VINALHAVEN, Maine ― When Daniel Gagliano moved his life and construction business from New Jersey to this island community in September 2019, it was the culmination of a lifelong dream to call Maine ― a place he’s loved and explored since his youth ― his second home.
Gagliano secured a full workload of contracts and a cozy rental home there with his boyfriend and two others. Things were going great. But when the coronavirus pandemic hit Maine in mid-March ― worsening Mainers’ xenophobia of people from away ― Gagliano said his life was turned upside down.
On March 27, a group of islanders allegedly tried to force him and his household to quarantine by cutting down a tree across their driveway. The incident went viral. The story was picked up by national news outlets, and became a hot topic for entertainment personalities such as Joe Rogan.
Coverage of that incident was fleeting, but Gagliano said the harassment his housemates endured never stopped.
On April 3, he said their truck’s windshield was shattered while parked at the Vinalhaven Ferry Terminal. Soon after, someone hammered roofing nails into the front tires of their rental vehicle.
Red gas cans were placed at their home while they were on the mainland. Gates erected on their deck to protect their dogs were torn off. Countless middle fingers also have been directed at Gagliano and his housemates, he said.
As recently as June 21, someone deflated the tires on his work truck with nails. Now, Gagliano doesn’t leave his home without an air compressor.
Gagliano reported all of the incidents to police, but said they are dropping the ball at holding the responsible parties accountable for these acts of vandalism and harassment. His frustration underscores growing concerns from residents on the island who say police are largely ineffective at maintaining peace and order there.
“All of that and nothing has come from it. Not a single thing,” Gagliano said. “I really think law enforcement just wants this to go away.”
Knox County Sheriff Tim Carroll said his office is investigating each incident separately, but the case can’t be swayed by an individual’s “assumptions” of what happened.
“We obviously understand that it all, most likely, is related, but until the facts are sorted out regarding each incident, we do not allow assumptions [to] dictate the facts,” he said in an email.
Things reached a boiling point on Vinalhaven earlier this month after a 28-year-old man was killed there with a knife.
Jennie Candage, the girlfriend of Roger Feltis who died June 14, said she and her boyfriend went to a deputy stationed on Vinalhaven to file a harassment complaint against an island couple he had been having problems with just days before his death at the couple’s home. They begged the deputy for help, she said.
However, the deputy told them he wouldn’t confront the couple immediately, Candage said.
Friends of Feltis have held several demonstrations since his death criticizing how police are handling the case. Police ruled the man’s death a homicide, but no charges have been filed, as many islanders demand swifter justice.
“This is an ongoing problem out here. People feel like there are no consequences,” Gagliano said. “The attitude is very laissez-faire.”
In a joint letter to Knox County Commissioners last fall, town officials from Vinalhaven and neighboring North Haven outlined problems with limited police coverage on the islands, saying the situation causes residents “to lose faith in the county’s ability to meet their law enforcement needs.”
Vinalhaven is a remote area that’s more than an hour from the mainland by ferry. It spans more than 168 square miles and has a year-round population of more than 1,000 that swells in the summer months.
For the past two years, the Knox County Sheriff’s Office has struggled to find a deputy willing to relocate there full time.
“[They’re] essentially on 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Carroll said. “A deputy residing on the island most times is called directly, whether on duty or off, to handle a complaint.”
Until about two weeks ago, the lone deputy assigned to neighboring North Haven pulled double-duty to cover both islands. The principal towns on the islands are located about 6 miles apart and must be accessed by boat, which obviously creates some gaps in coverage. Now, Carroll said he is relieved to have a second deputy helping cover the islands.
But it hasn’t made a difference for Gagliano.
“I feel like we’re completely on our own,” he said. “I think there is a concerted effort by law enforcement to deconstruct all of this stuff that is happening to us and compartmentalize it into a million little pieces — and then minimize it.”
Before the pandemic reached Maine in mid-March, Gagliano said he’d been living peacefully on Vinalhaven for about six months with his boyfriend, their two dogs, his business partner and that man’s girlfriend.
