In Amber Cummings’ sunny downtown apartment, a redwood burl is thriving, its green fronds carefully tended and reaching toward the skylight.
Amber, a slender, dark-haired woman, is from Northern California, where the tree grows tall and free along the Pacific coast. She’s a transplant to Maine, too — and like the redwood burl, which grows only after the main tree was damaged, she is finally starting to return to life.
“The people around here are pretty incredible. They gave me the benefit of the doubt, and a chance to prove myself,” she said earlier this week. “There was a lot of support, an unbelievable amount of support, in Belfast. People came out and took care of us and made sure we had everything we need.”
The outpouring of support is welcome, because the damage in Cummings’ life — both given and received — has been enormous.
Maine first took notice of her and her family’s drama in December 2008, when Amber shot her sleeping husband to death at their High Street home while their 9-year-old daughter was there.
Investigating police found Nazi paraphernalia, a stash of chemicals including radioactive materials, and instructions for making a “dirty bomb,” a device that kills by exposing victims to the toxic material. The 29-year-old James G. Cummings, who had extremist views, told his wife and daughter that he would detonate the explosives at President Barack Obama’s inauguration and that they would die, too. He also had a computer filled with child pornography.
Cummings was diagnosed posthumously with paranoid schizophrenia, Amber said. She was diagnosed with an unusual condition called “shared psychotic disorder,” which meant she essentially had absorbed some of his madness.
She was charged with murder two months after the shooting and ultimately pleaded guilty to the crime. Justice Jeffrey Hjelm in January gave her a suspended sentence, stating that the circumstances endured by Amber and her daughter under James Cummings’ “sadistic” roof were “shocking and unimaginable.”
Hjelm described Amber’s decade of isolation and emotional, physical and sexual abuse, stressing that she had “reached a point where she did not feel she had choices.”
In a decision that generated some controversy, the justice ruled that she serve no time in jail.
Amber agrees with Hjelm’s assessment of what happened.
“The terrible thing is, I was forced to take the life of someone that I loved very much to save my daughter that I love very much,” she said. “It’s something that I will have to live with for the rest of my life, and it won’t be easy. I’ll always wonder. I’ll always be looking over my shoulder, always wondering if he can come back from the dead.”
‘Most dangerous place’
In some ways, the Cummings case was a through-the-rabbit-hole affair, with more sordid, scary and strange details emerging as the investigation continued. In other ways, said Belfast Police Chief Jeff Trafton, it is an extreme example of the effects of domestic violence — a problem he says he sees almost daily.
“It was a difficult case for the police. On the face, you have someone shot by another person. But when you look at all the extenuating circumstances, it’s not hard for me to believe that she thought her life and her daughter’s life were in danger,” he said.
Trafton was struck by the Nazi paraphernalia he saw in the house and ultimately concluded that James Cummings was a danger to the community.
“I think first and foremost he was a danger to her and to her daughter. They were the ones in the house with him,” Trafton said. “I don’t think any jury in Waldo County would have convicted her.”
Police officers see that domestic violence abuses tend to escalate over time, and Trafton said the problem is “an almost daily occurrence” in Belfast.
“The most dangerous place for some people to live is in their home. It’s not supposed to be that way,” Trafton said.
When Amber recalls the danger that used to be a daily companion in her home and her life, it can sound surreal. The apartment she and her now-10-year-old daughter share is full of the cozy clutter that comes with piles of books, fresh-baked cookies and a frolicsome kitten.
But when she describes the isolation and terror she felt during her marriage, she seems to shrink into herself. Her smile disappears.
“If it wasn’t for [my daughter], I would have committed suicide years ago,” she said. “Some of the mental torture will never leave me the rest of my life. It was so severe, it will be with me every day.”
When Amber met her future husband, she had no inkling that this was what her life could hold. James Cummings, “the nicest guy” she’d ever met, charmed her, she said. They married when she was 19 — and shortly afterward her life changed.
“It wasn’t until I was pregnant I began to see signs that something was wrong,” she said.
James Cummings drove away her family members “one by one,” Amber said. Later she found out that her mother and sister would sneak next door to watch her daughter ride her tricycle.
“My mother would cry,” Amber said. “My sister would comfort her and say, ‘Don’t worry. Amber will be back one day.’”
James Cummings had been a wealthy man, thanks to a trust fund established by his father, a prominent landowner in the Northern California city of Fort Bragg who was murdered a decade ago by a disgruntled employee.
An Internet search of the father’s trust indicated that it initially had an annual income of $10 million.
Amber said the trust fund has been hugely depleted over the years, and the money likely will be enough to pay only for her daughter’s college fund.
“I don’t benefit at all from that,” she said, adding that investigating police have checked this out.
She said that her husband conducted a six-year lawsuit against trustees who he said were mismanaging the money, and that the mismanagement was one reason he was so angry.
The family left California when their daughter was 5 and headed to Texas for a couple of years. They then traveled around the country in a motor home until August 2007, when they came to Belfast at Amber’s request.
