Second of two parts. Part I: The state’s 68 cold cases are about to get some help — almost.

Jim Hamilton is friendly and talkative as he shows customers around a new liquidation store he opened in Waterville’s rugged South End neighborhood.

He is so casual, with a T-shirt and gray stubble climbing up the sides of his bald head, that it is easy to forget he spent 17 years as a police officer with the Oakland Police Department.

Hamilton is one of many in Maine who want the state to establish a cold case unit dedicated to revisiting old homicide cases and bringing those murderers to justice.

Earlier this year, L.D. 1734, a bill intended to create a four-person crime squad to tackle those cases, was passed with bipartisan support in the Legislature; but the unit still wasn’t formed.

The sticking point was money. The Appropriations Committee didn’t allocate any to finance the unit, effectively killing the bill.

The unit would cost about $500,000 in its first year and $430,000 for each subsequent year, for salaries and equipment.

Hamilton said it’s hard to put a price on justice.

“If they solved one case and you asked that family afterwards was it worth the half-million, (they would say) it was worth 100 million to them,” he said, “and it would be to me.”

Hamilton’s main interest in a cold case unit isn’t as a former police officer.

It stems back to 1989, the year he began working part-time for both the Oakland department and the Somerset County Sheriff’s Office. That year, his grandmother, Evelyn Pomerleau, was killed less than a mile from where he now operates his business.

That year, Hamilton himself became a suspect.


Twenty-five years ago, in a three-story gray apartment building in Waterville’s South End, a murder happened behind a door that should have been locked but was inexplicably open.

Evelyn Pomerleau was known and liked by residents throughout the neighborhood, many of whom she got to know in the 1970s when she and her husband, Charlie, operated Pomerleau’s Market.

By 1989, when she was 69, the store was closed, but she still knew all of her neighbors and every beat cop and desk sergeant in the local police department.

Hamilton, then 21, lived with Pomerleau in the Summer Street apartment and remembers her as a feisty 95 pounds, generous to her friends and talented in the kitchen.

“She was (French Canadian) and the best cook you could imagine,” he said, describing traditional French Canadian recipes such as tourtiere pies filled with meat and galettes, fried dough with butter and sugar. A CB enthusiast, she usually slept on the couch next to a CB radio so she could wake up at a moment’s notice and give directions or respond to a distress call from a lost trucker.

Pomerleau loved the South End but was realistic about its hard edge, guarding herself to a degree that may have seemed paranoid.

“She would deadbolt the door all of the time,” said Hamilton, who in 1989 had just embarked on his law enforcement career. Every night when Hamilton got home from work, he had to knock on the deadbolted door.

“She would ask who it was, and of course I’d tell her it was me, and then she’d make me put my drivers’ license under the door to make sure it was really me,” Hamilton recalled. “She never took any chances.”

But one May night in 1989, when Hamilton got home after midnight, the door was ajar. His grandmother was not on the couch. The CB radio was gone.

“I thought, ‘Well, something might be wrong here,’ but I just got into law enforcement and I’m thinking I’m watching too many movies and letting my imagination get the best of me,” Hamilton said.

So he went to sleep and woke up early the next morning to hurry off to another shift. Not until he got home that afternoon and saw the day’s newspaper still lying on the front walk did he take action.

He opened the door to his grandmother’s bedroom and saw what at first appeared to be a neatly made bed. But then he noticed a bare foot sticking out from under the covers, the only visible sign of the tiny woman.

Investigators determined that Pomerleau had died of a ruptured blood vessel. The missing CB radio, which was never recovered, and a stolen purse, which was recovered less than a block away, led police to classify the death as a homicide.

For the last 25 years, Hamilton has tried to make sense of the details.

Often, his thoughts hinge on that door, deadbolt withdrawn, hanging slightly ajar. There was no sign of forced entry, he said.

Sometimes that seems almost impossible to him.

“It appears she let somebody in, but she would just never do that,” he said.

Then, in almost the next breath, it doesn’t seem that strange at all.

“She knew everybody. It could have been anyone in the neighborhood, I suppose, that she could have opened the door to.”

In some of the scenarios he’s considered, Pomerleau’s death was benign. Perhaps her blood vessel burst without a violent confrontation, and an opportunist simply saw it as a chance to make off with the purse and radio. In others, he said, perhaps the blood vessel burst while she was fending off an attacker.

The person who was there might have walked home, to somewhere in the South End, or he or she might have gotten into an 18-wheeler and driven it across the country. Or maybe neither.

At the time, police shut down Summer Street, locked Hamilton in a jail cell and cordoned off the apartment for days to gather and analyze evidence, the beginning of a broad investigation that involved hundreds of interviews in both the neighborhood and the trucking community.

It produced no results.

“It could be, every avenue that we thought of and the state police thought of was wrong,” he said. “You never know. Maybe it was a drifter.”

About six weeks after Pomerleau died, 64-year-old Martha Daigle was killed in her home in an apartment building known as The Beehive, also in the South End, less than a mile from where Pomerleau lived. A man named Alan Powell eventually was convicted of stabbing, raping and strangling Daigle and sentenced to life in prison.

