Next Tuesday’s New Year’s Eve brings not only the end of another year to us all, it closes out a decade. And as the calendar page flips from 2019 to 2020, it’s hard to predict how the people of central and western Maine will remember the year gone by. 

As with most years before it, 2019 in the Lewiston-Auburn area was a complex mix of glorious highs and dismal lows – of soaring achievements sprinkled with tragedy and sadness almost too great to bear. 

Bittersweet? You could say that. 

An explosion in Farmington killed a fireman, injured many others and left more than two dozen people without homes. In Lewiston, a beloved police officer died of a drug overdose and the reaction to criminal revelations that followed was shock bordering on disbelief. 

At the same time, Lewiston built a grand new elementary school while Auburn was setting its sights on constructing one of the finest high schools in all of Maine. It was a good year for school kids, both current and future, but a difficult year for some elected and appointed people within the school systems. 

It was a year when history was made, political battles turned ugly and some people were booted out of positions they thought they held fast. 

And with that in mind, as you prepare to greet 2020, here is our list of the Top 10 news stories from our area to help you remember the year that was.

Explosion rocks Farmington, killing a fireman and knocking 30 people out of their homes

An aerial view of the devastation from the explosion caused by a leaky underground propane gas line feeding the LEAP building, center, destroyed on Sept. 16, 2019, in Farmington. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

As always, firefighters were on the job 24 hours a day in 2019, handling emergencies that ranged from minor to deadly. In mid-September, what began as a routine call in Farmington instead turned into one of the greatest tragedies of the year. 

Capt. Michael Bell, 68, a 30-year member of the Farmington Fire Rescue Department, was killed Sept. 16 when LEAP Inc.’s central office facility on Route 2 exploded due to a leak in its propane line beneath the parking lot. The tremendous blast injured six other firefighters and LEAP’s maintenance supervisor, Larry Lord, who remains hospitalized. 

The horrors that unfolded that morning began with what seemed like a routine call. Firefighters from the Farmington Fire Rescue Department responded to a report of propane odor at the LEAP office at 313 Farmington Falls Road. Prior to their arrival, Lord, 60, of Jay, got employees out of the building after he smelled propane. 

And then, at 8:28 a.m., devastation. With firefighters still inside the building, the area was rocked by a tremendous blast that leveled the two-story building. What followed was chaos. 

Dozens of people, including those who live near the blast zone, began calling 911, trying to describe what they had experienced. One caller believed the former Coca-Cola plant had exploded. Others called to say that the blast was so powerful, it shook their homes. 

By the time additional crews arrived, it was already clear that tragedy was at hand. Capt. Bell was dead and his brother, Fire Chief Terry Bell, seriously injured, along with several others. A total of 11 nearby homes were destroyed by the blast, leaving 30 people scrambling for new housing.

And while the community mourned Capt. Bell and rallied to help the other victims, they also demanded answers. 

Some answers came quickly. The Maine Fire Marshal’s Office said a propane line buried under the parking lot, which led from a 400-gallon tank at the rear of the property to the basement of the building, had developed a leak. Investigators said the leaking gas “permeated the ground under the parking lot and some of that gas made its way into the basement.” 

But the investigation into what caused that leak and what sparked the explosion is ongoing on several fronts as the new year arrives.

As part of that effort, federal investigators have opened inspections of four employers working Sept. 16 at the site, according to a spokesperson for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The purpose of the inspections: to determine which OSHA safety and health standards apply in this situation and whether the employers complied with those standards. 

Capt. Bell’s family, meanwhile, has hired a Lewiston law firm to investigate what caused the building’s propane line to leak in the days leading up to the blast. 

“We can then determine how best to hold those responsible accountable as we pursue justice for the family and the community more broadly,” said Lewiston attorney Steven Silin in mid-November. “It’s still early in the process.” 

Two days before Christmas, there was further bad news from the blast when it was reported that Lord, who was credited with saving lives in the explosion, had his condition downgraded from fair to serious at Massachusetts General Hospital where he has remained since the chaos of that September morning in Farmington.

Lewiston police officer dies of fentanyl overdose 

Lewiston police officer Nicholas Meserve conducts a field interview on Walnut Street in Lewiston in this 2017 file photo. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

In early February, the Lewiston community was rattled by the news that Lewiston police Officer Nick Meserve had been found dead in his Webster Street apartment. The news was both shocking and sad to all those who had known the generous and affable cop. However, that sadness would be joined by alarm, perplexity and outright disbelief as details about the officer’s private habits came into view. 

