Missing in Maine

Posted June 26, 2009, at 8:01 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — On the evening of April 24, five members of Charles Springer’s family gathered at a southern Maine restaurant to mark his 70th birthday.

Like many such celebrations, family members shared a meal that ended with a cupcake topped with a birthday candle.

Absent, however, was the guest of honor.

Charles Milton Springer, a truck driver from Belmont who liked to be called “Chuck,” walked out of his home on May 2, 2008, with only the clothes on his back. He has not been seen since.

Springer is among an estimated 100 people in Maine who have been reported missing during the past three decades and have never been found.

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The missing person reports include the names of individuals as young as 3 and as old as 70, some in good health and others with medical or mental health problems. The files date back to 1971, about the time that federal and state authorities began indexing such cases.

Many of the missing are believed to be dead, the victims of foul play or the elements. Some are teenage runaways and adults whom authorities believe have fled to escape problems, while others seem to have simply vanished into thin air, leaving no trace behind.

Sometimes, new leads blow the dust off old cases. That was the case this week, when state police and Sanford police converged on a Lebanon residence and recovered from a well human remains believed to be those of Frances Moulton, who disappeared at the age of 27 in the summer of 2006.

The remains were taken to the Office of the State Medical Examiner for examination, but an identification is not expected until next week.

Though Springer has been missing for more than a year, family members he left behind still think of him daily.

“Oh, it’s not good at all. I get through the day, you know,” Ellie Springer, the missing man’s mother, said this week in a telephone interview from her daughter’s home in Lebanon, where she recently moved because of health problems.

“I try not to think about it too much. When I think about it too much, I get a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach and I feel like I just want to cry,” she said. “I don’t want to make myself sick. I’m 89 years old.”

Haunting cases

Lt. J. Darrell Ouellette, commander of the state police barracks in Houlton, has seen the effect that a missing loved one can have on families.

Until three years ago, Ouellette headed the state’s Missing Children Clearinghouse. His experience with missing adults is a product of his regular duties with the state police, who investigate all missing persons cases in which foul play is suspected except those in Bangor and Portland, where the city police departments handle their own. The FBI gets involved in missing children cases and those in which the missing person is believed to have crossed, or been taken across, state lines.

Though Ouellette has investigated dozens of missing person cases over the decades, there are some that continue to haunt him. One such case involves the 1977 disappearance of a 19-year-old Fort Kent man.

The son of a Fort Kent schoolteacher now living in Portland, Bernard “Bunny” Ross Jr. initially was the subject of a warrant in a truck theft case. The truck was found and the charges dropped, but Ross remained missing.

Despite a thorough search, Ross was never found.

Though 32 years have passed, Ross’ parents maintain regular contact with Ouellette to see if there have been any new developments.

“We’ve done some work trying to locate him,” Ouellette said. He periodically checks for activity with Ross’ Social Security number, but so far has found nothing.

“Once in a while [Ross’ father] will see a vanity plate that has the word bunny, and he’ll ask me to run the plate and find out who it is, and I’ll run the plate and I’d find out that it belongs to a female or somebody else,” he said.

“So there’s always that glimmer of hope that he’s alive, that he just ran away or he had some sort of accident where he doesn’t know where he belongs or whatever. But he’s accepted the fact that his son may be dead,” Ouellette said.

The numbers

Getting a handle on the actual number of missing people in Maine is no simple matter.

The missing person page on the Department of Public Safety’s Web site, which has only 16 listings, is still under construction. Two more missing people police believe were murdered are listed on the site’s unsolved homicides page. The site does not include cases being investigated by county and municipal police departments.

As of June 1, 92 people who disappeared in Maine were listed in the FBI’s National Crime Information Center’s database, the national repository for criminal justice information, according to Todd Matthews, a regional systems administrator for the missing people Web site www.NamUs.gov.

Police believe the actual total is higher because of inconsistent reporting over the years.Although police are legally bound to register children with the NCIC within three hours of receiving a report that they’re missing, there is more interpretation involved before listing adults.

