SKOWHEGAN, Maine — In the summer of 1980, Maine game wardens often rode along with Maine State Police troopers in their cruisers to save on gas because the price had skyrocketed to more than $1 a gallon.
That’s why former Game Warden James Ross was with Trooper Barry DeLong, now sheriff of Somerset County, on July 5, 1980, and why he went with DeLong to the scene of what would turn out to be one of the longest unsolved homicides in the state’s history.
Ross, who now works as an investigator for the Somerset County District Attorney’s Office, also was with DeLong the first time Jay S. Mercier, now 57, of Industry was interviewed on the day after the partially clad, bloody body of Anson native Rita St. Peter was found on a trail off Campground Road in Anson.
Mercier is charged with bludgeoning the 20-year-old woman in the head, then running over her with his truck. The prosecution also has said Mercier had sex with St. Peter before she died.
Ross testified Thursday morning, the first day of Mercier’s murder trial in the 32-year-old case. He said he rode along with DeLong, who had been instructed by his superior to interview Mercier.
“We pulled in at the address we’d been given and saw a man washing a red pickup truck with a hose,” Ross testified. “That concerned us. We were afraid he might be washing away evidence.”
The three men went into the house at the trooper’s request and sat down to talk. DeLong asked the questions, Ross said.
Mercier denied knowing and killing St. Peter but agreed to let the investigators take his truck to examine it, the former game warden testified.
“He [Mercier] made a comment to the effect of: ‘I’m not saying I did it, but if I did do it, what would happen to me?’”
Ross said another detective came into the room at that moment and the questioning of Mercier stopped.
“The next thing I remember, we were at the garage in Madison examining the truck,” he testified.
Testimony on Thursday afternoon focused on the tires on Mercier’s truck and the tire tracks found at the scene. Former Maine State Police Detective A.J. Carter of Vassalboro testified that he went to the scene about 1:30 p.m. July 5, 1980, a few hours after St. Peter’s body was found.
Carter, who retired in 1996, testified that he parked on the road and walked down the trail toward the body when he arrived at the scene. The distinctive tire marks through a mud puddle immediately caught his eye.
In those days, detectives did not carry department-issued cameras in their cruisers. Carter, however, happened to have his family’s Polaroid camera in his car. He told jurors that he grabbed it and snapped a couple of pictures of the tracks.
The next day, after Mercier was identified as a suspect and he agreed to let investigators examine his truck, Carter said he compared the photograph to the tires on the 56-day-old 1980 GMC pickup.
“The tread appeared to be similar to me,” the retired detective said Thursday.
He also made ink prints on large pieces of paper of all four tires. Carter identified the papers, which bore the time date July 6, 1980, and his initials. The retired detective testified that he turned the papers with the tire prints in as evidence in the case but not the Polaroid picture.
He kept the photo and burned it about seven years ago along with a briefcase full of other documents and notes from his days as a detective.
Mercier’s attorneys have objected to the introduction of the tire prints as evidence because at some point the chain of custody was broken and the state police lost track of them, defense attorney John Alsop said Thursday outside the courthouse after the jury had left for the day.
During his cross-examination of Carter, Alsop pointed out the paper one of the prints was on looked like it had been balled up, then smoothed out again. Carter agreed that it looked that way, but said the paper did not look like that when he made the prints 32 years ago.
Superior Court Justice John Nivison has reserved ruling on whether jurors may consider the tire prints until later in the trial, Alsop said.
Mercier, dressed in a light blue dress shirt, red tie, blue blazer and gray slacks, sat silently at the defense table for much of the day. He was attentive to the proceedings but did not take notes or consult frequently with his defense team, Alsop and John Martin, both of Skowhegan.
The man who discovered St. Peter’s partially clad body 32 years ago while exercising his family’s horses told jurors Thursday morning that he was “scared to death” by what he saw.
So were the horses, said Timothy Dyke, 50, of Anson, the second witness called to the stand after opening statements.
Dyke — the son of the late “Shorty” Dyke, who was known for his horse-pulling shows at fairs around the state — was just 18 when he found the woman’s body on the morning of July 5, 1980. He was taking a team of horses pulling a heavy “sled” from his family’s farm on the Campground Road in Anson to a field to exercise them, Dyke told jurors. To get to the field, he and the horses walked down paths at the edge of the field from the farm.
“All of a sudden they stopped, so I stopped,” Dyke testified. “I could see they were nervous but I asked them to go again and they wouldn’t move.
“They spread apart a bit and I looked in between them,” he continued. “I could see something in the trail but I thought it was a tree limb. They spread apart again and I got a good view. I could see it was a body.”
Dyke said he steered the horses around the body, then followed the path worn into the field by vehicles and farm equipment out to the main road.
“We headed out, took a left and ran all the way back [home], and I mean literally,” he said.
When Dyke returned home, family members called police. Dyke led a Maine State Police trooper, now deceased, to the body.
Ross and DeLong, who also is on the state’s witness list, went to the trail as well. Ross described seeing a young woman lying on her back, her head on the edge of the trail, her legs out into it, blocking the roadway. He said her long-sleeved shirt was open and one side of her bra was up, exposing a breast. Her bluejeans and panties were pulled down and her pubic area was exposed. Her head was in a pool of blood, Ross testified.
Assistant Attorney General Andrew Benson showed the jury close-up photos of St. Peter’s body shortly before the lunch break. It looked as Ross had described it, but she also had a bloody red mark that appeared to be patterned, as a tire tread might be, across her cheek.
St. Peter’s family members, who were in the courtroom, appeared upset as the color photographs were projected onto a large screen near the jury box.
In his opening argument, Benson told jurors that modern forensics had helped solve what had been classified a “cold case.” He said that DNA from a cigarette smoked by Mercier during a police interview about two years ago matched DNA found on St. Peter’s body. He also said the tire tracks photographed at the scene matched those on Mercier’s truck.
Benson told jurors that the evidence would be “like pieces to a puzzle.”
“You may not get all the pieces, but you will get enough to convict Mr. Mercier of murder,” he said.
Martin said all the state could prove was that Mercier slept with St. Peter, not that he killed her.
“We may never know what happened to Rita St. Peter,” the defense attorney said in his opening statement. “That’s awful. That’s sad.”
He cautioned jurors that they would have to have “all the pieces to the puzzle” before they could find Mercier guilty.
A jury of five men and nine women, including two alternates, will decide Mercier’s guilt or innocence. Testimony is scheduled to resume at 8:15 a.m. Friday. The trial is scheduled to end late next week.