It was almost dinnertime on Sept. 24, 1971, and 16-year-old Cathy Moulton had to get home.

The Deering High School junior planned to meet up with friends that night at the 7-11 Club dance at the YWCA, but first she had to buy pantyhose, toothpaste and thread to finish hemming the new pantskirt she had made to wear. She went to Porteous, Mitchell & Braun on Congress Street in Portland to buy what she needed, then stopped by Starbird Music to visit a friend.

When she stepped out of the music shop on Forest Avenue to head back to her house on Clinton Street, Cathy was carrying the toothpaste and a brown leather handbag her parents had bought her as a birthday gift.

She never made it home.

Fifty years later, hers is one of the oldest active missing child cases in Maine and the United States. The search for the Portland teenager has been marked by frustration, first with police officers who didn’t seriously investigate why she had gone missing and later with witnesses who were unwilling to give up details of what happened to Cathy during the fall of 1971.

Retired detective Kevin Cady now lives in St. Petersburg, Fla. Cady worked on the unsolved case of Cathy Moulton, who went missing from Forest Avenue in Portland on Sept. 24, 1971. Police believe she left Portland with her boyfriend, was held against her will and ultimately died on a reservation in New Brunswick. Her body has never been found and no one has been charged in her disappearance.  Photo by Eve Edelheit

“This wasn’t in the press. This wasn’t a big talked-about thing like it might be today with social media. It certainly would have gotten a lot more fanfare now,” said Kevin Cady, a now-retired Portland detective who worked on the case in the 1990s and later wrote a book about it. “The story back then was she just disappeared like she was abducted by aliens on Forest Avenue. Until we looked into this, that’s all we had.”

It was an era when it was common for teenagers to dodge the draft or run away to join experimental communities. In the decade before Cathy disappeared, tens of thousands of teenagers were reported missing in the United States.

“The attitudes of the era were that she was probably just rebelling or protesting or ran off with her boyfriend if he got drafted. It was not taken with the seriousness that it was to our family,” said Kim Higgins, Cathy’s younger sister.

More than 20 years after Cathy went missing, detectives painstakingly pieced together her movements after she left Starbird Music. They believe she was taken from Portland against her wishes by an older boyfriend and his acquaintance, prevented from leaving while working on a potato farm in Aroostook County, then died on a Maliseet Tobique First Nations reservation in New Brunswick.

But Cathy’s body has never been recovered and no official suspects have been named in her case. The investigation into her disappearance remains open and detectives follow any leads or new information in the case, according to a spokesman for the Portland Police Department.

For decades, through frustration and sorrow and grief, her family has held onto hope that they will someday find answers.

“For sure somebody knows,” Higgins said. “There are probably still a handful of people alive on this Earth who know exactly what happened to Cathy. They know where she is, where her body is. They know. For whatever reason, they have chosen not to come forward yet.”

‘SHE JUST DROPPED FROM SIGHT’

Cathy Marie Moulton was born on June 28, 1955, in Portland, the oldest of Lyman “Roy” and Claire Moulton’s three daughters. Her father was the second-generation owner of a local used car lot and service center. Claire Moulton had been an emergency room nurse before leaving to care for Cathy and her younger daughters, Kimberly and Pamela.

Cathy was a friendly and bright girl who loved dancing and writing poetry. She sewed her own clothes, a skill she picked up from her mother. She often babysat kids in the neighborhood to earn money and looked in on elderly neighbors. She and Kim shared “sister secrets” about their lives.

After school, Cathy would sit for long chats with her mom. Claire Moulton later told Portland Monthly magazine that Cathy “felt if you were nice to other people they would be nice to you.” The family ate dinner together at 6 every night.

Cathy Moulton

 

Like many teenagers, Cathy was finding little ways to assert her independence. She had started wearing more makeup and sneaking cigarettes. She and a friend sometimes hung out at The Gate, an eclectic coffeehouse near Longfellow Square. There, they met a photographer named Chris Church and agreed to pose for portraits in his Monument Square studio. Cathy’s parents didn’t know their daughter had started dating Lester Everett, a 22-year-old man she knew from around town. 

