Top stories of 2006

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Tragedies dominated the tri-county news in 2006, with young people dying in car accidents, plane crashes, the war in Iraq and a hunting accident. Western Maine had the worst car crash, the worst homicide and the worst plane crash of 2006, according to state Department of Public Safety spokesman Steve McCausland.

The shooting deaths of four people in Newry garnered interest from far beyond Maine’s border. So did the discovery of a strange-looking animal found at the roadside in Turner. The Maine creature caused a media frenzy all across the country and in Europe before laboratory tests revealed it was, in fact, a dog.

Here the Sun Journal’s picks for top local news of the year:

Four shot in Newry

At a quiet bed and breakfast not far from a popular ski area in Newry, the discovery of three bodies on Labor Day marked the first chapter in what would become one of the state’s grisliest homicide cases.

Police said a cook living at the Black Bear Bear Bed & Breakfast shot and killed a guest from the inn in nearby Upton and then gunned down three women at the inn to cover up his crime.

Christian Nielsen, 31, is charged with four counts of murder. Police say he confessed to killing the four people and burning or dismembering their bodies to conceal the crime.

The first to die was 50-year-old James Whitehurst of Batesville, Ark. Police said Nielsen shot him several times in the back of the head while the pair was fishing in Upton, left him there while he went to work and returned the next day to burn and bury the body.

Nielsen told police that two days later, on Sept. 3, he shot Black Bear owner Julie Bullard, 65, three times in the chest because he feared she would be suspicious of Whitehurst’s disappearance. Nielsen shot and killed Bullard’s daughter, Selby Bullard, 30, and her friend, Cindy Beatson, 43, when they showed up at the inn Labor Day, Sept. 4, according to an affidavit.

Nielsen was arrested after his father and stepmother called police with suspicions that their son had committed the slayings, police said. Nielsen went first to the Oxford County Jail where officials said he beat another inmate with a mop handle. He was moved to the larger and more secure Cumberland County Jail in Portland where he is awaiting trial.

Six die in collision

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In the early morning hours of Christmas Eve, two cars carrying a total of six people collided on an icy curve in Poland. Four people and a dog were killed instantly; the other two died hours later at a Lewiston hospital.

The crash on Route 122 proved to be one of the most horrific in recent memory. Dead were Michael Cournoyer, 20, of Auburn and his passengers Jacob Roy, 20, Robert Bruce, 19, and Matthew Manley, 18.

In the other car, Steven Walton, 27, and his fiancee Laura Caron, 25, were killed along with their dog, Achilles. In the days after Christmas, an investigation into the cause of the crash was under way.

They weren’t the only young people to die in car accidents this past year. On Dec. 2, 17-year-old Ryan Moore of Auburn was killed in a head-on crash in Lisbon. On Nov. 21, two days before Thanksgiving, 18-year-old Madison Dillingham of Sabattus was killed in a crash in Minot. On April 5 in Lewiston, 18-year-old Kenny Jellison of Auburn was killed when a car driven by his friend Kyle Karkos, 18, spun out of control and crashed into a pole at Canal and Lisbon streets.

Six months after that crash, Karkos was charged with manslaughter and other felonies.

Teens killed in plane crash

On June 22, a 1979 four-seater Cessna 172 swooped toward the western side of Barker Mountain in Newry. Seconds later, the small plane crashed in the dense woods 2 miles from where it had taken off minutes before. There were no survivors, and the news that emerged was grim: The victims were three Lewiston teenagers who had been flying as part of a Junior ROTC summer camp field trip. Their 24-year-old flight instructor also was killed.

The victims were Lewiston High School students Shannon Fortier, 15; Teisha Loesberg, 16; Nicholas Babcock, 17; and pilot William “Charlie” Weir, 24.

For days after the crash game wardens and others struggled against the steep and densely forested Barker Mountain to bring down the remains of the dead. Similar excursions were undertaken to retrieve the remains of the aircraft. The cause of the crash is still under investigation.

Teen shot by hunter

On Dec. 7, an hour before nightfall, 18-year-old Megan Ripley was roaming in the woods a quarter-mile behind her family’s farmhouse on Christian Ridge Road in Paris. At the same time, not far away, 51-year-old Timothy P. Bean of Paris was hunting deer with a muzzleloader.

He fired a shot that hit Ripley in the chest. She died a short time later at Stephens Memorial Hospital in Norway.

Investigators believe the shooting was accidental. But days after Ripley was killed, Bean was arrested and charged with manslaughter. Prosecutors say they are pursuing the charge because Ripley’s death was the result of recklessness or criminal negligence.

Shortly after the charge was announced, Ripley’s family encouraged the community to pray for Bean.

Arson destroys landmarks

Three buildings burned in a mid-December blaze on Lisbon Street in Lewiston that took two days to subdue.

