A group of burglars was plaguing well-to-do homes up and down the Maine coast, stealing silver candlesticks and other heirlooms.

Two of the suspects had been arrested once before and fled the state after posting tens of thousands of dollars for bail. So when they got caught again, the new district attorney in Cumberland County fought for them to remain in custody and persuaded a judge to give them six years in prison for what could have been treated as a petty crime.

When a leader of the group visited her office and tried to cut a deal on restitution, Stephanie Anderson brushed him off.

“We wanted this criminal organization to cease and desist and to consider Maine to be an extremely hostile working environment,” Anderson said. “And they have not been back.”

It was 1992, and the case hit Anderson’s desk during her first term as district attorney, an office she would hold for 28 years overseeing what she estimates to be half a million cases. She would take on cases involving rape, child sex abuse, attempted murder and police misconduct, but she looks back on that burglary case as one of the most important.

It set a tone that Anderson would carry through her tenure in office as a forceful prosecutor who would hold her ground. That career comes to an end Tuesday, when Anderson hands over the reins to a successor she endorsed for the job.

Anderson, who is 66 and lives in Cape Elizabeth, decided not to seek re-election this year after winning seven times in a row, usually without any opposition.

Attorneys who have worked for and with her for nearly three decades described her as a tough lawyer who ushered the state’s busiest prosecutorial district into the 21st century. She started the state’s first drug court and witnessed criminal justice become more complex with the advent of technology such as police body cameras and social media. She has been the county’s top prosecutor as crime decreased but the incarcerated population increased both nationally and in Maine.

“She’s been around a long time, but with that has been cutting-edge work,” said Michael Sauschuck, a former Portland police chief who was nominated Friday to lead the Maine Department of Public Safety.

Anderson grew up in Eliot, the daughter of a Navy chief petty officer and a waitress. As a young girl in a Catholic family, she first wanted to be a nun and then a ballerina. A strong religious faith would stay with her, but she decided at a young age that she would become an attorney when she read about Clarence Darrow, a famous labor and criminal defense attorney.

Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson looks back to 1992, above, and a burglary case she tried then as among her most important. Anderson began her career in the early 1980s in New York City where she remembers her boss bristling at the idea of a female attorney joining his staff.

She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maine in Orono in 1974 and a law degree from the University of Maine School of Law in 1980. She had interned in the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office, but drove to New York City the day after graduating law school and went to work in the district attorney’s office in Brooklyn. She worked there for five years, eventually becoming a senior trial attorney in the homicide bureau.

Anderson remembered the head of that office bristling at the idea of a female attorney joining his staff. He told each of his prosecutors to give her one of their cases, saddling her with the files no one wanted. She spent her first day in that office cramming for a trial and peppering the medical examiner with questions about the autopsy report.

“The attorney had told the bureau chief, there’s no way she can win this,” she said. “I did.”

Anderson returned to Maine in 1985 and started her own criminal and civil practice. Other lawyers remembered that her trial experience from Brooklyn gave her an edge in the courtroom.

“She had a reputation as a pretty fearless trial lawyer,” defense attorney Tom Hallett said. “Portland is actually a town with a lot of lawyers, and to stand out at all in that crowd is quite difficult, particularly as a young attorney. She did stand out.”

A few years later, 37-year-old Anderson decided to go back into prosecuting crimes and launched a run for district attorney as a Republican, promising that she would bring her New York experience to bear, improve efficiency and speed up the prosecution of cases.

Anderson’s straight-talking style was obvious from the start of the campaign in 1990. She easily defeated a younger Democratic opponent, David Perkins, once telling voters: “We have different experience. I have it and David does not have it.”

On her first day, she found a framed photograph on her new desk in the courthouse. It was a black-and-white picture from the newspaper of the moment she heard the election results – her head thrown back in celebration and surprise. She won re-election six times – unopposed in the general every time except in 1998 – and today she is the lone Republican in an elected office in Cumberland County. That photo was still in her office this month as she spoke about her career.

Anderson quickly streamlined operations, according to officials who praised her at the time as an effective leader who could be both intimidating and charming.

Landmark cases

During her tenure, Anderson personally handled several landmark trials.

She prosecuted Warren Cole, a prominent restaurant owner from Gray who was a serial child molester. His crimes were overlooked by law enforcement for years until two victims approached Anderson.

Anderson negotiated an unusual plea agreement in 1992 under which Cole told her all the names of the many boys he had abused and paid $100,000 toward a trust fund for those victims. Later, lawyers said that case made prosecutors more likely to take a child sex abuse case to a jury with the testimony of only one witness.

A decade later, Anderson successfully prosecuted a high-profile rape case involving teenagers at a party in New Gloucester.

The 14-year-old victim in that case had come forward publicly, bringing national interest to the trial. Newspaper clippings from that time described both Anderson and jurors wiping away tears as she made her closing argument and praised the girl for her bravery.

“I give Stephanie Anderson very high grades as a trial attorney,” said William Childs, a defense attorney who represented the defendant, Benjamin Cormier. “A very worthy adversary in the courtroom.”

In 2008, Anderson prosecuted Robert LaPointe, who ultimately spent time in prison for his role in a fatal boat accident on Long Lake in Harrison.

She won an infamous 2010 trial against Linda Dolloff, a Standish woman who tried to kill her husband and cover up the crime.

She handled a 2013 case against a Falmouth couple whose home was the site of a teenage drinking party. When the jury was deadlocked, the parties negotiated a deal that involved restitution and community service.

