Sex, murder, mystery: A decades-old whodunit in western Maine still stirs debate

Posted Oct. 14, 2013, at 6:35 a.m.
Last modified Oct. 14, 2013, at 6:01 p.m.
A newspaper clipping of Paul Dwyer in a South Paris jail cell.
photo courtesy of the Paris Hill Historical Society
A newspaper clipping of Paul Dwyer in a South Paris jail cell.
Dr. James Littlefield
photo courtesy of the Paris Hill Historical Society
Dr. James Littlefield
Newspaper clipping of Lydia Littlefield next to a picture of her body in the car.
photo courtesy of the Paris Hill Historical Society
Newspaper clipping of Lydia Littlefield next to a picture of her body in the car.
Dr. James Littlefield's doctor's bag with the trial evidence tag. The bag was found in the trunk of the car near Littlefield's body.
Daryn Slover/Sun Journal
Dr. James Littlefield's doctor's bag with the trial evidence tag. The bag was found in the trunk of the car near Littlefield's body.
Dr. James Littlefield's leather box of medical compounds.
Daryn Slover/Sun Journal
Dr. James Littlefield's leather box of medical compounds.
Clippings from a scrapbook kept by then-Judge Albert J. Beliveau Sr. The Sept. 20, 1950, headline from the Lewiston Evening Journal reads, &quotBeliveau frees Carroll." It was big news when Beliveau released accused murderer Francis Carroll from prison on a writ of habeas corpus. Carroll had been convicted of killing Dr. James Littlefield on Paris Hill.
photo courtesy of the Paris Hill Historical Society
Clippings from a scrapbook kept by then-Judge Albert J. Beliveau Sr. The Sept. 20, 1950, headline from the Lewiston Evening Journal reads, "Beliveau frees Carroll." It was big news when Beliveau released accused murderer Francis Carroll from prison on a writ of habeas corpus. Carroll had been convicted of killing Dr. James Littlefield on Paris Hill.

Seventy-six years ago, after the sun set once again on the reds, yellows and oranges of the western Maine foothills, Dr. James Littlefield drove to a home on tony Paris Hill for what should have been a typical house call.

Instead, in a second-floor bathroom, Littlefield was struck on the head with a hammer so hard that his false teeth landed under the bathtub. He was strangled, wrapped in a blanket and carted off.

For three days, no one knew he was dead.

By then, his wife, Lydia Littlefield, was dead too, strangled with a belt after being driven around in a car for two days, unaware of her husband’s body in the trunk.

Headlines called it the crime of the century.

The doctor’s grisly murder quickly sent two people to the Maine State Prison at the same time, for the same crime, when only one of them could have been the killer.

The primary witness against the second man who was convicted? The first man convicted, the person who had already confessed.

Reporters swarmed the South Paris courthouse from across the country, drawn to the mystery and intrigue of the murders and the accused.

On the face of it, the physical evidence fit the doctor’s chauffeur, Paul Dwyer, a 17-year-old high school dropout who had never been in trouble; a good, quiet kid with no obvious reason to kill anyone.

But the motive fit gruff World War I veteran Francis Carroll, a 43-year-old Oxford County deputy sheriff accused by his daughter of incest — never proven, but that didn’t matter. The accusation created a reason: The doctor recently found out about the incest and was going to out him; Carroll had to act.

“I just heard people talking about it for years and years,” said retired Maine State Police Trooper Percy Turner, who patrolled western Maine for almost three decades.

Turner’s grandfather worked with Carroll as a deputy sheriff. His aunt went to school with young Dwyer. For years, on his private time, Turner amassed old reports and crime-scene photos, and made the case a personal whodunit.

He has theories.

‘You’re a murderer!’

On Oct. 13, 1937, sometime after 7 p.m., Dr. Littlefield, 64, arrived at Dwyer’s white, two-story colonial home. The teen’s mother, Jessie Dwyer, a nurse, was working at the Hebron Sanatorium that night, according to a 1952 report by the Attorney General’s Office, so Dwyer had the house to himself.

Dwyer would later tell police the doctor had come by to examine him for a suspected venereal disease and had made a wisecrack about the company he kept.

Dwyer would later also tell police that Littlefield died in a robbery gone wrong.

He would later tell police a lot of things.

“In all, Dwyer gave seven different versions of what happened,” Turner said.

State police, using then-new forensic techniques, would find only the doctor’s and Dwyer’s footprints in the bloody bathroom. They discovered blood stains in the stairwell at shoulder height, consistent with a body slung over a shoulder and walked down in a fireman’s carry, Turner said.

With Littlefield’s body secured in the trunk of his own car, Dwyer drove to the Littlefield’s home in Market Square in South Paris and spun a tale for 63-year-old Lydia Littlefield: Her husband had hit two people, left them on the side of the road and fled on a train to Boston. The doctor had asked Dwyer to pick up his wife and meet him in Boston.

