MEDWAY, Maine — Dr. Peter Cummings had just finished his residency in Virginia and moved to Boston to begin work at the Massachusetts Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. But when he heard that the body of Joyce McLain would be exhumed and re-examined 28 years after she was brutally killed, he volunteered immediately to help.
McLain’s homicide remains unsolved.
“I wanted to be part of it,” the 37-year-old forensic neuropathologist said Thursday after a hearse left Grindstone Cemetery to take the body to the state medical examiner’s office in Augusta. “I know [pathologist Dr.] Mike Baden from seeing him at a few meetings, so I called him up and offered my services. He said, ‘sure.’”
Cummings feels a special connection to McLain. When the 16-year-old Schenck High School sophomore was found bludgeoned to death near the school’s soccer field in East Millinocket on Aug. 10, 1980, he was a 9-year-old boy living in neighboring Millinocket.
The horror of the McLain case and the emotional devastation it wrought upon the entire Katahdin region motivated Cummings to devote his life to forensic science, he said.
“I think about it all the time,” Cummings said of the killing.
“I was in East Millinocket when it happened, and I remember how everything changed,” he said. “Doors started getting locked at night. People became more fearful. I wanted to be part of solving it.”
Cummings assisted Baden with the autopsy Friday and was at the exhumation Thursday to assess the coffin’s condition. He also worked for about seven hours with Baden on Friday meticulously examining the body for potential evidence.
“I’ve been on my feet all day,” he said wearily Friday.
“I hope this finally solves this case,” Cummings said. “It would be so good to finally put this to rest.”
Joyce McLain’s mother, Pamela McLain, who met Cummings for the first time at Thursday’s exhumation, sees his involvement as more than a happy coincidence or a graciously selfless act.
She thinks it’s a sign.
The participation of the internationally lauded forensic experts Baden and Dr. Henry Lee; the nearly pristine condition of the coffin and vault; the cloudless, perfect day that was Thursday; even the proliferation of eights in the dates of the exhumation on Aug. 28, 2008, and her daughter’s disappearance on Aug. 8, 1980, all have Pamela McLain convinced that her daughter’s killer will see justice.
“The whole thing fits together so well,” she said.
Cummings’ family members weren’t aware of his emotional ties to the homicide, but they weren’t surprised.
“That’s the kind of person he is. He is inquisitive, thoughtful, and he is kind,” said Cummings’ father, Peter A. Cummings of Bangor, an advertising salesman at WNSX FM 97.7 radio of Winter Harbor.
And like his siblings, Cummings was an exceptionally bright kid, making the lengthy journey through medical school — the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, Ireland — almost effortlessly, said his grandmother Delia Cummings, 89, of Millinocket.
“He’s very smart. He has also written a textbook with another doctor,” Delia Cummings said. “We had a little family reunion this weekend and [during it] his father was looking at him and he said, ‘I can’t believe it. Where did you get all these smarts?’
“And Peter said, ‘I love my work. I can’t believe how when I get up in the morning I look forward to going to work.’”
She also boasted that her grandson “knows everything about the stars and planets and … he can play the guitar and sing. He loves Elvis.”
“I wouldn’t say he had drive,” Peter A. Cummings said. “If he wanted to do it, he just did it. Things always seemed easy to him. He has always done what he has set out to do.”
The Cummings family only saw glimmers of Cummings’ fascination with forensics when he was growing up.
“He was a typical kid,” his father said. “The only sign of this was that he was an absolute fanatic for ‘Quincy.’”
The TV series, which aired 1976-1983 and can still be seen occasionally in reruns, featured Jack Klugman as a crime-solving coroner.
“I think right now he’s got almost every ‘Quincy’ episode that there is [on recordings],” the elder Cummings said. “Every once in a while, when I am around and there’s nothing else going on, he and I will go on a ‘Quincy’ binge.”
Cummings also liked another 1970s program, “Emergency,” his father said. Peter A. Cummings dismissed his son’s fascinations as just childhood fantasies until his son became a paramedic in Bangor and later, as an undergraduate at Dalhousie University of Nova Scotia, when he worked as part of a forensic team that investigated a plane crash in Halifax.
“And that’s when he probably realized it was for real,” Cummings said.