Whether it was the record number of 54 meth labs destroyed by drug agents, the soaring rates of accidental overdoses on heroin often laced with fentanyl or the regular raids that uncovered large amounts of heroin, cocaine and crack, drugs dominated the headlines in 2015.

Those who are charged with fighting back say illegal drug activity poses a real threat to the state’s societal and economic health.

“People are worried,” Dr. Wendy Wolf, president of the Maine Health Access Foundation said recently. “People are worried this is going to affect their families.”

That fear was palpable at last month’s public forum in Gardiner to discuss the ongoing drug crisis. Police Chief James Toman recalled a routine traffic stop on Brunswick Avenue in October that revealed “three guns, $11,000 in cash, over 70 needles, heroin and cocaine.” Toman said during the Nov. 10 forum that police have covered five deaths from drug overdoses — one woman and four men, ages 29 to 37.

“The number could be higher if not for (Fire and Ambulance) Chief Al Nelson’s crew, who have successfully resuscitated at least three people in Gardiner,” Toman said. “This is not just a Gardiner issue. This is a New England issue. This is a United States issue. This is an everywhere issue.”

Nelson said Gardiner crews responded to 53 drug overdoses in the nine communities it serves; 23 of those overdoses were in Gardiner.

He said rescue crews used Narcan 17 times. Narcan is an injectable prescription medication that can reverse an opiate overdose.

“Narcan is given when they can’t talk for themselves and they’re not breathing,” Nelson said, adding that those revived then must get additional medical treatment. “You can’t give the Narcan and walk away.”

Augusta Fire Chief Roger Audette said rescue has responded to more than 50 heroin overdoses this year, which is nearly double the 26 reported in 2014. Audette, to put those numbers in perspective, said rescue responded to just six reports of overdose in 2007.

The city has responded with at least two initiatives. One, Project Hot Spots, is aimed at cracking down on the supply of drugs with regular multi-agency sweeps that seek to gather information, conduct warrant checks and conduct warranted searches. A second initiative, the Angel Program, offers to direct addicts seeking help to the available recovery resources.

State officials, too, are developing ideas aimed at attacking the problem on both fronts. The recently-formed Maine Opiate Collaborative is a collection of law enforcement officers, physicians and counselors who are looking for ways to curb the supply and the demand.

AUGUSTA SLAYINGS

It’s unclear whether drugs are involved in the other two top stories, the November murder of 31-year-old Joseph Marceau on Washington Street in Augusta and the slaying of Eric Williams, 35, and Bonnie Royer, 26, early on Dec. 25 in a vehicle on a dirt road in Manchester not far from the Augusta line and their Augusta home.

In the Marceau slaying, neighbors had reported illegal drug activity to police, but Deputy Chief Jared Mills of the Augusta police said last month it is unclear whether any of those complaints were connected to the 75 Washington St. address where Marceau was killed. Police have not said whether drugs were found at the scene.

Police say Marceau was found dead inside the apartment when officers responded to a report of a disturbance there about 8 p.m., according to a news release from the Maine State Police.

Damik Davis, 25, of New York, has been charged with Marceau’s murder.

Maine Department of Public Safety Spokesman Steve McCausland said after the victim was found, a search of the neighborhood by police, aided by a state police dog, located Davis a short time later. He then was taken into custody.

According to records from New York state, Davis was convicted of robbery in Queens County, New York, and remains under parole supervision for that offense.

Investigators have not revealed how Marceau was killed, but neighbors described a commotion coming from the apartment the night of the murder.

Very little information about the double homicide was available two days after the bodies were discovered on Sanford Road by police responding to a 911 call from one of them about 3:30 a.m., shortly before shots were reportedly fired in that vicinity.

Maine State Police spokesman McCausland said that items located in the vehicle and at the crime scene were taken to the State Police Crime Laboratory to be examined starting Monday.

