SWAN’S ISLAND, Maine — In 2006, the last time Shaun G. Lemoine faced charges in federal court, several island residents and two selectmen urged the judge to keep him behind bars.
The judge obliged, citing Lemoine’s history on Swan’s Island of brazen burglaries, thefts, vandalism, threats, fishing offenses and retaliatory behavior that stretches back more than a decade. Lemoine later pleaded guilty to federal gun charges and served a year in federal prison at Fort Dix in New Jersey before he was released.
Lemoine, now 30, has gotten in trouble with the law again and is facing the prospect of going back to federal prison for up to two years on a probation violation. A commercial fisherman, Lemoine pleaded guilty in February in state court to stealing more than $2,000 worth of lobsters from a Swan’s Island lobster dealer and was sentenced to serve six months at Hancock County Jail.
How much additional time Lemoine deserves to spend in federal custody after he completes his latest theft sentence has become a hot issue for Swan’s Island residents.
Some have privately suggested that Lemoine shouldn’t even return to Swan’s Island, where about 350 people live year-round.
But Lemoine was born and raised on the island, where his parents and siblings still live and where he owns property and a trailer home. Many residents of the island, which is starkly defined by the three miles of ocean that separate it from the nearest port at Bass Harbor, have been struggling with how to balance the needs and frustrations of the isolated community with Lemoine’s right to be near his family and to pursue a living.
“It’s a very sensitive issue,” Dexter Lee, one of the selectmen who testified four years ago in federal court, said earlier this month. “He has family here. I know there are real concerns in the local fishing community.”
Lemoine is scheduled to make an initial appearance in U.S. District Court in Bangor at 1 p.m. Monday, May 24, on his federal probation revocation proceedings. He has yet to be appointed a defense attorney to represent him on his federal probation violation.
Notices urging fishermen with pertinent information to contact the probation office have been posted on the island.
During an interview at the county jail earlier this week, Lemoine said he expects to complete his theft sentence in mid-July and then to serve between six and 10 months on his federal probation revocation before he becomes a free man again.
Lemoine said he doesn’t think he’ll get out early enough to go fishing this fall. Because the theft was a criminal violation, rather than an infraction of fishing regulations, his most recent conviction is not expected to affect the status of his state lobster fishing license, state officials have said.
“I’m going to miss the fishing season, unfortunately,” he said.
Lemoine’s most recent state conviction stems from October 2008, when he stole six crates of lobster off a dealer’s float. At his sentencing this past February, Lemoine told Justice Kevin Cuddy that he was having financial problems and that his wife had been hospitalized with a sudden pregnancy complication a few days before the theft. He said he knew his problems were not an excuse for what he did.
“A desperate man will do what he has to for his family,” Lemoine told Cuddy.
The judge was told during the sentencing that, between court appearances, Lemoine helped a neighbor stack wood and gave crabmeat to an older couple who were short on food — evidence that Lemoine wanted to change his behavior.
But that description of Lemoine was met with disbelief by some Swan’s Island residents when they read about the proceeding later in a news report. More than one — none of whom wanted to be identified out of fear of reprisal — said they don’t believe Lemoine is remorseful. If Lemoine comes back to Swan’s Island, they worry he will continue his lawless ways, they said.
“It’s been such a relief,” one woman said about Lemoine’s latest stay in jail. “We’re all out here still reeling from his behavior.”
One fisherman said most island residents can get along with each other even if they don’t always do things strictly by the book. He said it’s another matter, however, to be on guard constantly for a neighbor’s habitual criminal activity.
“Especially one that has a thug mentality,” the fisherman said.
But Lemoine’s mother, resident Patricia Lemoine, said Wednesday that her son often is unfairly blamed by others, and has been since he was in grammar school. She said he has been getting in trouble with the law since he was 15 years old.
“I’ve seen a lot of crooks and liars out here,” Patricia Lemoine said. “The things Shaun has done is mild compared to other things that have happened.”
Lemoine — who has been taking care of her son’s three Rottweilers while he is in jail — said that in 2007, when her son wasn’t around, people tried to blame reports of lobster traps being vandalized on him.
“Some of them said, ‘Shaun did it,’ and he was in prison [when the vandalism occurred],” she said. “I’ve lived here my whole life and I’ve never seen anyone go through this.”
Robert Harris, an island resident who testified about Shaun Lemoine in federal court four years ago, said recently that he had mixed feelings about him. Lemoine deserves to spend more time in federal custody, he said, but not two years.
“What people talk about is, ‘How long should he be put away for?’” Harris said. “I think he should get more than a wrist slap.”
Lemoine is “charming,” “personable” and “a hard worker,” Harris said, and sometimes gets unfairly blamed for things. Still, he added, Lemoine has done things to reinforce his bad reputation.
“If you’re going to paint him as an angel, you’ve got the wrong color paint,” Harris said.
Fear of retaliation
Four years ago, Lemoine was charged in federal court with trying to obtain firearms while under indictment on state charges of burglary and theft. When Lemoine was being detained on the federal gun charges, a group of Swan’s Island residents asked their selectmen to testify in federal court. Two of the elected officials, Dexter Lee and Carroll Staples, did so, telling federal Judge John Woodcock that more than a dozen island residents feared Lemoine would retaliate against them for reporting his alleged crimes to authorities, according to federal court documents.
