ELLSWORTH — Tenacious, diligent, conscientious, patient, excellent, caring, kind and respected, not to mention “a grown-up.” Those were a few of the phrases used to describe longtime Hancock County Sheriff’s Detective Stephen McFarland, who is retiring April 30.
McFarland is leaving after 38 years on the job.
“He always thought it was below him to base his case on a confession,” said former District Attorney Michael Povich. Instead, McFarland worked to get the evidence to prove a case.
“He is a detective,” Povich said. “That is his specialty, and he is just absolutely conscientious to a fault. He’s highly respected.”
Hancock County Sheriff Scott Kane said, “He is unquestionably one of the finest, detail-oriented detectives or investigators I’ve had the pleasure to work with. It’s going to be a huge loss.”
Former Sheriff Bill Clark quipped that McFarland was bad for public relations.
“For as political of a police administrator as I was, he was terrible for my public relations because he did so much work so quietly behind the scenes,” said Clark. “As an agency chief, I wasn’t getting the political accolades I would have liked to have gotten. These were good cases he was solving with very little fanfare. He never seems to give up and has a remarkable success rate with the cases he works on.”
When asked why he was retiring, McFarland said, “I’ve been doing it for 38 years and I think there’s some young people coming up that I think could do it better.”
McFarland, who is also pastor of the Eggemoggin Baptist Church in Sedgwick, says his wife is looking forward to having him home. He will also spend more time at his church and working on projects in his community.
Safe to say, things have changed since the detective began his career, first as a corrections officer at the Hancock County and Penobscot County jails before becoming a patrolman.
“The culture is different,” McFarland said. “You had a little more discretion in how you handled cases back then than you do today, particularly for OUI offenses and domestic violence cases. We’re pretty much tied to policy on how those are handled. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing.”
Law enforcement does not have the respect it did from the public even a decade ago.
“I think the perception of law enforcement recently has changed,” McFarland said. “That’s unfortunate, I believe. But that is a fact.”
McFarland attributes that change to several factors.
“I think there could have been some better communication probably between law enforcement and the people they serve,” he said. “I think there’s some misunderstanding by the community about the heart of law enforcement. They get the perception, I think, that there’s widespread corruption and racial injustice. There is some. But to have it as broad-based as they believe, to paint a whole profession with that brush, is not accurate.”
“I’ve got to say my whole career, law enforcement has pretty much been like the blindfolded lady of justice as far as how they treated the victims of crimes and the offenders,” McFarland said. “That’s been my experience here in Maine.”
McFarland worked as an investigator for the District Attorney’s Office for nearly a decade — 2001 to 2010.
“For a period of time I worked for the Northern Violent Crime Task Force put together by the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” McFarland said. “We were involved in arresting and prosecuting on a federal level, violent offenders, who were using firearms to commit those offenses.”
That was in the late ’90s.
“It was something done under the umbrella of ATF at the time,” McFarland said. “They had agents from different federal agencies from that task force and they all worked together for the purpose of apprehending violent offenders, who were using firearms to commit violent offenses. That task force arrested quite a few.”
Povich remarked that McFarland was one of the few people who could work with all the agencies because “he rose above inter-agency jealousies. He was a grown-up. He didn’t care about politics.”
Certain cases, both solved and unsolved, will stay with the detective.
McFarland recalled the June 13, 1999, shooting of his brother, Deputy Jeff McFarland, by Richard Burdick, who was wanted in Massachusetts for sex crimes and hiding in Orland at HOME Inc.
Clark was sheriff at the time and said Burdick was featured on the TV show “America’s Most Wanted,” which led to tips to the Sheriff’s Office that the fugitive was at HOME.
Deputy Jeff McFarland responded with then deputy Jim Willis, who is now the Mount Desert police chief. Burdick fired at the officers, wounding McFarland, who recovered, and incidentally was just named the Maine Sheriff’s Association Deputy of the Year.
McFarland is frustrated with an unsolved case investigating a stalker/rapist who was attacking women in the Hancock/Sullivan area in the early to mid-’90s.
Clark recalled, “That was probably the most dominant series of events that we ever worked on. It involved a lot of agencies, countless hundreds of man-hours on that. He [McFarland] just did another DNA testing last fall. He had a suspect and got a sample and eliminated that individual as a suspect.”
Povich was prosecutor then.
“He always worked very hard on child sex and rape cases, which are the toughest ones to deal with,” Povich said.
Evidence work, of course, has changed with technological advancements.
“You can get a lot more physical evidence than what you could get when I began,” the detective said. “The fingerprint work has developed with digitization.”
“Back when I started everything was done on a typewriter,” said McFarland. Most incidents were documented on a card or in the case of a felony, one or two pages. “The volume of paperwork you have to do has increased dramatically.”
“I think the types of responsibilities have increased,” McFarland said of the profession. “We carry Narcan now, which we never did before.” Narcan is the brand name for a drug used to reverse the effects of an opiate or heroin overdose.
The development of the drug trade is another change.
“Back in the earlier days it was more marijuana than anything, but now we’re dealing with fentanyl and heroin and meth. It’s more serious drugs and its more addictive drugs and it’s more widespread.”
“The justice system, too, has changed,” McFarland said. “I’ve noticed less justice, in my view, less concern about bringing justice to the victims and more for the offenders. It seems to be the current trend at the moment. That can be kind of discouraging at times.”
But, over four decades, the detective has seen that trend go back and forth.
“It’s kind of like a pendulum,” he said.