Here's a look back at the most-read BDN stories of 2021. Credit: Composite image

Many of the stories that Bangor Daily News readers cared about the most in 2021 reflect upon a rather tumultuous year.

The year started out with the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by protesters – who claimed the 2020 presidential election was stolen – as Congress gathered to certify the 2020 electoral vote. This attack, as well as COVID-19 restrictions, led to protests in Belfast and other places statewide.

Mainers also struggled with a “forever chemical” contamination of wild game, among other food sources.

This year, we also saw the tragic death of a 3-year-old boy, which thrust Maine’s child welfare system back in the spotlight after two high-profile child deaths in 2017 and 2018.

Here’s a look back at the most-read BDN stories of 2021.

Smoke fills the walkway outside the Senate Chamber as supporters of President Donald Trump are confronted by U.S. Capitol Police officers inside the Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington. Credit: Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

Susan Collins recounts moment when rioters stormed the Capitol

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins described the scene at the U.S. Capitol as protesters breached barricades and fought with police in an attempt to stop Congress from certifying electoral votes in the 2020 presidential election.

“Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, was destined to be a significant day,” Collins told the BDN Jan. 11 in a first-person account.

“The Senate and the House would decide whether to certify the electoral votes in the presidential election, and I knew that there would be challenges against at least three states. I had studied the very limited role that the Constitution assigns to Congress, but was well aware that emotions were running high because of the president’s repeated claims that the election was “stolen,” despite the fact that approximately 90 judges, including the Supreme Court justices, had ruled otherwise.”

The attack resulted in the killing of a U.S. Capitol police officer and an evacuation of the Capitol by police and National Guard troops. Congress returned later that evening to complete the certification of the electoral votes.

The attack led the FBI to investigate and subsequently led to the arrest of several dozen participants in the attack, including some from Maine.

The House impeached former President Donald Trump for a second time on a charge that he incited the protesters to storm the Capitol. The Senate later acquitted him, but seven Republican senators — including Collins — voted to convict him on the charge.

Alex Poulin of Fairfield harvested this buck while deer hunting this fall. He hunted outside of his hometown because of concerns about the presence of “forever chemicals” in the water, soil and wildlife. Credit: Courtesy of Alex Poulin

He hunted to feed his family. Now he fears ‘forever chemicals have sickened them

Alex Poulin was not surprised when a “do not eat” advisory was issued in late November for deer killed in Fairfield.

“I’ve been thinking about, my family’s been eating that deer. Could it be contaminated with the [PFAS]?” Poulin said. “I’ve got a 4-year-old son. He loves his deer meat. Have I been giving him something that could potentially harm him?”

Poulin told the BDN in a Dec. 1 article, he has extended family in the Somerset County town, where the presence of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in well water — resulting from the use of waste sludge on farm fields — was discovered in September 2020 by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

For several years, Poulin routinely hunted deer from the affected area. This fall, Poulin said he hunted in a different part of the state, and he threw away the uneaten venison from 2018 and 2019 because he had hunted those deer in Fairfield.

More than 500 deer were harvested from 2016-20 in Fairfield alone, according to Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife data. But, the revelation that high levels of PFAS were found in Fairfield deer dealt a blow to Poulin, who hunted local deer to provide healthy food for his family only to find out they were tainted by so-called forever chemicals.

As toxic “forever chemicals” were discovered in water and soils across Maine, officials have pushed to better regulate — or even stop — further exposure statewide. Maine has taken the lead nationally to address PFAS contamination.

Zachary Swain, 25, sits in a small, dim infirmary cell at the Maine State Prison in Warren on Aug. 9, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Desperate to escape solitary confinement, a Maine man’s plight deepens

Since arriving at Maine’s State Prison in Warren in 2015, Zachary Swain has made several suicide attempts, prompting prison officials to place him in solitary confinement after each attempt.

Swain’s longest stay in confinement has been more than a year and a half.

“I went through a phase where I really lost touch with reality,” Swain said of his last lengthy stay in that unit. “Eating the metal and stuff? It’s almost a coping skill. You know, feeling something different than the day to day.”

