Forty years ago, Michael M. Boucher Sr. attacked 18-year-old Debra Dill in the woods off Whippoorwill Road in Litchfield. He strangled her with his hands and beat her so viciously with a hammer that one of Dill’s teeth lodged in her esophagus. Her bludgeoned body was found face up, about 20 feet from the blue Ford Falcon she had used to try to outrun her attacker.

Boucher eluded investigators for nearly 20 years, during which time he racked up a lengthy criminal record that included at least two convictions of aggravated assault as well as public indecency, theft and harassment. When police finally connected Boucher to Dill’s murder, they found a box he kept with some of Dill’s belongings. Boucher was convicted of Dill’s murder in 1991 and sentenced to life in prison.

If Debra Dill’s family has found any comfort in the chronic grief over the past 40 years, it has been the knowledge that Boucher will spend the rest of his life in prison; but that assurance now seems very much in doubt. These days, the 63-year-old Boucher spends his days at the minimum security Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport, where he is assigned to a Community Restitution Crew that carries out supervised work details throughout Washington County. Boucher has another parole hearing scheduled for May when, family members fear, he will be freed.

“They’re getting ready to release him,” said Vicki Dill, who was 10 years old when Boucher murdered her sister. “That’s what it sounds like. Who’s going to shoulder the burden, should he decide to strike again? It shouldn’t take another death to make this stick.”

Yet parole officials say Boucher has made progress in accepting responsibility for what he did, as evidenced by a letter he wrote to the Dill family in May 2011 in which he apologized for the murder and asked for forgiveness.

“I was a selfish coward and did not care about anyone or anything,” Boucher wrote. “I blamed all my problems on my drug and alcohol use, when in fact that was not the problem. I was the problem.”

Boucher, who read the letter for the parole board, said he never before had accepted responsibility for his actions. He had always blamed his substance abuse.

“He was a predator”

Lyndon Abbott had been with the state police for nine years, and a detective for three, as he looked over the West Gardiner teen’s lifeless body that day in September 1973. Abbott, now retired in Florida, recalled the investigation during a recent phone interview. He said Dill had been to the Lewiston Fair the night of Sept. 16. Detectives thought Boucher, who was 22 at the time, picked Dill at random and followed her as she began her drive home.

“We feel he followed her out of Lewiston,” Abbott said. “We knew her vehicle had been bumped. There was a light abrasion on the bumper. Later we found out he was a bump-and-run guy. He would look for a lone female and follow them. He would bump them. When they got out to assess the damages, he grabbed them.”

Abbott said Boucher had tried the technique on another woman in Lewiston, but she got away. The woman was unable to identify Boucher positively.

“The Lewiston police knew it was him and his car,” Abbott said. “We knew he was that kind of a guy, but we had nothing on him. We assumed he was a suspect, but it was just an assumption.”

Detectives were unable to determine whether Boucher continued to chase Dill or he stayed back as the desperate woman fled. She crashed her car on a camp road. That’s where Boucher caught her, Abbott said.

Testimony at Boucher’s trial depicted a grisly murder that would go unsolved for years. Blood was smeared on the side of Dill’s car, which was about a quarter of mile from Route 126, according to a 1991 report in the Lewiston Sun Journal. Dill’s body was found face up. Her brassiere had been ripped off and was found beside her body. She was wearing a sweater, underpants, socks and blue suede shoes. One leg was “cocked up,” with a stick under it, according to the Sun Journal report.

Dr. Nelson Blackburn, who did the autopsy, testified at Boucher’s trial that Dill was strangled by hand and suffered a “brutal beating” that was more than can be done with a fist, according to the Sun Journal report. There were three coinlike depressions on the side of Dill’s skull that probably had been delivered with a hammer. Dill had cuts and scrapes on her hands, face, chest, back, torso and a knee.

