GORHAM — Marc Joyal-Myers went to bed the night of April 3, 1998, an 11-year-old in a perfect world.

Before dawn the next morning, his parents shook him awake and, in sleepy confusion, he thought they were going to Disney World. Instead it was the unimaginable: 18-year-old Robert Joyal, the older brother who played basketball with him and borrowed his favorite baseball cap, was dead, killed in the parking lot of Denny’s, a knife shoved three times into his back.

Nothing was ever the same.

“The last 20 years have been trying to figure out how to go on, how to exist, how to wake up in the morning and care about things,” Joyal-Myers said. “You look for every way possible to honor his life. One way to do that is to figure out what happened.”

Despite the presence of dozens of potential witnesses, Joyal’s murder on April 4, 1998, is one of 16 unsolved homicides in Portland dating back to 1985. In the weeks after the stabbing, a 15-year-old suspect was arrested for the crime, but charges were later dropped because of inconsistent evidence. With dozens of uncooperative witnesses and no new leads, the case remains unsolved.

“It’s incredibly frustrating it’s stayed open so long,” said Portland police Lt. Robert Martin.

The family is now pushing police to take a fresh look at the case and investigators are asking witnesses to come forward and finally tell the truth about what happened the night Joyal died.

Faith Joyal believes the circumstances surrounding her son’s murder made it easy for the case to go cold. There was suspect Seiha Srey’s alleged confession, then the publicity around his court hearings before charges were dismissed. Srey himself was murdered less than a decade after the stabbing at Denny’s.

A photo of Robert Joyal, of Gorham, as a teenager. Joyal was 18 when he was stabbed to death in the parking lot of Denny’s in Portland while 40 people watched. Twenty years later, his family is still searching for answers and are renewing their push for Portland police to take a fresh look at the cold case. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

From the beginning, Joyal’s family worried there would be no justice. None of the dozens of people in the parking lot that night would tell police or the private investigator the family hired what happened.

“There were 40 people in that parking lot. Miraculously, no one saw what happened,” Joyal-Myers said. “We’re hopeful that all these years later that somebody who was there, maybe their conscience is screaming at them. Maybe they’ll say it’s time to put this to rest. I can’t imagine the weight of that on your shoulders for years.”

STRIKING OUT ON HIS OWN

Joyal, a rugged former football player with an adventurous streak, was a high school senior when his family moved from Houston, Texas, to Gorham. Faith Joyal and Robert Myers wanted their sons to grow up away from the urban blight of Houston, so they resettled in a 250-year-old farmhouse in a quiet corner of Gorham. On the plane to Maine, Joyal told his brother they’d turn their new side yard into a football field.

Joyal started classes at Gorham High School, but the transition was more difficult than his mother anticipated. Previously intent on going to college, he no longer knew exactly what he wanted to do after graduation. Five months after moving to Maine, he decided to move into an apartment in Portland.

On April 3, Joyal loaded up the Ford Bronco he’d just bought with his posters, CDs and three bags of groceries. His brother, then 11, watched as Joyal hugged their dad goodbye and pulled out of the driveway. Later that night, his car still full of his belongings, Joyal and his friends headed to the Metropolis nightclub on Forest Avenue to celebrate.

A family photo shows Marc Joyal-Myers, left, with his brother Robert Joyal as children. When he was 18, Robert was killed in the Denny’s parking lot in Portland as dozens watched. The crime remains unsolved. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

It was there that the teens from Gorham encountered Srey, a Deering High School freshman who was hanging out with older gang members. There was some kind of dispute, possibly over a girl. The bad blood carried over to Denny’s on Congress Street, a popular gathering spot for young people after the clubs shut down.

When Joyal’s friends arrived at the restaurant, there was a confrontation with a group of young men from Massachusetts who were with Srey. Joyal began fighting with Kevin Janosco, an 18-year-old professed gang member. They fell to the ground as they traded punches. In the commotion, Joyal’s shirt was pulled up over his head. Someone jammed a knife three times into his back.

One of the onlookers yelled “cops” and the group of more than 100 people began to scatter. When police arrived minutes later, more than 50 teens were in the parking lot, many still yelling and shoving each other.

