A woman’s remains could still be at the bottom of a water well in central Maine, 41 years after possibly being dumped there by her then-boyfriend, convicted killer Albert P. Cochran, Maine State Police said Wednesday.

Cochran, 79, died Tuesday in a Rockport hospital while serving a life sentence for murdering and raping Janet Baxter of Oakland in 1976 — a different woman.

On Wednesday, police asked the public for help in finding the well in the Smithfield area that might contain the remains of Pauline Rourke — Cochran’s girlfriend, with whom he lived off Route 139 in Fairfield Center and who disappeared two weeks after Baxter’s death and was never found.

In interviews Wednesday with the Morning Sentinel, authorities revealed for the first time that Cochran said he knew his dead girlfriend’s body was in a well, though he would not admit he had killed her.

The Maine State Police Unsolved Homicide Unit had been working with Cochran on the case and met with him several times in an effort to solve Rourke’s disappearance, according to Lt. Jeffrey Love, who oversees both the Homicide Unit and the Major Crimes Unit.

Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety, said state police had been close to solving the Rourke murder when Cochran died Tuesday.

“We haven’t been talking about some of this investigative work of the unit because we don’t want to give the impression that some cases have priority over others,” McCausland said. “They are all equally important to us. But we are taking this unusual step to go public because we are convinced Cochran was responsible for Pauline’s death and he likely was the only person to know where her remains are. In the aftermath of Cochran’s death, we share this new information with the public, and hopefully someone will help solve this mystery and bring Pauline home after 41 years.”

Police drove around the Smithfield area with Cochran twice this year, from April and into June, to try to find the water well Cochran previously claimed Rourke’s body is in, but they did not find it.

“We searched three wells in Smithfield and we excavated two of those wells and we also excavated a piece of property in Fairfield,” Love said.

Two of the wells were on a dirt road off East Pond Road in Smithfield and the other one was off East Pond Road itself, he said.

Cochran told police that during the year before Rourke died, he and Rourke were on the property where the well is located and Cochran stole two wagon wheels from the property, which also had a barn on it, according to Detective Jay Pelletier, who worked with the Maine Department of Corrections and was with Cochran on the driving trips.

“He described it as a dilapidated barn that had caved in,” Pelletier said. “It had a well between the barn and the road and the well was lined with slate rocks on top and there was a hayfield out back.”

Pelletier said the slate rocks may be an important piece of information the public may be able to help with because there were no other wells in the area police searched that had slate rocks.

The wells they searched were not working wells, but they probably were working 25 or 30 years ago, he said. Of the wells that police examined, two were filled in and the third was covered over, according to Pelletier.

Police asked anyone who may be able to help with information about the well, which could be in the Oakland or Fairfield area as well, to call police dispatch at 624-7076.

A Morning Sentinel front page from March 20, 1998, shows coverage of Albert Cochran being charged with the murder of Janet Baxter, of Oakland.

SOLVING A MYSTERY

In addition to the 18 years Cochran served of his life sentence, he previously had served nine years in an Illinois prison for murdering his wife, Patricia Ann, 19, in 1964 in Joliet, Illinois. He admitted having strangled her.

Cochran also was charged, but never convicted, of stabbing their three children to death in Illinois. At the time, he claimed his wife had killed them.

He was on parole in Maine when he killed Baxter. While the Baxter murder occurred on Nov. 23, 1976, Cochran’s connection to it was discovered 23 years later through DNA testing. He was convicted in 1999 and served his sentence at the Maine State Prison in Warren.

He was never charged in connection with Rourke’s disappearance.

Love said that over the last 10 years, several investigators spoke to Cochran about the Rourke missing-person case, and police have had lengthy discussions with him about her whereabouts.

“Throughout a number of meetings with him, the impression I got was that he would only give so much and then he’d just hold back — almost like he was scheming and calculating,” McCausland said.

The behind-the-scenes work with Cochran is an example of what the new Unsolved Homicide Unit has been working on — “quiet and dogged investigation to solve Maine’s most difficult homicide cases,” McCausland said.

“It’s a mystery we came very close to resolving, but whether Cochran was mistaken (about the well location) or whether he was just manipulating, we don’t know.”

BRINGING HER HOME

In 1976, Cochran had moved in with Rourke at her mobile home in Fairfield Center. She disappeared around Dec. 12, 1976.

A copy of a 1974 family photograph of Pauline Rourke, who was the live-in girlfriend of Albert P. Cochran when she disappeared in 1976. Staff file photo

Love said Cochran would not admit that he had killed Rourke or had anything to do with her death, but he would disseminate “tidbits” of information to police.

“For instance, her location — but he would never say it was him that caused her death or put her there — he just knew this information. He did say that he’s the only one in the world that knows where she is,” Love said.

Authorities always have wanted to bring her home to her daughter, Honey Rourke; and when Cochran’s health began deteriorating, they increased the frequency of those visits. Police said they have been in close contact with Honey Rourke over the years.

Honey Rourke told the Morning Sentinel in March 1998, after Cochran was arrested for the Baxter murder, that she was 12 when she lived with him and her mother. She said he always looked angry, never smiled and was always fighting with her mother.

“I remember he had huge, huge hands,” she said. “He always turned beet, beet red like a tomato. That’s when my mother would back off.”

She recalled that once, Cochran went outside their mobile home and hurt her dog by kicking it hard, and her mother told him to stop.

‘SHE WAS SCARED’

Baxter had driven from her Oakland home Nov. 23, 1976, to the A&P supermarket in the JFK Mall on Kennedy Memorial Drive in Waterville. She had a cold and went to the store to buy cold medicine.

Janet Baxter

She never returned home. Her boyfriend at the time reported her missing.

Police later found Baxter’s body in the trunk of a car along the Kennebec River in Norridgewock. She had been shot in the head and chest.

She had no known connection to Cochran.

After Baxter’s killing, Cochran seemed obsessed with the crime.

At some point, Honey Rourke said she overheard her mother say to a relative that she was scared Cochran might have been involved with Baxter’s killing.

“She was scared and she didn’t know what to do,” she said.

Cochran once drove Honey and Pauline Rourke from their Fairfield home to the crime scene, according to Honey Rourke.

“He wanted us to see where this happened,” Honey Rourke recalled in March 1998. “My mother thought that was real odd. From there on, the fighting got real bad between them. … Then all of a sudden, my mother disappeared.”

Cochran was married again and living in Stuart, Florida, in 1998, when police charged him with Baxter’s murder.

McCausland said Wednesday afternoon that Cochran had been hospitalized in recent days and had been in poor health, though he did not know the exact cause of his death.

Cochran died at 8:45 a.m. Tuesday at Pen Bay Medical Center in Rockport.

“He had a number of ailments that he was dealing with,” McCausland said.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

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Twitter: @AmyCalder17