ANSON, Maine — More than three decades after a 20-year-old mother was found dead on a dirt road, former Deputy Attorney General Pasquale “Pat” Perrino still remembers the investigation and the hundreds of hours spent conducting interviews, though the details are becoming foggy.
The name Jay S. Mercier, the 55-year-old Industry man arrested on Wednesday morning and charged with murder in the 1980 killing of Rita St. Peter, rings a bell, Perrino said during a telephone interview Thursday.
“I vaguely remember this guy being a suspect at the time,” he said. “I do know we had somebody we were looking at, but we didn’t have a lot of evidence.”
The Mercier interview would have been one of hundreds police held with St. Peter’s family, friends, acquaintances and strangers in and around the town of Anson, Perrino said.
A report printed in the Bangor Daily News on Sept. 10, 1980, stated that police had a number of leads in the murder investigation and were expecting to make an arrest in a “short while.”
Thirty-one years later, police arrested Mercier at his home on 5 Butterfield Lane in Industry without incident. Industry, which borders Anson, is in Franklin County.
The indictment against Mercier states that he “did intentionally or knowingly cause the death of Rita St. Peter, or engaged in conduct that manifested a depraved indifference to the value of human life and which in fact caused the death of Rita St. Peter,” according to Assistant Attorney General Andrew Benson.
The last time anyone saw St. Peter alive was early the morning of July 5, 1980, as she was crossing the bridge from Madison into Anson after leaving a bar.
Perrino, now 67, said he still thought about the St. Peter murder from time to time, even before state police announced Mercier’s arrest on Wednesday.
“I do a lot of fishing up in Madison on the Kennebec [River],” Perrino said. “I often think about that unsolved murder because I drive by the bar where she was taken and by the bridge where she was last seen.”
Perrino, who still works as a defense attorney in Augusta, said he’s glad to see an arrest made in the cold case.
“I hope this brings some kind of closure to the victim’s family,” he said.
Officials still won’t release the state medical examiner’s report on how St. Peter died, though articles in the BDN after the death stated that she was badly beaten and had a fractured skull.
Perrino said the medical examiner’s report was withheld throughout the investigation in the 1980s because police didn’t want the public to know details of the crime. He said they were worried people might falsely confess to committing the murder.
Persistent re-examination of forensic evidence surrounding St. Peter’s death led to Mercier’s arrest, according to Maine State Police spokesman Stephen McCausland. He wouldn’t say what tools, tests or examination procedures were used to make the break in the case.
Perrino said he believes investigators’ careful gathering and preservation of evidence made it possible for the case to be solved years later through forensic testing.
McCausland said that more cold cases could be solved in the near future, though he wouldn’t say what those cases were or how they would be cracked.
Mercier has several past convictions, according to Somerset County District Attorney Evert Fowle. A story in Thursday’s Bangor Daily News incorrectly reported that the murder suspect had no criminal history in Maine.
Mercier was convicted on two assault charges in 2003. He also had two drunken-driving convictions and other traffic violations around the same time, according to Fowle.
In 2008, Mercier was convicted of negotiating a worthless instrument. By 2010, he had paid restitution and his probation under that charge ended.
Mercier’s initial court appearance is set for 1 p.m. Friday in Skowhegan District Court.
His arraignment is scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 3, but likely will be pushed back to Thursday or Friday of next week because the courts aren’t sure who Mercier’s attorney will be, according to Benson.
Skowhegan lawyer John Alsop has been named Mercier’s attorney for now, but that could change before the arraignment, Benson said.
Alsop did not return a phone message by Thursday afternoon.
Superior Court Justice John Nivison has been assigned to the case, according to a court employee.