LEWISTON — State police are looking into the 1982 death of an Elan School student, calling it “a priority” for the Southern Maine Major Crimes Unit.

The death of Phil Williams Jr. was the focus of a Sun Journal story last weekend.

“It’s open, active; we’ll see how it plays out,” Lt. Brian McDonough said Friday. “We’re not investigating any greater allegations or complaints against the school. We’re focused on Mr. Williams. It’s a long time ago, so hopefully we get some information and find out what actually happened.”

Williams had been a student at the Elan School in Poland when his family was told that the 15-year-old died of a sudden brain aneurysm.

Three weeks ago, a stranger from outside Chicago who’d gone to Elan approached the family to say he had witnesses who’d seen Williams forced into a boxing ring — punishment for complaining about a headache — and beaten by other students before collapsing and turning blue. He died the next day.

In light of that, Williams’ sister, Pam Newell, 45, of Lewiston, wanted police to give his death a hard look.

She spent an hour being interviewed by a Maine State Police detective Wednesday.

Newell said the detective asked her to talk about everything she knew, starting from the time she and her brother entered foster care as young kids, up to Williams’ funeral, then flashing forward to an unexpected call from former Elan student Mark Babitz telling her and her father that there was something they should know about Phil’s death.

“I’m not going to have any peace if I don’t get any answers,” Newell said. “I just want truth, justice, the American way. It’s a step in the right direction.”

Babitz said he was interviewed by police this week and felt like they were taking Williams’ case “as serious as a heart attack.”

“I’m feeling very good for (Pam),” he said.

The Elan School operated as a private boarding school from 1970 to 2011 until former students and residents, many of whom consider themselves Elan “survivors,” waged a successful campaign to shut it down. Its controversial tactics, including forced fighting in a “boxing ring” of students, were highlighted in Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel’s murder trial.

Ed MacColl, an attorney for Sharon Terry — who took over the school after the death of her husband, Elan co-founder Joe Ricci — said Friday he wasn’t aware of the active investigation into Williams’ death. 

“I haven’t heard from law enforcement, nor has Ms. Terry,” he said.

He cited Elan’s past federal license requirements as reasons he couldn’t “comment about any student matter without getting permission from the student or whoever holds those rights of confidentiality.”

“Of course the school will be pleased to speak to law enforcement to the fullest extent it’s able to and cooperate with any official investigation, but the school couldn’t talk to a newspaper reporter about a student who was or wasn’t at the Elan School in the ’70s or ’80s. It would just be completely inappropriate,” MacColl said.

McDonough said it would be difficult to know how long the investigation could take, given the challenges presented by the 33 years that have passed.

“You’re looking at witness recall, you’re looking at evidence or lack of physical evidence,” he said. “In this case, particularly, medical records would be of interest, any records the school had or Health and Human Services may have had, to see if there’s any documentation around this individual’s death other than the lone death certificate.”

McDonough said it was too soon to speculate on the possibility of any potential charges.

“This is in its preliminary stages for us, but it will be a complete, thorough investigation,” he said. “We do death investigations for the purposes of finding out answers and being able to determine exactly what happened. If there are any criminal elements involved, that come to light in the investigation, that’s always a possibility.”

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The day ‘Officer Smiley’ helped a boy escape from the Elan School

Over the years, some Elan students tried running away from the controversial school in Poland that closed in 2011.

Most weren’t successful. A few were.

In 1979, a local police officer helped one boy escape.

For the first time, he tells his story. Sunday.

Also read: His family asks: What really happened to Phil at the Elan School?

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