The message on a large electronic sign in Athens village is ominous.

“Manhunt underway,” the bulbs spell out on the sign in front of the vacant County Store on Main Street. “Call 911 with tips.”

Residents, visitors and business owners up and down state Route 150 from Athens, in Somerset County, 25 miles north to Guilford, in Piscataquis County, are jittery. Doors are locked at night where they never were before. Business traffic is down and people are scared.

The manhunt is for Robert Burton, who is wanted in connection with the death of his former girlfriend on June 5. He has been on the run ever since and police say they consider him armed and dangerous.

Burton, 38, also known as Robert G. Elliot, faces a murder charge in the death of Stephanie Gebo, whose body was found in her home at 46 Kulas Road in Parkman, just north of the Somerset County line.

Maine State Police have set up a command post inside Piscataquis Community High School in Guilford and the FBI this week joined state, local and county law enforcement in the search for Burton.

“We want to find him to bring conclusion. The family needs him to be caught and the community does, too,” Maine State Police Lt. Sean Hashey said at the command post Tuesday. “We’re being told that people aren’t coming to camp, and if you talk to businesses in the area, we know that they’re not seeing the traffic that they normally see.”

Rob Robinson, the son of the owner of C&R Store in Harmony village on Route 150, about eight miles up the road from the flashing Athens sign, said a suspected killer loose in the area has cut into the store’s usually robust summer business.

“We usually get a lot of four-wheelers. They don’t seem to be coming out this summer,” Robinson said on Tuesday at the store. “I just think they’re afraid of running into him. A lot of people from out of state have been asking about that sign. Business is a little slower right now, and it has been since that guy killed his ex-girlfriend.”

Jaime Johnson at the Cambridge General Store, farther up Route 150 and closer to the murder scene in Parkman, agreed that business has slowed since the murder.

“I’ve noticed it’s been slower on weekends when it should be busier,” Johnson said. “We’re all locking our doors and locking our cars. It’s scary. I can’t believe they haven’t found him yet.”

The signs went up in Athens, Newport, Charleston, Milo and Monson on July 1 in anticipation of the Fourth of July weekend.

Maine Department of Safety Spokesman Steve McCausland said at the time the signs are “primarily geared toward vacationers who may be on their way to that section of Maine for the holiday weekend and may be completely unaware of what’s been going on for the last month.”

Three weeks later, they are still up and police said they will stay up until Burton is caught.

Burton was last seen around noon July 6 at a camp on Point Road in Guilford, captured on film by the surveillance camera of a nearby home.

State police at the time also sent the same reminder they’d been sending since Gebo’s body was found and Burton took off, asking “the public to be aware as they head to their camps in the area and encourage them to call if they find anything out of place or unusual,” while requesting camp owners “to account for all watercraft and to immediately report anything that is missing.”

‘LIKE THOSE GUYS IN NEW YORK’

Area residents speculate that Burton is hiding in the rugged terrain, criss-crossed with all-terrain vehicle trails and tote roads, breaking into vacant camps and stealing food to survive.

“I think he’s hiding in the trees — like those guys who escaped in New York,” said Mary Lou Thompson, of Athens, who owns a camp in Wellington near the Parkman town line. “They’re probably walking right under him. I’m not worried for myself down here, but I wouldn’t want to live up there.”

Inside the Athens Corner Store on Tuesday morning — across the street from that flashing sign on Route 150 — customers talked about the manhunt and about Burton, who is well known in the nearby Parkman-Guilford area.

Some were worried; others weren’t.

Katie Anton, the store manager, said everybody was jumpy when the state Department of Transportation first put up the electronic sign in town. Things have calmed down a bit since, but it is still unsettling to know that Burton is still out there somewhere with a gun, she said.

“The day it went up, there was a lot of talk about it,” Anton said. “They were concerned. It is so close to home. I’m still concerned. I think about it. When my 7-year-old goes out to play, I think about it.”

But Ken Clark, of Athens, said he’s “not worried at all.”

“I’m a Vietnam veteran,” he said. “I don’t feel any threat from this man at all.”

Clark added that he and his wife have taken some steps that they might not have taken before the June 5 homicide, such as locking their vehicles at night and taking the keys inside for safekeeping.

“That is directly because of him, because if he is out there on the loose, I don’t want him to take my truck to get away,” Clark said.

