FRENCHBORO, Maine — More than 20 years after a town official stole money from this island community and then disappeared, he has been found.
What’s more, he has pleaded guilty to the theft and given back $5,250 to the town.
That amount of money is not insignificant, especially for a remote offshore island town with a year-round population of only 60 or so residents and an annual budget of about $140,000. About 50 people lived on Frenchboro in 1987 when then-treasurer Daniel Blaszczuk left with the town’s checkbook, never to return.
The case of the missing money and the man who took it had stuck with Ernest Fitch, a former detective with the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, and with his son, Erik Fitch, who now works as an emergency dispatcher for the county. Erik was 6 years old at the time, but he had memories of his father being interviewed about the case on national television in the months that followed the theft.
During a slow night at work earlier this year, the younger Fitch saw Blaszczuk’s name on a list of outstanding warrants and decided to search for his name on the Internet. To his surprise, he found a listing for Blaszczuk in a Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles database. Blaszczuk, now 66, had obtained a Connecticut driver’s license and was living in Stamford, he said.
Erik Fitch relayed the information to Steve McFarland, a detective in the Hancock County District Attorney’s Office, who in turn contacted police in Connecticut, who then went and interviewed Blaszczuk.
“‘Yeah, I took it,’” McFarland said Blaszczuk told him over the phone. “He wasn’t denying it. He said, ‘I’ll never tell you why I took the money.’”
No one answered the phone when a call was placed Monday afternoon to a Stamford number listed for a Daniel Blaszczuk. Attempts to contact Blaszczuk’s attorney in Maine, Bob Granger of Ellsworth, also were unsuccessful.
The $5,250 was part of more than $10,000 that was discovered missing from Frenchboro’s coffers during Blaszczuk’s time in office, according to Hancock County Deputy District Attorney Carletta “Dee” Bassano. Officials, however, could not determine whether he was responsible for all the missing money.
Among the things they knew was that Blaszczuk did not return to Frenchboro after traveling to Stamford to visit his mother over the holidays in December 1987. He was spotted on Jan. 26, 1988, at an Ellsworth motel and that same day took a taxi from Ellsworth to Bangor, bought a bus ticket and then vanished. Frenchboro officials became concerned about where their treasurer and checkbook had gone, Bassano said.
“And he didn’t come back, and he didn’t come back, and he didn’t come back,” she said. “It turned out he had cashed a $5,250 check while headed out of town.”
Blaszczuk never returned to Frenchboro and avoided official attention until police found his name in Connecticut DMV records.
Bassano said Blaszczuk agreed to repay the funds as part of a negotiated deal that was struck earlier this month. Originally he had been charged with a felony, but under the deal if he gave back the $5,250 in full right away, the charge would be reduced to a misdemeanor and he wouldn’t have to spend any time behind bars, she said.
Having repaid the funds, Blaszczuk gets to remain free and will not have to return to Maine, she said.
“He entered a guilty plea to class D theft,” Bassano said. “He [now] is a convicted thief.”
Rachel Bishop, Frenchboro’s current treasurer, said the town planned to put the money in a reserve account and then have voters decide later what to do with it.
Blaszczuk’s crime attracted widespread attention at the time with articles about the theft appearing in newspapers throughout Maine as well as the Boston Globe and New York Times. According to many of those reports, Blaszczuk lived in Stamford just before moving to the remote island in 1980.
While on Frenchboro, Blaszczuk played an active role in a community effort that also attracted national attention. Using donated land, the island’s year-round residents tried to boost their numbers by setting up a private corporation that would sell house lots for below-market prices to applicants from off island.
Attempts Monday to contact Frenchboro residents who held local office when Blaszczuk lived on the island were unsuccessful, but Ellsworth attorney Bronson Platner, who used to represent the town, said he remembered working with him. Platner said he had not heard that Blaszczuk had been found and repaid the money.
“He had done good work for the town,” Platner said. “He was a nice guy. I think everyone on Frenchboro thought so. That’s why it was such a shock when he and the money were gone.”
Since Blaszczuk’s disappearance, police had other encouraging leads but none of them ever panned out.
One intriguing lead, which drew national television attention, was the discovery of a dead man in Alaska who had Blaszczuk’s ID in his pocket, according to investigators. Police, who said they could not remember when the body was found, initially thought the dead man was Blaszczuk but later realized it was not. Since being tracked down, Blaszczuk has refused to talk to officials about how his ID turned up in a dead man’s pocket in Alaska, according to police.
Erik Fitch said that Hancock County has thousands of outstanding warrants, ranging from sexual assaults and burglaries to failures to appear in court, but few that date to the 1980s. The age of the case and his father’s involvement, piqued his interest in trying to help track Blaszczuk down, he said Monday.
“When you’re 6, it’s a big deal when your dad is on TV,” Erik Fitch said. “It’s one of the oldest cases that we have. I wondered, ‘Whatever did happen to this guy?’”
Fitch said that in the Internet age people on the run are more likely to leave traces of themselves than they were 20 years ago.
“He made the mistake of going to get an ID,” Fitch said. “You can’t run forever.”
Ernest Fitch said Monday that he still has a few more cases that have remained unsolved since his retirement in 1991.
“I’m going to give another name to Erik and see if he can find it,” the retired detective said.