Twenty years ago, two shots rang out, forever altering lives and laws

By John Holyoke, BDN Staff
Posted Nov. 14, 2008, at 9:19 p.m.

Twenty years ago today, in a quiet backyard in Hermon, a hunter fired two shots that still reverberate in the minds of Mainers. A young mother of twin girls, Karen Wood, lay dead. Game wardens arrested Bangor hunter Donald Rogerson.

A husband had lost his wife. Two children had lost their mother. A hunter and his family saw their peaceful, structured lives descend into turmoil.

And as the national media descended upon Maine to tell the tragic story, an entire state lost its innocence.

No longer was Maine a quaint, quiet place to raise a family. Instead, in some circles the state was portrayed as a place where homeowners weren’t safe in their own backyards, where hunters were given carte blanche to shoot at will, and where shooting victims were blamed for contributing to their own deaths.

Twenty years later, Kevin Wood, the victim’s husband, is in Iowa. He has remarried. His twin daughters are in college.

Donald Rogerson still lives in Bangor with his wife. He’s a proud grandfather.

Both have moved on, but both still think about the past. The men are inexorably linked by a tragedy that changed a state’s mind-set, changed state laws and changed lives in ways that may never be fully understood.

Both agreed to interviews with the Bangor Daily News, though talking about the past was clearly unpleasant for them.

Click here for the full transcript of the Donald Rogerson interview.

Click here for the full transcript of the Kevin Wood interview.

Twenty years.

Two shots.

Where are we now?

A wake-up call

A grand jury refused to indict Rogerson in 1989, but a year later another grand jury did hand up an indictment.

The trial was held in October 1990, and a jury deliberated for 9½ hours before finding Rogerson not guilty of manslaughter.

In subsequent interviews, members of the jury told the BDN that they believed that a deer ran in front of Rogerson before he fired the fatal shot. Rogerson said he saw a deer, fired a shot at it, then fired again at “flags” that looked like a deer’s tail. News accounts at the time focused on the fact that Karen Wood was wearing white-palmed mittens that may have appeared to have been deer tails.

Paul Jacques, a state legislator from Waterville at the time, now serves as deputy commissioner of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. He said the verdict served as a wake-up call to many.

“You’ve got to remember, for years up until that time, the penalty for accidentally killing someone while hunting was like 200 bucks,” Jacques said. “And it was pretty much accepted [if the explanation was] ‘I thought it was a deer and I fired and I killed a guy.’”

Jacques said that although the attitude may be hard to understand now, at the time there was little effort to change the status quo.

“I’ll tell you, for the most part, generally, people in the state, as long as a deer hunter was shooting another deer hunter, and they weren’t hunters, they didn’t care,” Jacques said.

When Karen Wood, a 37-year-old non-hunter, was killed, that mind-set was challenged by many, including Jacques.

“The proverbial manure hit the fan,” Jacques said. “And people said, ‘Enough is enough. As long as you guys were killing each other, we didn’t care. But when you start involving an innocent housewife hanging her clothes, something’s got to be done.’”

News reports at the time indicated that Karen Wood may have been hanging clothing on the line in her backyard or may have headed into her backyard to warn hunters that there were houses nearby.

Jacques said the real estate development boom had begun by 1988, and hunters across the state were heading to formerly productive hunting grounds and finding houses or housing developments.

Karen Wood’s death served as a warning to many who decided they weren’t safe in their own homes.

Some hardware stores ran out of no-trespassing signs, and landowners began asking for help from state legislators.

“There was outrage. People were angry,” Jacques said. “We’ve got letters to the editor from in-house, out [of state] in most of the papers. Your paper probably got most of them because [the shooting] was in the area. But the manure didn’t really hit the fan until after he was acquitted. That’s when people said, ‘How can this be?’”

As a legislator, Jacques began asking the same question. He found a jumble of state laws that made little sense.

At the time, Jacques said, a person who illegally shot a moose in Maine had to pay a $2,000 fine upon conviction.

“Now, you have to remember, at one time if you wounded somebody while hunting, it was a mandatory 10-year loss of license. If you wounded them,” Jacques said. “But if you killed them, and you said you thought it was a deer when you shot them, it was a $200 fine and there wasn’t even a jail sentence imposed.”

Also, he points out, the hunter’s license wasn’t suspended in those cases.

Jacques and others, including John Marsh, a former head game warden who was then in the Legislature, started work on a new law that would address those problems with the Wood case verdict serving as powerful incentive for change.

“When the acquittal came through, we asked, ‘What was it in the law that did not make it clear that what Mr. Rogerson did was a problem,’” Jacques said. “That’s when we got into the target identification part of it. And we also talked about hunting homicide.”

