Thursday, December 12, 2013
Murders like Dawn Rossignol’s stay in people’s minds.
The Colby College senior was crossing a college parking lot on her way to a Bangor doctor’s appointment in 2003 when paroled convict Edward Hackett picked her out, forced her into her car, assaulted her, murdered her and dumped her body next to Messalonskee Stream in Oakland.
About 27 years before in Oakland, not far from where Rossignol’s body was found, Janet Baxter had a cold. She went to buy medicine at a Waterville pharmacy five minutes away.
Less than two hours later, her body was found. She had been raped, shot twice in the head and stuffed into the trunk of her car, left on the Kennebec riverbank off Old River Road in Norridgewock.
Before that, there was Kathy Murphy, another Colby student. The 18-year-old freshman was found near a culvert down a ravine off Mayflower Drive, about 35 feet from campus in 1971. She was bludgeoned to death with a rock.
Crime novelist Gerry Boyle covered the trial of Baxter’s murderer, Albert Cochran, in 1998, as well as the trial of Alan Pelletier, acquitted of Murphy’s murder in 1986.
“In both cases, the parents were good people, strong and beaten down but not broken,” he said this week in an email. “Kathy Murphy’s mother was a real lady, to use an old-fashioned term. Janet Baxter’s father was from Readfield. A good man in all ways.
“The trial was difficult even by murder-trial standards — graphic description of terrible things — but they felt a duty to be there for their child.”
It’s hard to imagine being the ones left behind when a family member is killed. Knowing there are parents, children, spouses, boyfriends and girlfriends left behind makes those murders feel personal. It could happen to anybody.
We’re an us-and-them society. We like to think that murderers are “them” — people who can’t possibly be like anyone we know.
I worked with a man once whose sister had been murdered. Her body was left by the side of a road in Tennessee.
“I hate that state,” he told me once. “They murder women and dump them by the side of the road like garbage.”
Well, we do that here, too.
Maine’s not a dangerous state, as far as random murders go. We have one of the lowest murder rates in the nation. There were 23 in both 2011 and 2012. Of those, 11 in 2011 and 10 in 2012 were classified as domestic-violence homicides.
Included in the 2011 roll are Amy Lake and her children, Monica and Coty, who were killed by her husband, Steven, in June that year in Dexter. A week before Lake and her children were killed, Sarah Gordon was shot dead by her husband, Nathaniel, in the street in front of their house in Winslow.
Like Murphy, Baxter and Rossignol, the Lake and Gordon murders are four central Maine deaths that will be forever tied together.
But those recent murders are more a “them” than an “us” for a lot of people.
It’s easier for many of us to identify with women killed seemingly randomly while going about daily business — going to a doctor’s appointment, buying cold medicine — than it is to identify with a victim of domestic violence.
Albert Cochran, the man convicted in 1998 of killing Baxter, killed his wife and three children in Illinois in 1963.
His defense for killing his wife was that he came home to find she’d killed the children and he killed her in a rage. Police didn’t believe the story. She had no blood on her clothes, but he had a lot on his, despite the fact he’d washed them. But that shaky story was enough to push a little of the blame onto his dead wife. Instead of spending his life in prison for four murders, he spent less than 12 years there.
When he was paroled in 1976, he headed home to Oakland.
A month after Baxter was killed, Cochran’s girlfriend, Pauline Rourke, disappeared. She’s never been found. Her case remains on the Maine State Police cold case list.
After Murphy, Baxter and Rossignol were killed, newspapers quoted area residents saying they were afraid to go outside.
When Rossignol was killed, Colby’s security was questioned. College President William Adams said there was little the school could have done differently. That’s true.
When murders like that happen, there are always people quoted in the newspaper or on TV saying they can’t believe it would happen here. But of course it can happen here. It’s not so much that nowhere is safe, but that nowhere has a better class of human beings than any other place.
And while Colby College could have done little to prevent Rossignol’s death, Maine’s homicide statistics prove that the young women strolling around Colby’s idyllic campus — as well as those walking down Main Street in Waterville at midnight — are safer than a woman who is involved with the wrong man.
As horrific as Gordon and Lake’s murders were, no one said they didn’t think it could happen here. No one said they were afraid to go outside.
The good news is we can do a lot more to prevent those types of murders than we can about Rossignol, Baxter and Murphy’s.
Maureen Milliken is news editor of the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. Email her at email@example.com. Kennebec Tales is published the first and third Thursday of the month.