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BANGOR, Maine — Police worked well into the night Monday as they sought to identify three people found dead hours earlier inside a badly burned car in the back parking lot of a local business.
“It takes time,” Bangor Police Chief Ron Gastia said as he was leaving the grisly scene Monday afternoon. “We’re still working it.”
He said “it’s been a long time” since his department has had to deal with three bodies.
“Anytime we get something like this it’s a tragedy and it takes some time to put things together,” he said. “It has to take time in order to be thorough in what we do.”
Gastia added that even after the victims are identified, detectives will “verify and reverify” the names before they are released.
Bangor is one of the safest cities of its size, Gastia said, crediting the community, the City Council and his officers for their work.
“We’re going to solve this,” he vowed.
Police identified the year and make of the car — a white 2001 Pontiac sedan with Rhode Island plates — on Monday night.
Bangor resident Shannon Lee arrived at the scene just before 7 p.m. after speaking with detectives about the father of her daughter. She said she thinks he was in the destroyed car.
“I couldn’t get ahold of him all night and his girlfriend called at like 5:30 a.m.” looking for him, she said. “Someone saw him get into a white Pontiac with Rhode Island plates at a party last night” with another female friend, who is 25 and from Bangor.
The father of her child is 26 and from Levant. She said police have asked that she bring her 7-year-old daughter to the police station on Tuesday so they can get a DNA sample.
“I’ll bring her down for a mouth swab and we’ll see,” Lee said. “I know in my heart that it is him.”
She added that “no one has heard from [the 25-year-old woman].”
The car fire took place early Monday morning in the back parking lot of Automatic Distributors, a parts and equipment wholesaler for motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles and other outdoor activities, at 22 Target Industrial Circle, located off Outer Hammond Street.
Bangor police Sgt. Paul Edwards asked for the public’s help in piecing together clues regarding the car’s whereabouts before the fire.
“We’re now asking if anyone has seen this car, perhaps last night or anytime, in their city to please give us a call,” he said. “If you know anyone or have seen anybody driving a white 2001 four-door Pontiac with Rhode Island plates, please call.”
No detail is too small to report, the sergeant said. The Rhode Island license plate on the car had the registration number 583-399. Rhode Island State Police said Monday that they do not release vehicle registration information to the public.
Even though the car is registered in the Ocean State, “I’m not saying it’s from Rhode Island,” Edwards said.
Police also spent time Monday reviewing video surveillance images taken by area businesses at the time of the fire.
A person is visible on surveillance images taken from Automatic Distributors, employee Gary Shaw said Monday morning.
“They did see one person running away,” he said as the Bangor Police Department’s three mobile crime units moved into the business’s parking lot.
While Edwards said he could not say what was on the video, he did confirm that detectives took a copy and, if needed, would release images later in the investigation.
“If this case boils down to looking for a certain person and there is video of a certain person that we think might be related, we’ll do that,” the sergeant said. “But until that time, there will be [no video images released].”
Even though the car has out-of-state plates, Edwards said, investigators believe there may be a local connection.
“No arrests have been made in this case, as of yet,” he said, standing just in front of the yellow police line.
Shaw said he saw the store’s video images and said the woman who first reported the fire also is pictured.
“We saw her pull in and pull back,” the Automatic Distributors employee said.
Radio announcer Kat Walls said she dialed 911 shortly after 3:30 a.m. after she saw the flames while on her way to work. She kept her distance because of loud crackling.
“It was fully engulfed when I saw it. There was lots of popping and small booms,” Walls said. “It was hard to tell it was a car at times because it was so engulfed.”
“Bangor firefighters arrived and extinguished the car and soon thereafter found three people inside,” Edwards said.
Bangor police were called to the scene about 3:55 a.m., after firefighters made their grisly discovery.
The blaze was hot enough to burst the car’s windows and pop its tires, leaving the charred shell of the Pontiac with its hood up.
Walls said that it never occurred to her that people had died and that she learned about the bodies when a detective arrived during her morning show at 97.1 the Bear.
“It was horrifying — the idea that I sat there and waited for the Fire Department while people were burning inside. I’m struggling with it, actually. It feels horrible,” she said.
