Editor’s note: This story was originally published on August 8, 2005.
Even 25 years after the unsolved murder of her daughter, Pam McLain can’t bring herself to look at much of the belongings that she has kept stowed out of sight, but not out of mind.
She read Joyce’s poignant poems and pondered their meaning. She even delved into her daughter’s innermost thoughts, jotted down in a notebook turned diary. McLain laughed when she read the youthful innocence in her daughter’s words as she wrote about her frustration over a new record she bought in Bangor that warped after it was left out in the sun before she had a chance to play it.
“Damn upset” is how Joyce put it.
But when Pam McLain gets to the last entry in the journal, on Aug. 8, 1980, she has to stop reading. The three-quarters of a page of musings were the last words her daughter wrote.
Independent but not above the pressures of wanting to fit in, the 16-year-old Schenck High School sophomore was looking to shed a few pounds when she left home for a jog, wearing her pink terrycloth running suit. She had been out biking that day but was seeking the cooler temperatures of the evening.
Although she didn’t know it, a violent storm was brewing.
Joyce, who threw herself into whatever she tried, whether it was on the basketball court, soccer field or stage as a musician and thespian, never returned.
Her partially clad body was found two days later, left along a power line clearing about 200 feet from the soccer fields where she had played fullback for the Schenck High School Wolverines. Her head and neck had been struck repeatedly by a blunt object.
While there was no sign of sexual assault, that may have been a motive in the crime.
For years after the murder, Pam McLain, the divorced mom of two daughters, felt emotionally trapped in the past, she said.
“That whole time, my time was taken up with the bitter, ugly, angry, upset,” McLain said recently as she moved about her East Millinocket home, which is filled with dolls, pictures of family members, and paintings of children and angels.
Her daughters, Joyce and her younger sister, Wendy, now 40, had grown up there, and it was where Joyce had taught piano lessons and planned her wedding down to the flowers and the future groom, who didn’t know he had been selected.
McLain lost a daughter that weekend; the closely knit town of 2,300 people lost its innocence.
People in town began locking the doors they once left open. The evening after Joyce’s body was found, the streets in town — normally filled with the sounds of young people trying to squeeze as much as they could out of the long summer days — were quiet.
“It was just like a hush fell over the town,” remembered Frank Clukey, the town’s longtime recreation director. “It was something that this town has never felt before.”
Parents kept a tighter rein on their children, and adults patrolled the streets on Halloween, with someone on every street corner with a flashlight, McLain said.
“It was a fearful time,” recalled Judy Curtis, 56, of East Millinocket, who kept her own daughter, then 8 years old, closer to home in the wake of the murder.
“It still haunts,” said Curtis, who was finishing up lunch at The Diner with her daughter, Tina Osgood, now 32, and her grandchildren, Nathaniel, 6, and CJ, 7 months.
Acknowledging the 25th anniversary of the unsolved murder of Joyce McLain, the mother has learned to live with the past. McLain can’t forget it, but she is coming to grips with it.
“I have really taken myself out of the past,” McLain said in her Spruce Street home, where she has kept Joyce’s belongings boxed up and stored away in an upstairs closet, much of it untouched for years.
“I carry the pain and the hurt and the hope,” she said.
There’s still something missing for the mother. There’s no conclusion to this story, no ending, no sense of finality that would come with an arrest or conviction.
McLain, who has her own suspicions about who committed the crime, said she would settle for a private confession by the killer, who has never been identified publicly.
She’s not alone in wanting a confession.
State police detectives haven’t given up on the case, keeping it open long after the national attention faded.
“We’re still plugging away at it,” Detective David Preble, who took over as lead investigator for the case 18 months ago, said recently. He’s the fifth primary detective to be assigned to the case, although many others, including Detective Brian Strout, co-primary investigator, have assisted, from troopers to police officers and prosecutors.
The case is still active, just not moving forward.
Sitting in the break room recently at the office of the Maine State Police detectives in Bangor, Preble paused when asked about suspects. There’s a “good dozen or so,” he said.
Suspects he has, but Preble doesn’t have the evidence to bring charges.
“Realistically, I cannot go to sleep at night saying, ‘This is definitely the guy,’” he said.
And at this point, investigators hope that media attention will do what they so far have been unable to do: stir memories and maybe some guilt that will lead to a break, Preble said. After a segment of the TV show “Unsolved Mysteries” ran in February 1989, authorities received 49 tips that they followed up.
The search for the killer
Those involved in the investigation over the years have said it was a difficult case from the outset.
To say it rained the night Joyce went missing is an understatement. Torrential is how investigators and residents remember it. Thunder and lightning and heavy, heavy rain.
