such a hurry that Palma almost drove to the scene still wearing his new chef coat.
"This is going to escalate, and it's going to escalate almost out of control," Palma said.
The challenges grew quickly. Krause had appeared at 42 Common St., but the victims were found in their home at 80 Common St. Police had to secure several acres of space in between, including parts of a horse paddock and grassy trails, as part of the crime scene.
Word got out to the news media. Satellite trucks flooded to Groton, partly prompting police to close all of Common Street, and the department was "bombarded" with inquiring calls from outlets as far as Albany, New York and Portland, Maine, Palma said.
Palma, sensing the gravity of the situation and an opportunity to impart valuable experience on his officers, made the decision to bring in every single member of the department, even those who had not been working at the time. But that left the rest of town without coverage for anything else that might occur, so neighboring towns provided their own police to fill the gaps.
"Life doesn't stop just because we are confronted with this," Palma said.
By Saturday, dozens of first responders had been working close to a full day nonstop, often with long stretches between eating or using the restroom.
Palma said he had to make a point of moving the department back toward normal operations, all while ensuring "our i's are dotted and our t's are crossed" with the investigation.
As the initial response wound down, another obstacle emerged: those involved had witnessed a horrific scene, something "they should never have to go through" -- and certainly something with which a small-town department such as Groton had little prior experience. Palma and Fire Chief Steele McCurdy decided to bring in post-traumatic counselling for all personnel, including themselves.
"It was the best thing I could have done, because we identified two people who were really having a hard time with this, and we were able to get them de-escalated," Palma said.
Despite the horror of the situation, Palma said on numerous occasions he is happy with his department's response and the support that came from the DA's office, neighboring towns and caring residents.
The town continues to grapple with the fallout, but the case is far from settled. The investigation stretches from Groton to Ohio, where Krause attended Oberlin College, and Maine, where Krause lived.
Krause was found competent to stand trial in October, but remained held at Bridgewater State Hospital. He is next scheduled to appear in court on Jan. 22. A grand jury has yet to issue an indictment.
Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisLisinski.