EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine — Two state legislators said last week that they are working to secure funding for the state’s first cold-case squad to investigate unsolved homicides.
Rep. Steve Stanley, D-Medway, said he hopes that the support of newly-elected Rep. Karl Ward, R-Dedham — and the state’s recording a $49 million surplus at the end of the 2013-14 fiscal year — will be enough to convince Gov. Paul LePage and the Legislature to fund the proposed squad this year. He said the legislative session begins Jan. 7.
“It is a very important bill to a lot of people,” Stanley said Tuesday. “I think we have a better chance because Karl Ward will be a sponsor of it. I think maybe we have a better chance if a Republican supports it.”
Ward said Wednesday that he has a meeting set up with LePage at the end of the month to discuss the bill and seek the governor’s support of it.
“I’m going against my grain because I’m not a believer in expanding government, but when I look at the number of these cases and the anguish of the families, I’m getting behind it,” said Ward, adding that he thinks the effort will receive bipartisan support.
Joyce McLain is among the state’s 120 homicide victims whose cases remain unsolved, several of whom are listed on the page at maine.gov dedicated to them. A 16-year-old sophomore at Schenck High School in East Millinocket, she disappeared while jogging in her neighborhood on Aug. 8, 1980. Her bludgeoned body was found on Aug. 10. State police have said they have reviewed more than a dozen suspects in the McLain case, but no arrests have been made.
Ward said he was attending Schenck High School at the time McClain was killed and he remembers the traumatic effect it had on the town. But he said that’s not the only reason he wants to fund the cold-case squad through the state’s general fund.
“Joyce’s case is just one,” Ward said Wednesday. “My heart goes out to the families of all the victims in these cases. I would like to see the squad funded and get an email saying they solved their first case.”
Stanley submitted a bill in October 2013 authorizing a squad. The Maine House and Senate passed LD 1734, An Act To Create a Cold Case Homicide Unit in the Department of the Attorney General, and LePage signed it into law, but it languished on the special appropriations table because of a lack of funding. The squad, consisting of one lawyer from the attorney general’s office, two state police detectives and an employee of the state crime lab, required $500,000 to start up and then $424,000 in second-year funding, officials said.
LePage remains supportive of the squad and of the Legislature funding it, Adrienne Bennett, his spokeswoman, said in an email Wednesday.
The Maine attorney general’s office, which prosecutes homicide investigations and supports the squad, has said that Assistant Attorney General Lara M. Nomani handles cold cases. State police investigators work them part-time while also handling more recent cases.
Ward said the bill seeking funding should go to the state Legislature’s Revisor’s Office this week. Once the revisor’s office writes the bill, it will be submitted to legislative leaders for possible assignment to a committee, Stanley said.
Rockland resident Patrick Day, an East Millinocket native and volunteer who built a website dedicated to cold cases and the bill, coldcasesquadme.com, said that the failure of an effort to fund the squad through a federal grant last spring leaves the state little choice but to fund the squad now.
“Now we don’t have that option of federal funding over our heads. Now we can pursue the state of Maine taking care of their own and doing the funding themselves,” Day said. “[State legislators] thought they could fund this bill by relying on the federal government and that didn’t happen.
“I am not saying that in a negative way, but the reality is that it was such a longshot,” Day added. “They left all these families for another year without justice, and I think it is very sad that they did that.”
It was unclear whether a portion of the $49 million surplus, which came from state government savings and greater than expected individual and corporate income tax monies, could be used to fund a squad. Maine law restricts the uses of unanticipated revenues. But Day is hopeful.
“Obviously there are lots of programs and needs out there, but this will be the third time we have tried to get funding for this bill,” Day said. “Now that the governor has spending under control, people will see that we have the funding to do this program, and it won’t put us in a hole. I think people will see that the program is going to be a benefit. We will be getting criminals off the street.”
BDN Metro Editor Michael J. Dowd contributed to this report.