The past isn’t always

Gerry here. It was 1980 and I was a cub reporter, new to Somerset County. One of the towns I was assigned  was Madison, north of Skowhegan. It seemed like a folksy sort of place, kind of like Mayberry with a paper mill. But within weeks, I was reminded that towns like Mayberry only exist on TV. In reality, folksy is usually mixed with nasty and deadly.

Her name was Rita St. Peter. She was 20, had a three-year-old child. She lived with parents in Anson, across the Kennebec River from the mill and worked as a waitress in Skowhegan. One night, when she was off work, she went across the bridge to one of the Madison bars. When the bar closed, she set out to walk back home.

Rita St. Peter never made it.

Her body was found on the campground road, just up from the bridge. She’d been beaten to death and, it appeared, had been run over by a truck. There was a flurry of activity, stories in the papers, rumors flying. One was that the police had a suspect, that he’d been seen washing his pickup in Madison at 2 a.m., just hours after the murder. And then there was another story or two. And then nothing.

Until today.

The Morning Sentinel had the story. After 31 years, State Police had made an arrest. A 55-year-old guy named Jay Stephen Mercier, who lived in the town of Industry, west of Anson. He was charged with Rita St. Peter’s murder. The story said investigators had a breakthrough with forensic evidence. Police haven’t said exactly what, but I assume they had a DNA match. If  the case holds, Mercier will likely spend the rest of his life in prison. Or maybe he’s been in one for the past 31 years.

By coincidence I’d been thinking of Rita St. Peter just a couple of weeks ago. Doing research for a book I’m writing, I was looking at the list of unsolved homicides that the State Police keeps on its web page. It’s a long list and I covered a few of the murders when they were front-page news. Each homicide had a brief description, a number to call if you have information or your conscience has finally eaten you up. The latter is a longshot but you never know. It can’t be easy carrying that sort of secret. Or maybe murderers are good at compartmentalizing.

Anyway, there was Rita St. Peter. I wrote a column once on some anniversary of the crime. I remember talking to a woman who was a sister or some relative. She had Rita’s picture in a frame in the mobile home she lived. She talked about Rita when she was alive, how hard it was not to know, not to have some sort of end to the nightmare. I did a few of these stories about different unsolved murders and they were always sad. The hope was that by reviving the case, somebody would be moved to come forward. It rarely happened but it was worth a shot.

Reading about this case brought it all back. Looking at the photo again gave me pause.

It looks like a high school photo (she was in the Pep Club, on the prom committee), maybe something cropped from a group shot. Rita had dark wavy hair, no makeup, looked a little tomboyish, like she might have been climbing trees not long ago. She’s smiling tentatively, like she’d like to trust you but maybe she’s been burned once. Still, she hasn’t lost her faith in people, not entirely. Rita looks a little naive, like life might sneak up on her when she isn’t looking.

As it turns out, it did.

Of course, this is all hindsight fueled by a fiction writer’s imagination. In fact, the basic facts of this case stayed with me for years. I eventually used some of it in a mystery novel called HOME BODY (2004). I don’t know that I’d use the specifics of the resolution of the case. 

But then again …

Right now I’m wondering about Mercier, what it was like for him, if he’s guilty. Did he think about it much, all these years later? Had he rationalized it in some way, convinced himself it was an accident? Did he wake up at night, look over at the person sleeping next to him, waver for a moment and keep his lips sealed? When you have this sort of secret, you’re always alone.

So that’s the news from this part of Lake Wobegon, where some of the children are pretty good looking, some are above average, and everybody doesn’t make it. Where sometimes justice is done. And out of the blue, stories from the distant past come back to haunt you.






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3 Responses to The past isn’t always

  1. Ramona Long says:

    Interesting story, Gerry. I esp. like your question about this man, and if he has been in his own prison the past three decades.

    Twenty years old–that’s not much time to have a life. I hope her family gets some comfort.

  2. MCWriTers says:

    I wonder if we all feel a bit haunted by these unsolved cases. I know that the police officers who’ve worked them carry these cases all their lives.

    The one that grips me is Joyce McLain. One gets the sense, reading about the case, that it was someone in town, and the whole town still feels that there is a killer among them. I see from the MSP website that there were construction workers in town and a softball tournament…but I’m betting on a local.

    Unless it was this same guy. It was 1980, after all…

    • MCWriTers says:

      Good follow-up to the arrest story. Morning Sentinel reporting that relatives say accused is father of victim’s then three-year-old daughter. Relative says guy was angry that the mother wouldn’t marry him, make it a family. Birth certificate reportedly says father’s name listed as “undisclosed.” The story behind the story … and the stuff of a crime novel, for sure.

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