SCARBOROUGH — Twenty years ago, Ashley Ouellette’s body was found in the middle of a dark and desolate stretch of Pine Point Road, where the asphalt drops low and threads through the frozen Scarborough Marsh.

It was just before 4 a.m. on Feb. 10, 1999. A passing motorist spotted the Saco teenager lying facedown on the centerline. In the beam of headlights, she looked as if she had been placed there, arms by her sides, her 5-foot-tall frame clad only in a red shirt, a gray sweatshirt, black bell-bottom slacks and black platform shoes.

Ashley Ouellette was found dead in February 1999. “When this time of year comes around, it puts a hole in your heart,” says her mother, Lisa Ouellette.

It was a cold, calculated end for a girl who grew up in one of Saco’s nicer neighborhoods, a precocious, loving, sometimes defiant daughter and thoughtful, supportive friend who liked Italian sandwiches, idolized Marilyn Monroe and kept her Hollywood-style bedroom so tidy she was known as Miss Neat.

In the days that followed, investigators determined that 15-year-old Ashley had died by manual strangulation and appeared to have had sexual contact before her body was discovered. There were no other signs of injury, but she did have some blood in her nostrils.

Scarborough, Saco and state police detectives sketched her final hours, interviewing well over 150 people, including her shocked and bewildered parents and the friend who invited Ashley to a school-night sleepover that turned into an unsupervised party.

They gathered evidence from a double-wide mobile home in rural western Saco, where Ashley was last seen alive, as well as a car driven by a 16-year-old boy who lived there. They took hair, fingernail and other samples from him, too, and searched a section of the Nonesuch River that flows behind the house.

But they never got a clear picture of who ended Ashley’s life. Not one that would hold up in court, anyway.

“We have to be able to take a case into court and prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, and that’s a high standard for a reason,” said Maine State Police Lt. Mark Holmquist, commander of major crime investigations in southern Maine.

“We may need just one more piece of credible information to get us over the top,” Holmquist said. “The individual or individuals who committed this crime are still out there and in our community. They have those relevant answers that we’ve been searching for all these years.”

Today, a roadside memorial marks the spot on Pine Point Road in Scarborough where Ashley Ouellette’s body was found in the early morning hours of Feb. 10, 1999. Police say the 15-year-old girl died of manual strangulation and appeared to have had sexual contact before her body was discovered.

The Ouellette family suffered another loss in 2001, when Ashley’s father, Robert, died from a heart attack at age 49. Her mother, Lise, has persevered, supported by family members, friends and the wider community.

Some of the young people closest to the case have been marked by it, struggling through failed relationships, drug addiction and prison time. One in particular seems tortured by the memory of that night and her role in it.

Twenty years later, Lise Ouellette wonders what more Ashley’s friends and acquaintances know about the night she died and what they might be hiding. She and investigators remain hopeful that someone will step forward with a key bit of information or evidence needed to identify her daughter’s killer.

“Someone is going to have to speak up and tell the truth,” Ouellette said.

HER LAST CALL HOME

Lise and Robert Ouellette wanted to give their oldest daughter a little leeway.

After a couple years of acting out – smoking and drinking, chasing boys and staying out late, and running away several times – Ashley had been toeing the line at home and doing better in the alternative education program at Thornton Academy, the local high school where she was a sophomore.

So, when Ashley asked to spend a Tuesday night at the home of a friend, Alia Page, the Ouellettes decided to let her go. She would be at 57 James St., near downtown Saco, about a mile from the Ouellettes’ home on Thunder Road. Her parents expected her to go to school with Page the next morning.

Ashley called her parents from Page’s house around 10 p.m., to see if anyone had called for her.

“She said they were doing their nails,” Lise Ouellette recalled recently. “I could hear girls talking in the background. She said, ‘I love you, Mom.’ I said, ‘I love you, too, sweetheart.’ She was always loving like that. Those were the last words we said to each other.”

By that time, the sleepover had evolved into a party because Page’s parents weren’t home. Soon after, Ashley asked a young man at the party, 19-year-old Edwin Hernandez, to give her a ride to her aunt’s house, where she said she had to babysit in the morning. He agreed.

