AUGUSTA, Maine — The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee wanted stories Thursday that illustrate why Maine needs a cold-case squad to solve the state’s 120 unsolved homicides. So Michael Hawkes gave them one.
With a trembling voice, Hawkes related how his sister, 23-year-old Alice Ann Hawkes, was found murdered in the bathroom of her Westbrook apartment on Oct. 4, 1987. Investigators have done “all they can,” Hawkes said, but the lack of a cold case squad means that the detective working her case does so in her spare time — “after supper at home,” Hawkes said.
“The victims deserve more than that,” Hawkes said. “I believe the people of Maine deserve better than that.”
The legislators and the dozen victims’ rights advocates, law enforcement officials and family members of victims who testified Thursday agreed that a cold case squad was necessary. No one testified against the bill, LD 1734, An Act To Create a Cold Case Homicide Unit in the Department of the Attorney General.
“We have got 120 murderers floating around out there who could do it again to one of your loved ones,” said Rep. Steve Stanley, D-Medway, who crafted the bill in October originally to help the family of East Millinocket’s Joyce McLain, a 16-year-old murdered in August 1980. “It’s about people, the lives of people.”
Judy Richardson testified that in the four years since masked murderers broke into Darien Richardson’s South Portland apartment and murdered her, she wakes up every morning wondering whether today will be the day that police tell her they have found her daughter’s killer or killers.
“I am here to advocate for the victims because I do know what it is like living with unsolved homicide,” Richardson said. “For us, it has been four long years of not knowing.
“You wonder all the time if the person who did this is close by,” Richardson added, calling homicide the “ultimate horrific act.”
But Sen. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, who chairs the committee, almost guaranteed that the state wouldn’t fund the squad, despite the committee’s support for it. Gov. Paul LePage has also publicly supported the initiative, working to revive it after a legislative committee opted in November to not consider it during this session.
“I would guess the chances it would pass are almost 1 percent,” Valentino said.
Maine Deputy Attorney General William Stokes, who supports Stanley’s proposal, has said the Legislature would have to allocate about $500,000 for the first year and $424,000 annually thereafter to fund a squad. A 2001 effort to create a squad died for lack of funding.
The bill calls for the squad’s formation by the Maine attorney general’s office and the Maine Department of Public Safety. The squad would be staffed by an attorney, two state police detectives and a state crime lab technician “to work exclusively on unsolved murders in the state.”
Valentino suggested that state police work with retired former investigators and law enforcement officials, such as judges, to review the unsolved homicides to determine which are the most solvable. This effort, she said, could help legislators fund the effort next year.
“They could say, ‘We have a real possibility of prosecuting these,’” Valentino said.
She said the position held by the assistant attorney general who handles cold cases exclusively should be added to state statutes as a cold-case position to keep Maine’s attorney general from assigning other tasks to the position.
Stokes, who testified Thursday in support of Stanley’s proposal, resisted both ideas. The retired investigators’ work would be redundant to the reviews state police commanding officers hold with Stokes’ staff every two months, he said.
Such an effort could probably only review four or five cases annually. The cases are voluminous. The biggest struggle investigators have, he said, is keeping each case’s evidence organized and verifiable. The lack of organization leaves investigators unable to tell, for example, how much biological evidence is within the 120 cases that could be tested for DNA traces or other leads, he said.
The oldest case on file dates to 1953, he noted. And while the three agencies mandated to investigate homicide — state police, Bangor and Portland police — solve more than 90 percent of homicides and some years hit 100 percent, their lack of manpower leaves them unable to take on cold cases in more than their spare time, Stokes said.
A state police major testified Thursday not in support or against the bill, but to warn legislators against creating a squad without replacing the manpower who would staff it. Nor could Stokes guarantee that a squad would necessarily produce many arrests or convictions, although state police have solved 13 cases in last 20 years, including nine cold cases in the last seven years.
“I can’t guarantee that I can solve a particular case or any case,” Stokes said. “ These cases remain unsolved because they are very difficult to solve, but passage of this will allow us to give these cases the kind of treatment they deserve.”