After her mom busted her for sneaking her boyfriend over, Wanda Mitchell ran away from their Buxton home the night before her 15th birthday, but she never entirely disappeared.

Sheila Simoneau, 72, is Wanda Mitchell’s mother. Sun Journal file photo

Several times a week, she called her mother’s best friend, who gently encouraged her to think things through. She regularly called her younger sister, sometimes finding out where she’d be and dropping by. Her sister would literally pin her down and beg, come home.

Wanda wasn’t ready. Out the door she’d walk again.

Her mother, Sheila Simoneau, would see her at a youth shelter in Portland, smoking, defiant. One time, Wanda even dropped by the house, but left after a screaming match with her grandmother.

Simoneau was convinced that by 16, her middle child would be back home. Simoneau’s rules weren’t so bad. Wanda hadn’t done anything unforgivable. They’d pick things back up.

Six weeks before her 16th birthday, police found Mitchell dead in the woods in Poland off Route 122.

A 7-month-old German shepherd found her first, bringing her badly decomposed head home to its owner.

That was 37 years ago. The case was never solved. Never even ruled a homicide, although that was the suspicion at the time.

And after the initial investigation, the family didn’t hear from police for decades.

Jeanine Mitchell, 50, is Wanda Mitchell’s younger sister. Sun Journal file photo

“(It feels like people said,) ‘She ran away from home, she got what she deserved,'” said Jeanine Mitchell, 50, Wanda’s younger sister. “We’re not expecting anybody to be convicted, because it’s been so damn long, but I want to know what the heck happened, and who, and why. Did she suffer? How long did she lay there before she died? All that stuff, we don’t know.”

Last month, Simoneau, 72, spoke out at a State House event meant to bring attention to cold cases in Maine.

The family wants Wanda’s brief life to matter. And they want her on the state’s list of unsolved homicides, where the family feels her case will get more attention and maybe, finally, answers.

Last month, potential evidence also emerged, now at the state crime lab for DNA testing. It’s a long-shot, but for a family that for too long has had nothing, they’ll take it.

A scrapbook they’ve kept on Wanda with an autopsy report and newspaper clippings includes several pages on letterhead “From the desk of psychic Maria Foster.” Simoneau went to her for a reading with a friend not too long after Wanda was found.

Foster wrote: “Drugs. Hands tied. Body dragged. Possibly not dead when arrived to Poland. 19 year old man (no younger).”

One of the psychic’s last notes: “Prepare yourself for anything.”

Wanda Mitchell had run away from home about 11 months before her body was found in the woods in Poland in 1980. Sun Journal file photo

GONE, BUT NOT FAR

The family moved to Buxton in 1977. Wanda and Jeanine, 15 months younger than her big sister, lived at home with Simoneau and their stepfather. An older brother was in the service.

When she ran away for the first and only time, Wanda was a sophomore at Bonny Eagle High School. She was friendly and outgoing, a good kid on a rebellious tear.

“It was her life and she was going to run it,” Simoneau said. “(She’d) sneak and lie.”

One such sneak: Wanda’s boyfriend Terry. The teens had dated for a year. He was the same age, from Scarborough. They’d ride on his dirt bike and see each other as much as possible against her mom’s insistence she was too young to date anyone.

“She was just so in love with him, like magnet and steel,” said Jeanine Mitchell. “At the campground (in the summer), she would call him five or six times a day and she would charge it to other phone numbers. She was doing it at mom’s house, too — that was back years ago when they couldn’t figure this stuff out. She just knew how to work her way around.”

On Nov. 10, 1979, Simoneau and her husband got back from a late afternoon visit with her mom to find Wanda pacing the house, swearing, wildly upset.

Simoneau asked what was wrong.

“He told me he’d call,” Wanda told her.

“Who?” her mother asked.

“Terry.”

“When did he tell you that?” Simoneau asked, braced for the answer.

“When his mother picked him up.”

“He wasn’t even supposed to be here,” Simoneau remembers telling her daughter. “I said to her, ‘You know, Wanda, there’s only one Wanda-Jean Mitchell and you have to start loving her and caring what happens to her.’ And she got mad and went downstairs — she was sleeping downstairs at the time. I got up and went to work the next morning. My husband called me, told me he went down to get her up for school and she was gone.”

