One was Michael McNaughton.

The other was Romeo Parent.

They hung around with the same crowd, but that didn’t mean they were steadfast friends.

On April 9, 2013, McNaughton, Nathan Morton and another man lured Parent to a remote area of Greene, promising to bring him in on a drug deal. Instead, as Morton waited in his car, McNaughton walked Parent into the woods, stabbed him in the neck with a screwdriver and strangled him seven times before Parent went limp and died.

Parent was 20 years old.

He was killed because he told police that his friend William True helped him steal an Xbox the previous week. Parent’s friends did not tolerate snitching and they plotted to teach him a lesson.

Parent and his attackers were part of a group of more than 20 who hung out together, often with their young children, drinking and drugging. Many of them had criminal records, and many were well aware of who arranged, carried out and covered up the killing.

Their decision to punish a snitch shattered the lives of dozens of people, including Parent’s and McNaughton’s families. Both families now deeply regret they didn’t do more to pull their loved ones away from what they saw as poisonous relationships.

Each side is handling that regret differently, and neither believes McNaughton had any real motive for the murder.

They are all still seeking justice.

The young victim

Romeo Parent, described by friends as a smiling, sweet and silly person, attended Lewiston High School but did not graduate. One of his teachers remembers him as a peacemaker and a model student, and his school friends remember him as charming, with a tremendous ability to make them laugh.

He left home at 18 and held the occasional job.

Dependent on Social Security benefits for diagnosed behavioral disabilities, Parent quickly found himself couch-surfing with friends. He struggled with addiction and behavior, and eventually lost his benefits after not following through on meetings and other requirements.

He turned to petty crime. He did not have a criminal record when he was killed, but charges were pending and he seemed headed for more trouble.

Even so, Parent stayed in touch with his family, calling home several times each month to check in. Often when he called, he would leave a different number where he could be reached.

He developed a routine of regular places to stay, and for a short time managed to maintain his own apartment over a bargain shop at the corner of Bartlett and Pine streets. Once, he attended a career fair at a local college to consider auto mechanics, and his family actively encouraged his return to school.

Parent, as likable and loved as he was, had pronounced behavioral and emotional issues and was immature for his age, his family said. And, he was desperate for friends. He found acceptance with the group that included McNaughton, Morton, and others, but Parent’s family thought they were a bad influence and tried to convince him to steer clear. 

He didn’t, and instead seemed to embrace their lifestyle. Many of the people Parent hung out with say they didn’t know him well.

The same can be said of McNaughton.

Desperate for friends

Michael McNaughton’s family describes him as smart, funny and caring. He grew up in Charleston, Maine, and graduated from Foxcroft Academy in Dover-Foxcroft, where he played football and wrestled. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2006 and met his wife, Danielle, in 2009 at Fort Lee in Virginia when the two were jogging in cadence on base.

She doesn’t like to run and he fell back to encourage her to finish the drill, slowing to run at her pace.

She said they were instantly attracted to each other, formed a deep friendship and were married months later. They each had a child from a previous relationship, and now have two children together.

Danielle, 27, remembers how seriously her husband took his duties as a parachute rigger, and how often he volunteered for toy drives and other charitable causes on base.

They came back to Maine in 2011, staying briefly with her family in Portland before moving to be with his family in Charleston. They both tried to find jobs there, but Danielle said it was tough. The couple decided they’d have a better chance in Portland but found the rent there unaffordable.

So, they started looking in Lewiston. Danielle said she strongly resisted the move, but Michael convinced her it was the only place they could afford. They found an apartment at 104 Blake St.

Michael got a job as a mason tender, but that job soon ended. He looked for other jobs without success, and started metal scrapping. His father was a scrapper and Michael knew what to look for.

Danielle said he would walk around downtown, “picking up scrap — especially copper — stuff that was thrown out.”

