State police: Elan student’s death investigation continues

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Seven months after opening an investigation into the sudden death of an Elan School student back in 1982, police said this week the case remains open and active.

Pam Newell, that student’s sister, is ready for answers.

“I don’t have any,” the Lewiston woman said.

Newell’s brother, Phil Williams Jr., was 15 when he died a day after witnesses say he was beaten by other students in the Poland school’s infamous boxing ring. He’d been ordered to fight by school staff after complaining of a headache. Phil later collapsed, turned blue and was taken away by staff.

Newell, just 12 and in foster care at the time, was told her brother died of a freak brain aneurysm. That’s what the family had believed until last spring, when a stranger from Chicago showed up with Phil’s curious, partially incomplete death certificate and the names of witnesses to his fight.

“Nobody wants to tell the truth about this place — it was very, very ugly and it was extremely dark and hidden,” said Mark Babitz, that Chicago stranger, a former Elan resident who has led a campaign to expose teenagers’ treatment there.

Founded by psychiatrist Gerald Davidson and businessman Joe Ricci, Elan operated from 1970 to 2011 as a private boarding school. Some of Elan’s controversial tactics included encouraging teens to scream at each other, shaming them and ordering them to fight in a “ring” made up of other kids.

Davidson died in 1991 and Ricci died in 2001. After Ricci’s death, the school was run by Ricci’s wife, Sharon Terry, until it closed its doors in 2011.

Newell and Babitz together approached police last spring about Williams’ 1982 death, and in mid-March Lt. Brian McDonough, head of the Maine State Police’s Southern Maine Major Crimes Unit, told the Sun Journal police were opening a death investigation, calling it a “priority” for them.

In May, McDonough said it was drawing to a close, but this week confirmed the case is still active.

“We anticipate the investigative portion of this matter will be completed very soon,” McDonough said Thursday. “We have a very close working relationship with the Office of the Attorney General in these matters and are in continual consultation throughout these investigations. Much work has been done in this investigation and many investigatory hours invested. In consultation, we have determined there are a few final items that should be followed up on and evaluated, which obviously remain confidential, before a resolution in this matter is to be considered.”

When the investigation is done, the results are expected to be turned over to the AG’s office to weigh possible charges.

Newell said police have kept her updated throughout the months.

“It’s way longer than I thought,” she said. “My dad has no hope. He thinks where it’s been this long, he thinks if something were to have happened it would have been quicker, whereas I went the other way and I think if it took this long then something’s got to be there. They wouldn’t have focused this much time and money and effort if nothing was there. It’s kind of double-edged.”

She said she’s steeling herself either way, but wants justice for her brother.

So does Babitz, who is also currently trying to organize a $50 million civil suit against the state of Maine on behalf of former students and residents who consider themselves Elan “survivors.”

“For you to put (Phil) in a position like that and make him fight for his life, you have to be in one of these rings to understand it,” Babitz said. “You have no idea how you’re coming out of it. You’re terrified. Your heart is beating so fast you can’t think straight. That’s how these rings were.”

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This story was updated Monday at 9:45 a.m.

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