It would be three months before police revealed that Meserve, 34, had died of an accidental overdose of fentanyl. That development was stunning enough, but investigators would later go on to say that evidence emerged that Meserve had been an active opiate user and had been seen pocketing drugs at an active crime scene. The more that was revealed about the officer’s private life, the harder it became to believe. 

Lewiston police eventually provided proof in the form of video footage from a police cruiser camera. Investigators said the footage showed Meserve stuffing opiates into his pockets following the arrest of a convicted drug dealer. Not everyone was convinced the footage showed anything incriminating, and by the end of the year, some people in the community continued to insist Meserve was not tied up in the drug world. 

Meserve, father to a 9-year-old daughter, was beloved by most who knew him. A Lewiston police officer since 2009, he volunteered with the Special Olympics and spent many years as a counselor with Camp Postcard, a group that invites fifth- and sixth-graders in Maine to spend a week with law enforcement officers and other volunteers to mentor and encourage children.

The case got messier by degrees as the year moved along, with Lewiston police Chief Brian O’Malley declaring in July that his officers knew nothing of Meserve’s habits while he was on the force and that the department was cooperating fully with a multi-pronged state investigation. 

In August, local prosecutors acknowledged that the possibility that Meserve was using, stealing and selling drugs while on the police beat could jeopardize any number of active court cases. As the year ends, questions linger and those who loved Meserve continue to wrestle with the idea that the popular officer had a darker side.  

Lewiston mayor resigns amid a flurry of accusations

In early March, Lewiston Mayor Shane Bouchard stood up at a podium at City Hall and calmly announced that he was resigning from that position. 

Former Lewiston Mayor Shane Bouchard Sun Journal file photo

The news wasn’t much of a shock to anyone who had been following the story — just two days before, a local woman had stood at a podium in a similar way to make a more stunning statement; a statement that accused Bouchard of numerous incidents of inappropriate behavior. 

Among her allegations, Heather Berube, once a recruiter for the Maine People’s Alliance, said the mayor had used her to funnel damaging internal emails from the campaign of Ben Chin, Bouchard’s political rival in the 2017 mayoral election. 

Berube was not done. Speaking to a shocked City Council and a small handful of local residents, she went on to say that she had an affair with Bouchard, that the mayor had sent her racist jokes and that he had committed sexual misconduct. 

There was more, but by that point, the damage had been done. Reached in Florida at the time, Bouchard denied the allegations. But just days later, he was at that podium giving up the position. He had acted inappropriately in some ways, Bouchard admitted. But he vehemently denied doing anything illegal. 

He would put more force behind that declaration of innocence a week later by hiring local attorney James Howaniec.   

“On behalf of my client Shane Bouchard, we strongly object to the allegations made at two recent meetings of the Lewiston City Council,” Howaniec wrote in a news release. “Mr. Bouchard most recently acknowledged that he made mistakes in sending certain text messages, and has resigned from the office of mayor. Mr. Bouchard, however, has done absolutely nothing illegal. To the contrary, it is Shane Bouchard who has been the victim of harassment and criminal activity. … Much of what has been said by this individual has been wildly false and defamatory.” 

Once he was out of office, Bouchard was replaced by City Councilor Kristen Cloutier, who held the interim mayor position until Mark Cayer was elected mayor in November.  

First Somali-American elected to Lewiston City Council

Safiya Kahlid speaks at a candidate forum at Geiger Elementary School in Lewiston earlier this year. She went on to become the first Somali-American elected to the City Council. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Safiya Khalid was the first in her family to graduate high school. She was first to graduate college, too, and those firsts kept rolling in Lewiston this year when she was elected in November as the city’s first Somali-American to serve as city councilor. 

Khalid, a 23-year-old who fled Somalia with her family at the age of 7, defeated fellow Democrat Walter “Ed” Hill with nearly 70 percent of the vote. There wasn’t a lot of time to celebrate her victory — just hours after the votes were counted, Khalid said she had been contacted by National Public Radio, CNN and other networks that wanted to interview her about the historic win. By then The Washington Post had already interviewed her, asking pointed questions about the historic nature of the win, alleged racism she had faced during the campaign and a scandal involving members of her campaign that emerged just days before the election. 

While members of the immigrant community in Lewiston have previously served on the School Committee, none had won a contested race. In 2013, Zam Zam Mohamud became the first Somali to serve on the School Committee when she was appointed by former Mayor Robert Macdonald. She had previously been a write-in candidate. 