The Maine Judicial Branch does not track conviction rates. A fraction of the 10,000 cases that move through the district attorney’s office in a given year go to trial. Many of the others result in plea deals, often involving guilty pleas for reduced charges.

Anderson oversees a staff of more than 50 people. That includes 20 attorneys, which Anderson believes is more than double the number when she started in 1991.

“She let you handle your cases the way you thought they should be handled,” said Meg Elam, who worked in the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office for nearly three decades before she left for the Maine Attorney General’s Office in 2015. “That was a gift to all of us that worked with her, that she trusted our judgment.”

Anderson also clashed at times with other leaders in law enforcement, occasionally giving public glimpses of her ability to talk tough and push back.

In 1993, Portland’s outspoken police chief, Michael Chitwood, held a news conference with leaders of the Maine NAACP criticizing Anderson for not aggressively pursuing crimes against minorities. Anderson angrily responded with her own press briefing detailing her office’s actions on several cases.

“If Chief Chitwood spent as much time acquainting himself with the facts as he does holding press conferences, there would be a lot more peace in Cumberland County,” she told news reporters.

She opposed Mark Dion’s bid for re-election as Cumberland County sheriff in 2002, saying he lacked character. Dion, a Democrat, won the second term anyway.

“She definitely was a critic, there was no question about that,” Dion said. “But it kind of makes you smile, a little bit of smirk, because that’s her. That’s just how she approaches it.” And, he said, it was never personal.

After the election, Anderson called Dion and told him that she wanted to work together with him for the sake of the county, he said. Anderson’s style of direct, no-nonsense communication could be off-putting, but came from a place of genuine belief in her positions, Dion said.

“She never seemed to me to be someone who worried about political wind,” he said. “She was aware of it, but I think she had integrity in her decision-making.”

The current sheriff, Kevin Joyce, credited her with making the criminal justice system more efficient over time, implementing ideas like a unified criminal docket and a bad-check enforcement program.

Sauschuck, who was the Portland police chief from 2012 until earlier this year, praised her open-door policy for officers who disagreed with her charging decisions or who had questions about a case.

Longtime defense attorneys described her as pragmatic and fair, tough but willing to negotiate.

Hallett spoke highly of Anderson and said she will be missed, but also pointed to a recent case as an example of how they disagreed over the years.

He represented a Black Lives Matter protester who was arrested in 2016 after taking part in a demonstration that blocked Commercial Street in Portland to protest police shootings of black men nationwide. When an attempt at a restorative justice meeting failed, the parties traded blame.

“I think as time went on, she became more closed-minded,” Hallett said. “That’s what I thought I saw in the Black Lives Matter case. I think being a prosecutor for a really long time is hard. Everything becomes a little more black and white. Defense lawyers, we live in a world of gray.”

In recent years, Anderson has opposed some new ideas that are being tested in other states, such as eliminating a cash bail system that critics say forces poor people to languish in jail while others do not. But she is also described as an innovator, in particular for her decision to bring drug court to Maine in 1998.

The first drug court started in Florida in 1989. The specialized programs focus on cases that involve alcohol or drug dependency and provide flexibility and support, such as treatment and monitoring.

During her second term, Anderson secured more than $300,000 in federal grant money to start a similar program in Cumberland County. Defense attorney Neale Duffett served on the planning committee for what was called Project Exodus, which Anderson named in a nod to the Old Testament.

“It was well received,” Duffett said. “Judges liked it, defense lawyers liked it and prosecutors liked it.”

Adult drug treatment courts now operate in five counties in Maine, and the state has created similar court programs for child protective cases and other dockets. The total budget for drug treatment courts in Maine is $2.2 million during this fiscal year, according to a spokeswoman from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

But Anderson has long bemoaned a lack of resources allocated to the program, and she even called for its end five years ago during a dispute over the enforcement of probation violations. She argued that the program wouldn’t work without a real threat of incarceration.

“If it can’t be done right, it shouldn’t be done at all,” Anderson told the Press Herald in 2013.

Gov. Paul LePage ultimately intervened to stop the drug court from fizzling out. Since then, a probation officer has been dedicated to the county’s drug court. Still, Anderson said she has become less convinced over the years that every person who is addicted to drugs is interested in quitting them.

“Yes, we need more treatment,” Anderson said. “But … I question, frankly, how many people want to live a life free from the bondage of addiction.”

Kristine Hanly, the defense attorney liaison for all drug court participants, credited Anderson with starting the drug court and fighting for resources.

Hanly also said the court has evolved in recent years with new research on addiction and new treatments, even if the criminal justice system in Maine and across the country still struggles to shake the idea that relapse is a failure rather than a common occurrence on the path to recovery.

“The science just doesn’t support that,” she said.

What’s next

Anderson will soon begin a new role as the executive director of the Maine Prosecutors Association.

Meanwhile, her old job will be taken over by the man she endorsed for it, Assistant District Attorney Jonathan Sahrbeck.

An unenrolled candidate, Sahrbeck won by default when the two other candidates in the general election dropped out. Republican Randall Bates withdrew from the race in September, saying the time wasn’t right for him. Democrat Jon Gale dropped out just days before the November election because of allegations of sexual misconduct.

Sahrbeck has said he wants to make the role of district attorney more visible in the community, but will continue many of his predecessor’s policies once he takes office in January.

Staff Writer Matt Byrne contributed to this report.

 

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