Joyal, bleeding profusely, tried to walk but collapsed. He later died at the hospital.

Some witnesses told police they saw bats and sticks being used, others said there were no weapons. Police found a 10-inch, double-edged knife covered with Joyal’s blood in the parking lot. His blood was also found on the jacket of one of the men Srey had been with that night.

UNCOOPERATIVE WITNESSES COMMONPLACE

Michael Chitwood, who was Portland police chief in 1998 and is now superintendent of police in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, said the case was frustrating from the start. A combination of fear, misplaced loyalty and a desire not to be labeled a snitch made witnesses reluctant to talk to police.

“Unfortunately, witnesses not cooperating or not coming forward is commonplace,” Chitwood said. “It’s a great American tragedy.”

In the early stage of the investigation, police interviewed 60 people. Srey emerged as a suspect within three days of the murder after a 15-year-old girl told police Srey confessed to her that he stabbed someone three times in the back for using a racial slur against him and his friends. Other witnesses pointed fingers at other suspects.

Srey was arrested for Joyal’s murder and spent nearly two years in jail before charges against him were dropped. Preliminary court hearings had revealed weaknesses in the prosecution’s case, including conflicting and incomplete information from witnesses and a fingerprint on the knife that didn’t back up the state’s case.

Srey’s lawyer, Daniel Lilley, maintained at the time that his client had been accused of a crime he did not commit while the real killer, known to others at the scene that night, remained free.

Joyal’s family believed for a long time that Srey had stabbed him. Now they question if he alone was responsible. Srey, who immigrated to Portland from Cambodia, had been trying to join a gang since he was 11 and was surrounded by older gang members, Faith Joyal said.

“It’s possible they told him to do it,” she said. “What’s more probable is they made him take the blame for it.”

Srey was 25 when he was killed in 2007 during a shootout over drug money in the parking lot of Howard Sports Center in Saco. He was shot in the head by 22-year-old Andy Luong of Biddeford, who then killed himself following a car chase with police.

Joyal’s family found no comfort in Srey’s death.

“There is a family that looks at (Seiha Srey) the same way I look at Rob. Another person dying breaks my heart,” Joyal-Myers, now 31, said. “That being said, we want to know who did it.”

‘ROBERT IS ALWAYS, ALWAYS IN THE ROOM’

Faith Joyal received regular updates from police in the year or two after her son died. That contact tapered off as the case against Srey fell apart and no new information came in to police. A year after the murder, she was pregnant with her daughter, Madeline, and trying not to let the anger about her oldest son’s death take over her life.

“I told (my husband) I won’t be able to live unless I know who did this,” she said. “And then you do, and you realize there is nothing that is going to make it better.”

The family grappled with living in a community where some people knew what happened to their son and wouldn’t speak up. Others in their community associated the family with gang violence and steered clear of them. The family has always felt people thought of Joyal as a thug, not as the loyal friend and “superhero” they remember, the teenager who made his friends play with his younger brother.

“Robert is always, always in the room,” his mother said. “There’s not a holiday that goes by we don’t talk about what Robert would think of this.”

Faith Joyal is still frustrated that her son’s friends and the others in the parking lot at Denny’s won’t talk to police. She’s also hurt by the public perception that the case has been solved.

“To me, it makes me think he’s forgotten,” she said.

Portland police never closed the Joyal murder case, even after the death of someone they still describe as a strong suspect, Martin said. The lead detective retired and other detectives have been assigned the case, as is done with all unsolved homicides in the city.

“We still believe (Srey) was involved in the incident and had a hand in Robert Joyal’s death,” Martin said. “Over the course of years, we’ve reinterviewed and attempted to interview people. We were met with resistance and reluctance.”

Martin said some of that resistance may come from witnesses being afraid of Srey or the people with whom he associated. Investigators now hope that people who were once intimidated will come forward and speak with Detective Jeff Tully.

“It’s gut-wrenching for the family to never be able to put closure on their son’s death,” said Chitwood, the former police chief. “That’s not right and it’s not fair.”

Contact Gillian Graham at 791-6315 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: grahamgillian

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