At the Maine State Prison, Swain fell into a punishing cycle he can’t seem to break. Officials don’t trust him to live among the general population, so for 3 ½ of the last 5 ½ years, they’ve kept him apart from others in the segregation unit, where prisoners spend between 20 and 23 hours a day in their cells.

Researchers have found that subjecting people to prolonged isolation can worsen troublesome behavior, especially for those with serious mental illnesses, eventually making it harder for them to transition back to society

Swain has begged for, and been denied, more intensive mental health treatment. Swain and five other men filed a federal lawsuit in December claiming the prison has relied on solitary confinement to address their behavior without proper consideration of how their underlying mental health issues may be causing it, in violation of their constitutional rights and the Americans with Disabilities Act. But the lawsuit has hit obstacles.

Swain’s attorney, Robert Levine, of Portland, is trying to work out a deal to release Swain directly to a residential facility next February, where he would receive intensive therapeutic support to help him transition safely back to society.

But prosecutors want Swain to serve several more years in prison.

Three-year-old Maddox Williams is shown in an undated family photograph. His mother is charged in his death last month. The boy’s death was one of four in Maine last month of young children that have focused new attention on the state’s child welfare system. Credit: Courtesy of GoFundMe/#justiceformaddox

Affidavit reveals disturbing details of 3-year-old Maine child’s death

A Stockton Springs mother was charged with the August killing of her 3-year-old son after an autopsy showed he had suffered a fractured spine, bruises on his arms, legs, belly and head, bleeding in his brain, a ruptured bowel and other injuries, according to a police affidavit.

When Jessica Williams, 35, brought her son, Maddox Williams, to Waldo County General Hospital, she told staff members that he had been knocked down by a dog leash and kicked by his 8-year-old sister.

Maddox later died at the hospital. The Maine State Medical Examiner’s Office determined the cause of death was multiple blunt force trauma inflicted non-intentionally.

The death shook the community of Stockton Springs, where 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy was beaten to death by her mother, Sharon Kennedy, and stepfather, Julio Carrillo, three years ago.

Maddox’s death put the Department of Health and Human Services, Maine’s child welfare system, under further scrutiny after two high-profile child deaths in 2017 and 2018.

A group of people protesting state mask mandates and shut downs has gathered every Sunday for about two months on the corner of High and Main streets in downtown Belfast — what is known locally as “Resistance Corner.” Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

Belfast protesters test the limits of free speech after deadly Capitol riot

Protesters at Resistance Corner in Belfast tested the limits of free speech in January, after an anti-mask, anti-shutdown demonstrator pushed a man into traffic following a tense exchange that was captured on video and posted online.

Police responded in seconds, but no charges have been filed since the altercation occurred on Jan. 3.

A Facebook Live video clip shows the incident, which begins roughly at the 31-minute mark.

Activists regularly gathered at the corner of High and Main streets in Belfast to speak out on many causes. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend people wear masks in public settings as the most effective way to limit the spread of COVID-19, in addition to social distancing and hand washing.

​​“I live in the United States of America. We have inalienable rights,” said Jennifer Crowley of Hampden, one of the anti-mask, anti-shutdown protesters who regularly comes to the corner to demonstrate.

City officials were concerned by the reports of these protesters both hassling and getting hassled.

“The city believes in the right of free speech, and the city believes in public safety,” he said. “My concern is either side getting accidentally engaged in fisticuffs or worse because of this. That’s not what protest is supposed to be about.”

In this Sept. 17, 2015, file photo, a rat leaves its burrow at a park in New York City. Rats aren’t just a nuisance in cities. Rural residents across Maine are reporting an increase in the rodents, mirroring a trend nationwide. Credit: Mary Altaffer / AP

Rats taking over a small Maine town

Residents of Milford complained in a July BDN article that rats had invaded their town.
On Facebook, a resident shared a photo — five dead rats lined up next to each other.
“Another 8 today,” they said in the post.

Residents told the BDN their town was under attack by the rodents. Experts said rats are some of the most difficult to manage and once you have an infestation, it’s too late.

