AUGUSTA, Maine — In 1980, a dog found Wanda-Jean Mitchell’s head in the woods in Poland and brought it home to his owners. A police search party found her body two days later.
The teen had been missing nearly a year, since the day before her 15th birthday. She had run away from home.
Sheila Simoneau said her daughter isn’t on the state’s list of unsolved homicides. In more than 35 years, she feels the death hasn’t gotten much attention.
“She did not walk in there and lay down and die, and I want something done,” Simoneau said Tuesday in the State House Hall of Flags, holding a photo of her daughter.
Friends and family members with HAAD Enough Inc., a year-old group representing unsolved missing and murder cases in Maine, held a news conference to announce proposed victims’ bill of rights legislation and to question the progress of the state’s new cold-case unit. They say they are frustrated that not enough has been done since the Legislature created the unit in 2015.
Mark Babitz of Chicago, who has been active in bringing attention to the death of Phil Williams Jr., an Auburn teenager who died in 1982 a day after witnesses say he was forced into the boxing ring at the infamous Elan School, said he’d joined HAAD Enough to share his experience in shaking things up.
“The stranger from Chicago is here again,” Babitz, a bounty hunter and construction worker who also attended Elan, said. “It’s not just about the Elan School.”
Rep. Tina Riley, D-Jay, said her bill would bring the victims’ rights “Marsy’s Law” from California to Maine. Her bill so far only has a public title, “An Act to Enhance the Rights of Families of Missing Persons and Homicide Victims.”
“The most important thing we can do is hopefully bring some people home and bring some peace to families who’ve lost loved ones,” Riley said. “This piece of legislation will hopefully make it a little easier for them to communicate with the (attorney general’s) office and the state police. Hopefully we can improve the (state) website, make it easier for the families to get information and use it.”
Richard Moreau of Jay, whose daughter Kim has been missing since 1986, said the families standing behind him could be anyone’s families, and they need help.
“When New Hampshire started theirs, the first year out, their cold-case squad solved four cases,” Moreau said. “I’m not saying we should have solved four cases this year, but there ought to be something out there saying they’re doing something because nobody knows of anything going on. This system is not working.”
Attorney general’s office spokesman Tim Feeley said the unit has spent the first year familiarizing itself with more than 100 investigations and working hard to advance cases.
“We understand that surviving families are very eager to see results,” he said. “When the Legislature was considering the bill to create a cold-case unit, we reminded the public that these cases are by definition among the most difficult and complex to solve. While we could not guarantee results, we could guarantee to devote our full attention and effort.”
In response to some families’ complaints of the unit not being transparent enough or not welcoming investigative TV programs to feature cold cases, he said “no responsible law enforcement agency conducts investigations in public.”
The event Tuesday drew about a dozen family and friends who shared their stories and frustrations.
“I’m very grateful to the HAAD Enough people because I’ve had enough, too,” Matt Hoffman, co-president of Elan Survivors Inc. with Babitz, said.
After Williams died in 1982, Hoffman said no students were interviewed, and no adults stepped forward.
“No one did the right thing,” he said.
Elan operated as a private boarding school from 1970 to 2011. Its controversial tactics are featured in an upcoming documentary, “The Last Stop,” by New York filmmaker Todd Nilssen, who is planning its premiere for April in Maine.
Questions were raised around Williams’ death last winter, when Babitz came to Maine to research Williams’ incomplete death certificate. Police opened an investigation in March 2016.
Despite several references during the press conference to Williams being a murder victim, that determination hasn’t been made.
Pam Williams, Phil Williams Jr.’s sister, said she hadn’t been contacted by HAAD Enough about involving her brother in their event or using his photo. The Lewiston woman is still waiting for answers around his death.
“We remain optimistic,” she said. “I think we have a good group of people working for my brother.”
Simoneau, who lives in Buxton, said her daughter went missing Nov. 10, 1979. She was found the next fall in Poland.
“Thirty-six years this September, and I still don’t know what happened to my daughter,” she said. “It’s an awful thing to live with.”