Hamilton has wondered whether Powell is also the man who murdered his grandmother.

In June 2012, while Powell was serving his sentence in Maine State Prison in Warren, he was beaten to death with his own electric guitar by another inmate, Guy Hunnewell, 42.

For Hamilton, his grandmother’s death is still devastating for him all these years later.

“It turns your whole life upside down,” he said. “What haunts me really to this day is that night that I came home and I thought, ‘Now, I’m just letting my imagination (run wild),’ and I went to sleep.”

Hamilton is hopeful that his grandmother’s death can still be solved. He acknowledges that there are barriers to that happening.

“Even a fresh case is difficult; but a cold case, you multiply that to the 10th power,” he said. “A lot of times they say the first 24 to 72 hours. When you talk about 25 years down the road, you need people who really know what they’re doing.”

Still, he said, with the right team of experienced investigators, given the tools they need, “anything is possible.”


By some counts, there are 120 unsolved murders in the state of Maine.

Facing those 120 unsolved murders is Assistant Attorney General Lara Nomani, a prosecutor who is the only person in the state whose full-time job is to bring those killers to justice.

Her role is largely to provide legal advice to detectives from the state’s Major Crimes Unit and homicide divisions in Bangor and Portland. Nomani said she and the investigating officers come from slightly different perspectives. While detectives are focused on identifying the killer, her focus is on building the legal case that will ensure the killer, once found, is made to answer for the crime in a court of law.

Deputy Attorney General Bill Stokes said Nomani has been ruthlessly efficient since 2006, when she began splitting her time between cold cases and gambling cases.

Stokes said the state has been able to solve nine murders in the past seven years through a combination of new DNA evidence, persistent police work and, sometimes, luck.

“We’re proud of the work we’ve done,” he said. “We’ve been fairly successful.”

Even working on a part-time basis, even without the support of a dedicated investigative team, Nomani was able to work with police to achieve success. In 2006, she convicted two men for the 1983 murder of Judith Flagg and the 1994 murder of Crystal Perry. In 2008, there was another conviction, in connection with the 1986 death of Mary Kelley.

“We liked what we saw with the cold case stuff,” Stokes said, so his office applied for a federal grant that allowed Nomani to work cold cases exclusively for 18 months.

By 2011, the office had closed three more cases successfully — Rita St. Peter, killed in 1980; Billy Greenwood, killed in 1995; and Trevor Sprague, killed in 2006.

Even though the grant had run out, Stokes said, Nomani was achieving such a high rate of success that the state assumed responsibility for her salary to allow her to continue to work cold cases full time.

Since then, two more cases have been prosecuted.

First, Nomani helped prove that Starlett Vining was stabbed and beaten to death in 1998 by her boyfriend, a pawn shop owner named George Jaime, of Presque Isle. Vining’s family didn’t report the disappearance until 2006; in November, Jaime, 76 years old, was convicted in part because of the testimony of his son, who said he saw Vining’s bloody body in Jaime’s apartment.

The other involved the murder of 70-year-old Blanche Kimball, who was stabbed fatally in a particularly violence scene in her State Street home in Augusta in 1976. Kimball received 23 stab wounds to the chest alone, with more cuts in the abdomen, head and hands.

That case was solved with help from the chewing gum of a homeless Seattle man.

Gary Sanford Raub, who lived with Kimball at the time of her death, was questioned and released in 1976. With fresh suspicions raised about him in connection to a 2011 stabbing in Seattle, an undercover officer asked Raub to participate in a fictitious chewing gum survey, linking his DNA to samples found in Kimball’s kitchen. On June 27, Raub pleaded guilty to the killing.

Nomani declined many questions during a recent phone interview, saying she was uncomfortable about being publicly celebrated as the driving force behind a string of successful prosecutions that have shortened the list of open cold cases.

Stokes said some people have used those successes as evidence that the state is doing just fine at solving cold cases and therefore does not need a specialized unit.

“You’re sort of a victim of your own success,” he said. “There is no way that you can maintain that type of success with an approach that basically relies upon one person, as good as she is.”

Solving a cold case requires more resources than solving a recent homicide. But in fact, they receive fewer resources, because overburdened Major Crimes Unit detectives devote nearly all of their time to current cases.

Stokes said the resultant lack of devoted detective time can make it tough for Nomani to make progress on a case.

“The biggest dilemma Lara has is that when she gets into a case and needs to have investigative work or interviews done, she has to rely upon the resources of the primary detective who is involved with the case,” Stokes said.

“And the primary, of course, has their own case.”

The detective in charge of Pomerleau’s case is also handling two or three homicides that have happened within the last year, according to Detective Sgt. Jason Richards, a supervisor in the Major Crimes Unit. Like everyone else in law enforcement, she is stretched thin.

With such limited resources, prosecutors are forced to consider what Stokes calls the “solvability quotient,” the kind of mathematical problem no one likes to think about.

When prosecutors look at a case, they must decide whether putting resources into its investigation is likely to pay off in the form of a prosecution.

Cold cases rarely win out in that equation.

“When you’re talking about the ’50s and ’60s, the likelihood is less than in the ’80s or ’90s,” Stokes said.