The summer before she disappeared, Cathy spent every day with her parents and sisters. The family piled into Roy Moulton’s big Cadillac and drove around the continental United States for 81 days, sleeping in roadside motels at night. Cathy kept a detailed journal of the trip and, along with Kim, playfully teased their younger sister about squeezing into the middle of the backseat.

“We had this marvelous family trip together,” Higgins said. “It brought us very close.”

On Cathy’s 16th birthday, the family spent the evening in Williamsburg, Virginia, where they shared a large pizza, had raspberry coconut layer cake for dessert and sang “Happy Birthday.” When the family got to Texas in July, Cathy picked out a tan-and-brown reversible tooled leather handbag as her birthday gift.

The family returned to Portland two days before Cathy started her junior year at Deering. On the Friday she disappeared, Cathy attended school, then had her father bring her downtown to run errands. She needed the pantyhose and thread, and her mom handed her a few dollars to pick up toothpaste while she was out. Roy Moulton dropped his daughter off at the corner of Forest and Cumberland avenues sometime between 3 and 4 p.m.

When Cathy didn’t show up for dinner by 6 p.m., her parents started to worry. She never came home late without calling. As the minutes and hours ticked by, Roy Moulton drove around the city looking for his daughter. Claire Moulton called neighbors and friends, trying to find anyone who had seen Cathy.

“At first it was frustrating, then it was concerning, then it was alarming,” Higgins said. “And then it was, something is definitely wrong and it was a call to the Portland police station.”

At the station, an officer at the desk told the Moultons it was too soon to file a missing person report and to come back when more time passed. She’s probably just a runaway, they were told.

“A frustrated and angry Roy Moulton left the Portland Police Department. A parent’s intuition is very strong, and he sensed his oldest daughter was in grave danger. The desk sergeant’s indifference and condescending attitude sickened him. His instinct of impending doom will haunt him for the rest of his life,” Cady would later write in his book, “Cathy Moulton Missing & Endangered.”

The Moultons persuaded a police officer to let them file the report the following day. But Cathy’s disappearance went largely unnoticed. In Oct. 5 stories in the Portland Press Herald and Evening Express, Cathy’s parents asked anyone who knew anything to contact them or police.

A clipping of a newspaper article about the case Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Five days later, a Maine Sunday Telegram article headlined “Police hunt in vain for missing girls” described the frustration police and families in Cumberland County felt with the disappearances of Cathy and another girl, 11-year-old Barbara Ann Ripley, who had gone missing after getting off the school bus in North Yarmouth. Ripley’s body was found 10 years later in a box in a barn. Police believe she ran away and died after becoming overcome by cold temperatures.

The search for Cathy was “at a standstill,” Youth Aid Bureau officer Russell L. Norris told the Telegram.

“We’ve checked out every clue – but nothing. We just don’t know what happened. She just dropped from sight,” he said.

There were rumors around school that Cathy may have headed to Boston, but there was no evidence of that. The family hired a private detective to help with their search. After Thanksgiving, they received a tip that Cathy had been spotted in Presque Isle. Her parents drove four hours north and met with police, who had no idea Cathy was a missing person. They hung signs with Cathy’s photo and chased down a lead that a girl matching her description was seen on a reservation in New Brunswick.

But nothing panned out and the Moultons returned to Portland.

In the days after Cathy disappeared, her mother began keeping watch from the window of her sun parlor. Every day, she sat in the window, waiting for Cathy to walk up the street. She just couldn’t believe her daughter wouldn’t be coming home.

“You never forget,” Claire Moulton told the Morning Sentinel in 2012. “I mean, every day I pray that somehow, somewhere, we’ll find her.”

The lack of a thorough investigation was disappointing and frustrating to the family and, decades later, to the detectives who had to pick back through time to piece together a trail of evidence that led them from Forest Avenue to the potato fields of Aroostook County and the reservation in New Brunswick.

A TRAIL OF EVIDENCE

Seventeen years after Cathy went missing, Portland Detective William Deetjen knocked on the door of the Moulton house at 102 Clinton St. The detective was coordinating with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to see if the body of a murder victim found in Surrey, British Columbia, belonged to Cathy.