Laurel Williams, of Athens, said he is worried about Burton being on the loose because he is dangerous.

“Sure it concerns me — a man running around loose with a gun,” said Williams, who turns 95 Wednesday. “This guy, he’ll kill anybody. He’d shoot his mother, I think. This guy is that vicious.”

Tracy Morrison, owner of Morrison’s Garage in Harmony, said he has started locking his windows at night, but he is convinced Burton is in the woods in the North Guilford area, where he grew up. He said he’s not concerned about the Walker International Circus coming to the Harmony Fairgrounds next Tuesday.

“There’s locals like him there in town,” Morrison said. “They know where everything is up there — old schoo-bus camps — there’s camps everywhere.”

Paul Griffin, owner of Griffin’s clothing and footwear in Skowhegan and another outlet in downtown Guilford, agrees, noting that Burton has a lot of friends in the area and knows the hills, bogs and woods quite well. He said that is an advantage for Burton because the police don’t know the locals as Burton does.

“Why do I think they haven’t caught him yet? I don’t think they have a clue what they’re doing,” he said. “He’s a local boy, he knows the area and everybody knows him. How many of these (police) are local that know the area? They don’t know the area or they would have found him. I think he knows how to get around, where to go and what to do.”

Griffin said he thinks the chase and the manhunt for Burton has become a contest for the fugitive. In 2002, Burton was on the run for 12 days after threatening a woman with a rifle and knife before fleeing into the woods, according to reports. He was found at an abandoned camp in Willimantic in Piscataquis County.

“In my opinion, it’s just a game to him,” Griffin said from his store in downtown Guilford. “He’s not going to go far away, and eventually he’s going to get tired of the game and turn himself in. I don’t think he’s going anywhere.”

NO NEW DEVELOPMENTS

The body of Gebo, 37, was discovered by her two children a week after the couple reportedly broke up and the day after Burton’s probation for domestic violence crimes had ended.

Burton has a long criminal record, having spent 10 years in prison for domestic violence assaults.

The photo of Burton taken at the camp on July 6 shows him wearing camouflage and carrying his black backpack on his front.

Law enforcement officials think Burton has been hiding out in camps and in the thick woods of Piscataquis County, where he grew up.

Burton broke into Gebo’s house, and she shot him before he was able to get the gun away and use it to kill her, according to Piscataquis County Sheriff John J. Goggin.

McCausland said Tuesday that the search for Burton continues.

“There are no new developments,” McCausland said. “There is a renewed effort this week with help from the FBI, which is appreciated. Our focus is apprehending him, and those efforts continue this week.”

Hashey, the state police lieutenant who is in charge of the command post set up in the health office at the high school in Guilford, said police have been searching for Burton ever since the morning Gebo was killed almost seven weeks ago.

“The FBI is helping us on the ground with manpower resources and from a technology standpoint as well,” Hashey said outside the command center. “We’re continuing to search in the same area that we’ve been searching — North Guilford. We’re adjusting what we do based on what we have for information and what we see.”

More than two dozen state police vehicles, including a Bearcat armored response and rescue vehicle for off-road tactical response, stand at the ready behind the high school. Inside the command center, officers using computers assemble the latest data available in the search for Burton.

On Tuesday there were an estimated 30 law enforcement officers using tracking dogs on the ground looking for him.

State police are asking anyone with information about Burton’s whereabouts to call 973-3700 or 911. A reward of $3,300 is being offered for information leading to his arrest.

Hashey said police have been telling residents, visitors and camp owners to lock up belongings such as firearms, canoes and bicycles and to make sure the doors are locked and food is removed from camps.

“We’ve been telling camp owners to pay attention to what the camp looks like when you leave it, so that when you go back you would know if it had been entered,” he said.

Hashey said police think Burton is still armed and that camp owners appear to be staying away until Burton is caught.

Burton is described as 5-foot-11 and weighing about 180 pounds, with brown hair and blue eyes. He has two distinctive tattoos on the back of his hands — a shamrock on his left hand and the word “Outlaw” on his right.

“We certainly hope every day is the day that we find him,” Hashey said. “And we know that we will eventually. We’re being persistent, working with a lot of other agencies. I don’t think he’s going to surrender. We believe we’re going to have to catch him. It’s difficult terrain and he knows the area.”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter: @Doug_Harlow


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