Closure?

A long-sought specialty squad of the Maine State Police will soon start delving into the state’s most puzzling unsolved crimes.

By Jesse Ellison

Richard Moreau has been looking for his daughter Kimberly since 1986, when, on the night before her junior prom, the 17-year-old Canton girl went out with friends and never came home. During the nearly three decades since, Moreau has plastered posters emblazoned with Kimberly’s face all over western Maine. Before retiring from a 41-year career at International Paper, he used to slip those posters into paper shipments, sending his daughter’s image all over the world. And he has talked relentlessly about the girl, never allowing the police or the public to forget.

“I think anyone can accept the fact that you lose a loved one,” says Moreau of the uniquely wrenching pain that accompanies such an unexplained, unresolved loss. “But you know where they are. You have a cemetery plot and you can go down and see. I lost my daughter, and I have no place to go. It is one lonely feeling.”

In October, Moreau and the families of some 120 other victims of unsolved homicides or kidnappings will take, they hope, a small step towards closure. Earlier this year, after nearly 15 years of legislative efforts to found and to fund a police unit dedicated to such “cold cases,” the state legislature approved and subsequently committed funding for the state’s first cold case squad. Yet unhired at press time, a team of two veteran detectives and one forensic scientist is slated to start tackling the unsolved cases on October 1, at a cost to the state of around half a million dollars per year.

It’s hard. A lot of families aren’t even able to talk about it. When they start to, there’s so much hurt there that they just break down. They just can’t move on beyond that point. — Richard Moreau

Assistant Attorney General Lara Nomani has led cold case prosecutions since 2007 and will continue to act as point person for the new squad. The detectives, she says, need to “keep expectations realistic” and “not spread our resources too thin.” It’s unreasonable, she cautions, to expect that two detectives can take on 120 cases, some of which date back 50 years. And, nomenclature aside, she’s quick to emphasize that none of these cases have ever truly been treated as “cold” — all have been classified as open and active, with detectives investigating as time permits. Still, Nomani and others are cautiously optimistic that the new team will be able to bolster the state police’s success rate.

As recently as August, police searched a property related to the disappearance of Kimberly Moreau. They were unable to find what they were looking for, says a department spokesperson, but Moreau says that even that small effort means he can count himself among the “fortunate” ones, since his case hasn’t languished like some others.

“It’s hard,” says Moreau. “A lot of families aren’t even able to talk about it. When they start to, there’s so much hurt there that they just break down. They just can’t move on beyond that point.”

With a new team devoted full-time to the resolution of such cases, it’s those families, Moreau hopes, who will benefit most.

Below, four of the most mystifying cases facing the state’s new squad.

Effie MacDonald, Bangor, 1965

On the morning of March 18, 1965, Effie MacDonald reported to her job as a chambermaid at Bangor’s venerable Bangor House hotel. The 54-year-old Houlton native had moved to Bangor, where she had family, some nine years prior, following a divorce. That afternoon, she was found beaten, sexually assaulted, and strangled with her nylon stockings in a third-floor guest room that had been unoccupied for two days. One family member recalled to the Bangor Daily News in 2010 that when family pressed for details on the condition of her body, police told them, “You don’t want to know.”

Closure?What became known as the “Bangor House Strangling” grabbed the attention of detectives in Boston, where, just weeks before, a suspect in custody had claimed that he was the infamous Boston Strangler, responsible for at least 13 murders between 1962 and 1964. Detectives on the Massachusetts “strangler squad” came to Bangor to investigate MacDonald’s murder, but they quickly dismissed any link, as the manner in which the stockings were tied didn’t match the scene of previous crimes.

Because of the hotel’s prominence and the brutality of the murder, the case received significant media attention, and police from all over the state were enlisted to investigate. Detective Captain Clifton E. Sloane of the Bangor Police Department became especially dedicated to the case. After hundreds of interviews, he narrowed his list of possible suspects down to a single man, a guest at the hotel with “prominent brown eyes” who’d been seen slipping out a back door. But the suspect barricaded himself with lawyers, and Sloane had neither hard evidence nor, of course, the technology to test for DNA. Sloane died in 1976, but he spent the rest of his life claiming to know beyond a doubt the identity of MacDonald’s killer, and he reportedly revisited his case files often in hopes of finding something he may have missed.

Like all unsolved homicide cases in Maine, MacDonald’s case is still listed as open. Members of the MacDonald family, many of whom remain in Bangor, have said that the man who was Sloane’s main suspect is now deceased.

