The first tip that came along was too far-fetched to be believed. 

“What do you know,” the tipster asked me, “about the man found carrying his own severed arm down Maple Street this morning?” 

My first thought was: Ah. Here comes the hyperbole train, rolling straight across my computer screen. 

But then a second tip came in through email and before I was done reading it, there were two phone calls about the very same thing. 

“Arm cut off at the shoulder,” one caller said. “He was carrying it in his free hand when they found him.” 

The story of the man with the severed arm was an all-day wonder Friday and there are still more questions than answers about the whole grisly matter. 

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How did it happen? Was it really just an accident with a band saw? Who is this man and how did he get to this terrible situation? 

Throughout the night, I fielded a lot of emails from readers with these types of questions, but there was one question in particular that stood out. 

“Tell me,” the lady asked. “Is this severed arm story the ghastliest you’ve ever covered?” 

I thought about this question a lot. A whole lot. In fact, for a little while, I dropped everything and sat here in silence, mulling it over. 

The ghastliest I’ve ever covered? I don’t know about that. 

I’m 28 years on this job, and most of those years have been spent covering the crime beat exclusively. I’ve seen some nasty things, all right, but what would I say was the nastiest? 

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As I pondered it, my thoughts became a grim “Faces Of Death”-style movie reel, with a variety of sordid scenes from years past flickering across my thoughts. 

The elderly man, burned to death in his backyard after a cooking accident. 

The motorcyclist, who lost his leg on Route 4 in a crash so spectacular, it took rescuers a good part of the night to find the missing limb. 

I don’t see nearly as much horror on this job as the police officers, firefighters and medics who tackle these matters hands on. I’m usually the one behind the crime scene tape, not smack dab in the middle of the ugliness. 

But I’ve seen enough and a lot of it sticks with me. 

The bloated faces of bodies pulled from the river. Human flesh so mangled at crash scenes that it takes the mind a few moments to understand exactly what it’s seeing. 

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But what was the worst of it, that’s what my email friend wanted to know, and I wanted more than anything to give her an answer. I wanted to cite one specific scene that was so gruesome and traumatizing, that it stood out from all the rest. 

But for me, it doesn’t work that way. For me, gore alone isn’t what makes a story stand out — a person can get a heaping helping of that kind of thing, after all, just by turning on the TV. 

The stories that haunt me the most don’t necessarily involve severed limbs, mangled bodies or viscera splashed across a highway — in most of those situations, the victims are dead and therefore the pain for them is over. 

For me, the most dreadful stories of them all are those where, in the glow of the police and ambulance lights, the pain is only just beginning. 

For sheer shock, horror and fury, nothing in the world is more terrible than crimes committed against children, for instance. Those are horrors that will stick in the mind and in the gut long after the story is filed and the paper is on the street. 

Accidents that leave children without their parents, or parents without their children are particularly miserable.

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Roughly 15 years ago, grim timing put me at a car crash site where a man was just discovering the death of his teenage son inside the crushed wreckage of the car. His wails of pain and sorrow still ring in my head when I think about it. 

I try not to think about it. 

Crimes and violence against the elderly will darken my mood more than the sight of a severed limb at the roadside. Crimes and violence against animals, too. 

Simple carnage does not trouble the mind nearly so much as the immense and lasting suffering of a human soul, even if that suffering is bloodless. 

The lady who had asked me the question that so stirred my thoughts stuck around a while to talk it over with me. We talked about this old case and that one. A murder here, a crash scene there and everything in between. 

But what was the ghastliest? 

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The lady and I reached the same conclusion at the same time. 

“There was an incident in Auburn decades ago,” she said, “that is the most ghastly story ever in Maine to this day.” 

That terrible story had bubbled up on my mind, as well. Oct. 27, 1984, it was, when a pair of deranged parents committed the vilest act imaginable against their 4-year-old daughter. Can it get any worse than the terrible fate that girl suffered, and at the hands of the people she loved and trusted the most? 

That was the kind of story that the human mind wants to actively shrink away from. Think about it too long or too deeply and risk losing all faith in humanity. Ghastly isn’t strong enough a word. 

I wasn’t around in 1984, so I had no role in covering the Auburn oven death that shocked the world. For that, I’m profoundly grateful. And my thoughts still go out to the first responders on the scene that day.

I feel badly for the fellow who lost his arm on Friday, regardless of how it happened. Just 25 years old, his life has changed in a substantial way and I hope he recovers as well as possible. 

It was a bizarre story, no question about it, but once all the facts have fallen into place and more is learned about how it all went down, I’ll be ready to move on from it. 

Not all stories are like that. Some stories are so profoundly awful, they change a part of you, for better or for worse. Some stories are just so unspeakably dark, they will stay with you forevermore whether you like it or not. 


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