LEWISTON – During his lifetime, Brent Matthews was defined in many ways: Jokester. Gun enthusiast. Loving uncle. Friend.

Then, last summer, after he threw a pig’s head into a local mosque during evening prayers, Matthews earned a new label.

Racist.

Friends and family say that label is unfair. They paint a picture of a jovial, kind-hearted 34-year-old, the kind of guy who watched Barney with a friend’s toddler, doted on his young nephew and once waited all night in the hospital with a buddy.

But his dark, aggressive MySpace page and the summertime mosque incident reveal an entirely different kind of man – a man who wrote “happiness is a warm AK-47” and posted “Welcome to America, now either speak English or leave” on his social networking page.

Last weekend, Matthews shocked everyone when he killed himself in the parking lot of Lewiston’s Marden’s while police pleaded with him to put his gun down. It was a very public death for a man who, for the past nine months, wanted only privacy.

And it’s a death that leaves more questions than answers.

‘Things were different’

Matthews was raised in Lewiston, the middle son in a close-knit family of five boys and one girl. Growing up, he was a happy, rough-and-tumble kid with a sense of adventure. He enjoyed riding dirt bikes, swimming and fishing. He loved telling jokes and goofing around.

“He always wanted to make somebody laugh and have fun,” said his youngest brother, Richard.

Matthews’ carefree life suddenly changed in 1983 when his little sister, Mandy, was struck and killed by a car in front of their College Road home. She was 3 years old.

Matthews, then 10, took her death especially hard.

“I don’t know if he had some type of guilt or blame on himself,” Richard said.

Life continued, but the family had changed.

“We all just didn’t seem to be as close. It was weird. Everything,” Richard said. “We all still got together for Christmas and stuff, but you could tell things were different.”

Matthews grew up and went to Lewiston High School, where he excelled in sheet metal and welding classes. He was a popular kid who kept in touch with his wide circle of friends over a CB radio and often met up with them in the parking lot of Marden’s on Main Street in Lewiston.

“He was one of those guys who could always make you smile,” said Tracy Grondin, a longtime friend who still remembers Matthews’ Beavis and Butthead imitations. “If there was someone in the group that liked to make everyone joke around and cheer everyone up, it was Brent.”

But Matthews had a serious side, too: He was the guy other people went to with their problems. He helped one friend get through her divorce. He helped another deal with his father’s death.

“He was a compassionate guy. He was always looking out for his friends,” said friend Don Petruska.

In his early 20s, Matthews was dealt another blow.

He joined the Coast Guard and planned to become a career military man like his father. But he was soon honorably discharged, his brother said, because of a birth defect with his back. He couldn’t handle the rigors of training.

“He thought he was going to have an open door and then it got shut in his face,” Richard said.

Matthews was crushed by the sudden loss of his career and he began wandering from job to job. At one point he found work with Lewiston Public Works.

In 2002 he was fired from that job after shouting a sexual slur at a woman driver who failed to stop for him.

He also had some brushes with the law, according to state records. In 1994 he was convicted of theft. In 1999 he was found guilty of reckless conduct. In 2002 he pleaded guilty to possession of a loaded firearm in a motor vehicle and, in 2005, pleaded guilty to operating under the influence.

An old black-and-white photo shows a teenage Matthews thin and clean-shaven with an innocent, choir-boy face. Adult photos show him tattooed, pierced and muscularly hard.

Friends and family say his lifestyle and appearance changed. His soul didn’t.

“He may look like a rough type person, but deep down he was a good-hearted guy,” Richard said.

Matthews shined particularly when it came to kids, friends and family say. He doted on his nephew, Richard’s son, serving as baby-sitter, friend and playmate. He watched his friends’ children, sometimes getting down on the floor to watch Barney with a toddler or taking older ones outside to play.

“He loved children and children loved him. They just gravitated toward him,” Grondin said. “He was like Uncle Brent to everyone.”

His brother thought he would have made a great father.

“He just never found the right girl,” Richard said. “I think if he would have had a child things would have been a lot different.”

The incident

Last year, Matthews got into the deepest trouble he’d ever been in. He threw a pig’s head into a downtown Lewiston mosque during evening prayers.

He called it a joke.

Others called it a hate crime.

Police charged Matthews with desecrating and defacing a church. The state filed a civil suit saying he violated the Maine Civil Rights Act. The FBI investigated the possibility of charging him with a federal hate crime.

His friends were stunned.

“The pig’s head incident was not Brent. I don’t know who that person was at that point in time,” said friend Laurie Reynolds.

Mosque members said they forgave Matthews and considered it an isolated incident. But the event rekindled the city’s racial tensions.

Matthews and his actions made national headlines. The story stayed in the news for the rest of the summer.

Friends and family say he was ashamed by the incident and the ensuing attention. In a journal, his brother said, Matthews wrote “how sorry he was and it was just a joke and he wishes he’d never done it.”

Friends watched him grow increasingly depressed and upset.

“He was a lost person,” said friend Amanda Bartholomew. “A lost soul you might say.”

Eventually, the FBI decided not to charge Matthews with any crime. The civil suit resulted in a preliminary injunction and Matthews was ordered to stay away from the mosque. The desecration charges were pending – and remain pending – but by fall the media attention had died down.

Over the winter, Matthews briefly moved to Arizona to be near his parents and other family members. He returned to Lewiston a couple of months ago, homesick.

Questions but no answers

By spring, things seemed to be getting better.

Matthews was living in Lewiston, close to the friends and family he loved. He had a girlfriend. He was working part time at Warden’s Bar and Grill, one of his favorite Lewiston hangouts, and he was excited about a new sheet metal job he’d gotten.

Petruska ran into Matthews at a coffee shop a couple of weeks ago. He was eager to talk about his new job.

“The first thing he said was ‘These guys don’t care what happened in the past,'” Petruska said.

On Friday, April 20, Matthews went out with older brother, Ed. Friends and family members say he was happy all night, joking.

Then, early the next morning, Matthews drove to the Marden’s parking lot and called 911. When police arrived, he was outside his car and alone. Officers spoke to him – including one corporal who knew him – but Matthews never responded.

After a few minutes he raised a handgun to his head and fired.

“I would have expected it a year ago or whatever, but not now,” Richard said.

Why did Matthews kill himself? Why that day and place? What was he thinking? Friends and family can only wonder.

Matthews didn’t leave a note.

The police investigation has been closed.

After his death, many friends wandered onto Matthews’ MySpace page, leaving sorrowful good-bye messages filled with love. Some had known about the site for awhile. Others only found out about it after his death.

Dark and violent, the site features guns and explosives, a racially insensitive fake ad and references to immigrants. One photo shows a bawdy actor/comedian carrying a pig’s head like a football. Personal photos show Matthews grinning and posing with various guns, including automatic weapons.

Some friends say the site is innocuous and does nothing more than show off Matthews’ love for guns, a hobby he’s had for years.

Others were startled by its intensity.

“I don’t think that MySpace page portrays the Brent I know,” said Petruska. “I didn’t understand it when I saw it.”

But whether they were OK with the Web site or troubled by it, whether they thought the pig’s head incident was funny or one of the stupidest things he’d ever done, friends and family say Matthews was ultimately a good person.

They wish they could’ve helped him as much as he helped them.

“He was a great brother, he was a wonderful son. He was a great friend, a great uncle,” Grondin said. “He was so much more than that one incident.”


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