Mary Catherine Olenchuk, Ogunquit, 1976

When the Army promoted Peter George Olenchuk to Brigadier General in 1970, in part for the World War II and Vietnam vet’s work in its chemical warfare division, the war in Vietnam was arguably in its darkest chapter. The memory of the spring’s Kent State shootings was still fresh that summer, when Olenchuk was overseeing a controversial program called Operation CHASE — the acronym stood for “Cut Holes and Sink ’Em” — involving the disposal at sea of unwanted munitions and chemical weapons. On August 8, a Kentucky newspaper reported a threat from a student group that said it would kidnap the families of those involved.

Closure?The general’s daughter, 13-year-old Mary Catherine Olenchuk, was at the family’s summer home in Ogunquit at the time, vacationing with her mother and sisters. On August 9, a Sunday afternoon, she left the beach on a friend’s borrowed bike, heading into town for a pack of gum and a copy of The New York Times for her family. She never returned.

The police and the Olenchuk family spent two days waiting for a ransom phone call. When it didn’t come, police launched a statewide search effort that included four Army helicopters. Thirteen days after Mary disappeared, her body was found 10 miles away, beneath a pile of hay in a Kennebunk barn. Police said there were no signs of sexual assault. Mary’s body was badly decomposed, with a rope still wrapped around her neck.

Though Mary was reportedly seen getting into a maroon car with a dark-haired young man (“not a hippie,” as one witness described), no arrests were ever made. In the first days Mary was missing, her father told reporters he didn’t think his work was linked to her disappearance; after her body was found, neither parent ever spoke to the media again. Major General Olenchuk died in Ogunquit in 2000 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Almost a year after the discovery of Mary’s body, the barn where it was found burned to the ground. No cause was ever determined, and the barn’s owner maintained that the circumstances of the fire were suspicious.

James Arlington Cassidy, Amherst, 1976

A mysterious call came into the Penobscot County Sheriff’s office on April 7, 1976. The anonymous caller said he’d seen a burned-out station wagon on a forest road in Washington County, and the car had a corpse inside. When asked for his name, the man abruptly hung up.

Closure?The next morning, after the Bangor Daily News printed police assurances that the tipster could remain anonymous, the caller reached out again. This time, his tip led police to a spot 100 yards off a lonely stretch of Route 9, known as “The Airline,” where they found the remains of a 1971 Chrysler with Massachusetts plates, together with a body burned beyond recognition. An empty gasoline can was found nearby, and police ruled the man’s death a homicide. Examiners used dental records to identify James Cassidy of Brookline, Massachusetts.

Cassidy was 42 at the time of his death, an executive at the Brookline Trust Company bank. On the same day police received the initial tip, Cassidy had been named in a warrant by the FBI’s Boston bureau, charging him with embezzling nearly $20,000 from the bank where he worked. The investigation into Cassidy’s death included detectives from both Maine and Massachusetts, but from the get-go, leads were few, and today, there is still no explanation as to how Cassidy met his end in Maine’s remote woods.

According to Cassidy’s cousin Peter, who maintains a website devoted to family genealogy, James Cassidy was an avid stamp collector, and family lore has it that at the time of his murder, Cassidy was in possession of a small package of what may have been valuable stamps. Some in the family have speculated that he was murdered over the package’s contents, but even the origins of that theory, says Peter, have been lost to history.

Leslie Spellman, Northeast Harbor, 1977

Twenty-seven-year-old yoga instructor Leslie Spellman said goodbye to her younger sister in Barre, Vermont, on June 18, 1977. The pair had hitchhiked to Vermont from their home in Massachusetts for a backpacking trip, and now Leslie planned to continue on to Acadia National Park, thumbing rides with her dog. The next day, at 9:45 a.m., tourists discovered her body laid out in the tranquil Asticou Azalea Garden in Northeast Harbor. Medical examiners said she had been dead for several hours, killed by repeated blows to the head with a blunt instrument. Her dog was found less than a mile away.

Closure?With no motive — and no evidence of sexual assault — authorities have twice speculated that Spellman’s murder was the work of a serial killer. For a time in the late 1970s, police harbored suspicions about a confessed murderer in Connecticut who had similarly bludgeoned his victims and whose car contained hair “compatible” with Spellman’s dog. No link was ever established, though. Then, in 2000, police looked closely at the possible involvement of James Hicks, a one-time Mainer who’d served time for the murder of his wife in 1977. More than 20 years later, he was arrested following an attempted murder in Texas and confessed to two more killings in Maine in the 1980s and 1990s. Ultimately, however, police found no evidence incriminating Hicks, and to this day, no arrests have been made.

In 2007, Maine State Police held a press conference to solicit new tips pertaining to Spellman’s murder, in light of new forensic technologies. Spellman’s sister came to Bangor for the event, and her comments at the time echo the sentiments of family and friends of all Maine’s cold case victims. ‘‘It’s never over,” she told reporters. “It never goes away.”

Top photo by Mark Fleming.

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Jesse Ellison

Jesse Ellison is a Down East contributing editor.