ROME — Gratitude, confusion, sympathy and anger.
A range of emotions ripple through the people who say they were victims of repeated burglaries by the infamous North Pond Hermit for almost three decades.
To some, Christopher T. Knight, 47, has become a folk hero, admired for his ingenuity and survival skills. For many others, he’s a troublesome thief who made them fearful, and they’re glad the suspect is behind bars.
Homeowners are all grateful to police and wardens who tracked and then captured Knight outside the Pine Tree Camp dining hall in Rome after he emerged with a pack full of frozen food and other supplies for his primitive camp.
Knight is charged with burglary and theft for that April 4 incident, but he’s suspected of being the elusive burglar who has troubled property owners around North Pond, Little North Pond and East Pond for the past 27 years as he hid from the world in a makeshift camp, stealing food, clothing, mattresses, batteries, frying pans, beer and candy.
Property owners envision a more comfortable season at camp with Knight in custody.
“It will make a huge difference,” said Nancy Brooks, of Waterville. “I am terribly grateful.”
Brooks and her family have had a campsite on Little North Pond for more than 40 years, and they suspect the hermit stole her son’s Old Town canoe and used it to scout the shoreline, seeking evidence that people had brought in food or other items he needed.
“I would love to have my navy blue LL Bean duffel bag back; it was in new condition,” Brooks said, “and the two twin-sized air mattresses that were inside it. My son would like his canoe back too.”
Kennebec County District Attorney Maeghan Maloney, whose office will be prosecuting the case, said she will await a final police report before making a decision on additional charges that might be filed against Knight.
“Right now we only have a probable cause affidavit,” she said. That court affidavit, by Maine State Police Trooper Diane Perkins-Vance, details the capture of Knight by her and by Maine Warden Service Sgt. Terry Hughes.
It says Knight, “a transient living in the woods in a tent since about 1986,” was carrying $283.38 worth of stolen items when he exited the Pine Tree Camp dining hall in the early hours of April 4. At that point, he told Perkins-Vance and Hughes he had done “40 burglaries a year each year for about the last 27 years.”
Maloney also plans to meet with homeowners who think they were Knight’s victims, saying it would be scheduled to allow as many out-of-state property owners to attend as possible.
“They want to talk about what it’s been like from their perspective — not so much about the items stolen, but how they felt when they walked in and saw that their place had been burglarized and the loss of security.”
Fear and fascination
State police have said that the statute of limitations means they can charge Knight only with burglaries and thefts that occurred within the past six years.
An incident in September 2012 at the Little North Pond camp of Lillie Cogswell, of Wimberley, Texas, might be one of them.
Cogswell said the burglar came in through a window above the kitchen sink, breaking off parts of the faucet when he entered.
“He took pretty much all of our meat in our freezer and he took other food supplies he could carry out,” she said. “He would get into your place and lock everything back up. He was unfortunately finding extra keys that were left around.”
She believes he stole a mattress as well.
“One year we came back and after being in the house several days went into our spare bedroom,” she said. “The mattress was gone, and we had no idea he had been in the there. One time he took a new pair of jeans and a new belt my husband had just bought and left on the bed.”
She said other camp owners feared getting hit by the hermit burglar.
“It’s one thing to say someone came in and stole $100 or $50 or just cleaned out the refrigerator. The other thing is you’re having someone watching the residence and coming in, and you don’t know what would happen if at one point you were confronted.”
Neal Patterson, of Waterville, who bought his parents’ North Pond camp years ago, said he has mixed reactions to Knight’s arrest.
“This is really a fascinating case. It’s something I’ve thought about for many years,” Patterson said.
He recalled an incident 23 years ago, when his son was 10, in which a burglar took his full dresser-drawer supply of candy. “He took it all,” Patterson said. “My son never forgot that.”
Things weren’t always that humorous, though.
“Over the years, I was pretty angry about him getting into my place,” he said. The family lost frying pans and flashlights, and Patterson said he probably spent more money beefing up the camp’s security than the stolen items were worth.
Patterson said he’s no longer seeking punishment after reading that Knight apparently suffers from diabetes and poor eyesight and has traded a life of some tranquility for a busy, noisy jail.
“I have mixed feelings about him. He lives close to nature as a somewhat distorted version of Henry David Thoreau. This hermit was a real naturalist. He walked in the woods; he lived in the woods. I admire kind of his free lifestyle. Of course, he was wrong to steal from people, especially from Pine Tree Camp. It’s too bad he didn’t find an alternate way of feeding himself.”
Dwight Allison, of Rye, N.H., and Rome, said his family bought its camp in December 1986, and his wife’s family has owned camps there since 1935.