Court documents show Ashley actually intended to visit a former boyfriend, Steven Sanborn, 18, whose family lived 7 miles away, at 50 Mast Hill Road, in a remote and wooded area of Saco.

“I want to go see Steve,” Ashley told Page before leaving. “When I get a buzz on, I get a crush on Steve.”

PURSUING A BOY

Ashley knocked on the door of the Sanborns’ white double-wide, set far back in the woods, down a long dirt driveway off Mast Hill Road. When no one answered, Hernandez drove Ashley about 5 miles back into town, to a pay phone at a gas station at Flag Pond Road and Route 1.

Ashley called the Sanborn home around 10:45 p.m. and spoke with Christopher Cote, 18, who lived with the Sanborns. Cote told police he checked with Steven Sanborn, who was asleep in his bedroom, but he refused to speak with Ashley, though she called several times.

Hernandez eventually drove Ashley back to the Sanborn house, dropping her off around midnight, and he returned to Page’s house. This time, Ashley knocked on a rear door to the Sanborns’ basement, where the boys’ bedrooms were located.

Ashley’s knocking woke Daniel Sanborn, Steven’s 16-year-old brother, who had been at Page’s party from 6 to 11 p.m., court records show. Daniel said Ashley entered the Sanborns’ basement on her own around 12:30 a.m. and he met her in the hallway.

Daniel and his mother, Muriel, told police that Ashley said she had quarreled with her parents, they had “kicked her out” and she needed a place to stay. Muriel Sanborn agreed to let Ashley sleep on a couch in the basement rec room, outside the boys’ bedrooms.

Around 12:45 a.m., Muriel Sanborn saw Daniel Sanborn getting an orange soda from the refrigerator.

“Dan said that he was just getting Ashley something to drink and returned to the basement,” Muriel Sanborn told police. When she woke at 6:45 a.m. Wednesday, Ashley was no longer in the house.

Daniel Sanborn told police that the last time he saw Ashley was when he brought her the orange soda. She said the basement was too hot and went upstairs to sleep on the living room couch, and “he did not see Ashley again.” He said he woke Wednesday morning, went to school and returned home at lunchtime.

However, when police confronted Daniel with records from Thornton Academy showing that he had been absent, he changed his story. He said he slept in Wednesday, then skipped his afternoon shift at Pizza Hut in South Portland and spent the afternoon with friends in Old Orchard Beach.

Steven Sanborn told police that he and Ashley had a brief relationship in 1996 or 1997 when they had sex on numerous occasions. He said he figured Ashley had spent the previous night and possibly Wednesday morning “in Dan’s bedroom with Dan, as that is the usual practice for people sleeping over who were friends of Dan’s.”

Police affidavits don’t explore Steven Sanborn’s activities that night.

WHAT HAPPENED TO ASHLEY?

Lise Ouellette scoffs at the idea that her daughter left the Sanborn house on her own in the middle of the night.

“Ashley would have called us and we would have gone to pick her up,” said Ouellette, 65, who is a real estate agent.

Court records show Steven and Daniel Sanborn have continued to live with their parents, Muriel and Earl Sanborn, at 50 Mast Hill Road, for the last 20 years. During a recent visit to the Sanborn house, Earl Sanborn declined a reporter’s request to speak or make contact with his wife and sons.

The Sanborn residence, a double-wide mobile home at 50 Mast Hill Road in Saco, was the last place where Ashley Ouellette was seen alive. Police gathered evidence here and searched a stretch of the nearby Nonesuch River.

“We’ve been through this before,” he said.

Holmquist, commander of murder investigations in southern Maine, said the killer “obviously was quite intimate in their relations with Ashley, whether it was an acquaintance or deeper than that.”

Manual strangulation is widely considered an intimate or personal crime that is more commonly committed against women. It’s often associated with domestic violence and other relationship disputes involving jealousy, alcohol or other drug abuse and mental illness.

Holmquist said investigators have identified some “persons of interest” in the case but never nailed down one specific suspect. Through the years, as leads have come in, detectives have pressed on, with diminishing results.

