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When it was reported Tuesday that Maine State Police arrested a man last week who is suspected of committing more than 1,000 burglaries, slipping into camps at night to steal supplies to support his existence as a hermit, many people had the same question:
Is it really possible that the “Hermit” burglar, 47-year-old Christopher Knight, survived in the Maine wilderness for more than a quarter of a century? Without a campfire? Without any human contact?
Jodie Mosher-Towle, newsletter writer and board member of the North Pond Association
Jodie Mosher-Towle grew up in Smithfield and has been talking with neighbors about the “North Pond Hermit” for the past 20 years. The legend grew as owners of camps and homes on the southern end of North Pond reported being burglarized repeatedly.
“It’s just weird how it’s always been that way — we’ve just always known about the hermit,” Mosher-Towle said.
She now lives year-round with her husband and children on the northern shore of North Pond and writes a newsletter for the North Pond Association, a group with the purpose “to support and conduct social, educational and stewardship efforts to benefit the natural environment of North Pond and Little Pond and for all users thereof.”
North Pond is surrounded by the towns of Rome, Mercer and Smithfield. And it is at Pine Tree Camps, located on the edge of the pond in Rome, that Knight was arrested last week while allegedly burglarizing the building.
“We have our annual meeting and dinner at the Pine Tree Camps every summer,” said Mosher-Towle, referring to the North Pond Association, which is made up largely of landowners around the pond. “And every single summer, someone raises their hand and asks what we know about ‘the hermit.’ And every year, the state troopers have a lead or they think they’ve spotted someone. Then we have a 20-30 minute conversation about someone we don’t even know exists.”
Mosher-Towle said that her home has never been broken into because she lives on the north end of the pond, but she has plenty of friends living on the south end of the pond who have reported multiple burglaries over the years.
“The M.O. — it was always batteries, the frozen meats, liquor, beer,” she said. “And he would never break anything. He was always careful to lock it if he could on the way out. It’s always under the cloak of darkness, too.”
People living in that area often speculated about who it could be, she said. And landowners nearly caught “the hermit,” but he always managed to escape. She even heard stories about him using a canoe to travel from camp to camp.
“He never broke a window,” she said. “He would [mess] with the window locks, and just slide the window open.”
Over the years, some landowners have replaced their windows with models that have sturdier locks, she said, and several purchased surveillance equipment in an effort to identify the mysterious burglar.
In 2012, several photos of Knight were captured on a surveillance camera in a private dwelling on the pond.
“It was scary for them, and you know, it was such an inconvenience,” she said. “Even when we would post those pictures everywhere, he was never out and about. He was elusive and really smart about staying incognito.”
In late 2009, someone made a Facebook page dedicated to the legend, www.facebook.com/northpond.hermit, which had 144 friends at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday. Mosher-Towle has posted comments on the page several times over the years.
When news broke of Knight’s arrest on Tuesday, Mosher-Towle was enjoying a stay at Maine Huts & Trails lodging. It wasn’t until she got home on Wednesday that she caught up on the news and realized that the decades-long mystery may very well be solved.
Harvey Chesley, facilities manager at Pine Tree Camp
Harvey Chesley, the facilities manager at Pine Tree Camp, had no doubt that a single thief had been victimizing the camp and countless others on North Pond for years.
When Knight was arrested, he was wearing a pair of shoes that had been taken from Chesley’s cabin at Pine Tree Camp. The shoes belonged to one of Chesley’s family members, he said.
Chesley said he and others had long thought that the person responsible for the frequent thefts lived in the woods.
“Where I was wrong was I thought he left in the winter,” Chesley said on Thursday. “I thought he went to a homeless shelter or somewhere else. I was wrong. He lived in the woods.”
Chesley said that last summer he had Knight’s photo on a game camera. So, too, did neighboring landowners to the east and west of the Pine Tree Camp property.
“[The photos] were kind of generic. They showed a big guy, middle-aged, with glasses,” Chesley said. “The wardens took the photos to the towns of Mercer, Smithfield, and Rome. They took [photos] to the stores, the post offices, the town offices. Nobody could identify him.”
Another odd twist: When the man was arrested, not only was he wearing familiar shoes, Chesley found out that Knight had attended Lawrence High School in Fairfield at the same time as he had.
“I was two years ahead of him in high school. My wife was two years behind him,” Chesley said. “I didn’t know him. I recognize the family name, but I didn’t know him.”
Chesley said Knight’s regular raids on Pine Tree Camp indicated that a single survivalist was at work.
“It was because of the M.O.,” he said. “He would take essentials. He would take batteries, books, reading materials, alcohol, foods, paper products. You could leave phones, money, your wallet and that wouldn’t go missing.”
Knight was finally apprehended after the Maine Warden Service and the U.S. Border Patrol utilized a remote camera and alarm system that was used to offer more protection at the camp’s new dining hall.
Chesley was on the scene soon after Knight was caught, and has been to the camp where Knight lived for 27 years.
“He was shy and answered questions in sort of a monotone,” Chesley said. “I asked him, ‘Why did you take things a little bit at a time?’ He answered, ‘All I could carry.’ Just monotone.”
When Chesley saw Knight after the arrest, he initially thought that he had guessed correctly.
“I said, ‘Gee, he’s wearing decent clothes, I was right: He’s just coming back for the summer,” Chesley said. “But no, he was just like a bear, coming out of his den at the end of the winter.”
