Investigation continues into death of Whiting Store owner

Posted Feb. 15, 2011, at 11:57 a.m.
Last modified Feb. 15, 2011, at 10:08 p.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — Police confirmed Tuesday that the death last month of Judy Stevens, 55, owner of the Whiting Store, remains under investigation and that two autopsies have been conducted on her body. But they also stressed that the investigation has initially determined Stevens died of an accidental fall and that foul play is not suspected.

Stevens’ body was found Friday morning, Jan. 28, at the base of an outside stairwell that led from the parking area of the store to her residence on the second floor. The fall was determined to be an accident.

Lt. Gary Wright of the Maine State Police Criminal Division said that even though the investigation continues, “there is nothing at this point to indicate anything suspicious in nature.”

Police said an independent pathologist hired by Stevens’ family to conduct an autopsy had an opinion that Stevens suffered blunt-force trauma to the head, which is consistent with both a fall or a blow. His report caused a referral to the state medical examiner. The medical examiner’s autopsy has been conducted, and Wright said he is waiting for toxicology results that could take six weeks or longer.

Sheriff Donnie Smith confirmed Tuesday that his office has been inundated with calls and e-mails questioning the investigation. He said he has “full confidence in the investigation that the Maine State Police are conducting.” He said six investigators — three from the state police and three from his office — were at the scene when Stevens’ body was discovered, and all came to the same conclusion — that it was an accident.

According to Smith, Stevens left moneybags on the store counter Thursday night, closed up her store and, carrying an armload of items, walked around the building to the exterior stairwell at the rear. The stairwell has a small set of stairs that lead to a landing and a second set of much steeper stairs.

Smith said Stevens apparently fell over the railing when she attempted to step on the first stair off the landing.

“The stairs were snow-covered and slippery, and she was wearing Crocs,” Smith said. “We believe she was going upstairs, not downstairs, because of the items she was carrying.”

Smith said that in that section of stairway, the railing is very low and as she lost her balance she would have hit the railing just below her knee, tipping her over the side of the landing.

Stevens fell off the stairs onto hard-packed snow and ice below, a distance of about six feet, and suffered massive head trauma. It is estimated that she fell at about 9 p.m.

At about 10:30 p.m., an alarm went off at the store and two Maine state troopers responded. They did not find any entry into the store and did not see Stevens’ body, which was obscured by the stairway and darkness, Smith said.

Stevens’ 17-year-old son also did not see the body when he returned home shortly after 10:30 p.m. and used the same stairway to the apartment, Smith said. The teenager told police he thought his mother already had turned in for the night and did not check her bedroom. Smith said Stevens’ ex-husband also was interviewed extensively, and he was at work at the time of the fall.

“This is a very tragic accident,” Smith said, acknowledging that it is hard for people to believe that one can die from a simple fall off a set of stairs. “This investigation may not be over, but we are quite sure that this was an accident.”

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