Cold Case File
Bella Baldwin's death remains one of the mysteries of Penobscot Bay.
At first, the two women who saw the figure on the beach on Lane’s Island in Vinalhaven thought she might be sunbathing. Then they noticed that she was fully dressed in blue jeans, sweatshirt, and sneakers and lying facedown on the rocks. It was September 18, 1972, and Bella Baldwin was dead.
At the time, though, and for weeks afterwards, no one knew her name. When she was found, her pockets were empty, the bright red purse residents remembered her carrying was missing, and all of her personal possessions had disappeared from her room at the island motel where, as it turned out, she had registered under a false name. Her rain slicker was found neatly folded under a nearby tree. Carlton Thurston, Knox County’s sheriff at the time, later called it the most baffling case of his career.
Yet despite a host of unanswered questions, contradictory statements from witnesses and medical people, the bruises on her face and neck, and the disappearance of her money, identification, and traveling bags, Bella Baldwin’s death was never classified as a murder, or even suspicious. No one investigated her death or questioned witnesses. Neither her family nor the police ever discovered what really happened to her or why. Baldwin became part of Penobscot Bay’s legends, a mystery filled with rumors and innuendo but few facts.
At least until recently. Sparked by former summer resident Alice Wolper’s almost obsessive fascination with the case and her years of research, the Knox County Sheriff’s Department is taking another look at Bella Baldwin’s death. Sheriff Donna Dennison recently visited Vinalhaven and spoke with Bodine Ames and Cynthia Oakes, the women who found the body. She has assigned a detective to review the scanty facts in the case and interview islanders who remember the mysterious death.
Until recently, Maine didn’t have a “cold case” squad. Murders in the state are investigated by the Maine State Police and, in the larger cities, by local detectives; they revisit old deaths as time and personal inclination are available. About a year ago, the Maine Attorney General’s Office hired Lara Nomani, a former drug prosecutor, to review the state’s eighty-seven unsolved homicides. Bella Baldwin isn’t on Nomani’s list, though — her death was never classified as suspicious.
Bodine Ames and Cynthia Oakes recall with startling clarity finding Baldwin’s corpse despite the thirty-six intervening years. At the time, both women had teenaged daughters and frequently visited with each other. That day they had ridden bicycles over to Lane’s Island, a small island linked to Vinalhaven by a bridge and the location of a popular secluded beach on a cove below the Lane family cemetery, where the headstones date back to the War of 1812.
“It was a beautiful fall afternoon,” Oakes says. “The goldenrod was blooming, and butterflies were flying around. We were talking about how beautiful it was when I looked off to my left and saw what at first I thought was a young boy lying face down on the beach.”
Both women noticed that one arm was oddly bent and the figure was unmoving. It lay just below the high tide line on the sand and cobblestone beach. “I said, ‘Something’s wrong there,’ and I ran down and stood beside her,” Oakes says. “I called to her several times, and she didn’t respond.”
Ames ran to a nearby house to call the island doctor, Dr. Ralph Earle. Meanwhile, Oakes warned two people walking nearby, Harriet Dunne and James Knowlton, not to go down to the beach. Knowlton went to look anyway, she says. “He looked at her for a minute and then walked away,” she recalls.
The investigation that followed can best be described as perfunctory. Oakes and Ames say they were never questioned by police or other authorities. The other island witnesses — Bud and Pat Crossman, the now-deceased owners of the Tidewater Motel where Baldwin stayed from Friday until Monday when her body was discovered, and Barbara Davis, the woman who cleaned her room — also insisted to Wolper that no one had questioned them.
Wolper, a former social worker who now lives in the Philadelphia area with her husband, a college professor, says her interest in Baldwin’s death began with her first visit to Vinalhaven in October 1972 — on the same day that Bella Baldwin’s father and stepmother, Charles and Gretchen Baldwin, arrived from London to talk to authorities about her death. “I’ve always felt there was more to her death than anyone was saying,” she explains.
After missing the ferry to Monhegan, Wolper visited Vinalhaven at the suggestion of a waitress in Rockland. At the time, the only place to eat on the island was the pool hall, she says. “I sat at a tiny counter and ordered a crabmeat sandwich from the man standing in front of the grill,” Wolper recalls. Reynold Tibbetts was not only the cook and owner of the pool hall, but also the island constable, an authority he reinforced by habitually wearing dark blue pants and shirt.
After the man and woman sitting next to her left to catch the ferry, Tibbetts told her, “That couple [are] the parents of the girl whose body was found in a cove on the island last month. They just identified her.” Then he quietly added: “Somebody on this island knows something, but they’re not talking.”
“I’ve always wondered why he told me that,” she says today. “I thought it was weird at the time. We became friends later, and I think he just felt he had to say something to somebody that day.”
She began pursuing the facts in the case seriously in 2001, after telling the story to her daughter. “I started asking questions and listening to people, and the more I did, the more convinced I was that Bella’s death at least deserved a new look.”
