BANGOR, Maine — Just hours before the Rev. Robert Carlson was found dead in the Penobscot River on Nov. 13, he met with a local man who is the focal point of a child sex abuse investigation involving Carlson, according to the Waldo County Sheriff’s Department, which recently closed its investigation into Carlson’s death.
The man was an 11-year-old boy when he first met Carlson in the early 1970s, according to the man’s family, and Carlson began sexually abusing the boy soon after. The two remained in contact through the years, family members said. The Bangor Daily News is not identifying the man because of the possibility that he is a victim.
Maine State Police investigators began their investigation on Nov. 10, just three days before Carlson’s death, after receiving an anonymous letter that said he “sexually abused a young boy several years ago” while he was pastor at East Orrington Congregational Church. Carlson came to the church in 1979 and served there for 23 years, according to the church’s website.
Carlson met with the Bangor man at his residence early on Nov. 13, according to Waldo County Chief Deputy Jeff Trafton. Shortly thereafter, Carlson drove his company car to the Penobscot Narrows Bridge and abandoned it in the middle of the span, where a Bucksport couple found it running with the radio on at 3:55 a.m., Trafton said Wednesday.
“We sent deputies up, and they started rescue and it wasn’t long … before they found the body down the river,” the chief deputy said.
Well-known and well-regarded in Greater Bangor, Carlson helped found and was president of Penobscot Community Health Care; was a founder of Hope House, a Bangor shelter for those with drug and alcohol addictions; was a previous chaplain for Husson College as well as the Bangor and Brewer police and fire departments; and a former jail administrator for the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Department.
An autopsy was completed in the days after Carlson’s death at the state medical examiner’s office in Augusta. It was determined that Carlson drowned, and his death was ruled a suicide.
Waldo County sheriff’s deputies found Carlson’s wallet on the seat of the car. They checked his cell phone and discovered he had spoken to the Bangor man just hours before his death, the report by lead Detective Merl Reed states.
Attempts to reach the Bangor man this week were unsuccessful.
A Bowdoin woman who is the Bangor man’s sister told the Bangor Daily News in November that she and several other family members were contacted by a state police detective on Nov. 11 and 12 and interviewed about a child sex abuse case from the 1970s involving Carlson and her brother, who was 11 at the time.
Carlson befriended the family, which included a single mother with six children, in the 1970s when the family lived in Orrington, two of the Bangor man’s relatives said.
“My brother came clean to the family” a couple of years ago about the ongoing sexual relationship he had with Carlson, the Bowdoin woman said. “Bob had been part of his life since he was 12 years old.”
After he revealed his relationship with Carlson, another relative from Alton asked him why he never went to police.
“Back then he was a pastor at Orrington and ‘Who would have listened?’” was his basic response, she recalled.
No charges ever were lodged against Carlson in the 1970s. Under current Maine law, the statute of limitations for prosecuting sex crimes committed against children under the age of 16 extends back to 1985. In 1991, the law was changed and there is no statute of limitations on child sex crimes that occurred after that year. The anonymous letter that sparked the state police investigation last fall did not say exactly what year the alleged abuse occurred.
Waldo County sheriff’s detectives met with the Bangor man, who is now 51 years old, on Dec. 1. He prefaced the interview by saying he was under the influence of the synthetic drug bath salts when he met with Carlson on Nov. 13, Trafton said.
The Waldo County Sheriff’s Department looked into the circumstances of Carlson’s death and Maine State Police are investigating the sex abuse allegations.
“His story was he last saw Mr. Carlson about 30 minutes past midnight on the 13th of November,” the chief deputy said. “They were together for about 30 minutes.”
Whether the man told Carlson about the state police investigation is not part of the 52-page Waldo County report, according to Trafton. The Bangor Daily News has requested a copy of the report.
“There was no discussion about that,” Trafton said, adding that his detectives helped arrange a meeting between the man and a state police detective.
“As soon as our detective was finished, the state police detective took over,” the chief deputy said.
Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety, said Wednesday that the investigation is continuing. Detectives had not spoken to Carlson, 68, before his death, he said.
“We’re here to listen to anyone who wants to offer information,” McCausland said. “We do not have a closure date.”
The Bangor man told Waldo County detectives that he and Carlson made future plans at the end of their last meeting.
“They made arrangements to meet the next day for breakfast and Mr. Carlson was going to pick him up” at his residence, the chief deputy said.
The man “wasn’t under the impression Mr. Carlson was going to commit suicide,” Trafton said. “We believe he was the last one to see him” alive.
“Where he was from about 1 o’clock in the morning to 3:55 a.m. we don’t know,” the chief deputy said of Carlson.
The Penobscot Narrows Bridge is about 25 miles south of Bangor.
Those who want to talk to Maine State Police about the investigation can call the Orono barracks, 866-2121, McCausland said.
An earlier version of this story said that Bob Carlson's death has not yet been ruled a suicide. His death has been ruled a suicide.