In an official detention order, Woodcock wrote that Lemoine has a history of criminal mischief and brazen acts of theft, including removing a television antenna from a neighbor’s house so he and his friends could improve their television reception. On another occasion, the judge wrote, Lemoine was convicted of slashing the tires on an elderly man’s vehicle because the man had gotten a haircut from Lemoine’s wife. Lemoine “had taken umbrage, not wanting this gentlemen to be around his wife and child,” according to Woodcock.
Lemoine also has been convicted of stealing a wood stove and accused — but not convicted — of helping to transport stolen tires to Mount Desert Island, Woodcock wrote. On other occasions, people who perhaps knew about Lemoine’s deeds had their houses shot at or their boat motors vandalized — apparently in retribution for or warning against talking to law enforcement officials, according to the judge.
Woodcock wrote in the 2006 order that “the danger to the community, however, is best summed up by Mr. Lemoine himself.” Lemoine, he indicated, had told an island police officer that “if anyone messed with him they ‘would end up with a bullet or an arrow in them.’”
Those words, Woodcock wrote, led him to conclude that Lemoine represented “a threat of bodily harm to those he perceives as interfering with him.” As a result, he ordered Lemoine held behind bars pending the outcome of the federal gun charges.
“His criminal history is recent, evidences a cavalier attitude toward compliance with basic rules of society, and demonstrates a tendency to exact retribution against those he perceives have wronged him,” the judge wrote.
In December 2006, after pleading guilty to those charges, Lemoine wrote an open letter to the town and sent it to the town’s selectmen. In it, he wrote that he had seen the error of his ways.
“I see how the town looks at me and I am truly ashamed,” Lemoine wrote in the letter.
“I have seen what I have to do to make myself a better person, father, husband, and most of all a man in this community. When I come home I will be a changed man.”
After serving his federal sentence and then living for a few months at a halfway house in Portland, Lemoine returned to Swan’s Island in early 2008.
Jerry Michaud, chief of Swan’s Island’s three-man police force, said recently that he has arrested Lemoine several times over the past 11 years he has been chief. He said island residents are justified in worrying about being targeted for retaliation if they speak out publicly against Lemoine.
“It’s happened in the past,” he said.
Michaud said he gets along with Lemoine, but acknowledged Lemoine has been a “thorn in the side” of a lot of people. Lemoine should be held accountable and required to spend more time behind bars, he said, but also should be allowed to lead his life and support his family after he is released.
Unfounded rumors on the island help to contribute to Lemoine’s reputation, according to the chief.
Sometimes people accuse Lemoine of doing something but are unwilling to file a formal complaint against him, he said.
“I spend as much time out here proving that it wasn’t him [who did something],” the chief said.
Dexter Lee, the selectman, said one reason alleged bad behavior on the island is difficult to address is because it is difficult for island residents to avoid each other. Everyone knows whose house is whose, he said, and people have to coexist to a certain degree.
Residents often are reluctant to report suspected crimes to police because of the relative lack of privacy on the island, even though the Police Department tries to keep formal complaints confidential, the selectman said.
“Most people feel anonymous is not really anonymous,” Lee said.
Officials with the federal probation office, citing the policy of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, recently declined to comment about Lemoine’s case.
Wearing jail-issued clothing, Lemoine admitted during an interview this week at Hancock County Jail that he has done bad things — mainly, he said, while he was under the influence of pills, marijuana or alcohol. He said he has slashed tires of people he did not like and has helped himself to things that were not his to take. He insisted, however, that he never fired a weapon at anyone’s house and never tampered with anyone’s fishing gear or boat if they did not tamper with his first.
“Your bad rep[utation] follows you,” Lemoine said. “It’s nothing I’m proud of.”
But keeping a formal list of what he has and has not done is almost beside the point, he said. His deeds certainly matter in court, but many people on Swan’s Island won’t change their convictions about him, he said.
“By me screwing up again, I let everyone down and now nobody believes me,” Lemoine said.
He said his wife and two young children have moved off island to Southwest Harbor. People angry with him have told her she should divorce him, he said, and his kids have been picked on.
“On a small island, that’s how it is,” Lemoine said. “[My wife] doesn’t want to live out there no more.”
Lemoine said he thinks the negativity about him on Swan’s Island could get in the way of his ability and desire to lead a new kind of life. He has quit drugs, he said, and plans to live with his wife and sons in Southwest Harbor when he gets out. He wants to stay out of trouble, he added, so he can earn a living and support his family.
By living on Mount Desert Island, he can still fish off Swan’s Island but he can avoid the suspicion and scrutiny he would get if he didn’t move away, he said.
“They don’t tear you apart like a real small island will,” Lemoine said of living in a larger mainland town. “On an island, everyone knows too much about everyone.”
Lemoine said that for the sake of his family, and especially his two young sons, he wants to get away from his past, even if it means moving away.
“I hate to leave Swan’s Island. I was born there. It’s my home,” he said. “[But] it’s about my wife and kids. I don’t want them to feel the way they’ve been feeling. I want to start over.”
According to Police Chief Michaud, whether or not Lemoine returns to the island, the biggest factor in Lemoine’s future is whether he can avoid getting in trouble and avoid arousing people’s suspicions.
“It’s a tough situation,” Michaud said. “I hope he gets his act together. He could be a productive individual.”