“We’re looking at a very small number of people who are responsible for doing this,” Holmquist said. Could have been one person, he said, could have been more than one.

Family and friends gather outside Saco’s Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church after funeral services for Ashley Ouellette on Feb. 13, 1999. “Anybody can put themselves in that family’s shoes,” said Scarborough Police Chief Robert Moulton.

“Initially folks were fairly cooperative,” Holmquist continued. “But as the years have gone by, we’ve either re-approached or had the circumstance to run into certain individuals and sometimes those interviews don’t go so well. But we never give up.”

Holmquist acknowledged that Ashley’s case highlights how much digital technology has changed communication in recent years. She and her friends didn’t have cellphones, text messaging or social media accounts that today would help police trace their movements and reveal their personal interactions.

AN UNSOLVED CASE HEATS UP

State and local police wouldn’t discuss details of Ashley’s case, saying they consider it unsolved but far from cold.

It has been assigned to a new Maine State Police detective, David Coflesky, who’s expected to bring a fresh perspective to a pile of old evidence and interviews and check out new leads as they come in.

“We’re constantly evaluating the evidence we have and applying new technology, looking for any type of advancement or shedding light on the information that we have,” said Lt. Jeff Love, who supervises Maine’s unsolved homicide unit.

The chances of finding Ashley’s killer actually could improve as years pass, said Joseph Pollini, a lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He’s a retired New York City police lieutenant commander who headed the Cold Case Special Projects Unit.

Pollini said advances in DNA and other crime scene technology could make new connections with old evidence, including a condom and other items gathered from the Sanborn house, Daniel Sanborn, the Eagle Summit he drove and Ashley’s body.

Search warrant inventories also listed possible blood and semen stains, a variety of carpet and fabric samples and surface tape-lifts, and brown vegetative debris gathered from the house, the car and Ashley’s hair.

Pollini also said typical relationship changes – untended friendships, divorces and other breakups – can lead people to reveal information they previously kept hidden to protect someone they once cared about.

“As time goes by, people become more willing to come forward and share information,” Pollini said. Investigators can revitalize cold cases by revisiting people at the edges of an investigation who may not even realize the importance of what they know, he said.

“Every case is solvable,” Pollini said. “It comes down to tenacity. They gotta keep banging on doors. Stirring the pot on a regular basis is what’s going to do it. Not just hoping someone comes forward out of guilt. That doesn’t happen very often.”

A month after their daughter’s slaying, Robert and Lise Ouellette of Saco offered a $10,000 reward for information that could lead to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible. Robert Ouellette died of a heart attack two years later; he was 49.

Pollini suggested that FBI behavioral science experts could review the case and help build updated profiles of the killer and possible accomplices.

PEOPLE CLOSE TO THE CASE

Lise Ouellette said she believes state and local investigators have worked hard to solve her daughter’s murder. Many have been personally disappointed by the lack of results. One of them, former Maine State Police Detective Sgt. Matt Stewart, supervised Ashley’s case until he retired in 2006.

A few days before Stewart left the job, he stopped by Ouellette’s real estate office in Saco.

“I wanted to apologize to her for not clearing the case,” Stewart recalled. “I felt badly that I hadn’t been able to do that. We had a significant amount of evidence and we had a reasonably good idea of what happened and who the participants were, but it was a challenging and frustrating case.”

Still, Ouellette wonders how investigators might coax new information from people closest to the case, especially Daniel Sanborn, Steven Sanborn and Alia Page, all of whom have lengthy court records indicating troubled lives.

In 2014, fifteen years after her daughter’s slaying, Lise Ouellette speaks at a legislative hearing at the State House in Augusta on a measure to create a cold case squad to investigate unsolved murders. Maine State Police Lt. Mark Holmquist, commander of major crime investigations in southern Maine, said detectives have identified “persons of interest” in the death of Ashley Ouellette, but never nailed down one specific suspect.

“Why have you gone down the path you’re heading?” Ouellette imagined asking them. “Are you hiding something?”

