AUGUSTA — In the early morning hours of Jan. 3, 2011, Scott Penney covered his recliner in plastic and carefully leaned plywood against the backrest.
He walked around his State Street apartment, pulling the window shades closed. He felt his way across the dark room and nestled into the recliner. There, on a coffee table in front of him, Penney left a note to his family that he hoped would explain his decision, even as it begged for their forgiveness.
Penney covered his head with a tarp, grabbed a rusty shotgun, and put the barrel under his chin. He pulled the trigger.
“He didn’t want to make a mess for the landlord,” his mother, Linda Penney, said. “He planned it right to the letter.”
Scott Penney, 45, was a trusted employee, a loyal friend, a beloved son and a proud father.
But he also was a convicted child molester.
It was this sordid past that darkened Penney’s life. Everyone knew, or could easily find out, the worst thing Penney had ever done. It became who he was: Scott Penney, sexual offender.
“I will never have my life back,” Penney wrote in his final letter. “I can’t deal with all this around me and what has happened.”
Linda Penney has her reasons for telling her son’s story, but gaining sympathy isn’t one of them. She doesn’t offer excuses for the crimes her son committed and is not mad at the judicial system for punishing her son.
But Linda Penney hopes others will see her son as she did. She hopes others will understand the crushing social stigma he experienced as a convicted sex offender. Linda Penney also hopes that experience is understood by a probation officer assigned to supervise her son whom she believes mishandled the case and contributed to her son’s decision to end his life.
“I want people out there aware that not every child molester is a bad person,” she said.
Scott Penney was convicted in December 2002 of seven charges, including three counts of sexual assault and four of unlawful sexual contact, all involving the same victim and occurring in Winthrop between Nov. 11, 1997, and Dec. 31, 2001.
The victim — a daughter of Penney’s then-girlfriend — was between the ages of 10 and 14 at the time. Penney’s only previous conviction was in March 2002 when he was sentenced to 45 days in jail for assault and violating conditions of release.
Penney was sentenced in October 2003 to 15 years in prison, with all but seven years suspended, and six years of probation. He was also banned from contact with the victim and her family and unsupervised contact with any girl under age 18. Penney was required to register with the state as a sex offender for the rest of his life once he was released from prison.
“I do show remorse for what they lost and what I’ve lost,” he said at his sentencing.
Prison proved difficult for a man who spent his first 35 years as a law-abiding citizen. Scott Penney told his family not to call because it worsened his treatment, his mother said. That is why Linda Penney waited so long to respond after receiving a disturbing phone call one night.
“All I heard was, ‘Ma!,'” she said. “Then, no one was there.”
A short time later she received a disturbing letter from her son.
“By now you know what I have done,” Linda Penney said, recalling the letter. “I thought he had killed himself,” she added.
She waited, unwilling to call her son and jeopardize him, until she could stand it no more. When she finally called, she couldn’t talk to her son and no one at the prison would explain why.
When she finally saw her son, his wrists were bandaged. He was standing behind protective glass, his ankles and hands were handcuffed and there were three guards nearby. She spoke to him briefly on the phone.
“He wanted to end his life,” Linda Penney recalled. “All he did was hurt himself.”
Scott Penney recovered and was put in solitary confinement for 30 days, during which time other inmates stole his belongings, Linda Penney said. Her son kept quiet about the theft and other mistreatment he endured.
“I guess you learn not to say anything,” Linda Penney said. “He lived in fear that if anyone says anything, you’re going to get in trouble.”
Released on probation
Scott Penney walked out of the Maine State Prison in June of 2008 and began six years of probation.
Penney’s conditions of release included the usual prohibitions against using drugs, alcohol and firearms, but Penney was still specifically prohibited from contact with the victim or her family and any unsupervised contact with any girl under age 18. Penney’s probation officer had to approve anyone who wanted to supervise such a visit.
Penney also had to attend group counseling one day a week, which cost him $35 each, for the duration of his probation.
By the time Scott Penney got out of prison, Linda Penney and her husband, Albert Penney, were raising their 9-year-old grandson, Kenney, the son of the couple’s other son, Kenneth Penney.
Scott Penney wrote a letter to his counseling group seeking advice on whether he could be around the child. The conditions of release did not prohibit such contact and the group agreed it put neither Penney nor the child at risk, Linda Penney said.
“We accepted him back into the family,” she said.
Linda Penney had promised that her son, who spent years working at Carleton Woolen Mill in Winthrop, would have a job when he got out of prison. She called on an old friend, Pauline Dube, who took over Pat Jackson Septic in Augusta when her husband died the year before.
“She said, ‘Send him up and I’ll find a job,'” Linda Penney said. “And she did.”
Scott Penney started at the septic company shortly after his release from prison and remained until his death last year. During that time he went from a helper on one of the trucks to operating the main computer system and managing the treatment plant.
“He was an excellent worker,” Dube said. “He was a great guy. He would help anybody out. All the guys loved him. He was always willing to give a hand.”
Penney passed many nights reading books on how the company’s machinery worked and going online to study treatment plant processes.
Dube watched as Scott Penney grew personally as well. He began to form friendships with the men in the crew and, ultimately, with Dube.
“He blossomed from someone who wouldn’t say two words to kidding around with the guys,” she said. “He would call me at night and in the morning just to see what was going on and how to plan the day. His job was everything to him. He loved this place.”