People 21 and older can be entered into the NCIC database, but only if they have a physical or mental disability, may be in physical danger, are missing after a catastrophe, went missing under circumstances suggesting their disappearance may be involuntary, or who otherwise are believed to be in danger, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s guidelines.

“Law enforcement has a lot of discretion with adults,” Ouellette said. “Police departments have to make a call on that, whether a person is in danger.” They might not submit a report of a missing adult in good physical and mental condition and not considered at risk.

Public Safety Department spokesman Steve McCausland agrees.

“It’s usually not a crime, obviously, for someone to go missing as an adult. Sometimes adults for their own reason want to go missing,” he said, adding, “Your most famous missing person probably in the Bangor area is [Roderick] Hotham. He’s not on that list but he certainly is missing.”

Arguably one of Bangor’s highest-profile missing people, Hotham made headlines when he vanished in September 1992 from the Stucco Lodge in Veazie. At the time of his disappearance, the certified public accountant was accused of defrauding five federally insured financial institutions of about $4 million through false representation and promises.

The vast majority of missing person cases are solved quickly, according to Ouellette and Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross.

Ouellette said of the 160 runaway teenagers reported missing every month in Maine, “99.9 percent” return home within 24 hours or let their parents know where they are and that they don’t plan to come home.

“Luckily, most of them are teenagers who have pretty good parents. They just want to get away for a while,” he said, adding that most return when it gets cold and they’ve run out of food and money.

Ross said 300 to 400 missing person and “attempt to locate” reports are filed with the county’s deputies and municipal police departments in a typical year and that all but a handful are resolved quickly, often in less than 24 hours.

These cases involve people who weren’t home when expected or who didn’t show up for a scheduled event, he notes. People who commit suicide and whose bodies are found quickly come off the list.

“With the ones that are truly missing, there’s usually a lot of interaction between the family and the police that keeps it on the radar screen,” he said.

Among the most troubling cases are those involving missing kids.

The profiles of three people who were reported missing as children in the 1970s and 1980s appear on the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s Web site, located at missingkids.com, National Center spokeswoman Nancy McBride said.

They are 3-year-old Douglas Charles Chapman, who vanished in 1971 while playing outside in Alfred; Cathy Moulton, 16, of Portland, who also went missing in 1971; and Kimberly Moreau, who was 17 when she disappeared from Jay in 1986.

Not among the National Center’s listings, however, is a fourth missing child from Maine, Kurt Ronald Newton, who has not been seen since 1975, when he wandered away from his family’s campsite at Chain of Ponds Public Reserve Land near Coburn Gore on the Quebec border.

The state police serve as the National Center’s designated statewide missing children’s clearinghouse, Ouellette said.

“They keep very good track of missing children,” he said of the center. The National Center “actually has a better database than we do, simply because they enter everything in there and they periodically check to see if the children have been recovered,” Ouellette said. The center’s Web site includes profiles with photos, includ-ing age-progressed photos showing what missing children would look like at their chronological ages, he said.

“When you only have three [missing children], it’s three too many, but it’s not a lot compared to more populated states, where it’s really a much bigger problem,” Ouellette said.

“We have a one-person missing children unit,” said Ouellette, who staffed it for five years. For the last three years, it has been staffed by Lt. Brian McDonough, commander of the criminal investigation division based in Gray.

“We don’t have the resources. We don’t have the staffing [like in more populated states]. Connecticut and New York both have full-time investigators assigned to their [NCMEC missing children] clearinghouses,” Ouellette said. Given their other duties, he and McDonough could devote only about 5 percent of a typical work-week to it, he estimated.

Cold cases

Ouellette said cold-case investigations on missing people sometimes remain stagnant for long periods. Though state police maintain ongoing investigations when it comes to missing children and adults they believe have met with foul play, current staffing levels do not allow police to devote much time to those involving adults missing under circumstances lacking a criminal element.