Stokes said there’s nothing new about the idea that putting more money into the justice system will result in more convictions.

“State police could use more resources. The judicial system could use more resources,” he said. “If you could give her the investigative resources she needs, you’re more likely to continue that success.”


Police investigating cold cases have to maintain a delicate balance.

They want to do all they can to keep hope alive while at the same time preventing that hope from gaining so much strength that it could add to the emotional pain being felt by the victim’s families.

“I can’t make guarantees,” Stokes said. “It’s the nature of the beast. I can’t do it.”

Stokes said he wishes he could promise murder victim families that the perpetrators will be brought to justice.

“That would make my life easier,” he said, “but what I think we do owe families is their loved one’s case getting the type of attention it deserves.”

And what those cases deserve, Stokes said, is a fully staffed cold case unit, not the efforts of a single prosecutor, bolstered only by the intermittent investigative efforts of detectives whose attention is on more recent cases.

As a group, cold cases became more solvable when the Maine State Police Crime Lab began processing DNA in 1997.

“The detectives started to focus on, ‘Are there cases out there that have biological evidence that we could try to solve?” Stokes said.

Stokes said that when it comes to cold cases, there are no so-called “low-hanging fruits,” cases that are easy to solve. Instead, he said, investigators try to focus on the one they think is the least difficult.


One of the most frustrating things for victim family members is the idea that the mystery surrounding the murder can be solved, but that the price to get it is simply too steep.

L.D. 1734 was sponsored by Rep. Stephen Stanley, D-Medway, and co-sponsored by nine state legislators, including Sen. Colleen Lachowicz, D-Waterville, and Rep. Stanley Short, D-Pittsfield.

Short said he was motivated to co-sponsor because, like many people in the state, he has been touched by a tragedy personally with more questions than answers.

“Every region of the state’s been touched by cases that were never solved,” he said.

In his case, it was in the mid-1970s in Franklin County’s Chain of Ponds Township, where Kurt Newton, 4, rode his plastic tricycle down a wooded road, looking for his father, who was chopping firewood. When the blond, blue-eyed boy didn’t return, Short was one of many who joined in a manhunt that never paid off.

“I had a son that looked just like him,” he said. “It was so vivid to me.”

After the Cold Case Unit bill was approved in the most recent legislative session, its ardent supporters came up against a slew of other worthy causes, each one with a price tag, all colliding inside an intense pressure cooker known as the state Appropriations Committee

Competition for committee members’ attention is so intense that, without first reviewing his notes, Rep. Erik Jorgenson, D-Portland, said last week that he could barely remember the bill.

“We had something like 20 times the number of unfunded bills as we had funding to pay for,” he said.

Every bill they see has enough political support to pass both the House and Senate. Every bill has its champions and lobbyists pushing to see it funded. In that setting, it’s not about the merit of the idea. It’s about what can be made to work.

“This is not about any fault of the bill itself,” he said. “It was just, we didn’t have the resources.”

He said the Cold Case Unit is just one of many great ideas that necessarily fell to the budgetary ax.

“That’s really the issue, is half a million dollars,” he said. “In this budget cycle, that’s a lot of money.”

Lachowicz, like Short, said she would gladly co-sponsor future legislation to get the issue back before the Appropriations Committee.

“There were many other things that people fought real hard to get funded,” she said. “I think it’s something we’ll continue to look at, because I think it’s worthwhile. It’s heartbreaking. People want to know what happened to their family member. Who’s responsible?”


But there is a half-measure in the works that might continue to keep the hopes of Hamilton, and other murder victim family members, alive.

While the idea of a cold case unit is languishing indefinitely, the state has asked the federal government for a $300,000 grant to help fund DNA tests for some of the cases in which testing is most likely to produce a tangible benefit.

On May 27, Maine’s U.S. Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder supporting the application to the Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice.

If the application is successful, the grant would pay for two years’ worth of DNA work, which Grotton said includes the time to determine whether DNA evidence would be useful and then “to go out and find person X, get the swab and be able to process this.”

The money would also pay for a dedicated DNA laboratory analyst, potentially allowing prosecutors to bypass an obstacle that sometimes takes years to resolve.

Maj. Chris Grotton, of the Support Services Division of the Maine State Police, who helped to usher the Cold Case Unit bill through the Legislature, said the public has to manage its expectations.

Grotton said partial solutions, like the grant, or funding for a single additional detective, won’t be as effective as a Cold Case Unit.

“We have some idea of what it would take to do this right,” he said. “People need to know what this is and what this isn’t. I don’t want to raise expectations for folks.”

The state will likely get an answer this summer, he said, with the money funding operations beginning on Oct. 1. If Maine gets the grant, the state will have two years to spend the money, he said.

Jim Hamilton said he welcomes any chance to learn what truly happened to his grandmother, no matter how slight.

Before she died, she worried that becoming a police officer could lead to Hamilton putting himself in danger. In the end, the woman who kept herself behind bolted doors is the one who died, leaving him to wonder about it for 25 long years — and counting.

At any cost, he wants closure.

“To not know,” he said, “is just as bad as what happened.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287

[email protected]

Twitter: @hh_matt

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