She grabbed her purse and got in the car.

Though it was never revealed in media reports at the time, the AG’s report claimed that Dr. Littlefield was “seriously addicted” to morphine, and noted that could explain his wife falling for such a wild tale.

Over the next two days, they drove to Boston, to New Hampshire, back to Boston, back to New Hampshire, each time “missing” the doctor.

Turning the car around back to Maine, Dwyer and the doctor’s wife pulled over to the side of the road in New Gloucester around 6 a.m. on Oct. 15.

“She was getting suspicious, according to his story,” Turner said. “A little struggle ensued, she started blowing the horn.”

Physical evidence later showed Littlefield was strangled to death. She was lain in the back seat and covered up, and Dwyer took off again.

“He claims he wanted to be arrested,” Turner said. “He ran red lights in New York City and got stopped a couple of times.”

But no one who pulled over the polite young man noticed his gruesome cargo.

He was finally discovered napping in the front seat in North Arlington, N.J., nearly 24 hours after killing Lydia. Police there were suspicious; he didn’t look like the kind of person who should be driving the Littlefields’ luxury sedan. They took Dwyer in for questioning.

“One of the police officers comes running into the investigation room, ‘You’re a murderer! There’s a body in the trunk!’ He says, ‘Well, there’s one in the back seat, too,’” said Turner.

Dwyer was brought back to Maine. He showed police where he had strangled Lydia (he had left a banana peel on the ground where they had stopped in New Gloucester), and in a matter of weeks Dwyer was brought to trial for Dr. Littlefield’s murder.

Despite the immediate confession, he pleaded not guilty. He abruptly changed his plea to guilty after two days of trial. Dwyer was sentenced to life in prison and escorted to the Maine State Prison in Thomaston.

That’s when things got interesting.

A month into his sentence, in a long manifesto, Dwyer said he didn’t do it.

Murder: Take two

He claimed he had been intimidated into the plea by the real killer, Deputy Sheriff Francis Carroll, the father of his high school sweetheart, Barbara Carroll.

In yet another version of events, Littlefield had been at Dwyer’s house to examine Barbara when she confided that her father had sex with her. (She had also shared as much with Dwyer in conversation and letters.)

According to Dwyer, with Barbara now outside in a car, the doctor confronted the deputy sheriff in the bathroom. In one version of events, Dwyer was knocked out and came to to find the doctor murdered. In another, he watched Carroll strike Littlefield with a gun and strangle him.

Out of fear of the lawman, Dwyer helped Carroll carry the doctor’s body to the trunk, turned over Barbara’s letters and went joy-riding with Mrs. Littlefield. Only, instead of her dying on the New Gloucester roadside, she was killed by Carroll on Turkey Hill in South Paris after the fruitless two-day road trip — depending on the version — either while Dwyer was gagged and handcuffed in protest to the steering wheel or while he simply sat there.

Again out of fear, he took off to New Jersey with the bodies.

Needless to say, the story had a lot of holes.

More surprisingly, it took.

Carroll was arrested in May 1938 on the incest charge, and while he sat in his own jail, his boss, the county sheriff, built the murder case against him.

“As far as the state police were concerned, it was a closed case,” Turner said. They had their man.

On Aug. 1, Carroll went on trial for Dr. Littlefield’s murder, the second time the South Paris courthouse saw someone stand accused of that crime. Dwyer testified, first passing out on the witness stand, then offering his damning version of events.

Carroll was convicted, also sentenced to life.

For 12 years, both men stewed at the Maine State Prison.

Pardon requests were rejected. Years passed.

Finally, in 1950, Severin Beliveau’s father heard Carroll’s case and sprung him.

Prove it

Beliveau’s father, Albert J. Beliveau Sr., was a Superior Court judge when he heard Carroll’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Carroll had been in prison 12 years. He wanted out, badly. His lawyer had spent four years gathering evidence for his case.

“[Habeas corpus] literally means ‘produce the corpse,’ prove the crime,” said longtime, well-known lawyer Severin Beliveau. “If you can’t prove the crime, release the prisoner.”

In his written decision, Beliveau Sr. made no effort to hide how appalled he was at the state’s case against Carroll back in 1938:

“The case seethes with inadmissible evidence, hearsay, opinion.”

He lambasted the sheriff for hiding a microphone in the cell he had set aside for Carroll to talk with his attorney. He said the original charge that landed the deputy sheriff in jail — claims from his 17-year-old daughter that Carroll had sex with her “perhaps five times” when she was 11 — “sounded improbable.”

And then there was the altered photo. During the second trial, determined to make it look like the marks on Littlefield’s head were caused by Carroll’s smaller gun, not Dwyer’s larger hammer, the prosecution enlarged the photo of the doctor’s wounds 1.4 times before showing it to the jury.

Voila, match.