Later in 2013, Jama Mohamed ran as a write-in candidate for School Committee in Ward 5, and became the first Somali to win elected office in Lewiston. 

Reached a day after Khalid’s victory, Mohamed said the Somali community was still talking about it, especially her margin of victory. 

“I was shocked, to be honest,” he said, adding that Maine as a whole is just now beginning to elect more diverse candidates. “It’s exciting.” 

DNA links Auburn man to 26-year-old murder. Or does it?

It was horrific news that seemed to come out of nowhere. An Auburn man who had been living quietly and working as a nurse was arrested by a team of police officials in February in connection with a 26-year-old murder out of Fairbanks, Alaska. 

Steven Downs appeared in Androscoggin County Superior Court in Auburn in March for an extradition hearing. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal file

Local and state police officials from both Maine and Alaska staked out an Auburn hotel before arresting Steven H. Downs, a 45-year-old Edward Little High School graduate, on charges of sexual assault and murder. Investigators said DNA evidence had led them to Downs as they investigated the 1993 killing of 20-year-old Sophie Sergie on the Fairbanks campus, where Downs was then a student. 

For more than a quarter-century, the killing of Sergie, who was stabbed twice in the eye and then killed by a single gunshot to the back of her head, had confounded investigators.  

In 1993, police had interviewed Downs, along with several other students at the college, but he wasn’t considered a suspect at that time. The breakthrough, police said, would come years later as a result of DNA technology that helps people discover their genealogical roots. 

Court documents from the District Court in Alaska revealed new details about how police homed in on Downs as a suspect. DNA voluntarily submitted by Downs’ aunt, coupled with traditional genealogical research, led investigators to Downs. 

The biological evidence at the heart of the case, police said, was collected on April 26, 1993. The evidence included DNA as well as a bullet from a .22-caliber firearm, but a lack of technology to process the DNA then did not immediately produce any breakthroughs. 

DNA technology evolved over the years, and in 2018 a new investigator on the case contacted a lab that uses genealogical databases to find suspects in unsolved cases. That helped police whittle down the field of suspects until there was only one  —  Downs — according to prosecutors. 

Downs, of 132 Hillcrest St., has remained in custody since his arrest. Police are certain they’ve got their man, but convicting him will hardly be an easy task. Downs has denied committing the crimes and he almost immediately hired local lawyer James Howaniec who, in November, sought to have his case dismissed and, later, evidence thrown out, citing a “badly botched crime scene” and “flawed investigation.” 

Howaniec has filed a flurry of motions in a Fairbanks court, arguing that the case against his client is flimsy at best. Through Howaniec, Downs has argued that none of the physical evidence found at the crime scene, including body and pubic hair, fingerprints, blood and a boot print, was a match to him. Howaniec also pointed out that investigators identified more than 90 possible suspects, including one man who confessed to his sister that he had killed Sergie.

The case against Downs hinges significantly on the DNA evidence. In early December, his lawyers filed several motions to exclude DNA and firearm possession evidence from the defendant’s trial. The motions seek to dismiss outright all of the charges against Downs. 

Downs also requested in one of the motions that he be allowed to have a hearing to “establish the alternate suspects defense will be allowed to present at trial,” as the “state has systematically failed to properly investigate these suspects, despite shocking evidence pointing toward their guilt.” 

A ruling on those motions is expected sometime in the new year.

Connors Elementary School Principal Sara Sims addresses the crowd before the ribbon-cutting event at the new school earlier this year in Lewiston. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

New school, new superintendent in Lewiston 

You can hardly blame the Lewiston school system if it swaggers a little bit going into the new year. A lot of good stuff happened over the past year, including the opening of a mammoth new elementary school with all the modern fixings, and new school superintendent who hit the ground running once he arrived in the city. 

In mid-August, well over a thousand people showed up to get a tour of the sparkling-new Robert V. Connors Elementary school near the corner of East Avenue and Bartlett Street. They came to take a look at the pre-kindergarten classrooms with their cubbyholes, closets, sinks and other modern accessories. 

They came to see the state-of-the art library, the full-sized gym and the expansive outdoor spaces where the kids will play. Not to mention the art rooms, music rooms, STEM lab, stage and vast cafeteria, all of it clean and new and ready to take on the kids in the fall. 