It was the first solid lead in Cathy’s case in years and he needed dental records to see if it was a match. But first, he had something he wanted to say to the Moultons.

“I first wish to offer a sincere apology. The Portland Police Department has done you both a grave disservice,” Deetjen said, according to an account of the meeting in Cady’s book.

The dental records – distinctive because Cathy had two eyeteeth removed before getting braces – proved she was not the victim found in British Columbia and later eliminated her as a match to hundreds of unidentified female bodies in the U.S. and Canada.

The case went cold again.

Retired detective Kevin Cady outside his house in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Friday. Cady worked on the unsolved case of Cathy Moulton, who went missing from Forest Avenue in Portland on Sept. 24, 1971. Police believe she left Portland with her boyfriend, was held against her will and ultimately died on a reservation in New Brunswick. Her body has never been found and no one has been charged in her disappearance. Photo by Eve Edelheit

In 1995, Cady, who had recently been promoted to detective, was sitting at his desk when Sgt. Thomas Joyce handed him a cold case file and asked him to take a look. The thin file contained only a single-page missing person report filed on Sept. 25, 1971, and an investigative supplement written by Deetjen dated Jan. 15, 1988, the last work logged on the cold case.

This case, with so little information and a family aching for their missing daughter, would become the one that Cady could not let go.

“(Joyce and I) wanted to find an answer for this family, who had been waiting so long,” said Cady, who retired from the department in 2005 and later worked as a private investigator. “We felt the Portland police had let them down years and years ago. It was our mission to give them an answer about what happened. She didn’t just disappear from Forest Avenue into thin air. Something happened to her.”

Cady started his investigation by reaching out to Cathy’s best friend, Nancy Barlow. Through conversations with her and Church, he found out about Cathy’s boyfriend, Lester Everett. Witnesses reported seeing Cathy get into a blue car on Sept. 24 with two older boys.

Cady would later discover that Everett had picked up a Canadian man in his 20s and offered to drive him 300 miles north to the Tobique reservation outside of Perth-Andover, New Brunswick, but he believes Cathy didn’t know about that plan when she got in the car.

As Cady investigated Everett’s background, he learned that he was the suspect in the theft of a 1963 four-door blue Cadillac from Mrs. Davis, owner of the Davis Motel on Route 1 in Falmouth where Everett had worked. A report about the theft indicated there was a credit card in the car when it was stolen. Later, Mrs. Davis received a credit card statement with a transaction for four tires from Dorsey’s Garage in Fort Fairfield.

Cady followed that lead to Aroostook County.

Don Logan, an employee at Dorsey’s Garage, told Cady he remembered seeing Cathy and the two men when they came in for new tires for the Cadillac. One detail was particularly haunting: The man whom Everett was traveling with walked Cathy to and from the restroom, his hand always resting on the back of her neck as if to control her movements.

On the reservation, witnesses told Cady that Everett and Cathy had been there for a few days in September 1971 before heading to McBride’s farm in Mars Hill to harvest potatoes. A New Brunswick woman named Millie Augustine, who was about Cathy’s age and in Mars Hill for the potato harvest, told Cady that she remembered her. Cathy, who was using the name Candy, was fearful of other men who worked on the farm, cried often and said she wanted to go home. She spent most of her time in the backseat of the Cadillac, where Augustine’s father would bring her dinner.

One night, Everett and Cathy left the farm. Everett returned alone the next morning and would only tell Augustine that he had dropped “Candy” off at another camp. Later, Cady determined Everett had brought her back to the reservation and left her with the man they had traveled with in September. At the end of the potato harvest, Augustine and a few others drove south with Everett to pick oranges in Florida.

Everett never returned to Maine to live and died of cancer at age 35 in 1986. Cady does not believe he knew what happened to Cathy after he dropped her off in New Brunswick.

As they learned more about what might have happened to Cathy, Cady and Joyce worked with investigators from the FBI, U.S. Marshals Service, RCMP and reservation police to find and interview witnesses. Many were reluctant to talk, especially the man with whom Cathy had been left sometime in the fall of 1971.

