September 20, 2018
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How Joyce McLain’s murder finally moved from cold case to conviction

By Judy Harrison, BDN Staff

A combination of dogged police work and luck made it possible to charge and convict Philip Scott Fournier of murdering 16-year-old Joyce McLain nearly 40 years after her body was found behind the high school in East Millinocket.

New detectives using modern interviewing techniques and a witness who came forward to say that Fournier confessed to him in 1989 led to a guilty judgment last month.

That was the consensus of a lead investigator and the prosecution team who sat down with the Bangor Daily News last week to discuss why, after laying dormant for nearly a decade from 1989 to 2008, the case finally came to fruition.

McLain was last seen alive at about 8 p.m. on Aug. 8, 1980, jogging near Schenck High School. Her partially clothed body was found at about 6 a.m. on Aug. 10, 1980, behind the school’s athletic fields. The back of her skull was caved in, and her hands were tied behind her back with a blue cloth.

Fournier, 57, of East Millinocket wasn’t arrested until 36 years later, on March 4, 2016. Superior Court Justice Ann Murray found him guilty of murder on Feb. 22, following a jury-waived trial at the Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor. He remains jailed awaiting sentencing, and faces 25 years to life in prison.

Fournier’s attorney has said he will appeal the verdict.

 A turning point

Fournier told detectives in 1981 that he raped and killed McLain, but police then found no evidence of sexual assault. Because Fournier’s admission did not fit the evidence, he was not arrested.

The investigation also was hampered by heavy rains on Aug. 8 and 9, 1980 that washed away what was considered forensic evidence — fingerprints and blood from someone other than the victim. The technology to gather DNA from body fluid and hairs and to match to another person’s DNA was still 15 years away.

The television show “Unsolved Mysteries” featured the case in 1989 and generated 49 tips, all of which police checked out. Detectives worked on the case off and on after that but the Joyce McLain homicide was not a priority.

Then the homicide investigation was reinvigorated in 2008 after McLain’s mother, Pamela McLain, and a grassroots Katahdin organization called the Justice for Joyce Committee raised about $20,000 to pay for the exhumation and examination of the teenager’s body by nationally known forensic experts.

The state had refused to conduct the exhumation because it was unlikely that new evidence would be discovered. That turned out to be correct, according to evidence presented at the trial.

But the Maine State Police used the exhumation process as an opportunity to review the case and examine what needed to be done to charge a suspect or suspects, detective Sgt. Darryl Peary said Thursday at the Maine Department of Public Safety in Augusta.

“Our leadership seized the opportunity to start from scratch, finding all the old witnesses,” he said. “Everybody who was listed in the file was re-interviewed. We asked ourselves if there were any new witnesses we needed to track down. That was quite a process. That probably took us a couple of years anyway — just being able to determine what we had.”

What investigators still lacked was forensic evidence — no fingerprints, no blood splatter, no DNA, and no footprints were found at the crime scene. What they did have was good information about McLain’s jogging route, a timeline of when she was last seen, who had seen her and when that night, and who was hanging out around the high school. They also had more than 20 interviews over the years with Fournier. He confessed in 1981 to killing McLain, but later recanted and denied murdering her in subsequent interviews. But he knew details about where her body was found, how it was positioned, that she was having her period, and that a glass electric insulator was found near where she was killed.

Investigators were working the case in January 2009 when Fournier was charged with possession of child pornography. Fournier was named publicly as a suspect in McLain’s death by U.S. District Judge John Woodcock when he sentenced Fournier to 6 ½ years in federal prison.

During Fournier’s incarceration, Peary and now-retired detective Brian Strout continued to interview witnesses and comb through the notebooks of retired investigators for information that had not made it into police reports, all while working other cases.

“During the re-interview process, people were able to be a little bit more descriptive with their information even if they were interviewed in the 1980s,” Peary said. “Re-interviewing people gave us a better idea of the information we had, the timeline of the witnesses and the credibility of the witnesses.”

 The case solidifies

Meanwhile, Pamela McLain continued to publicly denounce the slow pace of the work by the Maine State Police and to seek out alternative investigators. She asked the FBI to intervene in 2010 and sought the help of the producers of the television show “Cold Justice” three years later. Ultimately, the case remained in the hands of Maine officials.