Todd Finn was hired as the new superintendent for Lewiston’s public schools. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

The $45.8 million Connors school is big by elementary school standards — 100-plus rooms big. And as parents and their children toured the building for the first time, they also got the opportunity to meet Todd Finn, the city’s new school superintendent. Finn himself seemed impressed with the school. 

“It’s absolutely awesome!” he shouted to the crowds in front if its doors. 

Finn came to Lewiston to replace the popular Bill Webster, who retired in 2019 after eight years on the job. A former principal at a Vermont high school, the 47-year-old Finn was unanimously approved by the School Committee at the start of 2019. And he came with a solid resume. 

Before becoming a high school principal in Vermont, he worked as a teacher, basketball coach, then as an administrator. He was assistant principal and principal at high schools in North Carolina and Georgia. At those schools, which had high poverty rates, Finn is credited with transforming the schools, decreasing the dropout rate, improving behavior and boosting daily attendance. 

One of those schools, E.E. Smith High School in Fayetteville, N.C., was such a low-performing school that it was about to be shut down. A parent had successfully sued when high school students graduated without being able to read. Within three years of arriving, Finn helped E.E. Smith become a school of distinction. 

Once Finn was on the job in Lewiston, he got busy quick. In November, less than four months after he arrived, he provided a full progress report to the city and laid out a plan to improve the Lewiston School District, promising that 2020 should be as invigorating for Lewiston schools as was 2019. 

New school, big changes in Auburn 

It seemed like the city of Auburn had been talking forever about building a new Edward Little High School. In 2019, at long last, voters had their say and in a city referendum in June they voted overwhelmingly in favor of getting it done.  

Built with mostly state dollars, the new E.L. will be the most expensive high school in Maine so far, with a wing for career and technical programs, room for 1,100 students, geothermal heating and cooling, a top-notch athletic stadium with a turf football field and a 1,200-seat performing arts center. 

Site plans for the new Edward Little High School planned in Auburn. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

With a voter turnout of 16 percent, Auburn residents voted 2,272 to 360 in favor of Question 1, which asked voters to approve a new Edward Little, to be built with $105.9 million in state money and $5.6 million in local money. 

Residents also voted 1,863 to 741 in favor of Question 2, which asked voters to approve spending another $10.5 million in local money for a state-of-the-art athletic facility and the 1,200-seat performing arts center. 

Groundbreaking is expected in the spring of 2021. 

Auburn got to celebrate the vote all summer long. But that good cheer was greatly tempered Sept. 6 when School Committee Chairman Tom Kendall died as the result of injuries sustained when he fell off a roof. 

The city mourned the loss of Kendall, the popular committee chairman, Auburn native and renowned ski enthusiast, but it also ultimately reshaped the committee itself.

A few weeks later, Karen Mathieu, a kindergarten teacher at Sabattus Primary School and a literacy coach for Regional School Unit 4, was appointed to the seat Kendall left vacant.

Then, in the November election, after a number of parents banded together against many of the School Committee’s incumbents, long-time committee member Bonnie Hayes was defeated by challenger Pamela Hart 702-280. Hayes had served eight terms on the committee. 

Incumbent Robert Mennealy also dropped a close race to Rose Walker, 339-308, although the parents’ group fell short in ousting other incumbents, who each hung onto their seats by less than 100 votes. 

Then, days later, Auburn School Superintendant Katy Grondin announced she would resign her position after 31 years with the Auburn School Department. Grondin described it as a personal decision. The resignation came in the midst of a performance evaluation during which she was expected to negotiate a new contract. 

CMP: Big plans, big controversy

In September, the Lewiston City Council voted unanimously to rezone a 20-acre Central Maine Power parcel that is the proposed site of a large converter station for the controversial New England Clean Energy Connect project.

While the council heard concerns from Lewiston residents and others who live outside the city, the unanimous vote by city officials followed months of support for the project, which promised some $8 million in annual tax revenue for the city.

Many other towns, meanwhile, went the other way, voting in opposition to the plan.

Central Maine Power, after receiving initial approval from the Maine Public Utilities Commission in early 2019, acquired 20 acres at 183 Merrill Road in Lewiston for the substation, which abuts the Greene town line and is adjacent to the existing power corridor.

The project aims to deliver a huge amount of hydropower-generated electricity from Quebec to Massachusetts. It would flow into the New England power grid from Lewiston to help replace the output from coal and nuclear plants that have been shuttered or will soon close.

Much of the proposed line from Quebec to Lewiston would follow an existing corridor that is strung with electrical wires on tall towers, but a more than 70-mile section between Lac-Megantic in Quebec and the existing corridor would be new.