One day, Danielle said her husband — sporting his Army cap — walked past the apartment building on the opposite side of the street where they lived. Charles Epps, a self-admitted crook who has spent time behind bars in Florida and Maine, “happened to be sitting on the front steps of the building . . . and called out to Michael with claims of having been in the Army.”

That encounter with Epps, who was seven years older, led to a conversation about the card game “Magic: the Gathering,” and Epps invited McNaughton to his apartment to play.

Michael McNaughton started visiting Epps often, and frequently invited Danielle to come along. She declined for weeks, she said, and actively discouraged her husband from going over there.

“We didn’t have any friends in the area,” she said. Everyone they knew lived in Portland or near Dover-Foxcroft, and “he wanted friends,” she said of Michael. He liked gaming, liked Epps, liked Epps’ then-girlfriend Jessica Reilly and liked their children. Michael felt comfortable with Epps and began spending more and more time at his apartment.

That was where he met many of the drifters involved in Parent’s killing.

Danielle said her husband tried hard to become friends with these people, but they never welcomed him to their inner circle. And, although she eventually did strike up a friendship with Reilly, she never liked Epps and strongly disapproved of his parenting skills. She didn’t like the way he treated Reilly, throwing food at her if he wasn’t happy with his meal, and she also didn’t like the people who hung out at the Reilly-Epps apartment.

“I got this vibe when they were around that things were not right,” Danielle said. “We talked about it all the time. Michael tried to stay away from them a lot,” but he was hungry for friends.

Plotting retaliation

On April 4, 2013, True and Parent allegedly broke into a home on Pierce Street. According to the police affidavit, Parent stood watch in the driveway while True went behind the building and kicked down a door. 

The tenant later called police to report the burglary and the theft of a number of items, including an Xbox.

A friend of the victim identified several possible suspects for police, including William True, 21, of Lewiston.

The next day, police brought True to the station to question him, but he denied any involvement. Earlier that day, Lewiston police had talked with Parent, who confessed to his part in the burglary and implicated True. Police had also talked to Ryan Cunningham, who told them Parent and True had come to his apartment and tried to sell him some of the stolen goods.

True was arrested and charged with burglary and theft, both felony crimes. According to the affidavit of Officer Eric Syphers, after he took True to the Androscoggin County Jail, he “finally admitted his guilt in the burglary” and wrote out a statement for police.

True was released on bail, with the condition that he have no contact with the burglary victim, Cunningham or Parent.

Parent was never charged in the crime.

A woman who lived in Epps’ apartment told police she had heard True and McNaughton, whose voices she recognized, in that apartment yelling that Parent “was a snitch and needed to be beat down.”

The men began planning the attack, and asked Morton to select a place. He picked a spot near his family’s home in Greene, and they shared their plan to beat up Parent with a number of friends in their inner circle.

A brutal murder

On April 9, five days after the burglary, Morton and McNaughton picked Parent up in Morton’s car in a parking lot at a CVS store in Auburn.

Diana Jack, 19, who was a good friend of Parent’s, walked with him to the CVS that night and watched him get in the car. She saw Morton at the wheel and McNaughton in the passenger seat but was not aware of their plan. Others also reported seeing Parent get in the car with Morton and McNaughton.

When Jack walked back to her boyfriend’s apartment, True was there. He grabbed a face mask and jacket, and told her he had to go with McNaughton, Morton and Parent.

The men drove to Greene and, once there, Morton told prosecutors he watched McNaughton and True walk Parent into the woods. Morton said McNaughton came back to the car “exhausted but excited” some time later, and asked Morton to use the flashlight function on his phone to search for a screwdriver he’d dropped.

Morton went into the woods with McNaughton, saw Parent’s body face-up on the ground, and helped McNaughton and True search for the screwdriver. They left without finding it.

McNaughton told Morton he’d stabbed Parent in the back of the neck with that screwdriver and strangled him seven times “because he wouldn’t die.” Morton said True told him that he had punched and kicked Parent a couple of times in the head.