Dube noticed, too, the care that Penney took to follow his conditions of release. He made sure to do his grocery shopping in the morning so he would not be around young girls.
Dube’s juvenile daughter sometimes visited her mother at the company. On those occasions, Dube would call Penney and he would stay away from the office until the girl was gone. Penney faithfully made every appointment, even re-arranging his work schedule when necessary, Dube said.
Penney would work all night long, if needed, to make up the time, she said.
Penney began confiding in Dube as the two became close friends. In those conversations, she got an up-close view of the life of a sex offender.
“Really, you have no life,” she said. “You go to work, you go home. They’re not supposed to go where there are big groups. They take away everything they can.”
Back into his shell
When Scott Penney got out of prison he was initially placed under the supervision of Probation and Parole Officer Joseph Galego. Everything Galego did, such as working around Scott Penney’s work schedule for their meetings, made Linda Penney believe Galego cared about her son.
Galego was Penney’s probation officer for more than two years.
“He was almost like a saint. He helped Scott a lot,” Linda Penney said.
And Penney’s probation compliance enabled him to be considered less at-risk under the corrections’ department rankings.
That switch, in 2010, resulted in Scott Penney being placed under the supervision of a new probation and parole officer, whose identity is being withheld because there is no official accusation of wrongdoing.
Linda Penney said the new probation officer had an iron fist approach to supervision, demanding that Scott Penney report to meetings at a certain time, even if it meant him losing work pay.
The change in her son soon became noticeable, Linda Penney said. Scott Penney began to regress back into his shell, afraid of incurring the new probation officer’s wrath, Linda Penney said.
The depth of his fear came to light in December when Scott Penney’s aunt, Barbara Penney, died. She was just a few years older than he was and the two had been close friends for most of their lives.
The new probation officer forbade him from attending the funeral because there might be young girls around, Linda Penney said.
Perhaps most distressingly, Linda Penney said, the probation officer refused to let Scott Penney visit his parents when his nephew, Kenney, was around. Linda Penney said that decision was based on a misreading of Scott Penney’s conditions of release, which forbid him from having unsupervised contact with girls, but had no prohibition from being around boys.
She said her son’s daily visits were a source of stability for him. “It gave him something to look forward to at the end of his day. It gave him the opportunity to rebuild and make stronger his relationship with us, his parents.”
Scott Penney faced the prospect of going back to prison if he disobeyed.
“To Scott, his mother was his world,” Dube said. “He adored her. To say he couldn’t go to his mother’s house because her grandson lived there? She (the probation officer) was wrong.”
Dube’s conversations with Scott Penney suddenly turned to his fear and frustration with the probation officer. His depression was palpable.
Dube said he was petrified of the officer, who didn’t even want him to go grocery shopping because there might be kids there.
“What’s he supposed to do?” Dube said. He said he thought the officer was going to put him back in jail because that’s what he was told every week at their meetings. “For him, going back to jail meant the end of life. He said he would kill himself before he ever went there.”
Linda Penney believes her son saw little chance of ever being free again.
Repeated phone messages over several months to the probation officer were not returned. Galego, Penney’s first probation officer, declined comment and referred questions to his supervisor, John Lorenzen, who did not return phone messages.
Judy Plummer, public affairs coordinator for the Maine Department of Corrections, and attorney general spokeswoman Brenda Kielty both would not comment. Kielty said the agencies have been notified that a lawsuit is planned.
Linda Penney said she has no intention of filing suit. She said she even signed an affidavit saying she would not file suit in an attempt to learn more about the supervision of her son, but the department has not released that information.
Penney and Scott Penney’s son, Daniel McKecknie, hired attorney Ronald Bourget to draft a letter to Lorenzen, claiming that the probation officer misread Scott Penney’s probation requirements.
“Linda Penney and Daniel McKecknie wish to report this as a grievance to you of wrongdoing,” Bourget wrote. “In short, it appears that (the probation officer) was not keeping informed of the conduct and conditions of Scott Penney and using suitable methods to encourage Scott to improve his conduct and conditions.”
Bourget’s letter asked for a review of Scott Penney’s supervision under the probation officer to determine if the officer “failed or refused to properly review the probation conditions and whether the restrictions of the probation officer were overly restrictive.”
It is unclear whether such a review ever happened. Information on employee investigations is considered private without the employee’s approval.
Final disciplinary action, however, is public.
Plummer, responding to a Freedom of Access Act request made by the Kennebec Journal, said, “There is no final written decision relating to disciplinary action taken against (the probation officer) in the last two years. There is no final written decision relating to disciplinary action taken against anyone in the Department of Corrections resulting from the supervision of Scott Penney.”
Dube and Scott Penney’s parents met with Lorenzen and the probation officer a week after Scott Penney shot himself.
After 10 minutes, the probation officer left the room, Linda Penney said.
She said the officer said “I don’t have to take t his.” LInda Penney said if the officer hadn’t walked out and refused to listen “I wouldn’t have gone so far with this.”
“They made us feel like our son wasn’t worth anything. My son was worth a lot.”
In his final letter to his family, Scott Penney pleaded for them to live in peace with each other and enjoy their lives.
“You truly never know when it will be gone,” he said. “And it hurts to lose it, believe me. My life has no meaning anymore, and it never can.”
Linda Penney said the loss of her son without warning has taken away a big part of her life.
She said now “no one is bugging him, tell him what to do.”
Her son “is at peace now.”
Craig Crosby — 621-5642