E. Millinocket still rattled by 1980 slaying

Posted Sept. 04, 2008, at 8:24 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 7:25 a.m.

EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine — Adam Delano is about 6 feet tall and weighs about 300 pounds, but every morning that the newspaper carrier sets out on his route, his grandmother worries.

“I just pray to God that he makes it home safely,” said Gail Trueworthy, 63, of East Millinocket. “You don’t know what’s lurking in those bushes.”

The fear expresses itself differently in others. Some start when they hear a wailing siren. Others lock their car doors or eye strangers suspiciously, but everyone interviewed, whether they knew her or not, finds subtle changes in themselves and the town around them that persist to this day because of the Joyce McLain homicide 28 years ago.

“It’s been like a horrible nightmare that nobody has been able to wake up from. It’s something that has hung over the town and lingered,” Judy Page, a 70-year-old retired newspaper reporter, said Thursday.

A Schenck High School sophomore, 16-year-old McLain disappeared while jogging through her neighborhood the night of Aug. 8, 1980. Her badly beaten body was found in a power line right of way near the high school soccer fields two days later. A large wooden memorial, its paint peeling and barely readable today, stands near where McLain’s body was found.

To Terry Johnson, a 59-year-old retired truck driver for the town Department of Public Works, a part of East Millinocket died with her. With fewer than 1,500 residents, the Katahdin region town has plenty of people who remember McLain or recall the aftermath of the discovery of her body.

Johnson remembers helping state police investigators search bags of garbage that trash crews picked up on Orchard Street after her body was found. Others remember attending McLain’s funeral at Calvary Temple Assembly of God.

Before the McLain homicide, kids used to have parties or walk along the right of way, he said. Not anymore.

“We have lived with this thing for 28 years,” Johnson said. “If you were from here when it happened, this is always on your mind, no matter what.”

Gale Skipper, an aunt of McLain’s, says she has difficulty thinking of her father without thinking of McLain. Fred Grass died of complications from emphysema on Aug. 29, 1980, while driving on Interstate 95.

When a state trooper appeared at her door to tell her of his death, “I said, ‘Oh my God, they found Joyce’s killer,’ and he said, ‘No, your dad’s been found. He died,’” Skipper recalled.

Joyce McLain “became a part of everyone’s family,” Page said. “It really became imprinted not just on East Millinocket but on the surrounding towns. Her death has been on everybody’s mind for 28 years. We’ve never forgotten Joyce.”

A place once known for its friendliness, and which is still pretty neighborly, became a lot more suspicious. Gossip, not arrests, identified possible killers. Doubt infected relationships, and slight behavioral eccentricities became grist for more rumors in restaurants, neighborhoods and in the workplace.

The suspicion, Trueworthy said, was pervasive.

“Every man in that mill,” Trueworthy said of the paper mill off Route 11, “when it came time to punch out, got in line and thought that the guy in front of him or the guy behind him was the one who did it.”

The taint of suspicion hangs over several possible suspects to this day. If McLain’s killer is ever found, more people than just her family and friends will be relieved.

Yet many people in town are feeling something new recently — hope.

News that internationally renowned forensic experts Dr. Michael Baden and Dr. Henry Lee found new evidence last week, and that a squad of state police detectives will be in town all week doing interviews, has residents thinking that an end to their nightmare is at least possible.

“When those two experts said they found new evidence, that boosted people’s morale in town,” said Andy Hopkins, a 72-year-old retired high school teacher, who saw McLain jogging by on the night she disappeared.

“I think that people are really looking forward to the end of this and have hope,” said Mindy McKenzie, a 56-year-old biology teacher at Schenck. “Students are talking about it that weren’t even around because their parents are talking about it. People would really like to have it resolved.”

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