Mary Ellen Tanner, a high school senior at Kennebunk High School, was murdered in July 1978. Her killer was never caught. Credit: Courtesy of Girl on the Bridge: The Mary Tanner Story

KENNEBUNK, Maine — A pilot taking off at Gracie Evans Field, just over the town line in Lyman, spotted her body. She was lying face down in the tall, summer-burnt grass at the end of the runway.

Dan Alho, then 22, immediately turned his plane around and landed.

“There’s a woman down there dead,” Alho told people on the ground, “somebody call the police.”

That Sunday afternoon, July 9, 1978, was hot — in the 90s — and humid. The woman’s partially clothed body was already starting to decompose. Someone had beaten the side and back of her head with a blunt object and dumped her in the field.

More than a day later, friends helped identify Kennebunk High School senior Mary Ellen Tanner, 18, by the distinctive, scrimshaw necklace she wore. Authorities never found her pants, her sneakers or her killer.

While more than 40 summers have come and gone since then, Tanner has not been forgotten.

Maine State Police still regard her killing as an open case. A local group, run by her now aging friends, awards an annual scholarship in Tanner’s name while still seeking answers. And this month, a Maine filmmaker is wrapping up principal photography for a feature-length documentary about the killing on the very bridge where Tanner was last seen alive.

Filmmaker Rik O’Neal directs actress Abigail Miller on the Mousam River bridge in Kennebunk late Tuesday night, Aug. 24, 2021. Miller is portraying Mary Tanner, who was last seen alive on the bridge in July 1978. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Retired Portland newspaper editor Rik O’Neal, 72, started the project eight years ago. Since then, O’Neal has pushed on through financial difficulties, serious back problems, two heart surgeries and a global pandemic. Along the way, he interviewed dozens of people who knew Tanner, even uncovering never-before-reported eyewitness details of her final night.

Soon, only the gargantuan task of editing it all together will remain. When finished, O’Neal hopes it will help preserve Tanner’s memory for generations to come and possibly even help bring her killer to justice.

“When I start something, I finish it,” he said. “And I’ve always said, from the start: This is for Mary. I’m doing it for Mary.”

Beginnings

O’Neal first became interested in Tanner when he wrote a story about her in 2013 for The Kennebunk Village Magazine. While doing so, he met dozens of locals at a 35th anniversary memorial service for the slain teenager. Many were already organized into the Justice for Mary group which helped convert never-claimed reward money into an annual scholarship at the high school Tanner did not get the chance to graduate from.

O’Neal realized there were still plenty of people in Kennebunk with vivid memories of Tanner and her final night on Earth. He decided to collect the memories and preserve them before they faded.

“They were compelling,” O’Neal said “but it took a lot of work to get people to trust me enough with their stories — and if I wasn’t trusted, I wasn’t going to get very far.”

Born and raised in Arkansas, O’Neal started his reporting career as a television news cameraman before moving to Maine in the 1970s and pivoting to newspaper editing. He retired in 2011 and immediately started writing and producing short films.

After beginning the project, called “Girl on a Bridge: The Mary Tanner Story,” O’Neal created a nonprofit organization to help raise money to fund it. But, beginning in 2014, back problems began to slow him down and eventually forced him to stop for corrective surgery. Two heart surgeries followed in 2019. Then, the coronavirus pandemic struck in 2020.

But O’Neal pressed on, coaxing interviews out of anyone he could find: Tanner’s friends, family and even retired law enforcement involved in the case. Along the way, he lost his nonprofit status. Now, he’s using his own money, exclusively.

“It’s become more than a documentary,” he said. “It’s a life project.”

Life over death

Instead of focusing on the gruesome details of her death, O’Neal primarily wants to document Tanner’s brief but brilliant life.

“I initially had no intention of solving the crime,” he said. “It’s about Mary — a girl who still lives in a lot of people’s hearts.”

Tanner was the youngest of four children, blonde and a baton-twirling majorette in the school marching band. She was a free spirit, hitchhiked a lot and liked to tie her hair back with a blue bandanna.

Tanner was funny, too.

Her older sisters Gail Tanner and Beth Goodwin were still laughing at her antics in a 2014 interview with O’Neal.

Mary Tanner grew up on Cat Mousam Road in Kennebunk. The youngest of five children, she was a baton-twirling majorette known as a free spirit who liked to joke around. Credit: Courtesy of Girl on the Bridge: The Mary Tanner Story

Their mother was a psychic who read tea leaves and had premonitions. One day, imitating her, Tanner picked up one of the family cats, holding its rear end to her ear, getting a reading.

“Yes, I think he’s feeling sad today,” Goodwin remembered her saying. “Yes, I think he wants to play the polka.”

Tanner then marched around the house, humming a polka tune, holding the cat like an accordion.

When the cat struggled to get away she said, “Oh. Misread. The cat wants to be put down.”

In other interviews, childhood friends describe Tanner as friendly, always smiling.

“She was a kind, gentle soul, everybody’s little sister,” said Tim Ames, now director of sales at Nonantum Resort in Kennebunkport.