SMITH BACK IN COURT

Leroy Smith III, the Gardiner man accused of murdering and dismembering his father in 2014, was one of last year’s top stories and continued to make headlines this year as prosecutors and defense attorneys jousted over whether Smith should be forced to take medication that could make him competent to stand trial.

Smith, who was 25 at the time, admitted to killing his father, Leroy Smith Jr., by stabbing him in the neck in the apartment they shared on Cannard Street.

Then, Smith allegedly dumped the body in the Richmond woods. He was later arrested by Westbrook police when he flagged down an officer to ask for directions. During a routine check, police found that he was wanted on a warrant out of Massachusetts. He provided information to Westbrook police that led officers in Richmond to find his father’s remains.

Smith has been found mentally incompetent to stand trial and remains at Riverview Psychiatric Center. Prosecutors want to medicate Smith involuntarily in an attempt to restore him to mental competence so he can be tried for murder, but his attorneys say that is not in his best interest.

PITTSTON STABBING

There will be no trial in another central Maine homicide that made headlines this year. Deputy Attorney General Lisa Marchese announced in October that the state would not prosecute 28-year-old Jeff Krouse who stabbed to death his landlord, 51-year-old Dale Clifford, inside Clifford’s Pittston boarding house. Marchese said an extensive review of the case by the AG’s office determined Krouse acted in self-defense.

“We will not be pressing any criminal charges in this case,” Marchese said. “Mr. Krouse would raise the justification of self-defense and the state would have to disprove that beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The details of the case, which reportedly include Clifford’s demand that Krouse and his partner, Lucinda Albano, leave the boarding house with less than 24 hours notice, raised questions about the state police response to multiple calls for help in the hours leading up to the stabbing and the rights of tenants and landlords.

POLICE SHOOTING

Augusta Police reportedly stopped a stabbing in January when Officer Laura Drouin shot and wounded Riverview outpatient Jason Begin as he threatened himself and others with a knife at the Ballard Center, which is in the former MaineGeneral Medical Center building.

Begin had been out of the hospital and living for a year in a group home on Green Street in Augusta when he was called to a meeting of Riverview’s outpatient services team Jan. 12 and asked about a report he was using marijuana or supplying it to other forensic outpatients at the home.

Reports indicate that when he was told he would be returned to Riverview, Begin became agitated, threatened others and pulled out a knife and began stabbing himself in the arms.

Drouin, who had been called by the team to escort Begin the few blocks to Riverview because of safety concerns, shot him three times.

A report on an investigation into the officer-involved shooting by the Office of the Maine Attorney General has not been released, but Drouin returned to work after a brief paid leave after an internal probe by Augusta police determined she responded appropriately.

Begin was treated for gunshot wounds at MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta and was returned to Riverview on Feb. 27.

Begin, during a court hearing earlier this month, argued to be released from state custody. He was placed in the custody of the commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services in 2004 after being found not criminally responsible for hijacking a plane and crashing in Canada in an apparent attempt to kill himself when he was facing charges of gross sexual assault involving family members. He was found not criminally responsible because of mental illness.

GARDINER FIRES

Another of the year’s top news events occurred in January when Gardiner experienced the first of two major fires when a blaze reported about 11:40 p.m. heavily damaged half of a 28-unit senior citizens’ apartment building known as Highland Terrace. No one was killed or seriously injured in the fire, which appeared to have started in a first-floor apartment near the building’s common area and then spread to the south wing. Damage was isolated to the wing closest to the road.

The south end of the building was a total loss, but the wing away from the road sustained only smoke and possibly some water damage, Gardiner Fire Chief Al Nelson said at the time.

Sgt. Ken Grimes of the Office of the State Fire Marshal said the fire was accidental and likely sparked by a malfunctioning ceiling light.

The community rallied to help the roughly 30 people displaced by the fire, just as it did after a July fire that ripped through three buildings on Water Street.

The July 16 fire destroyed the building at 235 Water St. where the fire started and damaged two others on either side of it, including 247 Water St. and 227 Water St., home to Gerard’s Pizza, which was closed for several weeks after the fire.

