NH man convicted in 1986 killing

Posted Jan. 05, 2010, at 1:34 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Nearly 24 years after her mother was strangled with a scarf while drawing a bath, Myava Escamilla got what she wanted — the maximum penalty for her mother’s killer.

Roger Bernier, 62, was sentenced to 20 years in prison Tuesday for the 1986 death of 33-year-old Mary Kelley. The crime went unsolved until 2008, when Bernier was arrested after detectives obtained new evidence from follow-up interviews with him and from updated forensic analysis methods.

At the sentencing hearing, Escamilla told the judge that Bernier robbed her of her relationship with her mother. Escamilla, who was 9 at the time, said her mother’s death has filled her with grief and despair.

“I am not exaggerating when I say this experience nearly killed me, too,” she said as Bernier sat at a nearby table, looking down.

Kelley’s naked body was found in the bathtub of her first-floor apartment in downtown Portland on April 26, 1986. Kelley worked at a Portland restaurant and visited her daughter on weekends in Boothbay Harbor, where she lived with Kelley’s mother.

Bernier, a Vietnam veteran who lived on the streets, was a suspect from the start. Kelley was friendly with homeless people who congregated near her building. Police didn’t have enough evidence to charge Bernier, and he later moved to New Hampshire where he lived until his arrest in 2008.

Bernier originally pleaded not guilty to murder, but pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter in October.

His attorney said the killing was an aberration — that Bernier had been drinking and snapped, perhaps because of mental problems brought on by an abusive childhood and his years on the front lines in Vietnam.

Bernier did not speak at the hearing, but gave the judge a short written statement expressing regret.

Prosecutors recommended that Bernier be sentenced to 20 years, the maximum sentence at the time of the crime. Bernier’s attorney asked for an eight-year sentence.

In the end, Superior Court Justice Thomas Warren said the maximum sentence was justified because of the severity of the crime. He also considered the impact that Kelley’s death had on her family.

Escamilla, who now lives in Southern California and plans to become a lawyer, spoke for 45 minutes about the effect the slaying had on her.

To this day, she finds herself overcome by grief at unexpected moments, she said. She can’t sleep with an open window or a shade that is up because she envisions a killer looking in. She still recalls watching the TV news and seeing her mother’s body being taken from the apartment in a body bag.

She gave thanks to three Portland police detectives in the courtroom who helped solve the crime.

“In doing so, you have made my mother count as a citizen,” Escamilla said. “You have made her count as a mother. You have made her count as a daughter. You have made her count as a person.”

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