AUGUSTA, Maine — The effort to fund the state’s first cold case homicide squad has vaulted its last legislative hurdle, and its supporters expressed confidence Friday that it will start work this year.
The Appropriations Committee voted 13-0 on June 1 to approve allocating $639,149 from the state’s General Fund for the creation of the squad as part of the two-year pilot program. Another $344,176 will come from the state Highway Fund effective July 1, the bill states.
It must pass a final Legislative vote on a state budget and Gov. Paul LePage could veto, but the House and Senate have already approved the bill. A committee majority supported on Saturday a compromise budget deal worth $6.6 billion over two years that GOP legislators opposed, but that battle regarded income tax cuts and welfare reform.
“If [LePage] has any issues with the budget, it’s not going to be because of this,” said Rep. Karl Ward, R-Dedham, on Friday. “There seems to be a thorough understanding on either side of the aisle that this is a bill that is going to stay. This is not a partisan bargaining chip.”
A law establishing the squad was passed last year with bipartisan support, including from LePage, but the squad wasn’t funded. Ward submitted a bill in December seeking $510,799 annually to fund two state police detective positions and a forensic chemist, plus startup costs. Legislators trimmed that to $491,662 and added an amendment to fund the squad effective July 1.
Sixty-nine cold cases were listed at maine.gov on Friday. Twenty to 25 homicides occur annually in Maine. The Maine attorney general’s office, which prosecutes homicides, has an assistant attorney general handling cold cases, but state police work them when not on more active probes, officials have said.
Efforts to create a squad go back to 2001, when the Legislature approved but opted not to fund one. The latest effort began in 2013 with volunteers seeking it as part of efforts to solve the murder of Joyce McLain of East Millinocket in 1980.
McLain was a 16-year-old high school sophomore when she disappeared while jogging on the night of Aug. 8, 1980. Her body was found on Aug. 10. State police have said they have reviewed more than a dozen suspects but no arrests have occurred.
The volunteers soon included several other high-profile homicides and missing-persons cases.
McLain’s mother, Pam McLain, is thrilled with the committee vote.
“It gives me goosebumps. I have been trying to pray and just hope for the best,” McLain said Friday. “We are a step above. I am real pleased.
“All of our cold cases might not get solved, but if [state police] do two, three and four, and solve them, and if [Joyce McLain] wouldn’t happen to be one of them, then this case squad is still worth it to me,” Pam McLain added.
BDN writer Mario Moretto contributed to this report.