It is every parent’s nightmare–your child goes out one Saturday night and vanishes off the face of the earth. It also, sadly, something that happens far too often–a sensible and independent young woman who thinks she knows how to take care of herself crosses paths with a predator. The bad guy doesn’t look evil. He is charming, charismatic, lively, and fun. It is only when he has his victim alone that his true self–his violent, explosive, self-indulgent, and remorseless side–emerges. Suddenly, a lifetime of striving toward maturity and self-awareness, of good decisions and generous acts, is changed by one bad choice. This is one of those stories.
On Saturday night, October 20, 2001, a lovely blonde woman with a generous heart and a happy disposition set out to show a new acquaintance from Florida the nightlife in the Old Port area of Portland, Maine. After an evening of shooting pool and dancing, twenty-five-year-old Amy St. Laurent disappeared.
But this isn’t a fictional story. There really was an Amy St.Laurent. And ten years ago this month, she did cross paths with a young man named Russ Gorman, a man who, at 21, prided himself on the number of women he had slept with. A man who would not take “no” for an answer. Who grew enraged if a woman turned him down. A man who carried a gun. A few hours later, Amy lay dead in the woods in Scarborough, shot in the head. By Sunday, her family was deeply concerned. By Monday, South Berwick police and Portland police were launching their investigation into her disappearance, and her family and friends were papering the Old Port, and then all of Southern New England, with missing posters. On Tuesday, Russ Gorman borrowed a shovel from his step-father, went back into the woods where he’d left her body, and buried her, carefully concealing the grave by replacing the cut-away pieces of grass, and then masking the whole by sprinkling it with pine needles.
In Maine, most homicides, except in Portland and Bangor, are handled by the State Police. But, though they were certain that Amy St. Laurent was dead, there were no witnesses. No visible crime scene. There was no weapon. And there was no body. So State police detectives Sgt. Matt Steward and Det. Scott Harakles, and Portland police Sgt. Tommy Joyce and Det. Danny Young shared the case. And as the weeks ticked by with her family longing for closure, police watched their suspect party in the Old Port. Feared for other young women. And searched. And searched. And searched.
In early December, troubled by the news stories reporting that Amy still had not been found, Pat Dorian, a lieutenant with the Maine Warden Service in charge of search and rescue for the state, offered his help, and a third public safety agency became involved. On December 8th, a massive search and rescue effort was launched with police from both agencies, wardens, search and rescue dogs and handlers, and volunteers from many SAR agencies. By mid-afternoon, a snowstorm was on the way and the searchers were losing hope when one of the grid searchers walking an old tote road near the suspect’s home spotted a live tree branch buried in the ground and noticed the grass under his feet appeared to be disturbed. The grid search line halted, examined the ground, and found cut turf. Trained cadaver dogs hit on the spot. Det. Danny Young came to the scene with a trowel, knelt and dug into the ground, and about 20 inches down, found grey sweatshirt material. Amy St. Laurent wore a grey sweatshirt the night she disappeared.
The medical examiner and a forensic anthropologist were called. Lights were brought in to the scene, and under eerie white light, while outside in the world people shopped and attended holiday parties, and Amy’s father, Dennis, waited out by the road for news, the detectives and crime scene experts conducted a slow, painstaking forensic exhumation in a cold forest clearing. As they finally zipped her into a body bag and loaded her into a hearse for the trip to the medical examiner’s office in Augusta, the snow began to fall.
I don’t write true crime. I got involved because my friend, then Lt. Joseph K. Loughlin, who was advising me about police procedure for my Joe Burgess series, was the Portland lieutenant supervising the investigation. He wanted to write about the case and didn’t know how to write a book. Joe had three goals for the book: to show the world what a special young woman Amy St. Laurent had been, and to give her a legacy; to warn young women about the dangers of predators; and to show an instance where the police got it right, and detail their dedication to getting justice for victims. I didn’t know what I was doing, either, but before long, I was hooked on the case, and Amy had become as special to me as she was to the investigators. It was a two and half year project, some of that waiting for the appeals to be over and the conviction to be final.
Along the way, I learned most vividly the truth of a quote I’d read. In his book about the Rwandan massacre, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, Philip Gourevich writes: “This is what fascinates me most in existence: the peculiar necessity of imagining what is, in fact, real.” Following in the footsteps of the investigators, and then the prosecutors, Joe and I imagined it. Many years on, Amy is still with us. For the investigators, this is especially true in October, November and December, the months when she dominated their hearts and minds every day.
Amy Elizabeth St. Laurent was the kind of woman who would use her savings to give a struggling young family a decent Christmas, or to fly her friend Katie home from Alaska for Katie’s grandparents 50th wedding anniversary. She took a leave of absence from work to sit by the bedside of a friend in a coma, talking for hours of the things they’d done together. She was generous and loving and hoped for a better world. And one night, she collided with a man who’d done nothing in his life but indulge himself and prey on other people.
It has been ten years. In her memory, her mother, Diane Jenkins, founded The Amy St. Laurent Foundation, which funds R.A.D. training (Rape Aggression Defense) at police departments to help other women stay safe.
“Cast your eyes on the ocean
Cast your soul to the sea
When the dark night seems endless
Please remember me”