CARIBOU, Maine — Somebody has to know something about how Kenneth Zernicke died.
That’s what his brother, Joe Bourgoine believes, and it’s what Maine State Police are hoping even now, six years after his killing.
Zernicke, who was 58 at the time, was found dead in his burning home on the evening of Sept. 24, 2015, by the Caribou Fire Department. The next day, the state medical examiner’s office ruled his death a homicide. The investigation is ongoing, but since the first few weeks following the killing, the public facts of the case haven’t changed.
Zernicke is one of just three victims of unsolved homicide cases in Maine in the last decade and one of two unsolved killings in Aroostook County since the turn of the century. Like any Maine homicide more than three years old, the state police classify Zernicke’s killing as a cold case.
But Bourgoine doesn’t want to sit by and watch the case get colder. Last week, nearing the sixth anniversary of Zernicke’s passing, Bourgoine broke the silence surrounding the case, and posted a $10,000 reward for information on the death of his brother.
“I know somebody knows. In six years, they must have said something to somebody,” Bourgoine said. “It’s just not been good … Knowing what’s happened to my family, I don’t want that to happen to nobody else.”
Bourgoine has been working for six years to save enough money to offer a proper reward in his brother’s case. A disabled veteran, it was a hardship, but Bourgoine said he was patient, stashing away what he could while he waited for any developments in the investigation.
Sitting on the sidelines has been difficult for him, especially as the case became the purview of the state. Caribou, like most Maine municipalities, does not have a homicide division in its local police department — only Bangor, Portland and Lewiston do.
Bourgoine couldn’t go to local police for answers, and after the original investigator on the case left, the state police stopped contacting him, Bourgoine said.
The reward is his way of reaching out. He’s hoping money might shake something loose: a tip, a witness, a memory someone didn’t think was important before. Ideally, it could help someone who’s afraid to speak up find the courage to come forward.
“I figured I need to reroute my efforts,” he said. “I figured, money. People kill for money, people do anything for money.”
Maine State Police helped promote the reward last week, in a press release picked up by most prominent Maine news outlets.
“We’re hoping with the family, and the sacrifices they’ve made to provide this reward, it will lead to more tips,” Lt. Darrin Crane said.
Living with the loss of his brother and without a conclusion to the investigation has been one of myriad difficult things Bourgoine has experienced in his life. He lost a sister to suicide. His mom died when he was in his 30s. He served in the Iraq war.
What haunts him about Zernicke’s death is that it seems impossible that nobody has come forward with information.
Caribou is a small city of just 7,000 — the kind of place where people talk, where everybody knows everybody. Zernicke lived at the heart of that small city, at a busy four-way intersection with neighbors who were home at the time of his death, according to Bangor Daily News reporting in the days following.
Because Zernicke’s house was on fire, his body was found quickly. The Caribou Police called for the state police major crimes unit right away — a regular practice for cases of suspicious death. An autopsy was performed the next day, though the state police still will not release the cause of death.
“I’m a Marine Corps veteran and I went to Iraq. I thought if anything like this would happen to our family it would be me,” Bourgoine said. “I wouldn’t think I’d come back from Iraq and my brother ends up getting murdered in Aroostook County — Caribou, Maine — and they get away with it.”
Bourgoine only found out he and Zernicke were biological brothers when his adopted mother died about 30 years ago. Zernicke, who was four years Bourgoine’s senior, made him feel like family.
“My two brothers took me in like we were always brothers,” Bourgoine said. “It was weird and crazy … we all three enjoyed the same things: hunting and fishing and everything.”
Zernicke was the type of guy who would drop everything for someone who needed help, Bourgoine said. Everyone knew him.
Bourgoine knows that the pain of his brother’s loss won’t go away if the person who killed Zernicke is found. Justice, he believes, is something that comes later. But stopping this from happening to someone else is paramount, and he’s tired of waiting and hoping nobody else gets hurt.
“There’s no penalty equal for them to pay,” Bourgoine said. “But when they take their last breath … where you go, you pay for what you did down here.”
Anyone with information on the circumstances of Kenneth Zernicke’s death can contact Detective Adam Bell at the Houlton Barracks of the Maine State Police at 207-532-5400.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed a quote from Joe Bourgoine.