SKOWHEGAN — The man accused of killing Rita St. Peter was a suspect for more than 31 years, but it wasn’t until recently that police matched his DNA with semen found at the scene of her death in Anson, a prosecutor said.

The state released new information Monday about the case involving Jay S. Mercier, 56, of Industry, who faces a single charge of murder for the killing of St. Peter on July 5, 1980, off Campground Road.

Assistant Attorney General Andrew Benson said during a hearing in Somerset County Superior Court that there is evidence Mercier sexually assaulted St. Peter, bludgeoned her on the head with a weapon akin to a tire iron and partially ran her over with his pickup truck. The account is also described in a five-page affidavit by Maine State Police Detective Bryant Jacques.

Benson pointed to further evidence on Monday in an effort to keep Mercier in jail until a trial.

He told Judge John Nivison that at the time of St. Peter’s death, Mercier had two sets of tires on his pickup, with the front tires differing from the back tires. Those unique tires matched the tracks leading over St. Peter’s body at the scene of the crime, Benson said.

Defense Attorney John Alsop argued that Mercier should be held under house arrest until his trial.

“He is as bail-worthy a candidate as I have seen,” Alsop said, referring to the fact that police officers have interviewed Mercier many times and he has never fled. He also said that sex does not confirm proof of Mercier killing St. Peter.

Nivison ultimately sided with the state and ordered Mercier to be held without bail until his trial. “I will not exercise the discretion to grant bail,” Nivison said.

Mercier said nothing and remained expressionless throughout the hearing.

Afterward, St. Peter’s sister, Christine Belangia, of Weld, stood outside the courtroom with four other family members.

“I’m just glad it went the way it went,” she said.

Both Benson and Alsop said they were not surprised by the judge’s decision, since it’s not unusual for those charged with murder to remain in jail pending a trial.

St. Peter, who was killed at the age of 20, was last seen alive during the late evening hours of July 4, 1980, near the bridge leading from Madison to Anson.

When her body was found on a field road the next morning, she was on her back. Her clothing was ripped and her face, her head and the ground were covered in blood, according to Jacques’ affidavit, which was filed Monday and contains photographs of the body.

When police first arrived, there was one distinct tire track in the dirt. Dr. Henry Ryan, Maine’s chief medical examiner at the time, determined that St. Peter had sustained multiple internal and external injuries to the head and torso, including skull and rib fractures, the affidavit states. He attributed the cause of death to blunt force trauma caused by being run over and struck on the head with a weapon.

People at the time told police that St. Peter was intoxicated when she left the Depot bar in Madison and made her way toward Anson, according to the affidavit. Some people told police they saw Mercier alone in his truck; others said they noticed his truck in the general area and time frame when St. Peter was leaving the bar.

Mercier was a suspect from the beginning. The day after St. Peter’s body was found, Mercier signed a consent form to allow police to search his 1980 GMC pickup, the affidavit states. Barry DeLong, an investigating officer then and the current sheriff of Somerset County, drove the truck to a mechanic in Madison to obtain inked prints of the tires. A forensic scientist in December 2005 matched the impressions to those at the crime scene, according to the document.

On Jan. 15, 2010, Jacques met personally with Mercier outside his home on Butterfield Lane in Industry to talk to him about St. Peter. During the conversation, Mercier smoked cigarettes and threw them near the road, court papers state. At the end of their talk, Jacques picked up a cigarette butt and brought it to the state crime laboratory.

Although Mercier told police he knew who St. Peter was but had never met her, dated her, had her in his truck or had sex with her, the DNA on the cigarette butt matched semen found inside St. Peter, the affidavit states.

Police obtained a warrant for another DNA sample, and the second sample confirmed the DNA match. The probability of someone else carrying the same DNA is less than one in 300 billion, a forensic DNA analyst told Jacques.

Further, when police in separate interviews asked Mercier what he was doing the day of St. Peter’s death, “he admitted that he had been consuming alcohol throughout the day and night and stated that he could drive pretty well when he was drunk,” the affidavit states.

In Mercier’s defense, Alsop said the state does not have an airtight case. In particular, he said he wants to know exactly where the evidence has been over the last 31 years and why the tire impression evidence was not completed until 25 years after the crime.

Mercier may have been a suspect from the beginning, Alsop said, but he has never confessed to the crime, and there were many other suspects over time. Though there is evidence of sexual contact, Alsop questioned whether there is evidence of when it took place.

Mercier has lived in Somerset County — mainly in Madison — nearly his entire life and moved to Industry only during the last few years, Alsop said. If people saw him near the Depot bar on the night of St. Peter’s death, the lawyer said, it’s because he lived only several blocks away.

Alsop admitted that Mercier previously had an alcohol problem but said he’s been sober for several years. Alsop said Mercier has cooperated and been cordial in police interviews.

Erin Rhoda — 612-2368

[email protected]

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