Maine’s largest media outlet on Wednesday joined two web news sources and an advocacy group in reporting a link between a deceased Maine television meteorologist and an investigation into a complaint of a sexual assault in Newry the weekend of April 1.
However, law enforcement officials refuse to publicly make that connection, saying they are continuing to investigate the complaint.
The Morning Sentinel, a daily newspaper in Waterville owned by Maine Today Media, posted a story on its website Wednesday morning that names Tom Johnston, who worked for WCSH TV in Portland, in connection with that investigation. The story notes that the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office has declined to identify Johnston as a suspect in that case.
Johnston’s body was recovered in a wooded area of Auburn on Thursday, April 6; police reported it as an apparent suicide at the time. On Wednesday, Maine’s medical examiner confirmed the suicide, saying he died of hypothermia after he cut his wrists.
On Tuesday, two advocacy groups teamed up to issue a news release that said the 46-year-old Johnston’s death was “linked to reports” that he was the subject of a sexual assault investigation.
That news release followed reporting by two websites that connected Johnston to that investigation: NH1 and FTVLive.com.
Both outlets justified connecting the sexual assault with Johnston by noting that Johnston, who was in Newry that weekend, and the Newry sex assault suspect were both reported as missing persons by authorities. The two websites said no other missing person had been reported in that area at that time.
The Sun Journal has been following closely the scope, pace and status of the sheriff’s investigation since the initial reports, but has declined to speculate on a connection between Johnston and the complaint without formal confirmation from authorities, which is the newspaper’s normal practice. (See today’s editorial on Page A6.)
A Sun Journal reporter who spoke with a sheriff’s assistant on April 7 later received a written report that showed a complaint logged at 1:25 a.m. on Sunday, April 2, from Bridgton Hospital regarding a possible gross sexual assault at a home in Newry. Three deputies responded to the call; one of them met with a female at the hospital about the alleged assault, according to the dispatch log entry.
Johnston was reported missing by family the next day, Monday, April 3.
Johnston lived in Old Orchard Beach. According to a flier from the Old Orchard Beach Police Department, Johnston left town early Saturday morning to attend an event at Sunday River ski resort in Newry.
According to a story posted by WCSH, Johnston served as the master of ceremonies for the resort’s Springfest event.
The flier said the last time Johnston had contact with his family was Saturday night, April 1. According to a spokesperson at Sunday River, Johnston checked out of a hotel there at 1:30 p.m. Sunday.
Auburn police and searchers from the Maine Warden Service found Johnston’s body on the night of Thursday, April 6, in the Danville Junction area.
Oxford County Sheriff Wayne Gallant said the complaint is still under investigation. He said law enforcement agencies have been awaiting results of toxicology reports that must be analyzed.
Auburn Deputy Police Chief Jason Moen said Wednesday that his department also is awaiting toxicology reports from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner before it closes its investigation. That could take up to six weeks, he and Gallant said.
They didn’t say whose blood was being tested for the toxicology report.
Earlier this week, Gallant said he would release information to the public about the sexual assault investigation when he feels “comfortable with all of the details.” He said the “public has a right to have accurate information and to know what’s going on.” But he said that could only happen once the investigation was complete.
Gallant added that he wants to “make sure this investigation is done before I start confirming or releasing information ahead of time.”
Andrew Robinson, district attorney for Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties, said his office, which prosecutes cases brought by law enforcement agencies, has not received any investigative record from the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office regarding a sexual assault complaint reported early April 2.
Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault and the Maine chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness issued a joint news release Tuesday focused on the trauma that both the suicide of a public figure and a sexual assault can have on a community.
Cara Courchesne, communications director at MECASA, said when the two events are combined, “the trauma is even more immediate and serious.”
“It’s important for victims of sexual violence to know that someone else’s violent actions or suicide is not their fault, and that help is available,” she said.
She told the Sun Journal on Tuesday that her office staff had been discussing the case and decided to “get out in front of this thing.”
Last week, hosts of a morning radio talk show on WGAN in Portland publicly linked Johnston to the sexual assault investigation, seizing on the “missing person” connection between Johnston and the suspect in the sheriff’s investigation, and questioning why major media outlets were not reporting on the issue.
The Sun Journal checked Johnston’s criminal background and found no charges in Maine. In Florida, where he worked before coming to Maine, he had been convicted in 2010 of trespassing and criminal mischief.
Staff writers Christopher Williams, Matt Daigle and Mark LaFlamme contributed to this report.