The 95-mile corridor that already has electrical transmission lines would have to be widened to accommodate the new line strung along additional towers that will rise about 95 feet from the ground.

The Lewiston City Council’s vote might have been a win for CMP, but it was in no way an indication that everybody was on board with the plan. Even with Gov. Janet Mills throwing her support behind the project in the spring, opposition to the 145-mile portion of the line through western Maine continued gaining steam — one town at a time.

Late in the year, the Green Party also came out strongly against the $1 billion project. And a variety of interest groups, including some environmental activists, competing power producers and several communities along the route, have been working to scuttle or modify the project.

New cancer center coming to Lewiston? 

In November, Central Maine Health Care — parent company of Central Maine Medical Center — outlined its plan to bring a $35 million cancer center to Lewiston. 

The center would be 50,000 square feet and occupy the northeast quadrant of the Central Maine Medical Center property, bordered by Holland Street to the north, High Street to the south and Main Street to the east. It would replace, modernize and consolidate the current outpatient oncology program at the hospital. 

The idea, planners say, is to create resources for people suffering from cancer so they can receive their treatments closer to home rather than making long trips to facilities in other cities or states. 

The hospital system said it hopes to draw patients who live near its hospitals — CMMC, Bridgton Hospital and Rumford Hospital — but who may have chosen to receive cancer treatment somewhere else. 

“We know some of our patients are going elsewhere and they’re driving long distances for care that we should as a community-based hospital be providing and we will be providing,” said Mike Anderegg, vice president for service line strategy with CMHC. 

Because of its size and cost, the proposed cancer center will require Certificate of Need approval from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. In November, CMHC said it hoped to submit its full Certificate of Need application by the end of the year. It is unclear how long the application process will take, but CMHC leaders hope to have the project complete in 18 to 24 months. 

The new center would put radiation oncology and medical oncology under one roof. It would also include new equipment for imaging and treatment. 

Zakk Maher, town manager of Mechanic Falls, was back at work after the town council reversed its efforts to fire him. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Revolt and consequences in Mechanic Falls

It was a difficult year for the town of Mechanic Falls. 

In June, four councilors got together and voted to terminate the contract of Town Manager Zakk Maher, who was less than a year into his four-year contract. Kieth Bennett was the lone councilor who voted against the firing.

Maher’s response was swift. Within just days, he filed a lawsuit claiming the Town Council had failed to follow state open-meeting laws in its attempt to remove him from his job. He also asked the court to order the town to disclose a collection of documents and other material related to his employment and the decision to terminate him. 

Two months later, in August, Maher was back on the job as the four councilors who terminated him voted to reconsider their initial actions — a move that was met with applause from the more than 100 residents who packed the tiny basement gym at the Municipal Building. 

End of the drama? Not quite. 

Mechanic Falls town attorney John Conway, left, watches Council Vice Chairman Wayne Hacket, middle, and Chairwoman Cathy Fifield vote to rescind their motion to remove town manager Zakk Maher during Monday night’s council meeting in the basement gym at town hall. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

In his lawsuit, Maher’s attorney, Adam Lee, also claimed the executive session during which Maher was fired was done “in a manner seeking to defeat the purposes of the Freedom of Access Act” and that councilors had tried to fire him in violation of state law, including informing the public. 

Lee pointed out that town leaders turned off the video camera used to record public sessions and held a second meeting that night after the public had left without telling anyone, another violation of Maine’s open meetings law. 

Townspeople were angry enough to successfully call for a special vote in September to recall the four councilors responsible for Maher’s attempted firing. The election fell short by eight votes, leaving Chairwoman Cathy Fifield, Vice Chairman Wayne Hackett, Nick Konstantoulakis and John Emery in office. 

Still not the end of the drama, though. 

In early November, Hackett abruptly resigned, offering no reason for his decision. Before he resigned, it had been reported that Hackett bought salt and sand from the town at reduced prices for 20 years, something the town didn’t do for anyone else. Hackett said he always had approval from town managers to purchase the town’s salt and sand, but some townspeople insisted the purchases represented an obvious conflict of interest. 

In early December, Maher and the council unanimously endorsed council Chairwoman Cathy Fifield’s proposal to hire a professional municipal consultant in the hopes of ending any lingering unrest from the attempted firing and enhancing town operations. 

*******

Top stories on SunJournal.com in 2019

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Victim’s girlfriend says petty dispute precipitated shooting at Walmart
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