About 35 hours passed between when it is believed Joyce died on Friday to when her body was found about 7 a.m. Sunday. Any fibers, hairs or shoe prints that could have been left behind by the perpetrator were washed away.
Investigators also had a larger than usual pool of possible suspects, as the town’s population of 2,300 people surged over that weekend with the presence of 700 construction workers finishing a $34 million bark boiler at the Great Northern Paper Co. mill. Another 300 people were attending a statewide softball tournament in town.
“Most of us worked 24 hours a day, around the clock, interviewing everybody involved,” said state Rep. Rod Carr, R-Lincoln, a retired state police sergeant who was the first state police official on the scene Aug. 10 after the body was found.
Days turned into weeks, then months and years. Reports that police had hot leads and prime suspects evaporated. With DNA analysis still a decade away from regular use, clothing and other evidence taken at the scene were forwarded to Canada to what was then advanced technology: Laser equipment was used to help lift fingerprints.
An analysis for DNA evidence performed in the 1990s revealed nothing useful.
A few witnesses were hypnotized to help them remember details. The FBI provided police with a profile, and even a psychic, unaided, led police to where the girl’s body had been found, but not to the killer. An investigator also spoke with convicted serial killer James Hicks but determined he wasn’t in the area at the time of the incident.
Investigators were stymied.
The slow progress of the case frustrated and angered McLain, a force to be reckoned with. She once threw a detective off her driveway, and in 1986 she wrote a letter to the state Attorney General’s Office, asking that agency to take over the case from the state police. The attorney general refused.
Joe Zamboni, retired Maine State Police detective, has the distinction of having the case the longest, from 1986 to when he retired in 2004. At the time, Zamboni, a former Navy pilot who joined the state police in 1982, was brought in as a fresh set of eyes and ears when the case had gone stale.
The police and detectives who preceded him did an incredible amount of work on the case, Zamboni said, but the case early on focused on local people as the suspect rather than someone from outside.
That was fueled, at least in part, by rumors that ran rampant when just about anyone in town was considered a suspect by residents, investigators and residents recalled.
“You just didn’t look at people the same way if you heard that they may have been involved,” Christine Merritt, 49, of Medway said during a recent late afternoon walk in East Millinocket.
“You kind of looked at them and thought, ‘Did you really do it?’” said Merritt, Joyce’s second cousin.
Zamboni said his investigation took him outside the town.
“When I looked at the case in the early ’80s, the investigation looked very seriously at people in the local area,” Zamboni said. “By the time I retired, I felt very comfortable that the person responsible was not a local person.”
He has a specific suspect in mind.
“When you look at the crime, when you look at what happened, this is not a crime that was committed by a local teenager,” Zamboni said. “This is a crime committed by a very serious sociopath.”
Zamboni later added: “The person I believe is responsible for this is in a position that he’s not going to be able to do it again. I’m going to leave it at that … He’s no longer a threat to society.”
A normal life
McLain has her own ideas about who did it, but she’s leaving the investigation to the police, in whom she said she has renewed confidence.
She has turned the corner on her pain and grief, in part with help from a little Sheltie pup she bought for her birthday in 1992. “That dog, believe it or not, gave me back my heart,” McLain said.
A return to a normal life has meant that the 58-year-old grandmother of three is keeping her home and life filled. She has adopted twin 10-year-old girls and is adopting a 10-year-old boy, all of whom she had as foster care children.
McLain and longtime partner Ivan Curtis a month ago opened The Diner restaurant on Main Street, where her granddaughter, named Joyce, now works.
“You can’t live with hate and pain for too long, not if you want to live a normal life at all,” McLain said, smoking a cigarette and standing outside her front porch, where she keeps an electric “hope” candle burning around the clock. “I’ve chosen a normal life.”
Anyone with information about the case may contact Maine State Police at 800-432-7381.
Joyce McLain homicide timeline
Aug. 8, 1980: Teenager Joyce McLain left home for an evening jog. She last was seen shortly after 8 p.m. by School Street.
Aug. 10, 1980: The partially clad body of Joyce McLain was found about 7 a.m. in a power line clearing.
April 7, 1981: The Committee for Joyce was established to raise money for a reward.
Feb. 20, 1986: Frustrated at the lack of progress, Joyce’s mother, Pam McLain, wrote a letter asking the state attorney general to take over the investigation.
October 1988: The Justice for Joyce Committee was established to increase publicity.
February 1989: “Unsolved Mysteries” TV program featured the McLain story, with a Millinocket teenager playing Joyce
1990: DNA begins to be used widely across the country, although evidence has to be processed by the FBI, and results can take months to years.
1997: The Maine State Police Crime Laboratory’s new DNA lab opened.