“A deliberate and planned distortion of the real facts,” wrote Beliveau Sr.

On Sept. 20, 1950, Carroll was a free man.

“It was the first time in Maine that a petition of a writ of habeas corpus was ever issued by a Superior Court judge,” said Severin Beliveau, who was 12 at the time.

He remembers driving around town with his mother and siblings to check out the crowds that had gathered to hear how his dad might rule.

“The circumstances were extraordinary,” Beliveau said. “This would never occur today — too many safeguards for two men to be serving life sentences for the same crime.” With rules of discovery, “none of the tricks played by the prosecution would have worked today.”

His father kept a scrapbook of newspaper clippings during his career. One story from the Portland Press Herald quoted Carroll, 56, as walking out of jail a very chipper man, saying, “I haven’t any hard feelings towards anyone.”

The prison warden reported that Dwyer “said nothing, but he looked disturbed” at word his nemesis got out.

He’d have to wait almost 10 more years behind bars for freedom.

Dwyer was released in October 1959, eligible for parole when he finally convinced a Maine governor to commute his sentence. Photos show him beaming, polished, looking very accountant-like. He told the assembled press corps he planned to clear his name.

“They both were never in trouble again,” Turner said.

Carroll got a job with a local furniture maker. His wife left him while he was in prison. He sued the state to compensate him for his 12 lost years and lost that case. Carroll died in October 1956.

Dwyer got a job at a Norway restaurant and hotel, and married a Portland woman. Turner believes he died in his late 60s or 70s.

The circumstances around the case were so confusing that no one was ever tried for killing poor Lydia Littlefield.

Voice from the past

Today, the Littlefield murders have largely been forgotten around town. The current town manager and Oxford County sheriff hadn’t heard of the case — too long before their time.

“[Residents] would have to be in their 90s to remember it,” said Paris Deputy Town Clerk Dian Rainey. “I just know it from reading the book.”

Her aunt slipped her a copy of “Thunder over South Parish” when she was young, which her father hadn’t been happy about. The book, originally titled “New England Gothic,” was written by Addison Allen in 1960, a fictionalized version of events.

“My father was friends with the chauffeur, the 17-year-old,” Rainey said. “He didn’t kill the doctor — it was the policeman himself.”

Norway Detective Gary Hill spent 20 years with the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office and researched its history. He read about the strange-but-true tale in Karen Lemke’s “Down East Detective,” the second book in which the case appears.

“The more I looked into it, the more confusing it got,” Hill said.

Retired newspaperman Bob Moorehead of Paris looked into the murders decades ago for a magazine piece he intended to write, and had a personal connection: His wife’s grandfather, the late Dr. Delbert Stewart, lived next door to the Littlefields and penned a letter to his children a week after the murders.

Stewart had walked the crime scene with police and, as jail doctor, examined Dwyer within days of his being charged.

“There was not much blood in the bathroom, probably not more than half a cup full. His lower false teeth were under the tub,” Stewart wrote. “Since this letter is not for publication, I will say at present I have to believe that Paul lured Dr. Littlefield to his home to rob him, perhaps steal his car, and probably was disappointed at finding no more than $26. … No doubt more will be learned about the motive in some time. At present the various factors do not fit satisfactorily.”

Seventy-six years later, they still don’t.

When retired Trooper Turner began his own informal review, “The most common response would be, ‘Well, I guess we’re never going to know for sure,’ which I guess is a pretty accurate assessment.

“Each side has compelling reasons for believing the way they do,” he said. “I have to go with the physical evidence, and the evidence points to Dwyer.”

There are the footprints in the bathroom, Dwyer’s oft-changing story, and two men who swore they saw him drinking coffee at a Portsmouth, N.H., diner while an older woman waited in the car at “the exact same time Francis Carroll was supposed to be killing Mrs. Littlefield in South Paris.”

He believes Dwyer’s first version of events is probably closest to the truth, with Dwyer having bashed the doctor in the head after Littlefield made the remark about his girlfriend, but it’s still a stretch from insult to murder.

“Two big questions: What was Dwyer’s motive and what was the state’s motive to manufacture evidence [in Carroll’s trial]?” Turner said.

That may never be known for sure.

Look hard enough, though, and some remnants from that time remain.

The house where Littlefield met his end still sits on Paris Hill Road, across from the country club.

“Even that shutter is closed today,” said Turner, pointing to a 1937 crime-scene photo with the same window drawn tight.

Antiques dealer Jon Magoun donated Littlefield’s doctor’s bag and his leather box of medical compounds — with the police evidence tags still intact — to the Paris Hill Historical Society this summer. They had been in the basement of a former courthouse officer, saved from the trash when old evidence was being destroyed, according to Moorehead.

Turner spoke about the case to the historical society in August, drawing more than 100 people and two camps:

Dwyer did it. No, Carroll.

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