Abbott said there were myriad suspects early on. Boucher’s name never came up specifically, but investigators were aware that Lewiston police had investigated the case of the Lewiston woman who escaped after her car had been bumped. Abbott said investigators never had enough information on Boucher to question him effectively.

“We didn’t know him by name, but we knew Lewiston PD had a guy who did that,” Abbott said. “I must have investigated about 100 guys that could have done the murder, but I disproved each and every one of them.”

Abbott said Boucher’s name came to the forefront around 1988 when he threatened to do to his wife “the same to her as the Dill girl.” His wife called police and eventually testified against him at his trial. Steve Drake, a detective with the Maine State Police who had been assigned the cold case, began putting the pieces together.

Boucher was in a Connecticut prison when he came to the attention of police investigating Dill’s murder. Abbott said Boucher was serving a sentence for beating a woman there.

“He thought she was going to die,” Abbott said. “She ended up testifying against him.”

Police found Dill’s belongings when they searched Boucher’s property.

“We had him dead to rights,” Abbott said. “There’s no doubt in my mind he’s the boy who did it. He ended up with items out of her car that only the murderer could have taken.”

Abbott can only speculate why Boucher would have kept the belongings, and potential evidence, for nearly 20 years.

“Some of those guys are trophy guys,” he said. “He was not a nice person whatsoever. This wasn’t a crime of passion or a spur of the moment. He followed them, picked them out and went for them. He was a predator.”

Abbott said he thinks Boucher hoped to assault Dill sexually, but investigators were unable to determine whether he was able to carry out that assault.

“She put up an awful fight,” Abbott said. “He had to beat her with his hammer to put her down.”

Parole hearing expedited

Boucher was convicted by a Kennebec County Superior Court jury and in July 1991 sentenced to life in prison, with the possibility of parole.

Vicki Dill, who has attended every parole hearing to argue for Boucher’s continued imprisonment, said Boucher usually has a parole hearing every five years; but his next hearing, scheduled for May, is two years early. Based on his prison reassignment, his work in the community and the fact that they have speeded up the date of Boucher’s parole hearing, the Dill family fears Boucher is being groomed for release.

“They’re treating him like he’s going to get out some day,” said Dill, who is West Gardiner’s fire chief. “He may be 62, but it doesn’t mean that he’s an invalid.”

The Maine State Parole Board is composed of three lawyers and a Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office employee. Scott Fish, spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said there is no way of knowing how that board will act at Boucher’s hearing in May. Because he was sentenced under state law as it existed in 1973, Boucher is eligible for parole regardless of how he conducts himself in prison.

“The decision whether to actually grant parole is a separate issue in which good conduct is one factor,” Fish said.

At his last parole hearing, in May 2011, Boucher said he had last been out of prison in 2001 when he was returned to Warren from a stint at the former Central Maine Pre-Release Center in Hallowell. Prisoners at that unit participated in public restitution work crews and a work release program, according to the Department of Corrections website. Boucher said he worked at the center before his first parole hearing in 2001. He was returned to the maximum-security prison in Warren when that parole was denied. Boucher told the parole board that he was allowed to work out of the facility. It’s unclear whether he was supervised during that time.

“It was still too early for me (to be released),” Boucher said.

He remained at Warren until May, when the department sent the Dills a notice that Boucher was being transferred to the Downeast Correctional Facility. The corrections website describes the prison as a minimum-security facility where caseworkers assist prisoners and families with treatment programs, “within the community and in therapeutic and rehabilitative settings.” The prison offers an array of educational and vocational programs. The community restitution program to which Boucher has been assigned provides other state agencies, local towns and nonprofits with help maintaining facilities.

When the Dills were first notified of Boucher’s transfer, corrections officials erroneously claimed the Downeast prison was a medium-security facility, Dill said. The letter announcing Boucher’ transfer, a copy of which was provided to the Kennebec Journal, says Boucher “is not allowed off grounds of facility.”

The department sent the Dills another letter in November announcing that Boucher had been assigned to the community restitution crew that works throughout the area.

