The attorney for the man known as the North Pond Hermit says Christopher Knight should not have to pay $1,125 restitution for costs incurred by Maine State Police for removing a road they built in 2013 to reach his remote campsite in the woods of Rome.
Knight grew up in Albion, then left civilized society after high school, spending some 27 years alone in the woods in campsites he outfitted with items stolen from Rome and Smithfield cottages and camps. The mysterious break-ins spawned the local legend of a “North Pond Hermit.” Authorities caught Knight breaking into the Pine Tree Camp in April 2013 in Rome, a case that drew worldwide media attention.
In 2015, he was sentenced on burglary and theft charges and ordered to serve seven months in jail — time he had already served — and the remainder of the five-year sentence was suspended. He also was ordered to serve three years on probation.
The state says Knight should be required to pay $1,125 for “environmental cleanup expense,” which was part of the $1,500 restitution assessed at Knight’s sentencing hearing on March 23, 2015.
Knight’s attorney, Walter McKee, wants the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to vacate the $1,125 restitution. All other restitution ordered as part of the sentence had been paid.
“This appeal is really about just how far the state can stretch the meaning of ‘restitution,'” McKee said in a statement. “At a certain point it become absurd for the state to even request restitution, and the request here is beyond absurd and approaching ridiculous.”
In the appeal brief, McKee argues: “If the state is allowed to claim restitution as it has requested in this case, then every time law enforcement clears a homeless person’s tent from some abandoned area the person whose meager shelter is taken away can be charged with the ‘environmental clean-up’ expense in doing so. The state could also make that person pay for the gas the police used to get to the campsite and all expenses connected to the non-environmental ‘clean-up.’ This would be grossly unfair and absurd.”
The opposing brief — by student-attorney Emily Collins, of the Kennebec County District Attorney’s Office — says restitution was properly imposed.
“Mr. Knight hid the fruit of his crimes at his inaccessible campsite on Lisa Fitzgerald’s land; the police had to construct a road in order to reach this campsite, locate and collect evidence of the crimes, then clean and restore the property of Lisa Fitzgerald by de-constructing the road they built,” Collins writes.
District Attorney Maeghan Maloney said via email late Tuesday that the restitution statute allows for state police to be reimbursed for environmental clean-up and investigation.
“In this case, a private home owner would have been left with a mess if the state police had not assisted,” Maloney said.
Deputy District Attorney Paul Cavanaugh is scheduled to present the oral argument on the state’s behalf.
Knight, now 50, is living in the community and remains on probation, which is set to end in March 2018, according to the state Department of Corrections website. McKee said he was unsure where Knight was living, but indicated Knight will not attend the oral court arguments before the supreme court, which are set for next week in East Machias.
Knight’s arrest in April 2013, first reported by the Kennebec Journal, sparked worldwide media interest. Knight was seen by some as a folk hero, admired for his ingenuity and survival skills while living in the Maine woods for decades. For many victims of his burglaries, though, Knight represented a troublesome thief who made them fearful and angry, and they were glad when he was behind bars. Knight’s story also inspired songs, a documentary film and a marriage proposal.
Knight’s sentencing hearing came after he completed a specialty court program designed to help people with substance abuse and mental health problems. At that hearing, Justice Nancy Mills said, “The most important thing that Christopher has told me since October 2013 is that he has learned in this court that he can live the life he wants to live without breaking the law.”
Knight entered the Co-Occurring Disorders Court Program in October 2013 after pleading guilty to 13 burglaries and thefts in Rome and Smithfield — a fraction of the estimated 1,000 burglaries and thefts he committed over the years.
Knight was arrested April 4, 2013, by Maine State Trooper Diane Perkins-Vance and Sgt. Terry Hughes, of the Maine Warden Service, as Knight was leaving the dining room of the nonprofit Pine Tree Camp in Rome. He was laden with foodstuffs lifted from the freezer as well as tools.
At that time, Knight told Perkins-Vance he had not spoken to his family since the mid-1980s. He told her that was about the same time he had last bought anything. Everything he had — except for his eyeglasses — was stolen, he said.
Knight told investigators he stole from empty camps almost exclusively at night, stepping on rocks where possible, careful not to leave a trail.
People with homes and camps on North, East and Little North ponds were repeat victims over the years of thefts of clothing, batteries, propane tanks, books, beer, food, camping gear and more. Several enterprising owners of private camps, frustrated with repeated thefts, caught images of him on game cameras as he peered into their refrigerators and cupboards. Some people left food and items out for him along with notes asking him to leave the rest of their items alone.
After building the road and emptying Knight’s campsite in the Rome woods, state police filled two garages with goods recovered and invited victims to reclaim their goods, but few people did so.
In briefs filed in connection with the restitution case, McKee says restitution “is only allowed for true ‘economic loss.'”
Knight’s motion to correct the sentence, which was denied in October, said he had not caused the damage for which the state police sought restitution.
The supreme court is set to hear oral arguments in the case at 9 a.m. May 5 at Washington Academy in East Machias.
Betty Adams — 621-5631