October 16, 2018
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Body found in Penobscot River last month ID’d as man who fell through ice in March

Casey Bissell | BDN
Casey Bissell | BDN
A 2012 photo of Peter Manuel while on a high school cross-country trip.

Authorities have identified the body pulled from the Penobscot River in late June as the 23-year-old man who disappeared beneath the frozen Kenduskeag in early March.

The results of an autopsy released Tuesday confirmed that Peter Manuel, 23, was the man recovered by Bangor police and firefighters on Saturday, June 23, according to Mark Belserene of the chief medical examiner’s office in Augusta. It took several weeks to complete the DNA testing needed to make a positive identification, he said.

The confirmation did not come as a surprise to Manuel’s family and friends. In the days after the body was found, they recalled the former Bangor High School track star’s charismatic personality and drive, and didn’t wait for an official confirmation to erect a memorial honoring his life near the riverbank where his body was found.

A boater spotted his body around 2:30 p.m. June 23 when it surfaced by the docks beneath the Joshua Chamberlain Bridge, near the Sea Dog Restaurant and just a quarter-mile downstream from where Manuel fell through the ice at around 1 a.m. March 2. The Tuesday autopsy results confirmed that he drowned and the manner of death was deemed accidental.

The 114-day search for Manuel’s body was the longest mission ever undertaken by DEEMI Search and Rescue, an Orono-based nonprofit founded in 1991, Director Richard Bowie said. The next longest mission was 86 days.

“It’s been a really difficult, hard road, especially not knowing where his body was, if we were going to find him,” said his friend Kayla White, who created a memorial of photos, flowers and gummy worms for Manuel near Sea Dog, even before the autopsy results were released.

“For myself, and all his friends who knew him, it’s hard to go downtown near the Kenduskeag River. That’s the first thing that pops in your head,” she said.

The night of Manuel’s disappearance, he reportedly ran from police when officers were called to break up a reported fight at one of Manuel’s favorite hangouts, the Half Acre nightclub on Harlow Street.

Police said that while fleeing, Manuel hopped a fence, jumped to the frozen surface of the Kenduskeag and allegedly refused help from officers and firefighters who tossed him ropes to help him climb out. He disappeared when he slipped beneath the ice.

His death was grieved by the many friends he had made since he moved to Bangor from Pennsylvania as a third-grader in 2000, said Jon Stanhope, a close friend since middle school.

Manuel faced obstacles unlike his classmates. By early high school, his parents split up and left Manuel to fend for himself, Stanhope, 22, said. He spent nights at the Shaw House youth shelter and at the homes of classmates.

Peter’s father, Gary Manuel, said that despite the difficult and intermittent relationship he had with his son, the two never lost touch. “We were very close,” Gary Manuel said.

But at Bangor High School, Peter Manuel stood out as track star and as a funny, magnetic guy who could get anybody to like him.

“The one thing about Peter that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in any other friends, he was the most unyieldingly loyal guy,” said Stanhope, who will start law school at Boston College in the fall. “If he had five dollars, and he was starving and hadn’t eaten all day, and you were hungry, he’d give you $2.50.”

Since graduating in 2014, Manuel worked a series of odd jobs while chipping away at a college degree.

“Some of the friends he hung out with didn’t have a future or goals,” said White, an in-home health care worker. “Peter did.”

In one 2016 essay Manuel wrote for a college class, he looked back at his childhood. “Some people find that going through certain disasters or unfortunate events during your life helps to develop your insight,” he wrote. “Personally, I subscribe to [that] belief.”

Manuel was driven, but could be cocky and impulsive, Stanhope said. He had minor brushes with the law, and on the night he died, was out of jail on bail for allegedly violating a July criminal trespass order. Those interactions contributed to his growing distrust of police, friends said.

After his disappearance, searchers scoured the Penobscot River, into which the Kenduskeag flows. DEEMI volunteers launched 79 aircraft and drone missions during the time he was missing — the most drone flights the group has ever devoted to one search, according to Bowie.

“Three weeks ago, we re-searched that curve,” Bowie said June 23, of the bend in the river where Manuel was found. “He was not visible then.”

Manuel’s body was found near a portion of the Penobscot where other bodies have surfaced in the past. A strong current flowing from the Kenduskeag can push objects into debris that has collected near the riverbed, trapping them underwater for long periods, Bowie said.

In 2016, the body of a 21-year-old Maine Maritime Academy student was found near the same location. He had fallen from a bridge into the Stillwater River in Orono — which flows into the Penobscot — and was missing for two months until someone at Sea Dog spotted him.

What struck Stanhope about Manuel’s death was that it seemed as if things were finally coming together for his friend. “At the time of his death, his life was about as good as it ever was,” he said.

Manuel was working hard, taking on double shifts at a local restaurant and sending funny Snapchats from the back kitchen, White said. He saved up enough to own a car and had secured his own apartment. “He was making progress as a young man,” his father said.

“I was heartbroken when I found out what happened,” Stanhope said.

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