That night, McNaughton asked his friend, Delia Belanger, to cut his hair, which she agreed to do. McNaughton had been staying at her apartment on Bartlett Street around the time of the killing.

While she was clipping, her brother Christopher Belanger was crying and she overheard him tell McNaughton that Parent “didn’t deserve it.”

The next day, McNaughton, True and Morton gathered up trash bags from one friend’s apartment, and sheets and blankets from Epps’ apartment, and went back to the scene to get Parent’s body. They covered it in blankets and put it in Morton’s car, and moved it to Jug Stream in Monmouth.

Police found the body three days later, stripped and bound.

McNaughton, True and another man — Sebastian Moody — each told a number of people that they had killed Parent, but when first approached by police, their friends told Lewiston detectives they didn’t know anything about the crime, holding to the “snitches get stitches” street code.

Police learned of the crime — but not where Parent’s body was — on April 10 when Eric Leighton, 19, of Auburn reported True said he had killed Parent.

Leighton — who was Diana Jack’s boyfriend at the time — called police again the next day. He said True was trying to break into his apartment and he was afraid True was going to kill him, too.

Police found True hiding, lying sideways on the roof of the apartment building. He was arrested for violating the curfew conditions of his release on the burglary charge.

McNaughton was arrested the next morning and charged with murder. He was convicted on July 28 after 13 hours of jury deliberation.

In a June deal, Morton, 25, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder and was sentenced to serve 20 years in prison, with all but 10 years suspended.

Last month, True was charged with murder, and his former girlfriend, Felicia Cadman, 21, of Mechanic Falls was charged with hindering prosecution by withholding information she knew about the crime.

Moody, 23, of Sabattus pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of falsifying evidence in November. He will be sentenced on Aug. 21.

Where’s the motive?

Danielle McNaughton and Parent’s family have each said they don’t understand McNaughton’s motive for murder.

McNaughton was not involved in the burglary that was the root of the group’s decision to retaliate against Parent, and he had no reason to be upset that Parent talked to police. Or, as his friends put it, that he’d “snitched” on anyone.

“It wasn’t anything that McNaughton was immediately involved in,” Parent’s family said, and they believe he simply used the plan to beat Parent as an opportunity to kill. They say it was clear from the trial testimony that killing was “something he had on his mind, for whatever reason,” and jumped when the chance presented itself.

Although they can’t understand his fascination with knowing how to kill, as described by multiple witnesses, they are certain he is responsible for Parent’s death.

McNaughton told Katie Mae Brown that he knew how to sever the top of a spinal column with his screwdriver, and he told Emily Horton that if she had any trouble with her boyfriend that he would take care of it, holding up his screwdriver. Several witnesses testified that McNaughton bragged of his military training and his ability to kill.

Danielle McNaughton says that simply cannot be true. She said her husband is not a violent man and that when Parent was killed, she believes there was a deliberate plan to pin the murder on him. She pointed out there was no physical evidence that placed him at the scene, and that he was convicted largely on witness testimony.

Although Danielle didn’t know everyone in Michael’s circle of friends, she said she knew enough of them to characterize them as liars and addicts. She’s also certain they agreed to sacrifice McNaughton to protect True.

Michael can be pliable under the right circumstances, partly because of his protective, small-town upbringing, Danielle said. “They really thought they could push him around and take advantage of him. For the most part, they could have. He really is kind of a pushover. He doesn’t like to say no to people. He doesn’t like to be mean.”

“I know this man,” she said. “I’ve spent the last four years of my life with this man. They’re going on the word of junkies and drug addicts.”

Getting justice

Parent’s family, some of whom attended various sessions of the 11-day trial, are feeling freshly traumatized by new details of the killing that came out at the trial. Hearing about the organized brutality of the event was too much for some of them, but others stayed to hear the testimony and see autopsy and crime-scene photos.

