ELLSWORTH — One morning in January of 1999, a Sullivan woman was showering when she happened to glance at her bathroom mirror and saw a man clad in a ski mask in the home heading to her bedroom.
She grabbed her cell phone and called 911. The man fled before police arrived.
Hancock County Sheriff’s Office investigators think the same man is responsible for raping another woman, exposing himself, ejaculating on car steering wheels, assaulting others and breaking into numerous homes in the Hancock and Sullivan area between 1992 and 1999.
“I have always been disappointed that we have not been able to identify the person responsible,” said lead investigator Detective Stephen McFarland. “It is, by far, the most time-consuming and frustrating case I have ever worked. The DNA is still in the CODIS (Combined DNA Index System managed by the FBI) database and to this date, no match has been found.”
There were reports in the area back in the early ’90s of prowlers and peeping toms as well as a man exposing himself, “which we get periodically,” McFarland said, adding that police later connected the reports to the same suspect. “There was nothing that stood out to us during those years. There were sporadic incidents, a couple, three a year, usually in the summer months.”
Then the man’s behavior escalated.
On Dec. 15, 1995, a ski-masked man grabbed a young woman at her mailbox on the Ferry Road in Hancock.
“It was dark,” McFarland said. She fought back and the man fled but not before hitting the woman over the head with a firearm.
“This seemed like quite a dramatic event out of the blue,” the detective said.
There were reports of someone peeping in windows in Hancock village in 1996.
Then a woman was raped in Hancock in the middle of the night by a man clad in a ski mask. She had been asleep in her bed when the attack began. That was August of 1996. McFarland obtained DNA evidence from that assault.
In the fall of 1996, police believe the same suspect began harassing a woman living across from the apartment where the rape occurred.
The man exposed himself and ran off. Another time he ejaculated onto the steering wheel of the woman’s car, McFarland said. The DNA from the ejaculate matched the DNA obtained from the sexual assault, McFarland said.
In December of 1996, the man broke into the woman’s apartment late at night. Fortunately, her boyfriend had decided to stay over that night. He fought the suspect, who ran off.
The investigation was exhaustive.
McFarland consulted the FBI.
“The FBI helped with some ideas of how to investigate this,” the detective said. “The FBI profiler told us that it’s quite compulsive behavior. It’s someone who could blend in the area and not stand out.”
In August of 1997, the suspect somehow obtained a key for a Franklin woman’s residence. He entered the residence at night and attacked her.
“She was able to flee from the home to a neighbor’s for help,” McFarland said. “He chased her there, but when she got to the neighbor’s, he fled.”
The last incident was in January of 1999 when the man went into the residence of a woman living in Franklin during the early morning while she showered. “She could see his reflection in the mirror from the shower. She was able to get her cell phone and call 911,” McFarland said. The suspect fled.
After that, the reports stopped.
The FBI advised that this meant the man was either in prison, dead or had left the area.
“It did stop all at once,” McFarland said.
Many involved in investigating the case have retired, including former Maine State Police Detective Sgt. Steve Pickering, Detective Matt Stewart, District Attorney Michael Povich and former Sheriff Bill Clark.
“I can’t tell you how many hundreds of man-hours from different departments to work on it,” Clark said.
“It appeared to be somebody local,” Clark said, adding that the FBI was sure police were going to find the man responsible because he was thought to be a local.
A geographic profiler from Ontario came to Maine to help.
McFarland explained that the profiler examined the locations of all the incidents to try to determine where the suspect might live.
Clark said his department brought in a “plant,” a female police officer from southern Maine who fit the description of the victims. The victims were similar in appearance. They had blonde or light brown hair and were of average build.
The officer lived in a house on Route 1 for about a week under 24-hour-a-day surveillance but there were no incidents.
Officers gathered all of the victims together in a meeting room to see if they could determine some common denominator among them that investigators had missed.
McFarland said “it was clearly someone who put some time into identifying younger women who were living alone.”
McFarland said at the time Maine had a six-year statute of limitations for rape cases.
In 2002, the statute was running out in the Hancock/Sullivan case.
Then Assistant District Attorney Mary Kellett obtained the state’s first arrest warrant based solely on DNA or a genetic profile.
“Both Mary and Michael [then District Attorney Povich] researched how to get it done,” McFarland said. Another state had been able to obtain a DNA warrant for a suspect whose identity was unknown to authorities but who had left genetic evidence behind.
The late Fifth District Court Judge Bernie Staples issued the warrant.
“We’re rural Maine,” McFarland said. “You just don’t see this kind of thing very much. I’ve never seen anything quite like that since. It’s very frustrating.”
Police put together a profile of the suspect.
The man was described as white, medium build, mid-20s to early 30s, between 5’6 and 6’ with fairly short brown hair and a clean shave, McFarland said. His hands were calloused.
In one instance he wrapped his hands around a victim’s mouth and she recalled smelling fuel, the detective said.
The women described the man’s voice as “local” with maybe a hint of another accent — not Maine.
“The sense was in everyday life he could be a polite person,” said McFarland. “He was the kind of guy they all said could blend in in everyday living. They said he had dark eyes too. Maybe higher cheekbones.”
Clark wonders if the man might have been a traveling salesman.
“He could be early 50s now,” McFarland said. “If he’s alive.”
There is still an active warrant for the suspect’s arrest based on the DNA.
“I would think if he’s in prison we would have gotten some kind of hit for his DNA profile in COTIS,” McFarland said. “And maybe he just stopped,” the lawman said. “They [the FBI] didn’t think he’d be able to stop all at once.”
“It’s a case that we’re always looking for information on — if anyone has any ideas — we’d take that information,” said McFarland. Call 667-7575 if you think you might remember something from that time.
There are still some victims in the area. One moved out of state not long after her attack.
“I’m sure it’s frustrating for them,” McFarland said. “Not knowing who did this. It definitely affects how you live your life.”