ROCKLAND, Maine — One morning last July on the Matinicus Island wharf, an altercation between lobstermen Edwin Vance Bunker and Christopher Young led to Young being shot in the neck amid a gear and territory dispute so tense it caused the state to temporarily halt lobster fishing around the island.
On Monday, Bunker, 68, of Matinicus will face a jury of his peers in Knox County Superior Court as a trial expected to last three days begins. The jury will determine whether Bunker is guilty of elevated aggravated assault, criminal threatening and reckless conduct with a dangerous weapon, charges that stemmed from the events of July 20.
“The state will be putting on the witnesses that we hope can show the jury that the conduct was not justifiable,” said Knox County District Attorney Geoffrey Rushlau on Friday.
Philip Cohen, Bunker’s defense attorney, did not return a Bangor Daily News call Friday afternoon.
Court officials are taking extra security measures for the trial, although they declined to give details.
James Acheson, a University of Maine anthropology and marine sciences professor who wrote the book “The Lobster Gangs of Maine,” said many people would be paying close attention to the trial.
“Accurate information comes out in trials,” he said Friday morning, emphasizing the importance of witness statements in determining what actually happened out there. “In these cases, there is an awful lot of rumor, an awful lot of innuendo. You have to be very, very careful.”
According to Acheson, fishing territory disputes are common on the Maine coast, but what happened on Matinicus — an island 20 miles off the coast south of Rockland — is unusual in its severity.
“You don’t have a lot of cases where people are shooting each other,” he said. “Probably that particular island has been involved in more fracases than any other island.”
Last summer Bunker’s son-in-law, Alan Miller, decided to fish waters around Matinicus instead of his home waters off Tenants Harbor. Island fishermen are protective of their waters, and some apparently viewed Miller as an interloper. Bunker swore in an affidavit that 150 of Miller’s lobster traps were cut the first week he set them on the Matinicus bottom.
According to authorities and witness statements, the day of the shooting began with Young, 41, boarding Bunker’s boat and accusing him of cutting his gear. Bunker told Young to leave his boat, and when he failed to do so, Bunker sprayed him with pepper spray.
Young pleaded guilty in February to criminally trespassing on Bunker’s lobster boat that day.
Later on the morning of July 20, Bunker’s wife phoned to tell him that Young, Weston Ames and another fisherman were attempting to drive Miller’s boat onto the ledges, according to Bunker’s affidavit.
Marine Patrol Officer Wes Dean was in the area investigating the gear cutting. He said in his report that when he arrived on the dock he saw Janan Miller, Bunker’s daughter, with a shotgun in her hand. She was pointing it at Young, Dean reported.
Dean then heard two shots and saw Bunker with a .22-caliber revolver in his hand, according to the report. Dean immediately ordered him to drop the gun, then saw Young on the ground with a wound to his neck.
Although Young and Ames said in their affidavits that the Bunkers staged a coordinated attack, Bunker claimed that Ames and his daughter struggled over the shotgun and he shot because he feared for her life.
“I wasn’t going to let my daughter be shot,” Bunker told Knox County Sheriff’s Office Detective Donald Murray just after the shooting.
The wound left Young with limited use of his arms and “almost total paralysis of his hands,” according to court records. Bullet fragments remain embedded close to Young’s spine and cannot be removed because of the risk of further injury.
Young pulled his boat Miss Madelyn from the water last fall and put it up for sale. Janan Miller was arrested in September and charged with reckless conduct with a dangerous weapon.
Bunker has been free on $125,000 bail since the shooting, although he has been effectively banned from Matinicus. In October, Justice Jeffrey Hjelm refused to lift the ban but did allow him to return to the island to retrieve his lobster gear in the presence of Marine Patrol officers.
Cohen, Bunker’s defense attorney, said in October that his client had never received so much as a speeding ticket before the shooting and has an “impeccable character.”
Young was honored for bravery in 1993 by the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission of Pittsburgh for his role in saving the lives of two men on a sinking tugboat in the Atlantic Ocean on Jan. 16, 1992.
Acheson said he understands from his sources in the mainland fishing community that there may be blame on all sides of the complicated Matinicus situation, but he believes it still is well out of bounds of what is usually expected in lobster territorial disputes.
“I don’t think you shoot people here in the state of Maine, or destroy boats, and don’t get prosecuted,” he said. “This isn’t the wild, wild east, where you’re allowed to do these things.”