VINALHAVEN, Maine — A young woman from Maryland who ventured to a Maine island in the 1970s to find herself but later was found dead on a Vinalhaven beach is the subject of a new movie by a Rockland filmmaker.
How 19-year-old Bella Baldwin died has never been entirely clear. Because of the mystery, her story would make the perfect film, Rick Winslow thought. Winslow began filming “The Girl with the Red Purse” earlier this month and hopes to release the crime-drama locally next year.
“She wanted to see waves crash on the beach and think about what she’d do with the rest of her life. She went to one of the islands and days later she was found dead on a beach. So what happened? That’s the interesting part,” Winslow said.
An autopsy report listed the probable cause of her death as drowning. The medical examiner put a question mark in the box labeled “suicide” and then circled the question mark.
“Did she drown? Was it suicide? Was it murder? We are going to throw it all out there and let the public decide,” Winslow said.
Baldwin’s death was questionable enough for the Knox County Sheriff’s Office to reopen the investigation in 2009. Sheriff Donna Dennison said Thursday that the investigation is finished and once the final report is typed up, she will deem the case closed.
The sheriff plans to find that there was no foul play. The final report should be issued soon, she said.
“There are a lot of rumors a certain person did it, but we gave this guy a polygraph and he wasn’t involved. It’s just a lot of rumors. I find nothing there,” Dennison said. “It makes a good story, though. I can see why they’re making a movie.”
The facts leading up to Baldwin’s death are pretty cut and dried: The 19-year-old got on a bus from Maryland to Maine. She checked in at the then-new Navigator Hotel in Rockland and from there took the ferry out to Vinalhaven. She checked in to another motel, this time under a false name.
When Baldwin’s body was found, all her belongings were gone from her motel room and police never found a red purse she was seen carrying during her island walks — the purse that led islanders to start calling her “the girl with the red purse.”
The story of the girl with the red purse has been rolling around in Winslow’s head over the past few decades. Winslow was 12 and living on North Haven when Baldwin died. His wife, who wrote most of the movie script, lived on Vinalhaven, so they both grew up with the story.
With a few minor film stints under his belt, Winslow, 52, of Rockland, decided to make time between his shifts at Staples to write and produce the film. He got local actors to help him and began filming this month.
Because Baldwin died in autumn, Winslow anticipates filming through winter.
Like any independent filmmaker, money has been a problem. Winslow needs cash for props, actors and sets. But with the $5,000 he had to get started, he has the camera equipment he needs and already has filmed several scenes, some of which he has posted on the film’s Facebook page.
Winslow started digging through old public records to research what happened to Baldwin and became infuriated. He said the documents seem to contradict each other and fail to paint a clear picture of Baldwin’s death.
“Someone dropped the ball,” Winslow said.
Winslow said he got permission from Baldwin’s family to make “The Girl with the Red Purse.”
“I want to make this film so that we can put this in everyone’s face. Here it is. Here is what happened,” he said. “You’ll be interested to see how the film really ends. It’s a travesty. This 19-year-old girl who didn’t have anybody out to get her. Here she ends up dead on a beach on an island on the coast of Maine — why?”
BDN writer Abigail Curtis contributed to this report.