AUGUSTA — Even for the officers who found him, it’s hard to believe that Christopher Knight lived alone in the Maine woods for 27 years until you meet him or see the campsite where he lived for so long.
Sgt. Terry Hughes Jr. of the Maine Warden Service said at a Wednesday press conference about the case that he has heard about the so-called Hermit of Smithfield and Rome for years, but until he arrested the man last week, he thought the story might be a myth.
Hughes arrested Knight while the man was allegedly burglarizing the Pine Tree Camp in Rome. He said witnessing the burglary on surveillance cameras and then arresting Knight triggered a wave of adrenaline, but the most amazing surprises were still in store as Knight brought Hughes and Maine State Trooper Diane Vance to his home in the woods.
“When we arrived at the campsite, you are basically walking through a wooded area and I kept looking ahead of him wondering what I was going to see — a blown-down tent or some sort of lean-to,” said Hughes. “We stepped around a rock and a tree and then all of a sudden there we were standing the middle of this encampment that 100 feet away you never would have known that a suspect lived there. I was in shock, to be honest with you. It was an overwhelming experience. It’s very difficult to articulate.”
There were trash barrels and a makeshift landfill where Knight buried his garbage when the barrels were full. There was a propane stove, clothing and a network of ropes strung about holding up tarps. In some places, the ropes had sunk into the trunks of trees, a testament to how long they had been there. In the midst of it all was an overturned plastic bucket where Knight spent untold hours sitting. Knight sat there again while investigators went through his camp.
“He was sitting up on the bucket where he sits all day and he was looking up into the sky,” said Hughes. “I asked him why he was looking up. He was identifying eagles or he was talking about eagles. He knows how many eagles fly over his campsite every day. I asked him, ‘What do you do all day?’ He said, ‘I read books and I meditate.’ I said, ‘Well, what types of books do you like to read?’ He said, ‘I read whatever books I can steal.’”
With the exception of a pair of eyeglasses, everything in Knight’s possession were items that he stole from nearby camps, including the Pine Tree Camp, a summer camp which caters to children and adults with disabilities.
“He used us as his local Walmart,” said Harvey Chesley, the camp’s facilities manager. “The frustration was that we couldn’t leave anything at the camp because it was open game to him. He hit a lot early in the season. As soon as someone put a dock in the water or a flag on a flagpole, that was an indication for him to stop coming around.”
One of Knight’s prized possessions was a small transistor radio that he listened to frequently, as evidenced by spent batteries that detectives found littered around the site. Hughes said Knight told him he enjoyed rock station WTOS and conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh. He knew who the president is and had a general understanding of recent news events, but he had no interest in any human interaction. To conceal his location, he didn’t leave the campsite between November and March so he wouldn’t leave tracks in the snow. When he did venture out — which was always under darkness — he tried to step on roots, rocks and stumps as much as possible in order to not leave footprints. He told police that in all his time in the woods he encountered only one other person walking along a footpath. He said, “Hello,” and kept walking, said Vance.
Hughes said he showed Knight a map and asked why he never went beyond North Pond, Little North Pond and East Pond.
“He said he knew how far he could travel in the darkness and that he wouldn’t go beyond that,” said Hughes.
Shockingly, said Hughes and Vance, there was no evidence of a heat source at Knight’s campsite.
“The only heat he had was to use a cookstove, but he used that only for cooking, that’s it,” said Vance. “He had no heat. He told us that would be too dangerous.”
Hughes said Knight also did not set campfires.
“He didn’t want to leave smoke,” said Hughes. “I asked him how he stayed warm. ‘Multiple sleeping bags, lots of sleeping bags,’ he said.”
“And he said you get used to the cold,” said Vance.
Knight told the officers that he’s never been sick or injured and has no health problems that he knows about. He stockpiled food he stole from nearby camps in the fall and tried to gain weight in order to survive the winter, but he did not try to feed himself by hunting and fishing.
“He said that would have taken too much effort,” said Hughes.
In interviews with investigators, Knight’s story slowly came out. It was 1986, not long after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Russia, that Knight decided to simply vanish.
“He said that he just disappeared one day,” said Vance. “He just decided to take off into the woods. He’s telling us there was no reason for it.”
Vance said Knight, who is being held at Kennebec County Jail, is adjusting well to civilization and is conversing with others. He has no interest, however, in reconnecting with family or friends. Hughes, who owns property in the Rome area, said he was relieved to have finally solved a decades-old mystery.
“I’ve been involved in this investigation for quite a few years and I’m glad to put it to an end,” said Hughes. “We finally have solved the mystery of the Rome-Smithfield area that’s been going on for generations. Hopefully this brings some comfort to some people who own camps around the lake. I’m glad to be a part of it.”
Hughes said to his knowledge there was no active missing person report issued for Knight, though at one point years ago there was a search for him in the Rome woods.
Knight is charged with burglarizing the Pine Tree Camp but the investigation is ongoing. As for what he will do when he is released from prison, Vance said she doesn’t know.
“He has no means,” she said. “It’s surreal. He’s surreal. His campsite is surreal. Sgt. Hughes and I came to the same conclusion that night: This is happening. This is him.”