Seven months after Rogerson’s acquittal, a new law had been crafted and passed by the Legislature. It delineated a standard of conduct that a prudent hunter must abide by, in order to facilitate the prosecution of hunters in shooting deaths.

Included in those standards of conduct is a requirement to identify various parts of an animal before shooting and to know what lies beyond the target before pulling the trigger.

Gregory Sanborn, now the state’s deputy chief game warden, was not a warden at the time of the shooting. He joined the service in 1990.

He said the Wood shooting was used as a teaching tool and helped serve as a catalyst for a number of changes that the warden service has instituted since.

Among the changes, he said, is a different protocol when it comes to processing a hunting incident.

“It used to be that the first warden on the scene was the primary investigating officer. That was the rule of thumb,” Sanborn said. “So it didn’t matter whether it was a brand-new guy that was just right out of the academy or a guy with 25 years on.”

The Maine Warden Service invested time and money training a new generation of wardens, sending some to specialized schools that deal with hunting incidents or homicides.

It now takes advantage of that training and relies on those wardens to investigate hunter-related shootings. The most experienced wardens take leadership roles in investigations now. Others help as needed.

The changes, Sanborn said, have paid dividends. And if the current system — along with the 1991 target identification requirements and current technology — had been in place 20 years ago, he thinks a jury might have seen things differently in the Wood case.

Another contributing factor, Sanborn said, is an ingrained mind-set that doesn’t exist anymore.

“The jury didn’t feel that the burden of proof was met. And a lot of that is social. What is the social climate, and did this guy act outside of what the norm is?” Sanborn said. “At the time the answer was no. I think if the same thing happened today, the same set of circumstances, it would be a different outcome.”

Jacques and Sanborn are also confident that efforts to increase hunter safety have been successful. In 1973, Maine deer hunters were first required to wear fluorescent orange clothing. Mandatory hunter safety courses were established in the early 1980s, Jacques said.

And there’s no discounting the effect the shooting of Karen Wood had on a generation of hunters, Jacques said.

The numbers bear him out: According to data provided by DIF&W, during the 20 years before Karen Wood was killed, a total of 67 people were shot and died in Maine as a result of hunting incidents. Over that span, an average of 214,592 hunters bought licenses each year.

Over the subsequent 20 years (including 1988, when Karen Wood died), just 13 people died as a result of hunting-related shootings. In addition, more hunters — an average 220,866 a year — have been licensed in Maine.

From 1940 until Wood’s death, people were shot and killed nearly every year during hunting season. The highest total of fatalities was 19 in both 1950 and 1952, and only one of the years was fatality-free.

Since 1988, eight Maine hunting seasons ended without a single person dying because of a gunshot wound.

“There’s no question in my mind [that the Rogerson case and Wood’s death made hunting safer],” Jacques said. “I think every hunter safety instructor, every parent who takes a kid hunting, after Karen Wood died, talked about that repeatedly. It’s just something that struck home.”

Jacques said the story of Wood and Rogerson was particularly powerful in the immediate wake of the incident, but continues to have an impact today.

“It had a big effect for the first five years or so,” Jacques said. “But what happens after that is [a new mind-set] becomes ingrained.”

A callous reaction

In the wake of his wife’s death, Kevin Wood had a lot of hard decisions to make.

The Wood family had only recently moved to Maine, where Kevin had a job at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor.

They had made friends, settled into their dream home in Hermon, and had a bright future.

One day. Two shots.

The dream was over. Then the public began to share its views, some of which were shocking to Kevin Wood.

“Karen and I had no reason to believe that the values or reaction to a tragedy of this nature would be met with the community response that it was,” Kevin Wood, 56, said recently from his home in Iowa.

“Don’t misunderstand me. I met many wonderful native Mainers. I don’t blanketly condemn the state or the community or the people of Maine,” he said. “I’m just talking about the reaction of perhaps — I can’t even say it’s a majority — but certainly a vocal portion of the community.”

The source of his dismay was — and is — the treatment of his wife by a segment of the population, many of whom wrote letters to the editor.

Karen Wood, some maintained, was not blameless in her death because she was near woods during November and wasn’t wearing orange clothing.

Jacques, for one, said he and many other hunters disputed that assertion at the time and do so today.

“My feeling has always been that as a hunter in the woods, someone ought to be able to run around in the woods buck naked or dressed in brown from head to toe, and they should not be subject to being shot … because they didn’t have fluorescent orange on,” Jacques said.

Not everybody saw it that way at the time, as Kevin Wood kept reading and hearing.

“One instance was [when] I think the trial verdict was announced,” he said. “My friend or his wife were at a junior high school soccer match. Obviously the news was big news in Bangor. [The verdict] was announced over the loudspeaker, and the crowd cheered.”