In 1996, an investigative grand jury was convened in Cumberland County to look into the 25-year-old case. The Canadian man who had been with Cathy was the focus of the investigation at that point, but investigators didn’t have enough evidence to charge him.

Even without the man’s cooperation, Cady and Joyce found enough evidence to lead them to believe that Cathy died on the reservation sometime before Thanksgiving of 1971. They received tips that her body is either buried in the basement of the man’s family home or near a trail in the area, but there hasn’t been enough evidence to secure warrants for searches.

The Canadian man, who was never named an official suspect, refused to talk about Cathy even when he was offered immunity from prosecution to provide police with any details about what happened to her. The man still lives in Canada and has served time in prison for home invasion and rape, according to Cady.

“More and more has been learned over the years that shows that Cathy might have been able to be saved and found if different actions were taken in the moment,” Higgins said. “We went through our stages of feeling let down. Disappointment. Frustration. Anger. Sorrow. And then there’s always the question if any of us had pushed harder, had done more, would it have made a difference?”

During the summer of 1999, Cady drove to the house on Clinton Street and sat down with Ray and Claire Moulton. He laid out for them what he had learned about Cathy’s movements after she was taken from Portland and his belief that she died on the reservation in New Brunswick.

“The father didn’t want to believe it. He said, ‘I always want to keep my mind open. I’m going to hope you’re wrong and she’s going to show up and come through the door,'” Cady said.

Claire Moulton told the detective that, even after a quarter-century, she still sat in the window every day to watch for her daughter.

‘IF WE DON’T TALK ABOUT IT, IT’S GONE’

Three and a half years after Cathy went missing, Higgins turned 16. She was keenly aware that her parents felt panicked when their middle daughter reached the age Cathy had been when she disappeared. She avoided going to the YWCA dances Cathy loved and for years was convinced she would never have children because she could not fathom living through a loss like the one her parents endured.

“Part of my persona was to protect myself from danger and to protect myself from the agony that they went through every time I walked out the door,” she said.

The Moultons never stopped talking about Cathy and never stopped pushing police to do more. Roy Moulton died at age 92 in 2017 without knowing for certain what happened to his daughter. Claire Moulton is now in her early 90s and a great-grandmother. She was not available for an interview, said Higgins, who speaks publicly on behalf of the family.

“We have kept the knowledge of Auntie Cathy and who Auntie Cathy was alive in the family. When we tell stories to my grandchildren, we talk about what we did as a family,” Higgins said. “We keep Cathy present for the family when so many people find it more comfortable to bury that pain and not talk about it. That’s not us.”

Kim Higgins – sister of Cathy Moulton, who went missing from Forest Avenue in Portland on Sept. 24, 1971 – holds a photo of the three Moulton sisters, Pamela, left, Kim and Cathy, taken on Easter in 1969. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Late last year, Maine podcast creator Kylie Low featured Cathy’s story in a two-part series on Dark Downeast, a podcast that looks at murder and missing person cases in New England. Low, who worked in radio before launching the podcast, said she was struck by the lack of attention the story has received over the past 50 years and the similarities to other cases that faced delays in the investigation.

“Again and again, I see that families are denied the ability to report their loved one missing, which delays the investigation, which then delays answers. It’s frustrating to see that so many children disappear and the family is left with no recourse,” Low said. “I think it’s important with these decades-old unsolved cases to keep saying their names. Talking about them on the anniversary of their disappearance is so important. It reminds people that there is a human at the center of these stories and there is a family still searching for a person they loved and continue to love.”

For Higgins and Cady, any mention of Cathy’s case that might generate new leads or witnesses is welcome. They say they receive new tidbits of information every time her story is told.

“It’s the only way it’s going to have any closure at this point,” Cady said. “If we don’t talk about it, it’s gone.”

Cathy’s family believes that at some point, someone will feel safe enough to come forward with the missing pieces that will help solve the case. They want answers, of course, but they’re not on a quest for justice. They don’t have the energy or heart for that. They just want to bring Cathy home.

“To know what we’ve been able to gift her that amongst all that we could not gift her by finding her, that’s what we want,” Higgins said. “All we want is to bring Cathy home and to give her a proper burial and to feel like we were at least able to gift her that.”


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