It wasn’t easy to absorb the evidence, but they said it was much harder to hear McNaughton himself — through the taped confession — detail the steps he took in attacking Parent. It was also hard, the family said, to hear about the lives of these drifters, and how easy it was for them to get involved in drugs, stealing and pawning.

The week before Parent was killed, he had introduced McNaughton to his mother.

Parent needed a haircut so he called his mom, and she went to the apartment where he was staying. When she came in, Parent introduced her to his roommate and then pointed to another man there, saying, “Mom, this is my friend, Mike.” The four chatted while she trimmed.

It wasn’t until McNaughton’s arraignment that Parent’s mother recognized the defendant as her son’s friend “Mike.”

During the trial, the family said the testimony seemed to oddly trivialize the crime. The presentation of evidence and testimony felt remote to the brutality of Parent’s death, at least until McNaughton’s confession was played.

Hearing McNaughton describe how he tried several times to kill Parent was difficult, as was knowing with certainty how painful Parent’s last moments had been. Family members reeled when McNaughton demonstrated Parent’s last breath with a loud gasping sound.

The explanation was offered so matter-of-factly, almost nonchalantly, they said, that it confirmed for them McNaughton deserves extended punishment.

McNaughton, who is 26, faces a minimum of 25 years and a maximum of life in prison. Parent’s family feels 45 to 55 years would do.

They plan to attend the sentencing.

‘He is innocent’

McNaughton’s family says he’s innocent. His wife is particularly insistent about it and says she will fight for his release.

Karen and Clark McNaughton, Michael’s parents, made the four-hour round trip every day of the trial. Danielle did not.

After his arrest, she attended his arraignment, although he didn’t see her because he wasn’t wearing his glasses. When he found out she was there, he asked her not to come to another hearing. He asked her not to attend the trial, and has asked her not to attend his sentencing.

He doesn’t want her or their children to see him as a defendant. His boys haven’t seen him since they left Lewiston three weeks before his arrest last year, and he has never met his 8-month-old daughter, Samantha.

Danielle said it’s been hard to stay away because she’s so certain he’s innocent and wants to support him. She also wants people to know he’s not what she calls the “crazy, drug-addled murdering fiend” depicted by trial testimony.

“He was made out to be this really, really bad guy. Considering the circumstances, it’s understandable, but it’s not who he really is,” she said.

He never cheated on her, she said, contrary to trial testimony by Jessica Gaudet that she had sex with Michael.

He never had sex with a man, Danielle said, contrary to Morton’s testimony that Michael had sex with him the morning after the murder.

He is committed to their marriage, she said, and he would never do anything to hurt their family.

After his arrest he called and, before he could say anything, Danielle said, “I love you. I love you. I love you. You didn’t do this. I know you. This is crap.” They never discussed whether he did it again.

All their attention, she said, turned to his defense.

McNaughton writes to his wife a couple of times a week, sometimes stuffing two or three letters in each envelope.

“When I think about what he’s going through, what’s going through his head, I almost can’t function,” Danielle said.

About four weeks before McNaughton’s arrest, he and his family had been evicted from their Pierce Street apartment and reluctantly moved in with the Epps family. But staying in the condemned Blake Street building was very stressful, Danielle said, and she didn’t want to look for another apartment in Lewiston. So, in late March, she took the children and went to her grandfather’s house in Casco.

Michael decided to stay behind to continue his job search.

Once she left, she said, “it was at this point that Michael really started hanging around” with the crowd connected to Parent’s death.

Danielle didn’t know all of Michael’s friends, and learned about some of them for the first time when she was following his trial coverage.

Of the 14 witnesses who testified about what they knew, she is particularly bothered by the testimony of Gaudet — Parent’s former girlfriend — that McNaughton spent the weekend before Parent was killed with her and that they’d had sex.

Danielle said her husband has always been faithful to her.

Gaudet was central to the case, and the people who killed Parent  worried about what she knew.