Investigators said the fire that destroyed the former site of Marco’s Restaurant and adjacent buildings had been set. Two days later, police arrested Timothy Giggey, 27, of Auburn; Douglas Hersom, 26, of Lewiston; and Troy Littlefield, 17, of Lewiston. Each was charged with arson.

A firefighter injured his ankle and a bystander suffered smoke inhalation in the first hours of the blaze. A stretch of Lisbon Street remained closed for days. The fire destroyed a historic portion of the downtown and led to debates about when the remains should be torn down and who should do it. Demolition at the fire scene began two days before Christmas.

On Dec. 26, Giggey, Hersom and Littlefield appeared in court for arraignment. Describing them as threats to the community, a judge posted bail for Giggey and Hersom at $100,000 cash apiece. Littlefield was returned to a youth detention center in southern Maine.

Mystery mutant sparks frenzy

It was a dog. It was a mutant. It was an extraterrestrial creature.

For days in August, the media and others debated the nature of a strange animal found dead off Route 4 in Turner. It seemed half the population believed the beast was a mere dog while others were convinced it was the mystery creature that had spooked the area for decades.

Michelle O’Donnell, who found and photographed the dead beast, solicited the help of a Sun Journal news reporter, who wrote a story about the find. What followed was a media frenzy that drew interest from around the country and as far away as Germany.

Famed cryptozoologist Loren Coleman went to Turner to collect specimens from the carcass. Maine’s mystery mutant was featured on Fox News, CNN and a host of television and Internet news organizations.

A California artist designed T-shirts in honor of the mystery creature while others created cartoons and quilts.

DNA testing eventually proved the dead creature that so galvanized the world was a common dog, with possible traces of wolf.

Many people were resigned to believe that Maine’s true mystery beast is still out there.

Wescott wins Olympic gold

Several rounds of celebration got under way in February after Farmington native Seth Wescott bagged an Olympic gold medal in snowboarding.

The 29-year-old won the top award while competing in Italy, the first time snowboarding appeared as an Olympic sport.

Wescott spent the majority of his school years in Farmington before attending a private ski and snowboard school in Carrabassett Valley as a senior. In the end, it didn’t matter from where he hailed: Celebrations were held in several parts of the state and parades were organized.

More than 3,000 people waited at the Base Lodge at Sugarloaf/USA to welcome Wescott home in late February. Described as humble and soft-spoken, Wescott spent the weeks following his victory signing autographs, accepting high-fives and encouraging others to set high goals.

“Today is your opportunity,” he said in an interview, recalling the mantra that helped him succeed. “Live your dream, live your dream, live your dream.”

Lewiston mayor acquitted, resigns

It was a trying year for Lewiston Mayor Lionel Guay. Nearly a year after he was accused of groping a teenage girl who worked for him, the mayor went on trial.

On Sept. 27, a jury found Guay not guilty of sexual touching and assault charges. The mayor began the process of putting the charge behind him.

Then in November, it was revealed that somebody had been sending hateful letters to the teen who had accused the mayor. The letters referred to the girl as “ugly” and “bitch” and the writer condemned her for her part in the mayoral scandal.

The case took a bizarre twist soon after when a retired priest admitted to writing the scathing letters. The Rev. Bertrand Poussard, 64, of Waterville was issued a harassment order and told to refrain from contacting the teenager.

Reeling from the trial and subsequent developments, Mayor Guay announced on Nov. 27 that he was resigning, effective almost immediately. He cited stress as the leading factor in his decision.

Norway man killed in Iraq

There was more bad news from overseas early in the year when another local solider died in Iraq. Corey Dan, 22, was killed by an improvised explosive device near Ar Ramadi. Dan was a sergeant with the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division.

At a funeral service held March 25 at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School, police estimated 3,000 turned out to pay respects to the fallen soldier. The early part of the service was tense: Police, family members and others were expecting a fringe group out of Kansas to disrupt the ceremony with a protest.

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church had announced they would travel to Maine to loudly announce at the funeral that soldiers were killed in war because God was punishing Americans for their acceptance of homosexuality.

The church group never showed.

In August, Dan’s family was one of 17 in Maine who were presented with the Gold Star Honorable Service Medal, newly instated to honor Maine soldiers who died in service.

Norway embezzler jailed

A warrant was issued March 17 for the arrest of former Norway employee Deborah Wyman. The charge: theft of more than $117,000 from the town since 1992.

Wyman was employed as the community development director, responsible for overseeing more than $5 million in federal grants.

At the time the warrant was issued, she was cruising in the Caribbean. She returned in early April to face the charge.

According to town audit findings, Wyman made 176 illegal transactions during the past 14 years. The auditors could not find documents prior to 1992.

In September, Wyman unexpectedly pleaded guilty. Judge Robert Crowley sentenced her to 10 years in prison, but suspended all but two years. She was also ordered to return the money she stole, some of which will be repaid in $200 monthly payments during her three-year probation.

– Compiled by Mark LaFlamme

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