ORONO, Maine — Chickenfest could happen this weekend. It could happen next weekend. It could happen just about anywhere. But if police have their way, it won’t happen at all.
Sgt. Ron Dunham of the Maine Warden Service and Maine State Police Lt. Wesley Hussey called a media conference Thursday morning to urge the public to help police in preventing Chickenfest, a large, secretive party that traditionally happens in an isolated location during a weekend in April. They also encouraged people to shy away from the event, as attendees and organizers might face criminal charges.
“We don’t want people to jeopardize their futures just to have a party,” Dunham said.
UMaine students interviewed Thursday questioned whether police would be able to halt the elusive event, which has been held most years dating to at least 1982.
The site of the party is kept secret until a day or two — and sometimes hours — before the event. In spite of the short notice, Chickenfest attracts hundreds and sometimes thousands depending on location, weather and amount of notice.
The event is meant to focus on music, drawing local and regional bands, but police say it’s also a haven for drug and alcohol abuse, crimes and damage to personal property.
Hussey said that police receive reports of assaults, sexual assaults and other dangerous incidents and crimes each year in the wake of Chickenfest events. He said he didn’t have any statistics on reported crimes stemming from the events, but he argued that the anecdotal evidence is strong.
He cited an incident during a recent Chickenfest held in Greenfield in which a young woman was found laying face-down in a puddle and was saved by a passer-by. Lack of security and control at the unregulated event is a huge concern, Hussey said.
Hussey and Dunham also expressed concerns about minors who attend the events and consume alcohol, some of whom could become targets of sexual predators.
“This event is a dangerous event for anyone who goes there,” Dunham said. Police say they have no idea who organizes the event.
“We had a death out of it last year, and it was tragic and it was sad,” Hussey said, referring to the suicide of Dean Levasseur, a musician who wandered into the woods and took his own life sometime during the 2012 Chickenfest in Howland.
“We’re really trying to avoid that situation this year,” he said.
Dunham said an extensive three-day search for Levasseur and a follow-up investigation cost the state’s taxpayers “upward of $30,000.”
Most UMaine students who spoke about Chickenfest on Thursday at the university said they hadn’t attended the event, but knew of people who had. They said the event has a reputation for drinking and drug use, but some said they believed police were overreacting.
Brad Boden, a 23-year-old physics student, said he doesn’t see a correlation between the suicide at last year’s event and the event itself.
“Is it the event that caused it? I don’t think so,” Boden said, speculating that other issues were the main contributors to the suicide.
“The cold fact of life is he committed suicide at Chickenfest,” Hussey said. “Whether or not that was intentional or not on his part, whether it was caused by Chickenfest, I don’t know. But it certainly brought [Chickenfest] to the radar for law enforcement because now a death has occurred at the event.”
The event also raises concerns for landowners. Recent Chickenfest events have left behind “truckloads” of garbage, ranging from cups and plastic bags to packages that once contained drugs, according to Hussey and Dunham. Such events also might force some landowners to gate off their property, meaning others can’t use it for hunting or recreational purposes, they said.
Organizers plan the events on isolated, open properties typically owned by large landowners, with total disregard for the rights of those property owners, Dunham said. Past Chickenfests have been held in Hancock County, Greenfield, Glenburn, Orono and many other locations.
During one past Chickenfest in Hancock County, partygoers drove logging equipment into a swamp, causing extensive damage, according to Dunham.
Some large landowners in the region, such as American Forest Management Co., Katahdin Timberlands and Gardner Land Co., have voiced support for police efforts to shut down Chickenfest, according to Dunham.
Anthony Bartella, a first-year marine science student from New York, said he recently heard a couple upperclassmen talking about Chickenfest in the sauna. He said news of a location is usually spread through last-minute texts and social media messages.
While Bartella doesn’t think he’ll learn about the location in time to attend this year, he said he would consider going to a future Chickenfest because it’s something people say you have to experience at least once in school, even if you don’t partake in alcohol or drugs.
When asked what he thought of police agencies’ efforts to intervene and stop the event, Bartella said, “It’s their job. They’ve got to do what they’ve got to do.”
“I think [Chickenfest is] a lot safer than people think,” said Ian Mecray, a 20-year-old sophomore from Cumberland. Mecray attended last year’s Chickenfest briefly, but left after a few minutes because so many people were showing up that he worried his car might get boxed in, he said.
Mecray said there is a big litter problem at Chickenfest and he understands the concerns of property owners.
None of the students who spoke said they knew where the event would be held this year.
Chickenfest was a very different event at its founding, according to Brian Norris, who said he organized the first Chickenfest in 1982 and remained involved with the event through 1987.
Norris said Thursday that he called the event Chickenfest because organizers used students’ unused university meal credits to purchase mass amounts of chicken from the university to feed attendees at the event.
Chickenfest was formed as an alternative to Bumstock — an on-campus music festival — after the university increased regulations, such as identification checks and bans on people bringing kegs onto concert grounds, according to Norris.
The first Chickenfest was held in Bradley, but unlike recent Chickenfest events, organizers went to the town and asked permission from the landowner and town officials before holding the event. Money left over from the event fund was donated to the town’s ballfield, Norris said.
The party quickly grew in size over the next few years. By the time Norris stopped his work with the group in 1987, Chickenfest was drawing 1,500 to 2,000 people, he said.
“Our whole goal was to have responsible fun,” Norris said.
During his years with Chickenfest, organizers always sought permission and to cooperate with property owners and towns. Attendees and organizers always cleaned up afterward and left the property how they found it, he said.
Asked what Chickenfest’s original purpose was, Norris said “the whole point of it is to get together with people who enjoy peace on the planet and enjoy good music.”
Police are encouraging rural residents who see signs of Chickenfest, such as large groups of people gathering in a field or a large amount of traffic on a normally quiet road, to contact local police.
Officials from the Maine Warden Service, several county sherriff’s offices and area police departments, state police, the Maine Forest Service and other agencies gathered in Orono on Thursday to come up with a game plan for halting the event.