JEFFERSON — The overgrown homestead, a mile down a narrow dirt fire lane that winds through deep woods, has seen more than its share of tragedy and madness.

For 12 years, it also has kept a macabre secret.

The skeleton of Charles “Chuck” Woodburn lay beneath a scant 2 feet of dirt in the front yard of what had been his home at 219 Neck Road.

Police unearthed Woodburn’s remains 11 days ago – amid engine parts and other debris – from a hole in front of the property’s woodworking shop. An examination showed that somebody had killed him.

Now, Maine State Police are trying to retrace the last days of a homicide victim in a town where few people seem to remember him, in the hunt for a killer who may be long dead.

Police cadaver dogs spent an hour scouring the property before they “hit” on a spot where a subsequent owner had burned brush and scrap wood. State police Sgt. Jeffrey Love, who is overseeing the investigation, watched as the backhoe scraped off thin layers of dirt, until detectives spotted the skeleton.

“It was a sense of relief and closure,” he said, adding that it is satisfying any time investigators can help a family get closure on the fate of a loved one.

Maine’s chief medical examiner determined Woodburn did not die of natural causes, but has not released the cause of death. The body also has not been positively identified as Woodburn. That will require dental records or a DNA match with blood relatives.

A DISAPPEARANCE NO ONE NOTICED

Nobody has seen Woodburn since 2002, but few people seem to have noticed the 51-year-old was gone.

His wife, Diane Darling, who died in 2010, never reported him missing, and within two years of his disappearance she had married again, to Robert Gaudette, whom she met at a yard sale. The two fell in love and he moved into the house at 219 Neck Road in Jefferson, a sparsely settled town of 2,400 residents that sits at the top of Damariscotta Lake, with a number of lakeside cottages that fill up during the summer season.

Gaudette and Darling’s relationship was rocky at times.

Records at Lincoln County Superior Court show she was arrested for obstructing a report of a crime when she ripped the phone cord out of the wall to prevent Gaudette from calling police in 2007. When she was released from the Lincoln County Jail the next day, she went back to the house on Neck Road, even though her bail conditions had forbidden it.

According to the deputy’s report, she told Gaudette, “I will have somebody kill you.” She was charged with domestic violence terrorizing.

In a letter seeking a protection from abuse order, Gaudette professed his love for Darling, saying: “I love my wife with all my heart, unconditionally. All I wanted was honesty and a life without secrets. She is unable to (do) this because of her anger management problem.”

Darling sometimes worked caring for elderly people, but Gaudette said in court papers that she also worked as a prostitute. In 2007, court papers listed her as “self-employed, Destiny’s Desire, female companionship,” although it appears Gaudette submitted that information. No prostitution charges appear on her criminal record.

Darling had endured her own heartbreak.

In 1995, her 11-year-old daughter, Amber, from a previous relationship was killed in a car crash. One of Woodburn’s brothers had been at the wheel.

Darling was devastated and some people say she was never the same afterward.

Since 2004, Gaudette has received a disability check from his previous job with a railroad company for a congenital eye condition. He is gradually going blind.

In court papers, Gaudette said he and his wife were married for six years. His friend John Jacques of Whitefield, who also has Gaudette’s power of attorney, said that timeline means Gaudette was nowhere near the house when Woodburn disappeared in 2002. However, it is not clear how long Gaudette and Darling lived together before they were married.

“He didn’t have anything to do with it,” Jacques said. He worries that Gaudette will be implicated in Woodburn’s death.

TROUBLE WITH THE LAW

It doesn’t help that several people in town describe Gaudette as creepy and mean, nor that he had a psychotic episode shortly after his wife died in August 2010 of complications from a heart condition and emphysema.

Gaudette took it hard. According to court papers and a friend, he was drinking a lot already and taking an anti-anxiety medication, along with large amounts of Ritalin, a stimulant used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He also became embroiled in a protracted legal battle over her estate, including the property at 219 Neck Road, with his wife’s sons and some other people who argued that she owed them money.

In December of that year, he showed up in the town post office, acting strangely, saying he had been beaten up and somebody had taken his wallet.

Deputy Brent Barter of the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department went to the house at Neck Road to check on Gaudette.

As they were talking, Gaudette released one of his dogs from the kennel.

Gaudette had at one time four Rottweilers and two German shepherds – dogs that upset the neighbors because they barked constantly and sometimes weren’t leashed. He was charged with keeping a dangerous dog and having a dog at large.

Gaudette’s dog cornered Barter while Gaudette walked into his bedroom. Barter was able to get away and then looked for Gaudette in the house.

“As I looked around the dresser, all I saw was the barrel of (a) gun which was almost touching my forehead,” he said in his report. “I screamed to drop the gun and grabbed Mr. Gaudette’s arm to get it out of (my) face.” The gun, loaded and with the hammer cocked, fell to the floor and Barter was able to handcuff Gaudette.