Gone, but not far.

Simoneau figured out quickly where Wanda had landed when Simoneau’s sister, a postal carrier, spotted mail addressed to her in Gorham.

It began a months-long game of sort of knowing where her daughter was.

“(After phoning the friend’s house), she said she wasn’t coming home, she wasn’t going to live there,” Simoneau said. “I said ‘At 14, you are not going to live at my house and do what you want, it’s just not going to happen.’ I wasn’t that hard; I just wanted her in when she was supposed to be in.”

Wanda crashed with friends and drifted in and out of a now-shuttered overnight shelter for teenage girls — there so often that Simoneau had child support checks sent to her there.

“They had rules and regulations you had to go by,” Jeanine Mitchell said. “She broke all those and would get kicked out,” only to be allowed back in again.

Kathie Huntley has been friends with Wanda Mitchell’s mother, Sheila Simoneau, so long that she said she loved Mitchell like a daughter. After she ran away from home, Mitchell would still call Huntley several times a week. Sun Journal file photo

Several times a week she’d reach out to Kathie Huntley, Simoneau’s childhood friend and a surrogate aunt to the girls.

“I just tried to convince her: Whether she was living at home or she was living with somebody else, she was still under somebody else’s rules,” Huntley said. “I really almost felt like I had her convinced, but she still had that little bit of rebellion that she wasn’t done with yet.”

In March, four months after she’d run away, Wanda just as suddenly came back. She wanted to show off a surgery scar. Depending on who she told, it was from a cyst or an ectopic pregnancy.

“My mother was there, she just stopped in,” Simoneau said. “I had a beauty shop at the time and I had a customer come, so I had to go into the shop and all of a sudden I heard all this screaming and hollering. Her and my mother had gotten into it. She had lifted up her shirt to my mother and said, ‘Look what they did to me!’ My mother of course lit back, ‘They wouldn’t have had to do that if you’d been behaving yourself!’ Wanda got mad and left. That’s the last time I saw her.”

Wanda, meanwhile, wasn’t the only one with secrets.

Unbeknownst to her mother, Jeanine Mitchell saw or talked to her sister almost every weekend.

“I knew where she was all the time,” she said. “She always knew where I would be baby-sitting the next weekend. She’d three-way (call) from somebody else’s phone.”

Sometimes, she’d just show up.

Then one weekend in April, she didn’t.

“So I called my father, my real father, in Belfast,” Jeanine Mitchell said. “He said that he had put her on a bus and that she was in Scarborough. So I called Terry and he said that she never showed up, that he never saw her at the bus stop. Then I called her best friend; she called police. And police just put it over the radio: ‘Girl in Buxton missing.’ Nothing ever came of it. I told my mom, ‘I didn’t hear from Wanda this weekend, something’s wrong, something’s wrong.'”

THE HUNCH

In October 1980, 11 months after Wanda had first taken off, and more than five months after Jeanine had heard from her, a stranger came knocking.

Simoneau knew something was wrong — very wrong — when the grandfather of two neighborhood boys began quizzing her about Wanda as soon as she’d gotten home from work.

When had she last seen her daughter? What was she wearing?

“He said, ‘I’ve got to go to the state police. I’ll be back or they’ll be in touch with you,'” Simoneau said. “I said, ‘No, I want to know. You’ve asked me these questions, I’ve answered you, I want to know why.’ He told me they had found a body.”

It had been all over the news in Lewiston, news Simoneau never caught: Police had scoured woods in Poland after a dog brought a head home to its owner. Two days after her head was found, the scattered remains of an unidentified young woman wearing tattered Levis and a jean jacket were located in a search of the woods that included planes and cadaver dogs.

That neighborhood grandfather was a part-time deputy sheriff and he had a hunch.

Hours after he left her doorstep, state police called her.

Who was Wanda’s dentist? If she had money on her, where would she have kept it?

“(Jeanine) said it would probably be in her boot,” Simoneau said. “They took that information and they said, ‘We’ll get back to you.’ This is on a Friday. I said, ‘OK, but I expect to hear from you.’ ‘Oh yes, you will.’

