BANGOR, Maine — A man convicted 52 years ago of strangling his pregnant wife and setting their house on fire is seeking to have the federal courts order his release.
But a federal magistrate has recommended his request be denied.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Margaret Kravchuk said in a Feb. 23 recommendation that Gaylon Wardwell’s claim should be denied because he did not exhaust possible remedies within the state court system. She also noted he missed the deadline for filing a response.
Wardwell argued in a letter filed April 24 with U.S. District Court in Bangor that he is awaiting the appointment of a lawyer to help him with his possible appeal to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals. Wardwell claims his parole terminated more than a decade ago and that he should no longer be held in prison.
Wardwell was convicted in 1960 of murder for strangling his pregnant wife Anita Wardwell and then setting fire to their home in Woodland. News reports initially called Wardwell a hero for rescuing two of his children and attempting to go back in the house to save his wife during the March 1960 fire. He later confessed to investigators that he had strangled his 24-year-old wife during an argument, then doused her body with kerosene and set her on fire. The couple’s 15-month-old son Joseph also died in the fire.
Gaylon Wardwell, who was 25 years old when the crime occurred, was sentenced to life in prison. Maine had a parole system at the time in which convicted criminals could go before parole boards to seek release.
Wardwell was released from prison in April 1973 with the condition that he refrain from new criminal conduct. He also was barred from returning to Aroostook County.
In November 2000, Wardwell was convicted of unlawful sexual contact involving a 7-year-old girl in Mechanic Falls. The parole board ordered him back in prison for at least five years after a hearing in November 2001, and denied his release in 2006. He was scheduled for another parole hearing in November 2011 when he filed his federal lawsuit. A new parole hearing is scheduled for May 17, according to Maine Department of Corrections Public Affairs coordinator Judy Plummer.
Wardwell claims in his federal lawsuit that his life sentence was terminated when he was released on parole in 1973, and therefore he has been held illegally and the parole board has no further authority over his case. The state disagreed with that argument, as did Magistrate Kravchuk.
The Maine Legislature and governor eliminated parole in 1976, but people convicted under that system remain under its jurisdiction.