“Everyone of them has been broken into multiple times through the years,” Allison said. “It happened to us routinely until 2000. We rebuilt our camp and put hermit-proof windows and doors in; we specifically did stuff to prevent break-ins.”
When another incident occurred last spring, he said his wife was convinced it was the same burglar.
“I couldn’t imagine how someone could do that for so long,” Allison said. “We are glad to see that he’s caught. It will be nice not to expect to have multiple break-ins all the time.”
Allison said he and his wife are curious about Knight’s mental state.
Garry Hollands, of Boylston, Mass., built his family’s cabin on Little North Pond in 1987, losing five L.L. Bean down sleeping bags to a thief that year.
He saw them again a decade later, inside a ravine cave.
“In the dugout, he had a library of books, many of them mine,” Hollands said. “His dugout was pretty neat, actually; you couldn’t see it until you were right on top of it. He had 20-pound propane bottles rigged in series and had a propane light and stove and all kinds of other stuff.”
Hollands said the effect of the repeat burglaries was more insidious than the nuisance created by he items stolen.
“The thing that he took that was of most value was your privacy. You no longer had control of your home,” Hollands said, adding that he eventually took to bringing a shotgun with him when he was heading to camp alone.
“He took away your sense of security, your sense of freedom. You didn’t feel comfortable walking in the woods at night. Here we’re having campfires at night with the kids, and there’s some creep out there in the woods sneaking up on you.”
Apparently the hermit shopped for clothing the same way he shopped for food.
Chuck Sullivan, of Pascoag, R.I., and Rome, said he recognized clothing in photos published by the Kennebec Journal of Knight’s encampment on Tuesday.
“I saw my black sweatpants that he took from me a long, long time ago, hanging from the clothesline.”
Now that a suspect is in hand, he will be happier this summer.
“I will actually have a feeling like I’ve just gotten out of the shower, like washing grime off my body,” Sullivan said.
Men’s underwear disappeared from the Smithfield camp on North Pond belonging to Laureen House, of Mansfield, Mass.
“We bought the family camp in 1999,” she said. She said the family thought at first that guests had used items and didn’t replace them.
Then she realized they were stolen. “We kind of changed the way we did things,” she said.
Anger, then sympathy
House is a little sad at seeing the end of the hermit legend.
“I am looking forward to a sense of peace, knowing that he’s not there, now he’s been caught,” she said. “It was very rare that I would go without my husband. There was always a fear he would not know we were there alone with children.”
House said she was astonished at one North Pond homeowners’ meeting when she realized almost all of the 100 camp owners in the room were burglary victims.
“That was the scariest point,” she said.
One year House, like many other camp owners, left the thief a note: “‘Sorry the store has closed for the season. Please leave a list of supplies you need and we will be sure to stock up for next season.’ If anything, it was a little laugh for us,” House said.
Jeff Routhouska, of Dover, N.H., president of the Little North Pond Road Association, said the hermit burglar’s trademark was a lack of damage. “You could tell if somebody broke in that wasn’t him,” he said.
Andrew McDougle, of Hopedale, Mass., said his 20-year-old son might have encountered Knight.
“Just last summer my son was asleep in our camp when the hermit entered the camp and came up the stairs with a flashlight at 2 a.m. Can you imagine how scary that must have been?”
Frank Luongo, of Rehoboth, Mass., who has had a camp on Little North Pond since 2001, said food and other items disappeared on their own.
“It was nothing like you would lose your mind over, but you’d feel a little exposed because someone was inside your house maybe three times,” he said.
Eventually he set up alarms at the camp, so the thief turned to the garage.
“All batteries out of my snowmobiles were gone,” Luongo said, “and two brand-new propane tanks full. I had just bought the damn things; they were my spares.”
Debbie Baker, of Norridgewock, bought a camp on North Pond in Mercer in 1993 and lost bags of groceries to a burglar beginning that year. “It was frustrating to spend all that money to have food there and then get there and have none,” she said.
She started tracking the movements of the “hungry man,” a description that didn’t frighten her sons.
He came before Memorial Day and after Labor Day, and only on overcast nights.
“Over the years he would just take whatever food he wanted, sleeping bags, books, cough drops. That was bizarre, because he took them right out of my bedroom. He left stuff, too.”
By 2002, the family had had enough, and Maine State Trooper Jeffrey Love installed a camera in the camp, which Baker checked daily. On June 6, 2002, she stuck paydirt.
The video showed an intruder looking into her refrigerator, a tiny flashlight in his mouth. “We had worms in a Cool Whip container, which he looked at and put back,” she said. The intruder was not identifiable, however, so the hunt went on.
Baker framed a photo from the video and hung it in camp.
“Now I feel sorry for him, because I was angry at him for years,” she said. “I hope he gets the help he needs.”
Betty Adams — 621-5631