On Monday evening, police were still processing the vehicle and working to identify the victims.
“They’re going through it and sifting through debris,” Edwards said. “It’s very tedious.”
The process could take awhile, he said, adding that the identifications are “probably going to rely on DNA, [and] that’s very difficult.”
When asked if the vehicle’s listed owner was contacted, Edwards said no but added that police do not believe the registered owner was in the car.
By 1:30 p.m. Monday, all three victims had been removed from the car by the medical examiner and evidence technicians from the Bangor Police Department.
Earlier, police were seen removing the first charred body, which appeared to be that of a woman. The only detail Edwards would release about the victims is that they were not young children.
“It’s still undetermined — age, sex, name,” Edwards said Monday night. “The medical examiner will release that” once the autopsies are complete.
Whether those inside the vehicle were deceased before the fire is a question Edwards was unable to answer.
“I cannot say that,” he said. “The medical examiner will be able to do that.”
As of 5:30 p.m. Monday, there was no obvious evidence collected, such as spent shell casings, that would indicate a firearm was used, Edwards said, stressing evidence technicians would probably work well into the night.
“They’re still working the car,” Edwards said. “I have nothing as far as evidence inside the car.”
Portable lights delivered by the Bangor Fire Department to assist police in the processing of the vehicle arrived at 6:40 p.m.
When asked whether anybody was in the front seat of the burned-out car, Edwards said he could not say. But when the first body was removed, an evidence technician could be seen attending to the body from the driver’s seat. The remains were removed from the passenger side.
The deaths are suspicious, the sergeant said, but the state medical examiner’s office “will determine later today or tomorrow whether it’s a homicide.”
The bodies were taken Monday afternoon to the state medical examiner’s office in Augusta, Edwards said.
Earlier, another employee of Automatic Distributors described the scene, which was visible from the business’s side windows, in two words. “It’s horrible,” he said, asking that his name not be used.
Stratham Tire manager Jeff Gordon said he was called in to work by police, who wanted to look at the business’s video surveillance images.
“You just see the lights [from vehicles] going in, two or three sets, and then the blaze,” Gordon said.
The types of vehicles and the license plates are not distinguishable in the images taken from across the street, he said.
“They were going past and one went in and another went in and then you see the blaze,” Gordon said. “The next thing you see is the Fire Department arriving.”
The business’s cameras run 24 hours a day, he said.
Edwards said that one of the license plates on the car in which the bodies were found “burned off and fell on the ground.”
The front bumper of the car was essentially undamaged, but the rest of the car was destroyed by flames.
Maine State Police Trooper Josh D’Angelo and his dog, K-9 Junior, were on the scene Monday morning scouring the area for clues. Five officers and detectives could be seen around 7:30 a.m. taking pictures of the burned car, with the bodies still inside.
Dr. Ed David of the state medical examiner’s office arrived about 7:40 a.m. and reviewed the scene along with Bangor police detectives and evidence technicians and fire investigators from the state fire marshal’s office.
While the medical examiner works on the victims, detectives with Bangor’s Criminal Investigation Division are working the streets, Edwards said Monday afternoon.
“They’re out on the road following up on leads,” he said. “There is plenty of things to do.”
Two minivans from Kiley & Foley Funeral Service arrived just before 2 p.m. to remove the three bodies.
Three Maine Department of Environmental Protection officials arrived at 10:30 a.m. to put up a tent, one driver said, for evidence protection.
Assistant Maine Attorney General Andrew Benson arrived, reviewed the scene and then left about 12:30 p.m.
Several people, including Brewer resident Bill Wiggin, stopped by the scene to see what was happening behind the yellow police line.
“This is truly a tragic situation,” he said, adding that he read the Bangor Daily News’ online story and was drawn to the scene.
Police said they want to talk to anyone who was in the area between 3 and 3:30 a.m.
The Police Department’s Criminal Investigations Division and the state fire marshal’s office are investigating.
BDN photographer Gabor Degre and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
An early version of this story requires correction. The car was found at Automatic Distributors, not Automotive Distributors.