“We were told he wasn’t healthy and they go up there to die,” Dill said. “He must have been cured. Now he’s working. We went from he’s not allowed off grounds in May to now he’s in the community. I don’t think the people of Washington County know they have a murderer walking amongst them.”

Fish declined to talk about Boucher’s health, but he said community restitution crews are supervised from the time they leave the prison until they return. Fish said Boucher is one of “several” convicted murderers with histories of violent felonies who have been sent to the facility and been allowed to work in the community, but an online search of inmates Friday indicated Boucher is the only one of 15 inmates who has been sentenced to life in prison. Every other inmate at the facility has an earliest possible release date by the end of 2016. All but a handful can be out by the end of 2015.

Vicki Dill said the family’s recent history with the Department of Corrections is littered with unreturned phone calls and misinformation. When her family received the letter in May, it indicated Boucher had been freed on a furlough pass. It took several calls, and a plea for help from Kennebec County District Attorney Maeghan Maloney, to learn the furlough simply meant Boucher had been transferred.

Dill said her niece has applied to college in Washington County, but now the family is advising her against going. Working in the community, even under supervision, creates the possibility that Boucher will escape and perhaps even come after other members of the Dill family.

“You never know what could happen,” Vicki Dill said. “My mother is freaking out about this. He should not be up there. He should not be out unless he’s brought out in a black bag and not breathing.”

Board praises letter; family to fight release

The 2011 letter Boucher wrote to the Dill family was cited by parole officials as evidence that he is accepting responsibility and making progress toward what could be eventual release.

“It wasn’t anything that Deborah Dill did,” Boucher said, according to a transcript of the hearing provided by the department. “That whole night wasn’t an accident. They only thing that was an accident that night was my car hitting hers. That was the only accident. I never should have been in my car in the first place.”

Boucher told the board they both pulled over after the accident. He said he took a hammer out of the car’s back seat and put it in front. Boucher said he “panicked” because he was driving without a license and under the influence.

“I didn’t know it was a woman driving at the time and I don’t think it would have mattered,” he said. “You know, I was scared, just married, and didn’t want to go to jail. Unfortunately, I took somebody’s life because of being a coward and not facing my responsibilities.”

The parole board denied Boucher parole – but for three years, not the standard five. Neale Duffett, a board member, commended Boucher for his “growth” and “insight” into his behavior the night of the murder. Duffett said the board balanced Boucher’s need against those of society in deciding to deny parole. He urged Boucher to use the three years to develop a realistic plan for life outside of prison.

“This letter that you have written, we think, is an excellent letter and we are impressed by that insight,” Duffett said. “That is the kind of growth that we would like to see continue as you prepare for your next parole review in three years.”

Only Debra Dill’s sister, Cindy DiRusso, has ever read the letter. Regardless of whether Boucher means what he says in the letter, and regardless of whether he could become a productive member of society, DiRusso is committed to keeping her sister’s murderer behind bars.

“This man did not allow a young woman to live her life,” she said. “All of his decisions were taken away the moment he made contact with her. Forty years is not enough. Life is the only answer.”

Life in the Dill household had no semblance of normalcy for three years after Debra Dill’s murder. Her mother, Janice Kelman, said they refused to let their other children out of their sight. Christmases, birthdays and other occasions that usually brought happiness were marred by a fog of grief that never lifted.

“I think of the things that could have been,” Kelman said. “Every time his name is mentioned, I remember my daughter in the morgue when I had to identify her.”

Kelman, who uses a wheelchair and suffers from a variety of physical maladies, has not attended any of Boucher’s parole hearings; but she is considering going to the May hearing, regardless of how difficult it proves. Kelman wishes Maine had the death penalty so that she would never again have to worry about Boucher being freed.

“He can eat, breathe, watch TV,” Kelman said. “All my daughter is is a pile of bones.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642 ccrosby@centralmaine.com