It hurt Kevin Wood to hear about that, but further reiterated an important point: People he didn’t know had made judgments about the woman he loved — a woman they didn’t know.

“[It was] just amplified all the more by [my knowledge that] you can’t know what a wonderful person Karen was,” Kevin Wood said. “And the contrast between people who never got to know her to be glad that the man who killed her is set free is just a hard pill to swallow.”

Wood chose to swallow that pill elsewhere, moving out of Maine and ending up in Iowa.

Eventually he told his twin daughters, who had just turned 1 year old when Karen Wood died, parts of their mom’s story.

Parts. But not all.

“I’m not sure they really have all the details,” Kevin Wood said. “I think that at one point they were of the belief that — as young people would expect when someone does something bad — that the bad person gets punished and that’s the way it is.”

At some point, he says, he told Lindsey and Laura that wasn’t the case.

But he said he never told his daughters everything he knew, thought and felt.

“They’re both sensitive kids, and I’m not going to volunteer information that I know would be painful and hurtful to them. They know the general ideas about what happened to their mother,” Kevin Wood said.

He said that the girls may have gathered more details from Karen’s family during visits with them and may be sheltering him from the same memories he has been reluctant to share.

“Knowing how sensitive they are, it’s quite possible that they’re avoiding asking me directly for fear of it engendering pain for me,” Kevin Wood said. “That’s quite possibly the reason why.”

Kevin Wood has paid attention to the hunting law changes in Maine and hopes they’ve made a difference.

“If there is discussion about and charges [that can be made] or at least stronger efforts can be made to hold people responsible for negligence, grossly negligent behaviors, and Karen’s death was in some way helpful in bringing that about, perhaps that was some good, however small that may be,” Kevin Wood said.

But he remains unsure how cases will turn out when they end up in court.

“Ultimately, the courts are not perfect,” he said. “But as long as there’s provincialism and bias toward the victims, the accused are going to get off, or the guilty are going to get off, or justice won’t be served. That’s true for not just hunting situations, but any law anywhere.”

Wood has lived in several states during his life, including Virginia, Arizona, New York, Iowa and Maine. He said the reaction of some Mainers after his wife’s death stunned him and made him feel uncomfortable.

“Based on [my] life’s experiences, that provincial attitude of protecting their own and victimizing the outsiders, I don’t think I’ve ever seen in any other place I’ve lived,” he said. “Or certainly not experienced it to that degree.”

Wood said that because he and Karen were not Mainers, he thinks Mainers viewed the situation differently from how they might have had both grown up in Hermon rather than relocated there.

And if they’d been Mainers, and the shooting had taken place?

“My honest opinion? I think it would have made a difference. I think it would have made a difference.”

While the Woods weren’t from Maine, they did share traits with those in their adoptive home. They loved the outdoors.

Though many didn’t know it, Kevin Wood was a hunter, too. He arrived in Bangor with a Brittany and looked forward to spending enjoyable hours afield, bird-hunting with his dog.

He still hunts.

“A week ago I was hunting pheasant,” he said. “I’m not anti-hunting. I’m very pro-responsible hunting, obviously, as I’ve said in the past. We have to be accountable for our actions, not just in hunting, but also in life, frankly.”

Laura and Lindsey Wood are now hardworking college students, according to their dad. Kevin Wood credits his wife, Betty, with providing a loving and nurturing environment and says he doesn’t know how his life would have turned out without her.

Kevin Wood and his family returned to Bangor in the 1990s. They visited friends. They drove by the house on Treadwell Acres in Hermon. He decided he didn’t want to walk through his former backyard again.

He has never spoken with Rogerson. He doesn’t plan to.

“I honestly don’t see the purpose in doing it. I don’t see what would be accomplished, frankly,” he said. “He’s gone on record as recently as [a 2005 magazine story] and certainly before that, that he’s of the opinion that perhaps maybe he’s not even responsible for it. And if that’s his position, what’s the point of discussing it?”

An acquittal, but no escape

Donald Rogerson walked away from the courthouse in 1990 with an acquittal.

That doesn’t mean he was a free man.

The events of Nov. 15, 1988, still hang over him day after day after day.

Yes, he was acquitted, but there are still plenty of people who hold that fact against him.

“If I had been found guilty and gone to jail, it wouldn’t have bothered me as much as it would have affected my family,” the 65-year-old Rogerson said earlier this week. “I was willing to accept any consequences if that was the case.”

That didn’t happen. A jury found him not guilty. He was released to live his life. He continued working at a local supermarket, continued his daily interactions with the public, and continued being Donald Rogerson.

“[My wife’s] feeling right from the get-go was, ‘I’m not going to let this change us, who we are,’” Rogerson said. “She was very adamant about that.”

