LEWISTON — For nearly 40 years, Max Ashburn kept a secret: When he was school liaison officer for the Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Department, he helped a boy escape from the Elan School.

For decades he feared what people would say, how his law enforcement colleagues would react, whether he’d get in trouble.

But after telling his story to the Sun Journal in March, Ashburn only heard good things.

“I’ve heard from several people who worked at the school and some who were there as students. . . . They thought I did the right thing,” he said in an interview a couple of weeks ago. “That was pretty unanimous. They thought I did the right thing.”

For the first time, the burden of his old secret was gone.

“That had bothered me all these years,” said Ashburn, now in his late 70s. “It was a big relief for me.”

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Known as “Officer Smiley,” Ashburn was well-liked, well-respected, the kind of policeman worried parents called when their kids needed a nudge back on the right path. He had been hearing about possible abuses at the Elan School — a private boarding school in Poland for troubled kids — and had started recording the claims when, in the summer of 1979, a Lewiston family told him they had an Elan runaway.

The boy was about 16, small for his age and scared. He told Ashburn he’d been abused at the school. Ashburn noticed bruises on the underside of his arm that looked like he’d been trying to protect himself from blows.

The boy said his parents lived out of state. He’d been at Elan for several months.

Ashburn got the boy in his police car, intent on bringing him back to the school. But as the teenager cried and begged in the passenger seat, Ashburn couldn’t do it. He brought the boy to a local truck stop and let him go.

Ashburn never told anyone what he’d done, including his wife. He told his story to the Sun Journal after reading about the 1982 death of a 15-year-old Auburn boy who was an Elan student.

Ashburn wasn’t sure what people would say. The response, it turned out, was positive. 

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“I heard from law enforcement people, too. They all felt what I did was OK and perhaps they would have done the same thing,” Ashburn said.

However, Ashburn didn’t hear from one person he’d hoped to: the boy.

Ashburn hopes he’s out there somewhere. He hopes he did the right thing by letting him go. 

“Of course we don’t even know if he’s alive anymore, what happened to him,” Ashburn said. “I really, really thought I would hear something.”


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