Investigators have been reluctant over the years to criticize the methods the mother of the slain teenager used to bring media attention to her daughter’s unsolved murder. Pamela McLain said after the judge announced her decision that she always knew her daughter’s killer would be caught.

“I admire Pam McLain’s tenacity and passion to see results in her daughter’s case,” Peary said Thursday. “She helped urge the raising of funds for the exhumation and I’m thankful that our leadership saw that as an opportunity to rejuvenate the investigation from scratch as if it had just occurred. That renewed focus with the appropriate resources helped develop a greater overall view of the case that ultimately led to a conviction.”

In spring of 2014, Peary went to then-Deputy Attorney General William Stokes to get permission to conduct out-of-state interviews with key witnesses, including the Rev. Vinal Thomas in Florida. Thomas was the first person to whom Fournier confessed, according to testimony. It was to the pastor that Fournier denied sexually assaulting McLain because it was “the wrong time of the month.”

Stokes, who became a Superior Court judge in August 2014, approved the travel expenses. That belies speculation by Fournier’s attorney, Jeffrey Silverstein of Bangor, that Stokes was reluctant to go forward with the case.

In November 2014, Peary made a presentation to Attorney General Janet Mills, Lisa Marchese, who had replaced Stokes, and Assistant Attorney General Leane Zainea, the lead prosecutor, that outlined the strengths and weaknesses of the evidence. Peary also laid out alternative suspects who would be pointed to by a defense team.

“We all looked at each other and said, ‘There’s enough here,’” Marchese said Thursday. “We need a few more interviews but now is the time to bring this case.”

 An unexpected witness

Zainea said that before Fournier could be arrested, she had to read the voluminous files including reports, interviews and the notes of the retired detectives.

The biggest challenge was the reliability of confessions Fournier made in 1981, according to Zainea.

A few hours after Fournier murdered McLain, he stole a fuel truck from a local business and crashed into a car at about 3 a.m. on Aug. 9, 1980, just a mile away in Medway. Peary and prosecutors expected defense attorneys to argue that his confessions were unreliable because he suffered a traumatic brain injury in the crash.

Detectives worked to overcome that by interviewing Dr. Ann LeBlanc, director of the state forensic service, to get a better understanding of brain injuries and how memory works.

Police and prosecutors also got lucky. Fournier finally was arrested on Friday, March 4, 2016. The following Monday, John DeRoche, 78, of Bangor called to tell investigators that Fournier had confessed to him in 1989, long after any memory problems due to the accident should have resolved. DeRoche had learned of the arrest on the television news.

Peary said Thursday that they did not expect any new witnesses would come forward after Fournier’s arrest because the case was so old.

“We got the call and we said, ‘Who is this guy? Who in the world is John DeRoche?’ He’s not in the case file,” Peary said Thursday.

Superior Court Justice Ann Murray gave “great weight” to the Bangor High School janitor’s testimony in convicting Fournier.

“What’s important about John DeRoche is that eight years later, Fournier is still saying and acknowledging that he killed Joyce McLain when his memory, according to [the defense’s expert], wouldn’t have had any of that retrograde amnesia,” Zainea said Thursday. “That was really important as well as his statement, ‘I was able to beat the police 20 times.’”

It also helped DeRoche’s credibility that he had no ulterior motive for coming forward, she said.

 A sense of closure

A confluence of factors came together between 2008 and 2014 that made it the right time to go forward with the Fournier prosecution, according to Marchese. More resources were becoming available for prosecutors and police to focus on unsolved homicides, in part because of the advances in DNA technology, even though that was not a factor in the McLain case.

For Peary and the other officers who worked on the case over the decades, the conviction brought a level of self-satisfaction.

But that is not what really mattered in bringing the Joyce McLain homicide case to a conclusion.

“Almost every witness we interviewed talked about how this case completely changed the town of East Millinocket — a sense of safety and a kind of innocence was lost,” Peary said. “To be able to give them some sense that this is done, that we know what happened — I get more satisfaction in knowing that the family and the town has some answers.”

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