A bright red heart waves from a banner atop Portland City Hall on Sunday. Rob Wolfe/Staff Writer

Outside a small café in the West End. On the shoulder of the lobsterman sculpture in the Old Port. Taped to the glass vestibule of the Cross Insurance Arena.

All over downtown Portland, bright red hearts appeared on Sunday morning, peppering the city with love on Valentine’s Day. As they have for decades, the hearts appeared on banners and pieces of printed paper, some large, some small, and many in unexpected places. It’s the work of an unknown person known as the Valentine’s Day Phantom — or, sometimes, Bandit — who struck again this Feb. 14.

The Maine Lobsterman sculpture in Portland’s Old Port sports a heart on Sunday, courtesy of the Valentine’s Day Phantom. Rob Wolfe/Staff Writer

Perhaps because of the cold weather and the restrictions of the pandemic, few people ventured outside on Sunday. Those who did took little notice of the ubiquitous hearts.

But one was of particular note. The heart waved from a flag on the pole atop Portland City Hall – an impressive feat, given that there appears to be no easy access to the rooftop from the street. Could the bandit have an accomplice inside city government?

Spokespeople at City Hall and the Portland Police Department didn’t respond to questions about possible bandit-bureaucrat collusion.

Yet earlier on Sunday, Portland police tweeted a photo showing a heart taped to the window of a cruiser, with the hashtag “#WeWillLetItSlide.”

“The Valentine’s Day Bandit has improved our hearts (and cruisers) once again!” the department tweeted.

An account named “@vdaybandit” responded, “I appreciate the discretion, @PolicePortland. Keep spreading the love!”

Collusion? Or, at least, complicity? Readers, draw your own conclusions.

Earlier efforts to cast light on the phantom’s identity have yielded only more shadows. The tradition likely began in the mid-1970s, when articles on the hearts first began to appear in the local news.

Hearts from the Valentine’s Day Phantom festoon the entrance to the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland on Sunday. Rob Wolfe/Staff Writer

Since then, an unknown someone — or, perhaps, multiple someones — has secured the cooperation of numerous local businesses and government entities to place hearts on their property. A select few claim to know who the phantom is, though others say it’s better that the secret remain just that.

“You’re going to put a stake through the heart of Portland by unveiling this,” one concerned community member told a reporter who unsuccessfully sought the phantom’s identity last year.

The mystery has bred many such attempts at unmasking the bandit, some of which have come tantalizingly close.

In 1977, a reporter for the Evening Express found witnesses who described the bandit as a man in his early 20s with strawberry blond hair and a full beard. A man fitting that description named Ian Valentine denied any involvement.

Last year, Longfellow Books received a copy of an anonymously published book featuring quotes and news clippings about the phantom. One anonymous quote in the book described a standoff between journalists and a phantom crew one year on the night of Feb. 13. The reporters waited to catch someone unfurling a banner, and the phantoms, hidden on a roof, pelted the news crew with snowballs when they wouldn’t leave.

In 1986, the U.S. Coast Guard reported that a 12-foot boat loaded with seven people had nearly struck a ferry after hanging a heart banner on Fort Gorges.

Trying to reveal the phantom has become a ritual of its own. But that investigative tradition has one key aspect: failure.

In seeking but not finding, those compelled by the Valentine’s Day Phantom keep the mystery alive.

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