Roughly a dozen people who lived at 235 Water St. lost essentially everything in their homes, and other businesses were damaged as well.

One tenant was taken to the hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation, and three firefighters suffered minor injuries when they were hit by falling bricks.

Investigators were unable to determine how the fire started.

The building at 235 Water St. was recently torn down.

LIBRARY EXPANSIONS

While fires were destroying buildings in Gardiner, two libraries in the area were undergoing major renovations and expansions. The C.M. Bailey Library in Winthrop re-opened its Bowdoin Street location in June after a seven-month, $1 million renovation that overhauled the existing space and built a two-story addition, which includes a daylight basement on two sides that more than doubles the size of the former library from 3,300 square feet to 8,400. The existing section was retrofitted with new heating and ventilation systems.

The project’s final price tag came in at $1.06 million, which is about $115,000 more than the winning bid of $945,000 submitted last year by Winthrop-based S.J. Wood Construction. The library has raised more than $900,000 so far through an ongoing fundraiser.

The Lithgow Public Library on State Street in Augusta, meanwhile, is still undergoing a massive renovation. Winthrop-based J.F. Scott Construction began the work on the approximately $11 million renovation and expansion project in May. The company has already torn down the previous addition, built in 1979, and its larger replacement is well underway. The three-story steel skeleton with multiple gables outlines the city’s library of the future, one which merges the granite block structure that opened in 1896 at Winthrop and State streets with an addition that triples its size.

The renovation is expected to be completed next August with the library moving back into the space in September 2016.

NEW COURTHOUSE, SENIOR HOUSING

But Lithgow isn’t the only building to make news for a major renovation project this year. The new Capital Judicial Center, which is across the street at the intersection of State and Winthrop streets, and the Old Cony flatiron building both made headlines when they opened their doors this year.

The court, which opened in March after two years of construction, houses the functions of Augusta District Court, Kennebec County Superior Court and family court and includes six separate courtrooms of varying sizes. The 120,000-square-foot addition cost $57 million.

Renovation to the old Kennebec County Superior Court, which is attached to the new courthouse and continues to house county offices, is still underway.

The flatiron building, meanwhile, opened in July after more than six months of work on the $11 million project. The building served as a school for 76 years and was transitioned into a 48-unit apartment building for senior citizens.

The old Cony flatiron building, built in 1926, is still owned by the city but was turned over to Cynthia Taylor of Housing Initiatives of New England to redevelop into housing on a 49-year lease for $1 a year. Taylor also previously redeveloped the Inn at City Hall in Augusta.

The building has numerous public spaces spread throughout its three floors, including a library with original closets taken from the former classrooms; a health room where people can be examined by a nurse, though there is no one on staff in the building; an activity and yoga room with a large mirror and dance bar on one wall and an old, unrestored chalkboard saved from the old school on another; a laundry with its own lounge; and a restored grand staircase with a marble “Cony Academy” tablet from the original 1886 Cony school building.

MOUNT VERNON WORK

More than buildings made headlines for their renovations this year. A major overhaul of Mount Vernon Avenue in Augusta began this summer and included a several-month period during which part of the road was reduced to one-way traffic, leaving drivers often confused and sometimes seething. The one-way restriction, which began in August, was lifted in November.

The $4.3 million reconstruction project is expected to continue through next June.

The road was badly deteriorated after years of neglect. Those who own businesses along the road agreed it needed to be repaired, but say the work itself has scared off motorists and, according to one store owner, cut business by 60 percent.

Maine Department of Transportation officials have said work will continue for as long as weather allows. Once snow and freezing temperatures arrive, construction work will halt until spring. It will resume as soon as conditions are warm enough for work to start again.

GAS PIPELINE WORK

As Mount Vernon Avenue was undergoing renovation, other streets and roads across central Maine were being torn up to inspect natural gas pipeline that may have been improperly installed.

