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Is there hope for cold cases in Maine?

Maine headlines this week were filled with justice for the past as the trial began of a man accused in a nearly four-decade-old murder. Philip Scott Fournier is accused of killing Joyce McLain in 1980, when she was a 16-year-old student in East Millinocket. With minimal leads and shaky evidence, the slow-burning investigation into McLain’s death was suddenly reinvigorated in 2016 when Fournier was arrested. For those interested in the McLain case, it seems closure is on the horizon. For the rest of Maine’s cold case families, not so much.

Sadly, the McLain case is not the norm. Cases of missing persons and unsolved homicides — and we have many in our state — rarely see formal charges brought against an individual, much less incarceration.

The Maine State Police lists 77 unsolved homicides and 28 missing persons in a publicly-accessible database. Many of those have been posted for years, with the oldest dating back to 1954. Eternal mysteries, the cases become more unsolvable every year. After enough time, when even the family doesn’t know them anymore, the missing or deceased individual is simply lost to the annals of our state’s history.

Could it be helped? Yes and no. Let’s break it down.

For many cases from the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, potential answers are pretty much lost to the decades. Another reason the McLain case is an outlier is that Fournier is not a new suspect; police have questioned him over 27 times during the 35-year-long investigation. A quick glance at the case descriptions on the state police database will reveal that only a few have identified suspects and far more have no leads whatsoever. Obviously, we as citizens of Maine cannot give up on these people, but the reality is that the time for their closure was long ago, and it is unlikely that new developments will be made in the majority of cases.  

Solving recent cases in the 2000s and 2010s is more likely, and the process could be helped by statewide reform. Currently, only two population centers in Maine are able to investigate homicides with their own police forces: Bangor and Portland. Cases of homicide outside these cities can only be investigated by the Maine State Police Major Crimes Unit. Local police forces, by law, cannot independently investigate homicides within their jurisdictions.

But what if this changed? If more cities in Maine were granted the ability to head up their own homicide investigations, then the state police would have more resources to investigate homicides in rural areas, between population centers, and in small towns. It’s especially important to have available state officers in a state that is as geographically spread out, rural and difficult to traverse as Maine. This change would allow officers to quickly respond to cases where the local police cannot support a full and intense homicide investigation.

This change may help, or it may be a pipe dream. The reality is that some inherent features of Maine make it particularly difficult to address missing person or homicide cases. The vast, uncharted wilderness, for example, likely holds the answers to most missing persons cases — but locating clues in expansive forest is next to impossible.

It’s a sad truth that the majority of Maine’s homicide and missing person cases will likely remain unsolved. Hope is good for consolation and best applied to changing the future. How can unsolved cases in the past contribute to investigations in the future? That is the legacy of those who may never be found.

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