“It got to be late and nobody called me back,” she said. “And so I called dispatch. She said, ‘I’m sorry, but there’s nobody here, it’s the weekend. They’ll be nobody here ’til Monday.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, but you will have somebody call me back, because if you don’t, I’ll be calling every 15 minutes.’ I said, ‘If you think I’m going to sit here like this ’til Monday, you can go to hell. You best get somebody on that phone.’ And they did, they called me back, and they said yes, it was Wanda. That’s how they told me.”

Months later, Simoneau did a double-take when she received an update to her daughter’s death certificate from Chief Medical Examiner Henry Ryan marked “found 9/29 & 10/1/80.”

“I immediately got on the phone (to state police) and asked why the death certificate had two days,” Simoneau said. “They said, ‘Didn’t they tell you?’ I said, ‘No, they did not tell me anything.’ ‘Well, a dog found her skull and dragged it home and the owner called the state police. They came and got it, took it to Augusta. Augusta confirmed that it was human and they sent out a search party.’ That was how I found out why there was two dates. No decency. There’s no decency. They almost act inhuman.”

News reports at the time put Wanda not too far from a gravel pit and a spot known as a lover’s lane.

She was discovered a few hundred feet off Route 122, near a slight mound of earth and a clump of maple trees, with a branch over her body, according to the medical examiner’s report.

Wanda wore hiking boots and had a $20 bill tucked in her left sock. A thin “blackened” ring was in her front left pocket. Her body was badly decomposed, her jaw under her shirt, her right arm 60 to 70 feet away. A beige macrame belt was found near her body but not in her belt loops.

“There is considerable animal activity in the vicinity with tearing of the shirt,” noted the report. “Limb bones are found rather remote from this site. . . . There is no evidence of fracturing” other than a few bones animals had likely gotten to.

After an autopsy, Ryan found “undetermined cause and manner of death.” Even when she died is unclear.

But from the start, there were theories.

Police immediately looked at a Portland head shop employee who Wanda claimed had raped her in a parking lot that April. She’d ended up at Maine Medical Center’s emergency room at 4 in the morning and gave his name to police, according to articles in the Evening Express.

He was never charged with her rape, and after her death he hired a lawyer.

Investigators gave him a polygraph test and checked out his alibi, then dropped him as a suspect.

Another theory police shared with the Evening Express at the time: Wanda was hitchhiking to visit family in South Paris. She met someone bad, who did her in.

Jeanine Mitchell’s own theory: She was killed by a man who had once been close to the family.

“Bud” was more than 10 years older than the sisters and, according to Jeanine, had gotten rid of a car around the time she stopped hearing from Wanda.

“Their 8-by-10 (photo) of my sister in their house disappeared,” Jeanine said. “(His wife) found it underneath their oriental rug, in their living room, when she was spring cleaning, with pencil holes all through it.”

Shortly after Wanda was found in the woods, Jeanine also ran away from home, devastated by the loss of her sister, and wound up in the same teenage shelter.

“He came to see me, and the things he said to me — oh, he was not (“Bud”). He scared me,” Jeanine Mitchell said. “‘Are you going to be like your sister, (like) cream cheese, spreading easy?’ It was just nasty. Just the things he was saying, I was scared. He just gave me the creeps and I’d never felt that way before. It was like he spun his head around and he was a different person.”

Within two years, his family abruptly moved out of state.

Kathie Huntley, left, Sheila Simoneau, center, and Jeanine Mitchell hold pictures of Wanda Mitchell, a 15-year-old girl whose body was found in 1980 in the Poland woods. Simoneau is Wanda’s mother, Mitchell is Wanda’s younger sister and Huntley a long-time family friend. All three women question why Mitchell isn’t on the state’s list of unsolved homicides. Sun Journal file photo

GETTING THE STATE’S ATTENTION

Police told a reporter at the Lewiston Daily Sun in June 1981 that they were investigating Wanda’s death as a homicide. An assistant attorney general that year told the Evening Express the same thing.

Yet after Wanda was discovered, Simoneau said police contact was sparse, then nonexistent.

In the spring of 1981, a detective came by. “He said, ‘We made a last-ditch effort, we put posters up in Poland,'” Simoneau said. If that turned up nothing, he told her, “then we’re going to put her on the back burner and let her simmer.”