Adam Nutter of Lewiston, who will turn 20 on Tuesday, threatened her with a tire iron to keep her quiet.

State Police Detective Randall Keaton, the lead investigator in the McNaughton case, was in Lewiston about a month after the murder and saw Nutter crossing the street, clutching a tire iron, heading in Gaudet’s direction. He was immediately arrested.

Nutter pleaded guilty to criminal threatening and spent 10 days in the Androscoggin County Jail last fall.

Painful lessons

The fact that Parent had been so easily pulled into this group of drifters as he sought acceptance, and that his decisions to remain connected to them got him killed, gnaws at his family.

They have experienced moments of guilt and regret since his death, and wish they had made greater efforts to pull Parent from his friends. They wonder, if they had successfully intervened, whether that would have given him a chance to figure out what he wanted to do with his life and find someone to have a family of his own with.

They hope people remember how likable he was and keep their memories of him alive, despite the circumstances of his death.

They express sympathy for Danielle McNaughton’s situation, now that she’s raising three children on her own, and knowing that it’s going to be hard for that family to face public scrutiny.

They also hope people — particularly young people — have paid attention to how many lives have been shattered by all this, and will take an opportunity to examine what they’re doing in their own lives.

They found it terribly sad and more than scary to learn about what one family member called “wanderers” — youths who don’t have a direction, a safe home or anyone responsible to love them.

“Some of them are much worse than how Romeo was with their addictions and their own life struggles,” this family member said, and they could face a similar fate.

Parent’s death, they said, is a lesson in “how quickly a few bad decisions, or one bad decision, can totally change a life.”

Clinging to optimism

If Danielle McNaughton could change one thing about the past two years, it would be her family’s decision to move to Blake Street.

They had enjoyed a peaceful, loving and sober lifestyle before meeting Epps and his friends, she said. Her husband’s need to seek friendship was his downfall.

Danielle and her children now are living with a member of her husband’s family in Dover-Foxcroft. They are surviving on food stamps, MaineCare and other social services until she finds a job.

She doesn’t drive, which will limit her ability to visit her husband in prison, but she’s optimistic that he will be released on appeal.

“I’m going to remain optimistic until the time comes when I can’t be optimistic,” she said. “We’re going to be positive and keep the good vibes out there.”

She added, “I know he’s innocent. I know it. Like, he’s not cold-blooded. He’s not cruel like that. He’s not any of those things,” she said. “He’s a giant geek. A book nerd. He plays Dungeons & Dragons, likes video games. He’s like a big kid. He’s smart and he’s funny and he’s just, I don’t know. He’s pretty awesome.”

Danielle never met Romeo Parent, but she said she feels “horrible that this young man’s life was taken so early.” 

She’s also sad about the lives she saw being destroyed in the Epps’ apartment, especially 12-year-old Brody Covey, the son of Epps’ then-girlfriend Jessica Reilly.

Danielle said she and Michael had become so close to the boy that he often came to their house for dinner. They felt bad for him and Danielle said she was happy to provide him some stability.

She left Lewiston in late March 2013 and Michael was arrested in early April. Two weeks later, Covey was accused of setting an arson fire to destroy his apartment building. That case has since been dismissed because he was not read his Miranda warning while in custody; he has been placed in residential foster care outside Lewiston.

Even though she wishes things were different, Danielle said she’s a realist and will continue to raise her family in the way that she and her husband intended. She has decided not to cut her hair until he’s released from prison. He doesn’t like short hair, and she promised him she’d keep hers long.

“Marriage is for better or for worse, right? This happens to be the worse part, so we’re going to have to get through it,” she said.

“Life is unfair and it sure as hell sucks sometimes, but you just gotta cowboy up and keep going. There’s nothing else you can do.”

[email protected]

Note: Several efforts to reach Charles Epps, Jessica Reilly and others named in this story were not successful. The Parent family asked that their names not be used.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.