It was a classic cable TV tug of war one evening in January of 2012: Nancy Grace, at the time the bombastic host of her own crime show on CNN Headline News, on one end; Steve McCausland, the unflappable spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety, on the other.

At issue was the disappearance of 20-month old Ayla Reynolds a few weeks earlier in Waterville – a mystery that remains unsolved to this day.

Public Safety spokesperson Steve McCausland speaks about a missing persons case during a press availability in October 2019 at Maine State Police Headquarters in Augusta. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Ph Buy this Photo

Grace wanted a blockbuster revelation. McCausland wanted to give the case national exposure in the hope it might pry loose a lead or two.

Grace, true to form, loaded up her questions with assumptions. McCausland, following his own standard operating procedure, carefully avoided each trap with such replies as, “I’ve never said that, Nancy. You’re the one that’s saying that.”

Finally, Grace conceded, “You know what, Stephen McCausland, I think you’ve missed your calling. You should work as a diplomat at the U.N.”

Maine is lucky he didn’t.

McCausland, 68, will retire on Tuesday, capping a 32-year career as the man to whom an entire state turns when something goes terribly wrong.

A former radio news director, his authoritative timbre and matter-of-fact delivery have punctuated Maine’s most memorable crimes and investigations over the decades – from the Ayla Reynolds disappearance just before Christmas in 2011, to the terrorists who passed through Portland en route to the infamous attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, from the arsenic poisonings that killed one person and sickened 15 others at a Lutheran church in New Sweden in 2003, to the van crash that killed 14 migrant workers on the Allagash Wilderness Waterway in 2002 – the worst fatal accident in Maine history.

In between, he’s churned out the details of more than 500 homicides, more than 500 fire deaths and thousands of fatal accidents. And in the process, he’s become one of the most recognizable and trustworthy people in state government.

“Crime news – whether it is a homicide, a fatal car crash, a fatal fire or a drug bust – affects people,” McCausland said during an interview on Thursday at the Maine Department of Public Safety headquarters in Augusta. “People want to know about that, and not because they’re curious and nosy. It affects their lives.”

I just checked my inbox and in the past two weeks alone, I’ve received upwards of a dozen emails from McCausland ranging from charges against a man who struck a trooper during a police chase to the recent data breach at the Maine Information and Analysis Center. In between were a fatal crash in Richmond, a major wreck in Freeport, another fatal crash in Denmark …

He’s gone to sleep each night knowing there’s a pretty good chance he’ll be roused before dawn by a reporter or news director seeking comment on a fast-breaking calamity – often one about which McCausland is hearing for the first time.

He’s driven all over Maine to the scenes of major crimes and other tragedies to take up his post between investigators and the media. Once, before speaking at a Kiwanis luncheon, he was introduced as “the last person you ever want to see in your driveway in the middle of the night.”

He’s never gone off the record with anyone, refusing “to give you any secrets that I’m not going to give anyone else.” Nor does he use the phrase “no comment” – he considers it too negative – and instead answers the unanswerable with, “That’s not something I can get into at this time.”

His job often has been a tightrope walk between the inside of an investigation, where he helps craft the talking points, and the press gaggle on the outside, where he becomes the embodiment of that message. At times, he’s taken it upon himself to emphasize certain details – texting while driving, not wearing a seatbelt, an ongoing domestic violence situation that went unreported – that he feels contain a public-safety lesson “everyone could learn from.”

On curtailing domestic violence deaths: “It’s still about the same (as when he started): About half the homicides in Maine are DV related. It’s frustrating as hell, but you have got to keep getting the word out. Because someday it’s going to sink in.”

Much has changed since McCausland first took the job in August of 1988. One of the first things he noticed upon arrival at the Maine Department of Public Safety’s old headquarters was its lack of a single fax machine.

He asked then-Commissioner John Atwood – one of eight under whom McCausland has served – why. “Because no one’s ever asked for one,” Atwood replied.

Picture McCausland back then faxing out the same news release 40 times to news organizations all over the state – always starting with the Associated Press – and then fielding complaints from this weekly or that TV station that a competitor got the news five minutes before they did.

Then came email – his list of media addresses now numbers over 400. Followed by social media – he’s mastered Facebook but confesses utter incompetence when it comes to Twitter and Instagram.

“Apparently I’m not going to have to learn that,” he deadpanned just five days from retirement.

Through it all, McCausland has been quick to answer his phone, entertaining in his responses to out-of-the-blue requests – a few years back, when I wrote about the perils of driving exactly at the speed limit on I-295 between Portland and Augusta, he congratulated me on being the only “old fart” out there following the law – and unfailingly courteous to even the greenest of newspeople.

He’ll never forget the time in 1989 when a woman went missing (and was later found murdered) after her truck broke down on the Maine Turnpike. Police investigating the vehicle found her sheepdog still inside.

“So,” a breathless young reporter asked McCausland, “did the dog tell you anything?”

“That was probably the dumbest question I’d ever been asked,” McCausland recalled. Still, he quickly added, “Sometimes I have to remind myself that I was once in that same stage of my career and I probably asked my share of stupid questions when I started out.”

His own life has not been without its tragedy. His wife of 32 years, Robyn, died suddenly in 2007 after falling ill at home. Only when he got a sympathy call from then-Gov. John Baldacci did the reality of his loss hit him.

“It was so sudden,” McCausland said. “We got her to the hospital and in five days, she was gone.”

These days, things are better. He looks forward to more time with his daughter and granddaughter. He remarried three years ago and moved from his hometown of Brunswick, where he served for 20 years on the town council, to Camden, home of his current wife, Deborah.

He also has a camp on Annabessacook Lake in Winthrop, his getaway since, well, forever. There, he soon will turn off his phone at night and hear only the loons as he drifts off to sleep.

“It’s my solace, my private space,” McCausland said. “I just love it out there.”

And as all of Maine well knows, he’s earned it.


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