Despite residents raising their concerns to the town, officials said they could not do anything,  leaving Milford residents to their own devices to find cost-effective solutions to deal with the influx of rats. Despite the strangeness of a colony of rats running through yards and at times the streets of Milford, the town isn’t alone, according to Keel Kemper, a regional biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

“Is Milford the only community that has rat problems? Absolutely not. I know people who are in the [pest control] business who are quite busy all over, but particularly the coast of Maine,” Kemper said.

One possible reason behind the influx of rats was that as more people were forced to get takeout and make food at home during COVID-19, the rodents were naturally attracted to the leftovers in the trash can.

Residents were advised to contact a professional to get some help and to pay extra attention to not leaving trash out for a long time, securing compost piles correctly and addressing any other sanitation problems that may be present.

Supporters of President Donald Trump who are wearing attire associated with the Proud Boys attend a rally at Freedom Plaza, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020, in Washington. Luis M. Alvarez / AP

Vendors leave Bangor furniture store’s craft section after owner requests Proud Boys hoodies

A handful of craft vendors pulled their items from a furniture and mattress store by the Bangor Mall in January, after the store’s owner requested that someone print sweatshirts featuring the insignia of the far-right group the Proud Boys.

Kathy Harvey, owner of Furniture, Mattresses and More, had posted in the Bangor Mall Craft Fair Facebook group — a private group she administers with 2,500 members — asking if somebody could print hoodies with the Proud Boys logo along with the phrase “stand back, stand by.”

The Proud Boys have been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group that tracks organizations espousing hate speech and other extremist beliefs throughout the U.S.

The phrase is likely a reference to a statement President Donald Trump made about the group during a debate with president-elect Joe Biden in late September 2020. He was responding to a question asking whether he would condemn white supremacist and militia groups.

Harvey was requesting the hoodies in advance of rallies taking place in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, as Congress counted the electoral votes from November’s election.

The rallies on Jan. 6 devolved into an attack on the U.S. Capitol as Congress gathered to certify the electoral votes for the 2020 presidential election.

While Harvey later deleted the post, screenshots of it quickly spread across social media, drawing scorn to her business and the Bangor Mall. Many said they would not shop in the store in the future.

The Bangor Mall’s management also distanced itself from the request for Proud Boys clothing in a statement on Wednesday.

“Kathy Harvey owns her building and operates independently of Bangor Mall,” the mall said. “Her views do not reflect those of our team.”

Harvey is well known in the Bangor area’s craft community: In November 2019, she organized a craft fair that brought an estimated 22,000 people to the Bangor Mall. Her store moved into the spot vacated by the Macy’s department store in 2018.

“I wouldn’t have done it if I had known they were racist,” Harvey said.

Former Millinocket Police Chief Craig Worster takes his oath of office in April 2019.

A prosecutor worried he wasn’t credible. Then Millinocket hired him as police chief.

Credibility issues surrounding Millinocket’s former Police Chief Craig Worster, along with allegations of harassment, ultimately led to his termination as police chief in December 2020, the eventual disbanding of the town’s police force and the termination of former City Manager John Davis.

When Worster became the Millinocket police chief in April 2019, the town posted a Facebook message welcoming him to the Penobscot County community. The post gave a brief overview of Worster’s career but left out key parts, including one detail that is only now coming to light.

The town didn’t mention that Worster had worked as a sergeant for the Wiscasset Police Department just months before. And it didn’t say that days after Worster left that job in December 2018, the local district attorney’s office took the unusual step of presenting information to a defendant that called Worster’s credibility as a court witness into question.

A district attorney’s decision to brand an officer as potentially uncredible is called a Giglio impairment — a kind of scarlet letter that can damage, or, in some cases, end an officer’s career and imperil criminal prosecutions with which they’re involved.

In another twist, A dispute involving Worster’s former Deputy Police Chief, Janet Theriault, who filed an 85-page complaint against Worster with the town last year. The complaint has not been made public.