Summit Natural Gas of Maine in October was ordered by state regulators to check hundreds of pipeline fittings that may have been installed improperly by three of its subcontractors that worked on the company’s pipeline network in central Maine.

The company has agreed to finish the inspections of its pipeline system by Dec. 31, according to a mitigation plan filed with the Maine Public Utilities Commission. That means it will dig up sections of roads across the Kennebec valley and inspect hundreds of electrofusion couplings, which connect segments of the gas pipeline, and conduct visual and physical tests to determine whether the equipment was installed incorrectly.

The state utilities commission discovered the problems earlier this year while Summit was replacing other faulty pipeline connections.

There have been no documented gas leaks in Summit’s pipeline network, state officials said. Meantime, the utilities commission has asked the company to test the affected sections of its pipeline for leaks every 30 days.

Summit is focusing its efforts on the Waterville and Augusta areas.

LAND CONSERVATION

While officials hope the natural gas lines will help ensure future energy stability, the Kennebec Land Trust celebrated another kind of future stability in October when it purchased the 164-acre Howard Hill in Augusta.

The land, tucked between otherwise largely developed areas of Augusta and Hallowell, provide a wooded, undeveloped backdrop to the State House.

Land trust officials closed on the property in October and plan to give it to the city of Augusta to be preserved.

They did so without $337,500 in voter-approved Land for Maine’s Future funds awarded to assist in the purchase but held up by Gov. Paul LePage’s refusal to issue $6.5 million in bonds approved by voters in 2010 and $5 million approved in 2012. To replace that held-up state money and still meet its deadline to close on the Howard Hill property, the land trust took out a loan from Kennebec Savings Bank. The land trust acquired Howard Hill on Oct. 7, paying $925,000 for the property, according to Theresa Kerchner, executive director of the Kennebec Land Trust.

The land is made up of three parcels previously owned by Sumner Lipman and two corporations run by him and valued at about $171,000 for tax purposes, according to city assessment records.

‘HERMIT’ COMPLETES PROGRAM

Howard Hill wasn’t the only woods-related headline of the year, however. In March Christopher Knight, dubbed the North Pond Hermit after reportedly spending decades alone in the woods of Rome, was freed after completing a court program he was ordered to undergo for stealing thousands of dollars worth of supplies from local camp owners.

Knight completed his time in the Co-Occurring Disorders Court Program overseen by Justice Nancy Mills. The program is designed to help people with substance abuse and mental health problems.

Knight, 49, who grew up in Albion but whose address was listed in court papers as transient, will remain on probation for three years. He was also ordered to pay more than $1,500 in restitution partly for reconstruction of a private road used by police to cart away the items he had accumulated in his time in the woods.

Knight’s arrest in April 2013, first reported by the Kennebec Journal, sparked worldwide media interest. Knight was seen by some as a folk hero, admired for his ingenuity and survival skills while living in the Maine woods for decades. For many victims of his burglaries though, Knight represented a troublesome thief who made them fearful and angry, and they were glad when he was behind bars. Knight’s story also inspired songs, a documentary film and a marriage proposal.

Knight entered the Co-Occurring Disorders Court Program Oct. 28, 2013, after pleading guilty to 13 burglaries and thefts in Rome and Smithfield — a fraction of the estimated 1,000 burglaries and thefts he committed over the years.

The most favorable outcome under the terms of a plea agreement was a five-year prison sentence with all but seven months suspended and three years of probation. Since Knight has already served the prison time, his remaining court sentence amounts to probation. The agreement was crafted by defense attorney Walter McKee and Maeghan Maloney, district attorney in Kennebec and Somerset counties.

SNOWY START TO YEAR

Knight undoubtedly dealt with snow and cold during his years in the woods, but few rivaled the winter chill that descended on Maine in January.

More than two feet of snow blanketed much of the state after a late January storm, which was followed by near record snowfall and cold through the rest of the winter. February ranked as the coldest month since 1895, according to University of Maine officials.

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @CraigCrosby4

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