ELLSWORTH, Maine — After serving for more than 30 years as the top law enforcement official in Hancock County, and with some notable cases notched in his belt, Sheriff William Clark has decided it’s time.
Clark, 64, said last week he will not seek re-election to the post he has held since January 1981. He said when his term ends at the end of 2014, he will be the longest-serving sheriff ever in Hancock County and one of the longest-serving in Maine. Former Lincoln County Sheriff William Carter, who held his post for 38 years, is the only person Clark said he’s aware of who has put in more time as a sheriff.
“It’s been long enough,” Clark said last week, seated in his Ellsworth office. “It’s time for me to get out.”
Clark, a local resident and native of Franklin, has been a full-time police officer since 1972, when he was with the Ellsworth Police Department. He became a detective with the sheriff’s office and then went back to Ellsworth PD before being elected sheriff 33 years ago.
Since becoming sheriff, the vast majority of his day-to-day duties have shifted from police work to administration. But there have been times during his tenure as sheriff when Clark had to be a police officer again without warning. Twice in the past 22 years he has negotiated with armed gunmen holed up at Ellsworth businesses.
In 1991, Richard Balestrino took his former girlfriend hostage at a local hair salon on High Street before Clark contacted him by phone and convinced him to come out. In 2002, Rodney Williams exchanged gunfire with police after he subdued a Waldo County sheriff’s deputy and then crashed a hijacked cruiser on Main Street. Williams, who was wounded in the gunplay by a state trooper, ran into a Main Street shoe shop and only came out after Clark contacted him by phone and convinced him to come out peacefully. No one else was hurt in either incident.
One case that Clark said sticks with him more than any other remains unsolved. In the late 1990s, there was a series of sexual incidents in the Sullivan area committed by someone police have yet to catch. Charges against a suspect have been filed in court based on his DNA profile, but police do not know his name, age, where he lives or even whether he still is alive.
According to Clark, over roughly a 15 month-period there were maybe two dozen incidents, including rapes, attempted rapes and burglaries where semen was left behind. All the victims, he said, were blonde young-looking women.
Clark said his office — especially Detective Steve McFarland, who now works for the district attorney’s office — devoted a lot of time to the case. They got help from an FBI profiler and recruited a woman police officer from southern Maine to work undercover in the area for a few weeks to try to catch the perpetrator. At one point, police gathered all the victims together — all local residents and some of whom had seen the attacker’s face — for an afternoon to see whether they might be able to find a common denominator that might identify who it was. They could not.
“And all of a sudden, it stopped,” Clark said of the incidents. Police might be able to get a match on the suspect’s DNA one day, he said, but roughly 15 years later they still have no identifying information other than his DNA profile. They’ve even checked death records to see if they might find a deceased suspect, but have come up empty.
“That’s the one that really drives me crazy,” Clark said.
According to McFarland, a person’s DNA profile is unique and a more reliable means of identification than a person’s name. He said Monday that Michael Povich, the district attorney at the time, used only the suspect’s DNA profile as an identifier to file charges in order to beat the deadline set by the statute of limitations on sex crimes.
McFarland said the case is still open. Anyone who may have information about the case can contact him at 667-4621, he said.
As for his role as head of the sheriff’s office, Clark said one big reason he’s decided to retire is to get away from the politics of the position, which has led to contentious accusations and sometimes legal disputes with county commissioners. He said he might get back into public service part time, maybe even running for the county commission or for Ellsworth City Council. But he has another year left as sheriff, he added, and won’t make any decision about pursuing something else for another couple of years.
“It’s way down the road,” he said of his next act. “I’m going to remain in the area.”
Clark said his relationship with county commissioners over the years has varied greatly and he named several he got along with. He acknowledged that he is not friendly with the current lineup, but admitted that he has not always behaved as he would have liked.
“I’m my own worst enemy,” Clark said. “I don’t always control my temper.”
The sheriff said he has helped institute many programs since he was first elected in 1980. Municipal patrol coverage contracts, drug court, the county’s drug task force (overseen by the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency), and the multiagency alcohol enforcement team are programs he has helped implement.
John DeLeo, Ellsworth’s police chief, said last week that he and Clark worked together for a few years with Ellsworth PD and since then have worked across State Street from each other. He said he does not envy some requirements of being sheriff, such as running for elective office every few years or managing the county jail to the state’s satisfaction.
DeLeo said not having Clark working in law enforcement in the Ellsworth area will take some getting used to.
“He’s somebody I’ve always been able to work with,” DeLeo said. “It will be a big loss for the county.”