June 25, 2018
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Cases of unsolved deaths piling up in Maine

By Sharon Kiley Mack, BDN Staff

Fourteen years ago, Janet Baxter, 30, left her Oakland trailer and drove to JFK Mall in Waterville for some cough syrup. An hour after she made her purchase, teh car she had been driving was discovered 30 miles away, perched on a riverbank in Norridgewock.

Its front end was pointing toward the water and the engine was running. There was blood smeared inside and outside the car.

Baxter’s body was discovered in the trunk, clad only in socks, with three bullet wounds. The case has never been solved. Despite the sighting of a distinctive vehicle in the area at the time, the questioning of more than three dozen people and a search of the bottom of the Kennebec river, no murder weapon has ever surfaced, and police have made no arrests in the case.

According to police and newspaper records, the Baxter homicide is one of more than a dozen mysterious unsolved serious crimes in the mid-Maine area, which include six confirmed murders, several unsolved deaths and several missing women.

One of the mid-Maine cases that drew enormous national attention was the armed robbery and murder of Robert P. McKee, 35, in Newport.

McKee, a teacher of the sixth grade at the Vickery School in Pittsfield, had been moonlighting at a Texaco station when he was shot three times during a robbery on June 20, 1975.

The case had some interesting twists. A letter was received by state investigators from a possible witness in the slaying of McKee.

In 1877, investigators “reopened” the case because they reportedly had received a tip about the location of the gun used in the murder. A lawn on Washington Street in Pittsfield was excavated in a futile search for the small-caliber weapon.

The McKee case is still “an open and active investigation,” according to Detective Robert Cameron of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Maine State Police.

Newport was also the scene of another grisly murder. The skeleton of Ellen Choate of Pennsylvania was found in July 1977 in a wooded area off Old County Road.

It was determined that Choate had died at least two years earlier from a gunshot wound to the head. Early speculation was that Choate might have witnessed the murder of McKee, but that theory was ruled out when it was discovered that Choate disappeared while en route to a nursery school teaching position in Bangor.

She was expected on June 2 to begin her new position, and McKee was killed June 20. This case also remains unsolved.

Murders are not the only source of mystery in Newport.

Police Chief James Ricker still has an inch-thick file on the 1982 disappearance of a 34-year-old mother of two from a local restaurant.

Jerilyn Tibbetts Towers was last seen at the Gateway Restaurant on the evening of Oct. 16, 1982, after her father dropper her off for an evening out.

Rickers said Towers stayed in the lounge for a while, according to eyewitnesses, but officials have never been able to determine where she went after she left.

Ricker said he believed that Tower was the victim of a violent crime. He said, “New information continues to surface in this investigation.”

In 1980, Anson was the scene of yet another unsolved murder. The beaten and crushed body of Rita St. Peter, 20, was found on Campground Road in Anson. She reportedly had a fractured skull, had been beaten severly and had been run over by a vehicle.

St. Peter, according to police reports, had attended a Fourth of July party in Embden and last was seen walking across the Anson-Madison bridge at 12:30 a.m. July 5, 1960.

She lived with her parents and was raising a 3-year-old daughter.

According to police, there has been little progress in solving the St. Peter murder.

Equally frustrating is the unsolved homicide of Judith E. Hand, 15, of Farmington. A student at Mount Blue Junior High School, Hand was walking to a baby-sitting job on Sept. 10, 1971, when she disappeared.

Her decomposing body was found 13 days later in a sawdust pile, several blocks from where she was last seen.

Although state police investigators called the death a homicide, no cause of death was ever established.

In 1988, the Hand murder case was reopened when state police officials received more information, but no arrests have been made.

Janet Brochu, 20, whose nude body was found floating in the gates of the Waverly Dam in Pittsfield, has not been determined to be the victim of an unsolved murder, although her death has not been solved.

No cause of death has ever been released, and details regarding the woman’s death are sketchy.

Brochu was seen last in December 1987 at a Waterville lounge, where she had been drinking with friends. She reportedly left the lounge with a man she had met earlier in the evening and who had offered her a ride home.

It was speculated the she was either pusher, or fell, off the Sebasticook River overpass of Interstate 95. Her body as found in March 1988.

Each one of these victims had family and friends who have been left with unanswered questions and unresolved lives.

Last June, in response to the number of unsolved murders in Maine, a group named HAADENOUGH was formed. The letters represent Homicide and Accidental Deaths, End Numbers of Unsolved Growing Homicides.

According to the group’s spokesmen, Lee Cochran, the increasing number of unsolved murders in Maine has prompted the group to propose a Homicide Victim Bill to the Legislature.

Cochran said that representatives of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers have joined forces with the Bangor-based HAADENOUGH and will present such a bill to the Human Resources Committee of the Legislature.

The bill would require that the families of murder victims be allowed to obtain copies of police reports, autopsy reports, notices of arrest warrants, bail hearings, suppression hearings and impending releases from custody.

“We want to know who has the case and at what stage the investigation is in,” said Cochran, who lost a son to a violent crime. “We want the same rights that the accused gets. We want to be recognized as victims, too.”

Cochran said the group was instrumental in the formation of a newly staffed position in the Attorney General’s Office. As of Feb. 1, said Cochran, Paula Baker became the state’s criminal victim’s advocate.

“She will monitor some of these things in the courtroom, acting as the watchdog of the criminal justice system,” she said.

“Ten years ago,” said Cochran, “you would never have been able to write a book about victims’ rights.”

But Cochran feels that investigations and procedures that leave the victims’ families without any information must be addressed.

She said that HAADENOUGH has been working with NOVA, National Organization for Victims’ Assistance, whose representatives have told Cochran they are concerned about the growing trend in Maine.

Cochran said that self-help groups for murder victims’ families were available nationwide, including Parents of Murdered Children. PMC, however, does no lobbying, she said, and provides only support for families and friends.

“We need to take this a step further and begin policing the investigations,” Cochran said.

“She said that HAADENOUGH is establishing satellite groups throughout the state. Last week, a group was formed in Machias; this coming week they will be in Presque Isle; and plans are under way to come to Gardiner soon.

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