In many ways, the Rogersons have succeeded. They still live in the same Bangor house. Rogerson never stopped taking the BDN, even though his name was in it regularly for two long years and sporadically since then.

“I often thought, it might have been a lot easier to go to jail for a couple of years and get out, because … in a lot of people’s minds, I would have paid my debt. Because some people think I got away with something that really I don’t feel I got away with anything.”

Rogerson doesn’t get away from the memories. He doesn’t get away from the periodic calls from the media. And he doesn’t get away from the question he knows he’ll never be able to answer.

“So, am I the guilty party?” Rogerson asked. “I accepted full responsibility because I was there. It happened that quick. But until this day, there was never any — what’s the word I’m looking for? — ‘closure’ for it.”

Rogerson says he has replayed the incident in his mind countless times and never sees Karen Wood. He sees a deer. He says another hunter could have shot her earlier when he heard a shot from the same area.

According to news reports during the trial, ballistics tests on the bullet that killed Wood were inconclusive.

Rogerson has ideas. He has theories. He has questions. And he has to live with a stark reality: People think he killed a woman and got away with it, and he’ll never be sure whether they’re right or not.

Rogerson agreed to be interviewed for this story only after receiving a satisfactory answer to a lingering question.

“What’s to be gained from this?” he asked.

Eventually, Rogerson admitted that telling his story again, or updating it, could serve as a cautionary tale to other hunters.

“I think hunting is safer now,” he said.

Unwittingly, Rogerson became the man no hunter wanted to be like. And a new generation learned a lesson that others taught, using Rogerson as a model.

Don’t fire unless you’re sure.

Doubly sure.

Triply sure.

Rogerson said he grew up hunting the same way, and on that day 20 years ago, he was abiding by those rules.

He says he knows he saw a deer. He says he shot at that deer.

Then, he admits, he made a decision he wishes he hadn’t.

“I guess if there was any one thing that I would take back it would be that second shot,” he said. “The first one was there … probably today I’d never take the second shot.”

There are no second shots for Rogerson these days. Or first shots.

He voluntarily gave up his license for five years in the wake of the shooting and hasn’t hunted since.

He misses the sport and spending time in hunting camps with friends. He does go to hunters breakfasts most years and continues to spend plenty of time outdoors fishing, hiking, climbing Mount Katahdin and skiing at Sugarloaf.

Legally, he could hunt again.

Practically, he knows he can’t.

Others don’t think he should hunt, he says, and would let him know it. And the memories of 1988 don’t go away.

“It was a tragic accident. It was just one of those scenarios that I feel I never want to put myself in that position again,” he said. “And when you take a gun into the woods and go out into the woods, I guess that’s what you’re doing.”

Rogerson said friends have told him they’ve given up hunting because of the incident.

“They’ve said, if it could happen to me, it could happen to them,” Rogerson said.

Rogerson has shared words of caution with Boy Scouts under his tutelage over the years, but has never formally addressed a hunter safety course or fish and game club to tell his story.

He said he’d do that, if asked.

“It probably would have been stronger of me if I’d gone and spoke out in public,” Rogerson said. “But there was always somebody in that mix of people that wouldn’t have accepted me in that position. And I think that was the only thing that kept me from doing it. Let’s face it. People thrive on negativism more than they do positivism.”

He said his speech to prospective hunters would be simple.

“Make sure of your target,” he said. “Just be sure what you see.”

Rogerson said that for years, he wanted to talk to Kevin Wood, but lawyers told him not to.

“I know that anything I say will never change anything, but I just would like to have been able to say, gee, look, I just can’t imagine what you’re going through, and I just really …” Rogerson said, struggling to find the proper words. “I was as compassionate about it as, like I said, my own [family had been in pain]. It was the hardest thing, not being able to approach them. Because it was — it was — I wanted to reach out to them.”

He said he always feared that eventually, Lindsey and Laura Wood would knock on his door and ask for an explanation he didn’t have.

His knees would have buckled, he said. He would have hugged them both. What he would say after that, he’s not quite sure.

After 20 years, the words are still hard to find. But the memory doesn’t go away.

The incident is always with him. Just like it’s always with Kevin Wood.

Kevin Wood lost that day a wife. A dream. Future memories.

While Donald Rogerson won in court, he lost, too.

Every year, when hunting season rolls around and people talk about his case anew, that becomes clear.

Twenty years.

Two shots.

And the memory lingers.

“I don’t think in Maine, there’s ever going to be total closure,” Rogerson said softly. “It’s foolish to even think that.”

jholyoke@bangordailynews.net

990-8214

http://bangordailynews.com/2008/11/14/news/bangor/twenty-years-ago-two-shots-rang-out-forever-alteringlives-and-laws/ printed on August 31, 2014