In the years since, Wolper interviewed as many of the primary people involved in the case as she could find, including several who have since died. She had a well-known forensic expert review Baldwin’s autopsy report. She wrote a short newspaper article about the death that caught the eye of famed Bangor author Stephen King, who mentions the case in the afterword to The Colorado Kid. Then this past spring she presented her research to Sheriff Dennison, who promised to give the case some new attention. “A lot of people trusted me enough to talk about what they knew or remembered, and I want[ed] to tell the story that they could never tell themselves,” Wolper says.
Fourteen miles from Rockland, the island of Vinalhaven is only seven miles long and three and a half miles wide. Then as now the island hosted an active fishing community and a year-round population of about 1,200 people. Summer visitors were usually regulars who owned homes on the island and stayed for weeks or months at a time every year. “Today we see a lot more day-trippers on the island,” Oakes offers. “We knew the [summer] people back then. We don’t now.”
The young woman who had apparently drowned in one of the coves, according to the autopsy performed the evening of her discovery, was an anonymous mystery. Her trip to Vinalhaven, after a brief stay in Rockland, had apparently been the spontaneous whim of a young woman who was exploring the Maine coast on her own. Not only were all of her personal belongings missing, but she also had signed into the motel under a false name, Linda Bowan.
For several days families with missing daughters viewed the young woman in the Carpenter Funeral Home in Rockland. After a nationwide search, “Unknown” was buried in Seaview Cemetery in Rockland on September 29, 1972.
In early October, a doctor in Reisterstown, Maryland, noticed the sketch of the young woman’s face that appeared in the Annapolis Evening Capital. Dr. Clarence McWilliams called Sheriff Thurston and said the woman looked like one of his patients, nineteen-year-old Bella Baldwin. Soon her dental work was being compared to the young woman. Shortly afterwards, police contacted Bella Baldwin’s mother, Susannah Baldwin, in Reisterstown and her father, Charles Baldwin, who was living in England with his second wife, Gretchen.
Charles Baldwin died years ago, but Gretchen Baldwin now lives in York, Maine. She told Wolper that at first she thought that Bella had committed suicide because she had made two previous attempts, once cutting a wrist and another time taking an overdose.
A wine bottle and two beer cans were found in the cove with Baldwin’s body. Gretchen Baldwin told Wolper that Bella used to drink that brand of white wine, but the beer cans puzzled her. She also remembered that the owner of the funeral home, Melvin Carpenter, took her and her husband aside to say that he had seen a lot of drownings and he didn’t think that Bella died by drowning.
“Sheriff Thurston also told us that Bella was a virgin,” Gretchen Baldwin added. “Now that I think about it, that was strange when we didn’t even know how she had drowned. Her death is full of imponderables.”
John Baldwin, Bella’s older brother who now lives in Virginia, told Wolper he has always been on the fence about how Bella died. “Bella’s psychiatrist, Dr. Roger Waterman, visited us and said that he didn’t think that Bella committed suicide because he had seen her just before she left for Maine.” Also, the letters that she wrote almost daily to a friend both before and while on Vinalhaven portray a young woman excited about being out on her own and exploring the world. After Sheriff Thurston met with the Baldwins and spoke with Waterman, he reportedly shifted his opinion of Bella’s death from a suicide to an accident.
“At the rate things are going I’m tempted to write the case up as an accidental drowning,” Thurston explained to the Courier-Gazette at the time. “The rocks on the beach were large and could make walking difficult, and when she was found, she had a broken rib.”
But the sheriff’s statement raises new questions. No broken rib was described in the autopsy report. In fact, the pathologist, Dr. Lincoln Opper, wrote: “The rib cage is removed. There are no fractures.” Opper’s report did not mention any sign of rape or sexual activity. Thurston, who has since died, never explained why he thought Baldwin had a broken rib.
In addition, the autopsy made no mention of injuries that James Knowlton told Wolper he saw. He said that when he went down to the beach that afternoon to look at the body, he turned her over with his foot. “There were bubbles coming out of her mouth, and it looked like someone had smashed her,” he told Wolper. “Taken a rock the size of their hand and smashed in her face.”
Yet Dr. Earle would later report that it was he who turned over Bella Baldwin’s body, and neither he nor the autopsy report would mention any facial injuries consistent with Knowlton’s account. The autopsy mentions facial contusions and bruises on the face and neck and abrasions over the knuckles of her hands. (When Wolper had a nationally prominent coroner, Dr. Halbert Fillinger, Jr., of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, review the autopsy report, he said he doubted the bruises came from either falling or wave action. Nor was Baldwin’s position on the beach consistent with someone who had washed ashore with the tide.)
Over the years “the girl with the red purse” has become island legend. “People will always talk about it out here,” muses Bodine Ames, now a town selectman. “It’s something that people still wonder about.”
“That initial scene will never leave my mind,” Oakes adds. “So many people in the years since have dreamed up so many stories.” Both she and Ames believe Baldwin’s death was accidental.
Bella Baldwin’s parents decided to leave her in Rockland. Her grave is marked with a small granite stone engraved with a line of her poetry: “I catch the sun in my fingertips.” Perhaps it will also shine a light on her death.
- By: Jeff Clark