“My husband said that he hated people and that he didn’t care where we moved,” she said. “I always wanted to live in a nice, small town in Maine.”
They settled in an older home that had been foreclosed upon, and Amber spent much of her time in town remodeling and painting the interior to her husband’s exacting specifications.
Although she is proud that she eventually got his permission to join a group for home-schooling parents, her husband’s mental state was devolving. James Cummings was teaching their daughter to look at the world through a prism of racism and what he called equal-opportunity hatred. He also was having Amber read certain books and practice speeches as he groomed her for a job of “reconditioning” women and children after he declared war on the United States.
“Basically we were just isolated in the house. Things were getting increasingly worse. He talked a lot about killing the president,” she said. “I worried about it every day.”
Cummings planned to build a torture chamber in the basement of their home. He fantasized about killing people and “peeling the skin off their bones,” she said. When he described these dreams, his eyes would darken, Amber recalled.
“He constantly talked about the different ways of killing and torturing people and hiding their bodies,” she said. “He used to say it was a need in him.”
Cummings started taking long walks around Belfast, a habit that frightened his wife.
“When he would come home, I was terrified that that would be the time he would kill somebody,” she said.
One of his favorite television shows was “Dexter,” a Showtime series about a serial killer who works for the Miami Metro Police Department.
“It was like seeing my family on TV,” Amber said.
Ready for jail
After she shot James Cummings, Amber said, her initial mental state was shock and a kind of numbness. She also suffered from vivid hallucinations.
“I woke up one night. He was choking me,” she said. “In my dreams, it was so real, I’d be in a constant state of panic for a week.”
At first, she poured her remaining energy into de-conditioning her daughter, who knew too much about her father’s violent plans and extreme racism.
“I hope to raise a really good kid, who cares a lot about people. I hope she ends up strong and can take care of herself. I think she will,” Amber said.
Since she initially thought she might be facing a jail sentence of more than 25 years, she figured she had to work fast to help her daughter. But she didn’t dread the idea of prison.
“I thought it would make me feel safe,” she said. “A part of me really wanted to go to jail. That’s where I really was for the last 10 years — in prison.”
When she heard Justice Hjelm read her sentence in January, she couldn’t absorb it. She turned around to watch the reaction of a courtroom crowded with her supporters and learned from their ecstatic response that she would walk free.
“I was very surprised. I expected to go away that day. I was prepared for it,” she said. “I think really the sentence was to help my daughter, and I’m grateful for that.”
Cummings said her long ordeal has made her appreciate things that others might take for granted.
“The little things are the best. Just sitting on the floor playing Legos with my daughter — that’s pretty exciting,” she said.
People in Belfast warmed to her friendliness and many signed a letter of support sent to the local weekly newspaper. A few started to bring her reading material to counteract James Cummings’ book list, and her apartment is home to stacks of Buddhist works and liberal-leaning magazines such as The Sun and The Atlantic.
Amber also has learned about domestic violence and was shocked to discover that the isolation and fear of her marriage fit well-documented patterns of abuse.
“He had every single one of the classic signs of an abuser. It was amazing. I was blown away,” she said, adding that she doesn’t believe domestic violence victims are only women or perpetrators are only men.
“Anyone can be a victim,” she said.
Although Amber stopped formal school after the 10th grade, she is very interested in pursuing higher education. She also hopes to start a Web site to bring awareness to victims of child abuse.
‘Shine at the end’
Amber has reconnected with her California family, who have been thrilled to see her after a decade apart, but she doesn’t mind at all that her probation conditions specify she is to remain in Maine. She has marveled at how the Belfast community has treated her and her daughter: not as pariahs, but as two people who survived a very hard time and deserve another chance. She credits the community and her family with giving them “a chance at a normal life.”
“Belfast kind of adopted us and became our surrogate family,” she said. “I’m thankful I ended up [here]. It was a strange twist of fate, but was probably one of the best things that happened to me and my daughter.”
She has found part-time work at some local businesses, including The Fertile Mind Bookshop, where owners Bruce and LaRue Hayne still have a “Free Amber” sticker on the front counter.
“I think there’s a diversity to our community,” Bruce Hayne said. “People tend to accept other people.”
“We try to judge people by what we see in them. We take them at face value until we find out otherwise,” she said.
Paula Streubel, owner of Northport Redemption, first met Amber Cummings at Belfast Variety a month or two after the shooting.
“She looked scared, but she didn’t look like a girl who could do anything wrong. She had an innocent look to her,” Streubel said. “I went up to her and said, ‘Are you the girl who shot her husband?’”
Amber, nervous, said she was.
“Good for you,” Streubel told her. “Based on what I saw in the paper, hey — there were a lot of people at risk here.”
The two have become close friends: “She’s like a daughter,” Streubel said, adding that she has seen Amber Cummings come a long way in a year.
“She’s got a lot more to go,” Streubel said. “I think of her as a rock in the ocean, where the waves are coming back and forth, banging her and hitting her. All of a sudden a ray of sunshine comes and the rock just shines. She’s been through a rough time, but she’ll shine at the end.”