Chesley went with law enforcement officers when they traveled to Knight’s campsite. Chesley has been advised not to disclose the location, but said it was about a 30-minute hike — perhaps two miles — to the west of Pine Tree Camp.
“He had tons and tons of propane cylinders, probably 40 or 50 of them,” Chesley said. “I don’t know if he rigged them up for heat, but he said he didn’t burn wood because a fire would attract people.”
Chesley said that last fall he received word from a local contractor who hunts in the Rome area. The contractor had some thrilling news.
“He said, ‘I think I found where the hermit lives,’” Chesley said.
Chesley accompanied the contractor to the site, but determined that an old structure on the site wasn’t the one he’d been hoping to find.
After walking to the actual site earlier this week, Chesley learned how close he’d been.
“We were literally within a football field diameter of the [actual] site,” Chesley said. “But it was hidden.”
Chesley said the site was also littered with discarded marine batteries and all-terrain batteries.
“He used them to power things,” Chesley said.
Chesley said that after the arrest, the warden advised Knight that he had victimized Chesley for years and that an apology might be in order.
“[Knight] said, ‘If you thought I was sincere, I’d apologize,’” Chesley said. “I told him, ‘I think you’re sincere.’ And then he says, ‘I’m truly sorry for all the harm I’ve caused.’ It was monotone, but it was sincere.”
Doug Rafferty, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife information and education director
Doug Rafferty, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s information and education director, said on Wednesday that game wardens have been dealing with reports of break-ins — perhaps as many as 1,000 — in the North Pond area in Rome, Maine for years.
Rafferty said that at first blush, the story of a hermit who had roamed the Maine woods for 27 years sounds far-fetched, but the DIF&W is confident that the tale is true.
Knight was caught last week when he set off surveillance equipment at the Pine Tree Camp, which he admitted breaking into more than 50 times in the past three decades.
“Rome isn’t exactly remote,” Rafferty said, describing the central Maine town in the middle of the Belgrade Lakes region. “It’s not like the North Maine Woods.”
And Rafferty admitted that it was hard to believe that a man living alone in the woods within 10 miles of Waterville could do so unnoticed for 27 years.
“Someone might have stumbled onto Knight’s compound at some point and thought, ‘Well, some guy’s got a camp up here for the summer,’” Rafferty said.
Among the factors that have led investigators to believe the story: When Knight was apprehended, he was wearing an important piece of evidence.
“When he was caught, he was wearing a pair of boots that had been stolen five years ago,” Rafferty said. “We knew the boots, and who they had been stolen from.”
Some high-tech cooperation between the U.S. Border Patrol and DIF&W wardens played a key role in the apprehension, Rafferty said.
Rafferty said the Border Patrol loaned Warden Sgt. Terry Hughes a camera that would alert him when it was triggered. Hughes set the camera up at Pine Tree Camp in Rome, which had reportedly been targeted several times by Knight.
“When the alarm went off, Terry Hughes lives just down the road, and he was there in like six minutes,” Rafferty said.
Michael Douglas, Adult Programs Director at Maine Primitive Skills School, Augusta
Knight likely began avoiding people soon after leaving civilization back in 1986, said Michael Douglas, adult programs director at Maine Primitive Skills School based in Augusta.
“I would say the first thing that happens, and we see this with people that get lost in the woods, is you start to hide from people that you see in the woods,” Douglas said. “That would be a pretty defining moment for him, when he started to flee and hide from people.”
Douglas says that this basic human instinct to flee from strangers typically begins after just a few days of solitude in the woods.
“The thoughts that run in people’s heads about being late for work and what to have for dinner and what’s on TV that night, those go away in about four days to two weeks of being in the wilderness,” Douglas said. “Then you develop a more intuitive and emotional communication in your head. You eat when you’re hungry, sleep when you’re tired, and you’re mindful of weather changes.”
It was reported that Knight never lit a fire for fear of being caught. In response to that, Douglas says that survival would have been possible without a fire, but only if Knight had a “really warm sleeping bag.”
“But he’d be living like an animal in a cocoon for most of his waking days [in the winter] or moving around constantly just to stay warm.”
Like many mammals in the Maine wilderness, it was reported that Knight usually made an effort to put on weight in the fall so he would have to eat less in the winter.
“To have the foresight to do that is pretty unique, but not unheard of,” Douglas said. “When you live in the out of doors for a while, you slow down and your awareness goes beyond what you need in the moment and it becomes seasonal — so that makes sense.”
Another aspect of Knight that might cause people to question whether he truly lived for nearly three decades in the wilderness is his appearance. He doesn’t fit the typical depiction of a hermit — shabby, dirty, with long hair and a beard. Upon being caught, Knight was clean shaven, with short hair, glasses and clean clothing.
Douglas speculates that perhaps Knight had problems early on with mites, fleas and ticks, and therefore decided to shave. He also imagines Knight may have put efforts into his personal hygiene as a sort of “dual camouflage,” so he could blend into a town environment while breaking into buildings and camps for supplies.
“If he had gone just totally native, where he would make his own debris hut and get fire off the landscape, it would have taken him a little longer and he would have been more uncomfortable at first, but he could still be out there if he had just stayed away from people’s camps,” Douglas said. “His taking the convenient way out is what did him in.”