Ludger R. Belanger was 25 years old when he went deer hunting alone on Nov. 25, 1975, two days before Thanksgiving.

His wife and his brother — who had been hunting birds and rabbits with him earlier that morning — dropped him off about 8:45 a.m. along Route 105 in Washington, Maine, about a half-mile from his home. Fresh snow blanketed the ground as Belanger, the father of three young daughters, set out into the woods.

He carried a 30-30 rifle and wore a red and black checked hunting jacket, blue pants, and orange hat and hunting boots.

He told his wife, Linda Belanger (now Perkins) he would be back by noon, in time to take her to work for her midday shift at Ho Ho Chinese Restaurant on Western Avenue in Augusta.

He never made it back.

On June 20, 2001, a probate court judge in Knox County formally declared Belanger dead “based on the due diligent search of family, the Maine Warden’s Service and the Maine State Police, over a period of 26 years.” The declaration was sought by his wife, who wanted to remarry.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Belanger’s disappearance that late November day. Authorities believe he died that day and have classified his death as an unsolved homicide. Belanger, known as Ludge or Ludgie to family and friends, was a heavy equipment mechanic.

His body was never found, although a Maine game warden found evidence that Belanger had shot a deer, dragged it onto Creamer Lot Road — a former tote road that’s now a pathway — and got picked up by people in a passing car.

Belanger’s name is among 70 listed as unsolved homicides on the Maine State Police website. The listed cases go back as far as 1970.

Investigative work on the Belanger case has continued over the years, according to the state police. Meanwhile, a new four-person cold case unit, whose team of detectives are expected to be named next month, will devote all its time to unsolved homicides. Lt. Jeffery Love of Belgrade, a veteran homicide detective, was selected earlier this month to oversee a team of detectives assigned to the Major Crimes Unit in Augusta, which investigates homicides and suspicious deaths, and to oversee the new unsolved homicide unit.

In a press release sent last month about the makeup of the new unit, Col. Robert Williams, chief of the Maine State Police, warned against expecting immediate results and said each “open homicide case will be reviewed and priority given to the cases with the greatest likelihood of being solved.”

Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Maine State Police, would not comment on the particulars of the Belanger case or any other unsolved case “because it gives a false premise that it may be higher in the pecking order and unfair to all the others.”

Belanger’s widow and daughters were among those testifying last spring at the Legislature in favor of a bill to fund the cold case unit. The legislative funding for the unit took effect July 1.

THE THEORY

In searching for Belanger at the time, police found a receipt in the area where deer drag marks were found. Authorities later told the family they tracked the owner of the receipt, identified in a police report as “Suspect A,” a man from Camden.

He and another man, “Suspect B,” of Portland, told police they were hunting in the same area of Washington that day, but said they did not see a hunter dragging a deer along the road. Suspect B was interviewed as well.

That’s where the trail gets murky. Investigators say there’s a theory, some corroborating statements, but not enough evidence to charge anyone. Police say Suspect A, whom they do not name in the report, died less than a year after Belanger’s disappearance after he was injured in an explosion at his house.

A police report issued 25 years after Belanger disappeared details investigative efforts in the case. The report was given to Perkins’ attorney in support of her effort to get a declaration of death for Belanger.

On Nov. 28, 1975, police used the receipt for repair work found in the area and located a green 1965 Buick Special four-door sedan owned by Suspect B.

Two wardens and a state trooper found a single hair from a deer on a hood ornament of the Buick. The interior of the car had recently been washed and “the complete rear seat and a portion of the head liner were missing,” the police report says.

The vehicle was towed to the state police garage in Augusta.

Three years later, police said a third man, Charles Christiensen Jr., told them he had been drinking with Suspect B, who said he had shot Belanger with a shotgun in the back seat of the car after a confrontation over the deer.

Suspect B said the pair had been doing drugs when they picked up Belanger, according to Christiensen’s account to police.

The police report does not indicate whether the man known as Suspect B was questioned again at that point. However, in early January 1985, during a meeting at the attorney general’s office, the report states, “It was decided that further investigation was necessary before the case could be presented to the Grand Jury.”

Christiensen was dead by this time, and detectives began re-interviewing people and executed another search warrant on the same 1965 Buick Special. It was not clear where the car was at this point and why police waited another 10 years to search the car again. This time, police seized the two rear door panels, door and window handles and a speaker cover from the rear seat, but testing at the Maine State Police Crime Lab in Augusta did not find any presence of blood.

Belanger’s widow, Linda Perkins, says she knows the names of the two suspects.

“I didn’t know them, but I knew of them,” she said.

She said Suspect B is still alive and living in Maine.

SEARCH AND AFTERMATH

Belanger’s family searched repeatedly for him, and some of his father’s relatives came from Quebec to help.

“It’s been a very long time,” said Perkins, now 60. “We had three daughters. It was very hard. It was scary. I was young when I married and had children.”

She was 20 when he disappeared.

“I was 14 when I started going steady. I was 16 when I got married,” she said. “If he had lived, we would still be married.”

She and Belanger and Belanger’s brother John had gone out early that day to hunt birds and rabbits. But it was cold, so the trio started home.

“Ludge wanted to get dropped off on top of the hill,” she said.

Deer season would be ending within a couple of days, and he wanted one.

When Belanger didn’t return home as expected, Perkins began to worry immediately. Belanger was familiar with those hunting grounds. Perkins went next door to tell her in-laws.

