Drowning case from ’72 getting new look

Posted Aug. 14, 2009, at 10:45 p.m.

VINALHAVEN, Maine — What happened to Bella Baldwin?

In the fall of 1972, the 19-year-old Maryland woman rode a bus up the coast to Rockland, where she checked in to the Navigator Motel and then took the ferry to Vinalhaven.

Bella was a poet and an artist, and she wrote a friend a letter about her trip across Penobscot Bay.

“It was so beautiful! The ferry pulls away from land and moves through the water. Ah! I was in a state of perpetual heart-attack. You could see the mountains in the distance, rising through the haze of a cloudless morning.”

Just days later, Bella was dead. Two local women found the teenager’s body lying facedown on the beach on Lane’s Island off Vinalhaven. An autopsy report listed the probable cause of her death as drowning; the medical examiner put a question mark in the box labeled “suicide.”

Then he circled the question mark.

Nothing was found in her pockets and everything in her room at an island inn — where she had checked in using a false name — had been removed. The identity of the slender girl with waves of thick dark hair was a mystery for weeks.

The parents of other missing girls made the sad pilgrimage to Rockland to see whether she was their daughter, according to Bangor Daily News reports from the time.

When Bella’s dentist saw a sketch of the girl in the Annapolis Evening Capital newspaper and identified her from that, it seemed the mystery was laid to rest along with her body at Seaview Cemetery in Rockland.

But former Vinalhaven resident Alice Wolper has been trying for years to figure out just what occurred on that quiet beach.

She wondered about the bruises on Bella’s face and neck, the inconsistent police and medical records, the fact that all of Bella’s identification had disappeared, and her strong sense that islanders were not telling all they knew.

“It’s a very deep, complicated story,” Wolper said Friday from her Pennsylvania home. “I think something bad happened to her. I do. I don’t think she killed herself. I can’t prove that she was murdered, but I can prove that there was never an investigation.”

Wolper has communicated with Knox County Sheriff Donna Dennison in recent years, urging her to investigate the death.

This week, Dennison decided to look into the matter further and has reopened the investigation. She said that Larry Hesseltine, the resident deputy for Vinalhaven, will conduct interviews with islanders to see what they remember.

“It depends on what we find out,” Dennison said. “Either we’re going to put it to rest, or we’re going to open up a can of worms.”

‘She was a recluse’

When she learned that the Sheriff’s Office had reopened the investigation, Baldwin’s stepmother, Gretchen Baldwin, greeted the news with relief.

She can’t forget the words that Rockland funeral director Mel Carpenter said to her and her husband, Charles, when they came to Maine from England upon learning that the dead girl was their daughter.

“He said he’d never seen a corpse look like that who was supposed to be a drowned person,” Baldwin, 90, who now lives in York, Maine, said Friday. “I’ve always said there was something fishy about the whole thing. It seems to me there was a cover-up.”

The Baldwins bought a gravestone for Bella, who had been interred as an unknown person. The pink granite stone was carved with a line from one of her poems: “I catch the sun in my fingertips.”

But the girl’s own sunlight came with dark shadows, Gretchen Baldwin said. The Baldwins encouraged Bella to study art in London, but she didn’t have a clear plan for her future. Bella had made a couple of suicide attempts, one of which put her in the hospital where she had her stomach pumped.

“She was a recluse. She was odd, and mentally unbalanced,” Gretchen Baldwin said. “You never knew where you were with her.”

Bella’s trip to Maine, however, began on a high note, according to Wolper, who has investigated the case extensively.

“She was not a crazy young woman. She took care of herself, and her letters show that she was a resourceful, careful person,” Wolper said. “She was strong and just had a beautiful spirit. From her letters, I think I would have really liked her.”

More questions than answers

In October 1973, Wolper missed the ferry to Monhegan and decided to head over to Vinalhaven, where she crossed paths with Gretchen and Charles Baldwin who had made the trip to see where Bella had died. Wolper, who was a social worker in Boston, thought the island was beautiful and later decided to move there year-round. She stayed there for several years in the 1970s, during which time she heard more about the girl with the red purse — which is what islanders called Bella Baldwin. The purse was never found after Bella died, Wolper said.

“I was very naive, like Bella. I used to walk all over the island by myself — because in Boston I couldn’t do that,” Wolper recalled.

Later, she learned that sometimes Maine island communities are dangerous in different ways. She heard that some crimes — such as domestic violence — just don’t get reported much. She moved away, but never forgot her island experiences.

When she told her own 19-year-old daughter about the girl with the red purse in 2001, she realized that she didn’t know the girl’s name, and decided to change that. She started digging for information, requesting the autopsy report and talking to her island friends. She wonders whether a man who was near the cove when Bella’s body was found there might have some more information. And whatever happened to her red purse?

“The island women looked for that purse. Why weren’t the police looking for it?” she asked.

Wolper said that she isn’t counting on the newly reopened investigation to answer all of her questions, but feels that Bella — and Vinalhaven — deserve more truth than they’ve been given over the past 37 years.

“I wanted to tell the stories I thought that islanders could not tell,” Wolper said. “I don’t think the story is really finished … and I don’t think I can do more than I have done without making a lot of people unhappy.”

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