Paul Doiron here—
My wife and I were having lunch at Morse’s Sauerkraut in Waldoboro recently when we overheard two couples talking in the next booth. The conversation turned to hunting, and inevitably one of the wives brought up the 1988 shooting of Karen Wood. “She was wearing white mittens,” the woman said, “The hunter said he thought it was a deer’s tail. She was in her own backyard, and a jury let him off scott free!”
Over the past twenty-three years the death of Karen Wood and the acquittal of the man who shot her has acquired the status of a contemporary folk legend in Maine. Every November, the Hermon woman’s name is invoked as a cautionary tale intended to frighten non-hunters—especially those new to the state—into a state of heightened alertness. On other occasions the story is offered as proof that rural Mainers are uncaring and prejudiced against outsiders (a slur if ever there was one). Sometimes it’s just a blanket condemnation of deer hunting in general. There has been no developments in this closed case for years, and yet I am routinely pitched the story by freelancers who have just learned about Wood and are so outraged by what happened to her that they believe Down East should retell a story that’s been told hundreds of times before.
No one pitches me the story of eighteen-year-old Megan Ripley who was shot to death by a hunter outside her house during the December 2006 muzzle-loader season, days after most nonhunters assumed it was safe to venture outside. For some reason Ripley’s death has not resonated as deeply as Wood’s, perhaps because the man who killed her pled guilty. (He had no choice: Maine law was changed after Karen Wood’s death to make it a crime for a hunter to shoot at anything unless he or she can positively identify it as a deer.) Still, the hunter was only sentenced to 30 days in jail and two years probation, now served.
This past deer-hunting season was fraught with bloody incidents (Maine game wardens prefer not to call them accidents since to do so would suggest they were unavoidable). A Sebago man, wearing blaze orange no less, was shot to death by another hunter on November 5. Within days of that fatality, two other hunters were injured in unrelated shootings. A Waterville hunter died of a heart attack in the woods of Piscataquis County while a Belgrade man injured himself a few days ago when he fell from his tree stand in the opening hours of the muzzle loader season. And then were the three dead German shepherds “mistaken” for coyotes.
I’m not the only hunter who was mortified by each and every one of these stories. As John Holyoke wrote in the Bangor Daily News:
All it takes is a single weekend. . . to convince plenty of people that the woods of Maine are full of wild, gun-toting folks who don’t care what they shoot at, whether it’s a deer, the family pooch or another hunter.
It doesn’t matter that statistics show that hunting is less dangerous (to people if not deer) than riding a bicycle or playing baseball. What matters are the stories of men with guns inflicting violence on other human beings. Even fragmentary narratives have tremendous power to incite our imaginations. A man in blaze orange falls to the ground, clutching his bloody stomach in disbelief; a mother in white mittens drops dead in her backyard while her twin girls play inside their new suburban house. We’re hard-wired as human beings to look for meaning in events, and so we create stories to convince ourselves we’re unlike people we disdain (those wild, gun-toting folks), or to make sense of deaths that would otherwise seem incomprehensible.
That’s one of the reason I write crime novels: to understand why my own thoughts turns so frequently to violence. And to confront the reality of my own mortality in the deaths of others.
It’s also the reason the name Karen Wood is destined to live on for many Novembers to come.