When Barter asked why he tried to shoot him, Gaudette said he had wanted to provoke Barter into shooting him. Gaudette told him he wanted to die because then he’d be happier with his wife.

Gaudette was charged with criminal threatening with a firearm, a Class C felony. His lawyer argued that he was not criminally responsible because he had been having a psychotic episode.

Instead of jail, Gaudette was sent to Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta, where he remains still. According to assessments in his court files, he has done well, and is scheduled for a hearing on his release in November. He is already allowed brief forays away from the hospital, usually accompanied by someone.

It was during one of those trips away from the hospital when he and Jacques pulled up in front of 219 Neck Road a month ago to find a black sport utility vehicle parked in front. Inside were two state police detectives. They wanted to talk to Gaudette.

They asked if they could search the property. Gaudette gave them permission, Jacques said.

When the backhoe arrived days later, with some 30 troopers and other personnel, Jacques was on hand, although he said he didn’t stay the whole time. He said he watched as officers pulled a piece of an engine crankcase from the dirt and other parts in the pit, but left before they got to the bones.

DISCOVERING THE BODY

Love said Gaudette has been extremely cooperative with the investigation.

There was no sudden break in the case of Woodburn’s disappearance that led authorities back to his former home, Love said. Instead it has been a steady progression toward the truth.

The month after Darling died, one of Woodburn’s stepsons reported him missing – eight years since he’d last been seen. Police said they are trying to determine the significance of that timing. At that point, there was no evidence a crime had occurred.

“At the time of the report Mr. Woodburn had not been seen for six to eight years prior, which itself creates a huge hurdle for an investigation,” Love said. “It’s hard to go back one week, much less six to 10 years to establish that timeline” of a victim’s movements.

Detectives conducted interviews and gathered facts about the case, but without any firm leads, it languished. Last year, the case was handed over to a new investigator, state police Detective Jonah O’Roak, who brought “a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and worked the case diligently,” Love said.

Love said it’s too early to say whether Woodburn’s widow was involved in his death. Investigators will keep working the case until all the questions are answered, even if the person responsible is no longer alive, he said. The case will then be turned over to the Attorney General’s Office, which will make decisions about any criminal charges.

Frank Smith, who owns a sawmill on Route 213, wasn’t surprised by the body’s discovery. He didn’t know Woodburn well and didn’t want to discuss the case in detail, but said, “All I’ll say is this: She always went around bragging she killed him and buried him in the front yard.”

Jacques believes police have a good idea what happened. He said that when he was being interviewed, they gave him an account:

Diane Darling got Woodburn to dig a hole to bury some of the debris that had been lying around the yard. Once he got the hole dug, and the debris in it, “she shot him, apparently in the back of the head.”

Love said he could not go into details of the investigation.

‘KEPT TO HIMSELF’

Not much is known about Woodburn himself. Few people remember more than vague details.

“He somewhat kept to himself,” Love said.

Woodburn made his living off the Maine coast as a fisherman, a clam digger and an urchin diver – the kind of jobs where nobody gets suspicious if they don’t see you for a while.

Woodburn owned the property that now includes a small house, a detached wood shop and an empty mobile home. In the late 1990s, the state, the town and the Internal Revenue Service sought liens against the property for nonpayment of taxes. However, Woodburn had already transferred the property entirely into his wife’s name.

He had family in Massachusetts and spread out across Maine, including brothers who are twins, both registered sex offenders living in Bangor.

Woodburn had no criminal record, according to the State Bureau of Identification.

Ralph Martin also lives on Neck Road and recalls that Woodburn was helpful. When Martin’s truck got stuck, Woodburn helped pull him out. In winter, Woodburn plowed the long stretch of road between their houses and only charged him $10.

“I don’t think Chuck was violent. I never heard of him getting into any kind of altercation with anybody,” Martin said.

Many people in town said they did not remember Woodburn or had moved to the area since he disappeared.

On the occasions when people did ask his wife about Woodburn, Darling told people he had moved out of state, to the Southwest.

Jerry Jewett, a lifelong resident who works at the service station on Route 32, described Jefferson as “a quiet town where nothing goes on. Nothing ever happens around here.”

He didn’t know Woodburn at all and only knew Darling as someone who would pull in occasionally to get gas.

Reactions to news of the cold-case homicide varied.

“I think it’s bizarre, a body being put in the front yard. Why would it happen?” said Jim Sevon, who has lived in town since 1967 but didn’t know Woodburn.

But many of the people who stop in Vicki Jones’ store, Ollie’s Place, were not surprised.

“It hasn’t been big news. They’re buying the paper but they’re not saying much,” said Jones, who moved to town years after Woodburn disappeared. “People seemed to know that he was there. There’s been talk for years.”

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