The next time she saw him, it was early summer and she was in the backyard doing yard work. The detective asked if Simoneau could identify the macrame belt found in the woods with Wanda. She could; she’d made it.

“And that was the last time I saw him,” she said. “I never called much because they weren’t really helpful.”

In 2001, she and Jeanine traveled to Poland for a copy of Wanda’s death certificate at the Town Office and tracked down the man who’d owned the German shepherd.

“It was a long time before I got up the nerve to go there,” Simoneau said.

“I remember when I knocked on the guy’s door, he thought he’d seen a ghost,” said Jeanine Mitchell. “He was just like shaking, he was so sorry.”

He pointed generally to where Wanda had been found, but to their disappointment, not exactly where. The family would like to leave a marker in the woods.

In 2011, Westbrook attorney William Childs took it upon himself to contact the Attorney General’s Office to ask for an update on Wanda’s case while he was settling Simoneau’s mother’s estate, according to Simoneau.

He wrote Simoneau later that he’d spoken to an assistant attorney general and “she explains that there are suspects in the matter. The case is complicated due to the condition of Wanda’s remains when she was discovered.”

He also said it was being assigned to a new detective in 2012. That’s when Detective Michael Chavez took over.

Simoneau was stunned when Chavez called out of the blue in March or April 2013 and credits him as being the first officer to not treat Wanda as though “she wasn’t worth anything, anyhow.”

“I’m telling you, we must have talked a good hour. I said, ‘I’m going to tell you something right now. Of all the ones that have worked her case, you are the only one that has treated me like a human being,'” Simoneau said. “I was so shocked when he called, then I was super shocked when he actually stayed on the phone talking.”

They continue to have a good rapport, one of the few things that has given her a shred of hope.

Lt. Brian McDonough, head of the Maine State Police’s Southern Maine Major Crimes Unit, said each detective in his unit, like Chavez, is responsible for three to five old, unsolved cases.

“These aren’t cases that are just in a box, in a corner, down in the cellar,” McDonough said. “When a case gets assigned to them, they’re required to read the case, review the case, develop an investigative plan, followup with all the prior investigators, make an appointment with the crime lab to go through any physical evidence that’s been retrieved on it.” 

They work it as time allows. And statewide, once a month, one old case is picked for a broad review in front of representatives from the Medical Examiner’s Office, Attorney General’s Office, state crime lab and Bangor and Portland police, “in front of a so-called brain trust up there to come up with new ideas and new ways and new things to investigate. . . . These cases are very, very well known by a lot of people. They’re not just sitting dormant somewhere,” he said.

Officially, Wanda’s case is considered an open, active death investigation.

Not many deaths in Maine have been open and uncategorized — not yet ruled a homicide or something else — for so long, he said.

“I’ll put it this way: That case has been and continues to be investigated as if it was a homicide,” McDonough said. “There’s been a huge amount of work that was done on that case when it came in in 1980. The investigation mirrored a homicide investigation; that’s about what I can say on that.”

McDonough said he plans to talk soon with the state’s cold-case unit, which oversees the list of unsolved homicides, “about looking at whether we want to give this strong consideration on putting it on the list as well, and maybe giving it just a little bit of a different categorization on there.”

There are 80 names on the unsolved homicides list dating to 1954.

Not having her daughter’s death recognized as a homicide feels “terrible” Simoneau said.

“I had a sister that was run over by a milk truck when she was 2,” she said. “My mother said, ‘I lost a daughter, too.’ I said that’s a hell of a lot of difference. You lost her right in front of your house, you know how, you know who, you know when. I don’t know any of that. I don’t even know when. I have no idea when.”

SOME UNEXPECTED HELP?

In just the past month, there’s been the beginnings of a fourth theory on what may have happened to Wanda.

A friend of a friend felt like he’d stumbled on evidence and reached out to Simoneau.

She declined to say what it is or how it came into his hands.

“I said, ‘Are you going to turn it in?'” Simoneau said. “He said, ‘Everybody keeps telling me no and I’m going to get in a mess.’ But he said, ‘You know, I don’t feel like I’ve ever done much good in my life, and I think I should do something good. We can’t imagine what you’re going through.’ I said, ‘Please do whatever you can because I need all the help that I can get.'”

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