“We do not have a special bureau or person who oversees that,” McCausland said.

“These cases remain open all the time, but they don’t get a lot of publicity or a lot of attention because the lead detectives are working other cases,” Ouellette said.

Sometimes, however, cold-case investigations pick up again because of new leads, the discovery of human remains or some other break, such as in the case of Moulton.

McCausland said Moulton last contacted her family in July 2006 and was reported missing that September. She lived in Lebanon at the time of her disappearance, but often stayed with friends and family in Sanford.

Police aren’t saying what new leads or evidence led them this week to the human remains they found at the bottom of a well in Lebanon.

But police, who suspected foul play in her disappearance, believe the remains are those of Moulton. McCausland said Thursday that a positive identification of the remains and cause of death would not be available for several days.

New technologies

The advent of new technologies is helping to offset the shortage of police staffing.

On the Internet, there are a growing number of sites devoted to finding missing people and solving cold cases. Some sites allow the public to report — and help solve — missing people cases.

Also relatively new are the AMBER Alert and Code Adam systems.

The AMBER Alert, which Ouellette noted has yet to be used in Maine, is an early warning system issued by law enforcement to notify broadcasters and state transportation officials when children are abducted. The AMBER Alerts interrupt regular programming and are broadcast on radio and television and highway signs and the Internet. They also can be issued on lottery tickets, wireless devices such as mobile phones, and over the Internet.

Code Adam, which Ouellette says has been used in Maine, requires no police authorization. When a child goes missing in a public building, such as a store, an announcement is made over the public address system. The building is locked down and employees immediately canvas the store to look for the child and monitor all ex-its to ensure the child does not leave the building. If the child isn’t found within 10 minutes or is seen with someone other than a parent or guardian, police are notified.

Social networking sites and cell phones also can provide clues about the circumstances leading up to a disappearance, adds retired Massachusetts Police Chief Thomas Shamshak, who now runs a private investigation company based in Boston and Providence, R.I.

The families of two missing Mainers, Jeremy Theodore Alex and Miguel Oliveras, hired Shamshak to help with their searches.

Shamshak says the more exposure a missing person case gets, the better the chances are of solving it.

“Otherwise, they go cold.”

Springer’s case

Chuck Springer, whose career as a long-distance truck driver spanned more than three decades, is a perplexing case. After leaving his Halls Corner Road home, family and friends speculate that he may have been headed toward the town hall in an attempt to have his driver’s license reinstated.

Chuck’s sister, Joanne Grigoreas, who last year left her job and home in Massachusetts to be with her mother in Maine and since has been joined by her husband, said that during the weeks and months after Chuck’s disappearance, the family theorized about his whereabouts. They speculated that he might have walked to Route 3 and gotten a ride, possibly with another trucker, and that he might even have gotten a job.

But extensive ground and air searches, as well as his family’s efforts to contact homeless shelters, hospitals and his trucker friends throughout the country, have failed to turn up any trace of Springer, a single man whose loves include music and classic cars.

Ellie Springer said she remains heartsick that she and her oldest son had argued the day before he vanished. Chuck was angry and frustrated about having lost his driver’s license because he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, while his then 88-year-old mother still had hers. Later that day, she avoided him over fear of an-other confrontation.

“He knew he had a memory problem, but he didn’t really acknowledge that it was getting to be what it was,” she said.

Grigoreas said at this point the family seeks closure.

“That’s an important part of it, really. We’ve pretty much come to the realization that there’s a 90 percent chance he’s no longer alive, but not knowing really is the very worst part,” Grigoreas said. “We just want to get it finalized.”

That doesn’t mean the family is just sitting waiting for news.

“Some days we get up and we’re full of ambition,” Grigoreas said. “We’ll do something to try to find him, contact Internet sites or send out mailings or something, and other days we tend to lose hope sometimes. You know, what good is it doing?”

dgagnon@bangordailynews.net

990-8189

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