The last night

Though O’Neal plans to keep Tanner’s life in the spotlight, he’s also compiled many people’s sharp memories of her last hours alive. The 43-year-old details and sequence of events, collected from multiple sources, are tangled and overlapping. Sorting through them in the editing process will be difficult.

“There’s so much information and disinformation,” O’Neal said. “This film will have so many delicate balancing points.”

The filmmaker isn’t yet sure how he’ll tell the tale in the final cut.

Filmmaker Rik O’Neal works with his director of photography Sean Miller in Kennebunk on Tuesday night Aug. 24, 2021. O’Neal is finishing a documentary about Mary Tanner’s 1978 unsolved killing. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

These are the basic facts:

On Friday, July 7, Tanner attended the Miss Dumpy parade in Kennebunkport’s Dock Square.

The annual tongue-in-cheek event celebrated the town’s landfill. Several people saw her there and she spoke with at least two friends.

Later, around 7 p.m. Tanner turned up at a local bowling alley on Route 1. From there, she hitchhiked with friends to a hill overlooking Route 9, near the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge. It was a popular teenage party spot and one was going on that night.

Hitchhiking was a common way for teenagers to get around back then, in the days before cell phones, Uber and helicopter parents.

“We did it all the time,” said Tanner’s friend Dawn Osborne, in an interview with O’Neal.

After her appearance on the hill, Tanner briefly walked a nearby beach with another friend — which is a previously unreported detail O’Neal uncovered.

At approximately 9 p.m., Jackie O’Keefe Lincoln saw Tanner at the intersection of Routes 9 and 35 in Kennebunkport. The spot, known as Cooper’s Corner, is close to Dock Square.

They were both hitchhiking but going in opposite directions. Lincoln was headed for a party in Wells and Tanner was trying to get home.

Tanner had been dating a boy from Waltham, Massachusetts, and his brother had recently died in a car wreck. Tanner’s father was going to drive her south for the funeral early the next morning.

Looking back now, Lincoln wishes she’d suggested they hitchhike together, instead of separately.

“If I could take that night back — if I could take that five minutes back,” she said in an interview. “But you can’t go back.”

Bill Lawrence, who often hitched with Tanner, said he too saw her at Cooper’s Corner and watched her get into a small, four-door car with three people he did not recognize — another new detail O’Neal found.

Lawrence also regrets not hitching with her that night.

“I’ll take that to my grave,” he said.

Three hours later, around midnight, Tanner was spotted on the Route 1 bridge over the Mousam River, nearly four miles from Cooper’s Corner.

There, she asked yet another set of friends with a car for a lift to her house on Cat Mousam Road, just a little over a mile-and-a-half away.

“She was almost home,” O’Neal said.

But Tanner’s friends were going in another direction and said they couldn’t help her and drove away. A short time later, they felt guilty and turned around. But when they got back to the bridge, Tanner was gone.

Nobody but the killer ever saw her alive again.

A killer nearby

When Tanner’s body was found Sunday morning, her parents didn’t think she was missing. They assumed she had hitched a ride to Waltham to her boyfriend’s family funeral.

It’s long been speculated whoever killed Tanner was a local. Remote and unmarked, Gracie Evans Field, where her body was dumped, was only accessible down a string of dirt roads. Casual visitors to the area wouldn’t know it even existed, let alone how to get there.

“There may be a killer among us, still,” said Shelley Wigglesworth, a Kennebunk journalist who was nine when Tanner died.

Wigglesworth’s local reporting on the case has been credited with helping create the Justice for Mary organization.

Maine’s medical examiner at the time determined Tanner died from repeated blows to the head and was probably unconscious after the first. Due to the state of decomposition he could not determine if she had been sexually assaulted but did conclude that she was pregnant.

In 1978, police interviewed over 100 people, including some they thought were guilty. O’Neal interviewed some of those same men, including Tanner’s boyfriend — who had a solid alibi in Massachusetts — and a convicted violent sex offender who was out on appeal at the time of the killing.

Conclusions

O’Neal definitely has his own suspicions about who killed Tanner but isn’t sure how close he’ll come to naming them in his film due to defamation laws.

He is convinced, however, that someone in the Kennebunk and Kennebunkport community knows what happened that night, and perhaps the film will cause them to come forward with the missing pieces the police need.

University of Maine student Abigail Miller of Gorham stands on a bridge spanning the Mousam River in Kennebunk on Tuesday night Aug. 24, 2021 while filming a scene for an upcoming documentary about the unsolved killing of Mary Tanner. Tanner was last seen alive on the bridge in July 1978. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

While justice is important, O’Neal mostly wants to keep Tanner’s memory alive. Her parents and one sister are now dead. Tanner’s friends are reaching retirement age.

“Maybe after we’re gone, the film will persist,” O’Neal said.

There’s no way to tell for sure.

As for himself, now nearing the end of his almost decade-long project, O’Neal said Tanner has become a permanent part of his life.

“I still cry when I hear people talk about her in interview footage,” he said. “I have a picture of her on my desk. Mary is always with me.”

Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.