The strange, sad life and death of Michael Chasse

Posted Nov. 06, 2011, at 4:33 p.m.

The BDN newsroom went from businesslike to agitated when a reporter called out Michael Chasse’s name on Thursday afternoon. It was as if the Brady Gang had returned to Bangor. Instead, the news was that Chasse, who was serving a 40-year prison sentence in New Jersey, had been found dead in his cell.

The Michael Chasse story reads like a script for a 1950s crime movie.

He first entered the BDN’s pages in 1997 after a bizarre burglary at the Brewer home of Robert Cohen, brother of then-Secretary of Defense William Cohen. Police reported that Chasse, armed with a knife, forced his way into Mr. Cohen’s house, cutting him in the struggle. Mr. Cohen shot Chasse twice in what was later ruled justified self-defense. Chasse was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

But before being committed to prison, Chasse escaped as officers escorted him outside the Piscataquis County Superior Court. He had launched a concealed cache of laundry soap into the eyes of the officers, and ran off into the countryside. The incident was captured by TV cameras, and replayed countless times.

After stabbing two law enforcement officers, commandeering a pickup truck and briefly taking a woman hostage at knife point, Chasse fled across Sebec Lake in a canoe, but was finally captured. The escape added 14 more years to his sentence.

Three years ago at the Maine State Prison in Warren, he took a prisoner and a prison staffer hostage. The conviction on charges relating to that incident added 40 years to his sentence.

In essence, Chasse parlayed a 12-year sentence at age 23 into a life behind bars. He died at 37.

While law-and-order hard-liners are likely to offer little sympathy for Chasse, those who interacted with him came away impressed with his superior intelligence. While arguing a motion on his own behalf in court, a Superior Court justice complimented Chasse on his command of the statutes, precedent and legal process, even as he ruled against him.

It would be trite and irresponsible to conclude that society failed Michael Chasse. Ultimately, he failed himself. But without casting unfounded aspersions on his family, the question looms: What happened? Whether it was mental health problems, environmental factors or a simple choice to flout society’s rules, Chasse’s downward spiral to a sad, lonely end in a New Jersey prison cell must be seen as a tragedy.