Now 36, Daniel Sanborn has a list of legal troubles dating back to 2002, with convictions for assault, theft, drug possession and drug trafficking. The latest charges stemmed from an arrest in November 2017, when Biddeford police found him passed out in his car on Sullivan Street, near a known drug house, according to court documents.

Police said they recognized Sanborn from past drug activity and knew he had outstanding bail conditions that required him to submit to random searches for alcohol or drugs. They seized a variety of drug paraphernalia and several plastic bags containing cocaine, a heroin/fentanyl mixture and a synthetic opioid known as U-47700.

Sanborn pleaded guilty in February 2018 to trafficking U-47700 and was sentenced to a year in prison. He was released in September and remains on probation through 2020.

Steven Sanborn, 38, has multiple convictions for driving under the influence and drug possession, as well as convictions for endangering the welfare of a child, theft and assault. Court records show he has operated a driveway seal-coating business.

‘SHE WAS MY BEST FRIEND’

Lise Ouellette last saw Alia Page several years ago, when Page told Portland police she had information related to Ashley’s murder. Ouellette met with Page at the Portland police station.

Page told Ouellette she was homeless and had four children but had lost or given up custody of all of them at one point or another. Police told Ouellette the information Page provided wasn’t really new or very helpful.

Like the Sanborn brothers, Page has a substantial arrest record, with repeated convictions for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, violating conditions of release, harassment by telephone, theft and drug possession.

Now 37, Page was back in the York County Jail this month, held without bail for violating conditions of release related to a previous drug charge. Court records show she has battled heroin addiction, undergone methadone treatment and nearly died from an overdose.

“I’m living with the regret that I invited (Ashley) to my house that night,” Page said during a brief teleconference interview at the jail. She wore an orange jumpsuit and looked cautiously at the screen, her pale face framed by blond hair.

“She was my best friend in the whole wide world,” Page said of Ashley. “I wish I went with her that night. It’s the biggest mistake of my life.”

Asked whether she was punishing herself for Ashley’s death, Page said, “I most definitely am.”

Page said she hoped to return soon to her relatively new job, working at a Saco consignment shop. Asked when that might be and why she was in jail, she abruptly hung up the phone and ended the interview.

A LOSS THAT TOUCHED MANY

Many people were touched by Ashley’s murder. Her fellow students at Thornton Academy wept as they dedicated a granite bench in her memory in May 1999. More recently, a secretary at a professional office in Saco said she remembers the day Ashley was found because it’s her son’s birthday.

Scarborough Police Chief Robert Moulton said the case is especially relatable because teenagers often defy their parents, but they usually don’t wind up murdered as a result.

Many people were affected by the violent death of 15-year-old Ashley Ouellette, a Thornton Academy sophomore in 1999. Her classmates at the Saco high school wept as they dedicated a granite bench in her memory in May of that year.

“Anybody can put themselves in that family’s shoes,” Moulton said. “It’s hard enough to suffer the tragedy. It’s especially cruel that some people have the answers and won’t come forward. We haven’t been able to give the family closure and we haven’t been able to hold somebody accountable. But we haven’t forgotten and we haven’t given up.”

That’s why Scarborough police post a reminder of Ashley’s murder every Feb. 10 on the department’s Facebook page, in the hope that someone will be encouraged to report what they know. There’s also a Remembering Ashley E. Ouellette page on Facebook.

Lise Ouellette doesn’t relish being reminded. She said she tries to avoid thinking about what Ashley might be doing today if she were alive, because it hurts too much. But she realizes that reminding the public might root out Ashley’s killer.

“When this time of year comes around, it puts a hole in your heart,” Ouellette said. “It’s a piece that’s missing. There’s no time limit on grieving. But I have my faith and I have hope.”

Ouellette said she’s grateful to have strong support from family and friends. She’s in a long-term relationship and enjoys spending time with her daughter Lindsey Ouellette and her two grandchildren.

“I’m doing good,” Ouellette said. “There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of my daughter and my husband. But I wasn’t going to just lie down and let myself go. I have to stand strong in their honor.”

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: KelleyBouchard

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