But on March 22, when Gagliano’s business partner returned home with his girlfriend after a trip into town, they were allegedly followed up the driveway by people in a truck who threatened to trap them in the house.
Gagliano called 911.
When the island deputy followed up later, Gagliano said he tried to downplay what happened.
“I’ll take care of it. It’s not a big deal, they’re just idiots,” he recalled the deputy saying.
Gagliano said he feared the problem would get worse — and it did.
On March 27, Gagliano got a call from his landlord Caroline Ames, a longtime Vinalhaven resident who moved to the mainland in recent years after experiencing her own harassment from neighbors on the island.
She was calling to warn Gagliano that a group was heading to the home to confront his family unit. But before she could relay the message, the phone line went dead. (The cable company later told him the line was disconnected from outside the home.)
Gagliano and his business partner left the house to inspect the problem, when they discovered a tree had been cut down on their driveway, blocking them in.
There was a group on the other side yelling threats like, “there is a 200-person posse at the end of the road” and “we’re going to kill you f——-,” Gagliano recalled.
Over the course of the altercation, he said four vehicles arrived with about a dozen people in tow. Gagliano, a long-time gun owner and Navy veteran, said he saw them take guns from the vehicle.
“As people started showing up, it began escalating beyond just a tree,” he said.
With an inoperable land line and no cell service at their home, Gagliano sent a distress call to the U.S. Coast Guard station in Rockland through a handheld VHF radio, indicating they were being threatened by a mob.
But by the time help arrived, he said the group had dispersed.
When the island deputy arrived after the incident, Gagliano said: “I told you this was going to escalate.”
Within days, the story was everywhere. In retrospect, Gagliano believes the widespread coverage is the only reason the sheriff’s office sent a detective out to the island on March 30.
By that time, Gagliano’s business partner and his girlfriend returned home to New Jersey, feeling too unsafe to stay on the island. They have not returned.
Since he had little faith in island policing at that point, Gagliano secretly recorded his interview with the Knox County Sheriff’s Office detective. In Maine, only one party has to be aware that a conversation is being recorded.
Gagliano shared that recording with the Bangor Daily News, in which the detective told Gagliano and his boyfriend that he believed their claims. However, the detective stressed that prosecuting their case would be difficult because “our prosecutor’s office is not going to take the word of two over the word of 10,” he said.
Gagliano asked if the case would be considered a hate crime, considering the threats of violence were paired with anti-gay slurs.
“I suppose it could be,” the detective said, but he added that it also would be difficult to prove.
“I would have to get one of the perpetrators to admit that the reason they were calling you f——- is because you are gay,” he told them. “They may just call you f——- because you guys are from New Jersey, and they don’t like people from New Jersey. They call everybody f——-,” the detective said.
The detective acknowledged that Gagliano and his partner may be offended — and said the language bothered him too — but told him they “have bigger fish to fry” with the case at hand.
The detective asked the men to email statements about the incident. Gagliano said it took more than a week to submit the claims because their internet was down. He also wanted his lawyer to review the statement because he had never written one.
He got this reply from the detective: “Your lack of response to requested information, i.e. the 9 day lag in your ability to write simple victim’s statements and provide the information that you volunteered, is beginning to degrade my confidence in the credibility of your statements […] Is there something that you have not told me that I should know?”
That email is the last time Gagliano heard from the detective.
“It’s like you’re the victim and you’re being treated like a criminal,” Gagliano said.
He knows the behavior of the people he claims are harassing him isn’t representative of the whole island — some neighbors have offered support in the form of cakes and simple conversation.
Ames said half the island is “thoroughly embarrassed” by what has transpired. However, the police response doesn’t surprise her.
“It’s a joke,” she said. “There’s no police protection on Vinalhaven.”
While Gagliano has lost faith in the island’s law enforcement, he’s still holding out hope that his new life on Vinalhaven will pan out.
“My heart wants to stay here, but I need to know that this is an environment that is healthy,” Gagliano said. “I don’t want to stay here if we have to live in a fortress mentality.”