The family organized a search in the afternoon of Nov. 25, 1975, heading out on snowmobiles on the fresh snow, taking the trails near Old County Road, stopping to holler his name, but getting no response.

Game wardens joined the search almost immediately, and a few days later, the state police. Initially there was a flurry of activity, but those efforts wound down as years passed.

“At first, you know, they’d come around every month or so,” Perkins said. “Some divers would come around and ask if this wallet looks familiar.”

Belanger’s three daughters — the youngest was just a few months old when he disappeared — grew up without their father. The three girls ended up having18 children, his grandchildren.

Belanger’s mother died almost 30 years later, never knowing what happened to her son. His father, Raymond “Frenchy” Belanger, died Aug. 9, 2011.

“All they ever wanted was to find out what happened and lay him to rest so they could have some peace before they died,” Perkins said.

MEMORIES AND RUMORS

Rumors about what might have happened surfaced time and time again, Perkins said, recalling they hurt his young daughters.

“They would drag a lake like Washington Pond, and the kids at school would say, ‘I heard they found your dad’s leg,'” she said. “It was horrible.”

At one point, the youngest refused to go to school.

Perkins still lives in the home that Ludger Belanger built on land given to him by his father. But in the early 1980s a fire at the house cost Perkins most of the photos she still had of Belanger. She was able to get the home repaired.

Belanger’s brothers’ homes are nearby as well. She calls Belanger’s late parents mom and dad.

She waited 24 years to marry again.

“When I got married the second time, they were at a special table,” Perkins said. “They were always my mom and dad. They had corsages, and they were right there.”

Perkins had no trouble recalling Ludger Belanger’s personality.

“He was kind, he loved to hunt and fish, he loved Maine,” Perkins said. “Ludge was a great father, he was a great husband. He was just a good guy.”

Belanger was a heavy equipment mechanic at Bridge Construction, working at the firm’s Windsor yard. Belanger’s father worked there as well.

“Financially, I had to go on the state a while,” Perkins said. “Then reports from the state police went to the government, and I got to collect Social Security. I didn’t go to work until the kids were a little older.”

Some things trigger memories of Belanger for Perkins, like the time she saw her current husband put his potato chips in his sandwich.

“I just about died because Ludge did that all the time, too,” she said. “I remember all the good times. I remember all about Ludgie. The bad times are sad, but they’re part of my past. I still would like some closure, but it’s been 40 years.”

FAMILY WONDERS

All eight of Belanger’s siblings are still alive.

Belanger’s sister Pauline LaBelle-Weeks, 66, who lives in Whitefield with another sister, Roseanna Belanger, 67, continues to wonder what became of the brother who was one year her junior.

At the time of his disappearance, she was still recovering from the death of her husband, who had committed suicide in 1972. Her father and her brother Ludger found him at the back of the barn.

“My brother never really got over it,” she said. LaBelle-Weeks said he had nightmares from it.

She described Ludger as “a very decent guy. He was level-headed. He went to work every day, did his job and always came home to family. He wasn’t wild, not one to get into mischief.”

LaBelle-Weeks had been working nights, and learned of the search when she came home.

“I sat in the house with my mom all day long,” she said.

But then LaBelle-Weeks had to head to work again, leaving her mother sitting in her chair.

“Everybody kept looking, even in the dark,” LaBelle-Weeks recalled.

She said her mother never got to bury her eldest son, although a headstone at Sand Hill Cemetery in Somerville bears Ludger Belanger’s name, dates of birth and death.

“It would have been so much easier if she could have buried her son,” LaBelle-Weeks said. Her mother was not afraid of dying, telling LaBelle-Weeks, “I’m going to go to heaven to be with Ludger.”

LaBelle-Weeks and Perkins both maintain that if Belanger had disappeared today, science would provide so many more answers.

“I think if they had the technology they have today, there would have been somebody arrested,” Perkins said. “They didn’t have a blood type for Ludger; with DNA technology, more could have been done.”

LAST CHAPTER MISSING

Standing next to the gravestone in the rural Sand Hill Cemetery, Perkins said her first husband’s story has no closure.

“You read the book, you get to the last chapter, and it isn’t there,” she said. “One of my daughters is very emotional. The other two, they are Christians and they believe that he’s in a good place, and probably not knowing is better than knowing. They found peace with it to a point.”

She and family members went to the State House several months ago in support of a plan to fund the dedicated cold case unit of the Maine State Police.

“There are so many,” she said of the unsolved cases. “If they solve one, it’s worth it.”

And more recently Perkins when to Portland to meet with people interested in filming a segment on Ludger Belanger as part of an unsolved mysteries show. A page on The Charley Project website, offers details of his disappearance.

Angel Matson, who accompanied her mother to the legislative hearing, was always called “my little angleworm” by Belanger, according to Perkins. Matson was 23 months old when her father disappeared.

“She was just always with her dad, ate from his plate, rode on his shoulders,” Perkins said.

Matson, of Oxford, said she prays that the case will be solved even after 40 years.

“More than anything I want to know where he is,” she said. “What they did with him, where they put him.”

Matson has two sons, including 19-year-old Jakob Ludger Matson.

Matson set up a Facebook page in her father’s name and says she tried to get Suspect B to friend it, apparently unsuccessfully.

“I want him to know that people know,” she said. “I want him to know that it’s not over, it’s not water under the bridge. I did it so it would bring up a ghost in his mind.”

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]

Twitter: @betadams