The town manager at the time, Davis, did not put Worster on administrative leave while a private detective investigated the allegations. In the end, Davis dismissed Theriault’s complaint. Shortly after, in September, the town council fired Davis in a 6-1 vote. In February, Theriault agreed to a $150,000 settlement with the town.

Davis’ replacement, interim manager Annette Padilla, fired Worster in December. A few days later, the town council disbanded the police department and handed over policing duties to neighboring East Millinocket, a town less than half its size. Padilla was then terminated by   the town council in early February. The town didn’t give a specific reason why.

In another twist, the Millinocket Personnel Appeals Board, a three-person board made up of resident volunteers, reversed Worster’s firing in February, essentially giving him back a job that no longer exists.

In 2020, Worster and Davis filed a notice of claim against the town; Theriault; members of the town council; the local union representing the town’s officers; the larger International Brotherhood of Teamsters and its president James P. Hoffa; as well as two Millinocket residents who shared information about Worster’s history on social media. A notice of claim is a legal step sometimes taken before filing a lawsuit.

A lawsuit was never filed.

Maine native Meg Church left the Maine Army National Guard over sexual harassment issues and now serves in the South Carolina Guard. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Female Maine guard soldiers face retaliation after reporting sexual assault and harassment

Women in the Maine Army National Guard have suffered bullying, smears, perceived indifference from leadership, secretive investigations and other negative repercussions after they reported fellow soldiers for sexual assault and harassment, the Bangor Daily News found after a months-long investigation into the guard’s handling of cases.

The BDN published a three-part series into the Maine National Guard.

Sexual assaults of female soldiers have risen sharply in the Maine Army National Guard’s predatory culture

What can be done to fix the handling of sexual assaults in the Maine Army National Guard?

The pattern reflects an institutional failure to protect female soldiers from retaliation after they come forward, worsening the plight of those already grappling with physical and psychological trauma and feelings of betrayal, current and former service members said.

The BDN investigation found a predatory culture within the Maine Army National Guard where sexual assaults and harassment have continued largely unchecked for at least the past decade, driving women out of the service and even out of state.

In this May 12, 2021, file photo, one man holds the door for another as they arrive at a COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the Auburn Mall in Auburn, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

8 fully vaccinated Mainers have died from COVID-19. Vaccines still prevent more deaths.

In early 2021, vaccines seemed to be the solution to controlling the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Millions of people received their vaccines and the COVID-19 rate dropped in the spring and summer of 2021.

However, the virus mutated into the deadly delta variant. The number of cases and hospitalizations rose — primarily among those who had not been vaccinated. Now, a new strain — the omicron variant — has developed. Reports of breakthrough infections among those who had been fully vaccinated began to develop. This BDN article published in June reported on eight people who died in Maine, even though they were fully vaccinated.

When Karen Letourneau saw her mother in April for the first time in more than a year, she did not expect it would be the last time.

Three weeks earlier, Letourneau’s mother, Patricia Caron of Lewiston, had received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The day they met, Caron felt symptoms of what she thought was a cold. But when Letourneau, who lives in Wales and was partially vaccinated then, found herself experiencing COVID-19 symptoms a few days later, she asked her mother to get tested.

Caron got a rapid coronavirus test. It came back positive. She ended up in the hospital and died of COVID-19 complications a few weeks later, her daughter said, becoming one of eight fully vaccinated Mainers to succumb to the disease.

Because vaccines work by stimulating an immune response, they can be less effective for those with weakened immune systems, such as organ transplant recipients or chemotherapy patients, said Dr. James Jarvis, who leads Northern Light Health’s COVID-19 response.

These so-called breakthrough infections are rare, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah said in June.

Scientific studies show the vaccines used in the U.S. are more than 90 percent effective. But the deaths are tragedies for families who assumed vaccines would eliminate COVID-19 risk and raised concerns among people with compromised immune systems and their loved ones.

Health officials still emphasize that vaccinations are still the best way to stop the spread of the virus and prevent severe disease and are optimistic that Maine’s high overall vaccination rate will continue to reduce transmission, including breakthrough cases.