I’ve been covering crime in the Lewiston-Auburn area for nearly 30 years now, but I’ll tell you this. There have been very few stories so shocking and so downright ugly over those years that they’ve kept me up at night. 

But this one did. The killing at a quiet little trailer park in Poland stuck in my mind like a malignant thorn, to the point where at 5 a.m., I was up pacing the cold floors and brooding over it. 

Yet not for the reasons you might suspect. You see, for the first time that I can recall, I’ve found myself in a situation where I feel as badly for an accused killer as I do for his victim. In fact, to be more clear about things, I feel bad for pretty much every single soul that got sucked into that vicious hell storm of horror on Thanksgiving Day morning. 

The official body count in the slaying on Poplar Drive last week was one, but I’m here to tell you the victims of this atrocity are many and their trauma takes many forms. 

There’s pain for the people who love Justin Butterfield the most and who watched with a sort of resigned horror as details emerged of the killing. It was the kind of ghastly outcome they all knew would come one day, though they had done all in their power to prevent it.

Hadn’t they been warning of such things for years as this nightmare unfolded? Hadn’t they been begging people in positions of power to do something before this kind of nastiness occurred? 

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Their efforts to help their friend were downright heroic. The more I learn about their many fights on Butterfield’s behalf, the more I admire them. But in the end, it was all for naught. 

It’s unspeakably sad for Butterfield’s children because tucked in there with memories of their father’s increasingly bizarre behavior are memories of a loving dad — a dad who played with them; who cared for them. 

Which version of their father will they remember the most as the media churns out story after story about the horrific events of Thanksgiving Day 2022? 

And it’s sad for Butterfield himself because, as the mother of his son put it, it wasn’t so much Justin who allegedly killed his brother, but rather his madness. And when that madness is pushed back by the powerful medication provided by the state corrections system, Justin Butterfield will have himself a very dark night of the soul; a kind of personal reckoning that few of us can begin to imagine. 

“Once he’s back on his medication,” said one person who knows him well, “he’s going to feel really, really bad about all of this.” 

I feel safe in assuming that is an understatement. Because by all accounts, Butterfield loved his oldest brother, the brother he is now accused of butchering, with his whole heart. 

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If Butterfield believed he was battling a demon, as has been suggested by many familiar with his psychiatric background, he won’t believe that any longer when medication begins to manage the complex chemistry of his brain. He will know the whole truth of it when his mind is clear, and I find myself — against my will — wondering what that moment of clarity will be like. 

When the sound and fury are quieted inside the mind of Justin Butterfield, he will be forced to face the grim truths so vividly described in the many news accounts of the atrocity. Can any of the hellish waking nightmares that haunted his unmedicated brain possibly compare with what he will discover in the light of clear-headed reality? 

The idea that one version of Butterfield will learn the actions of another, darker version makes me very uncomfortable, and all I wanted over the weekend was to put it out of mind. But of course, you never can do that with stories of this scale because people want to talk about it and they have every right to do so. 

And oh, the people I’ve heard from the past few days — people with brothers, sons, fathers, mothers, sisters and best friends destroyed by the cyclone ravages of schizophrenia — have told me stories that have been shocking and vivid and invariably sad. More than sad, really. Tragedies, the lot of them. 

I’ve heard from many an angry reader loudly demanding answers from police; from the hospital workers who sent Butterfield away in times of crisis; from anyone and everyone who seemingly failed to address a dangerous situation before it turned deadly. 

I heard from the father of a schizophrenic who was lost to fire years ago. In his view, blaming cops, nurses or other street-level workers for this bad business is nothing but misdirected rage. Those people are victims of the system, too, in his view. They can’t always do what needs to be done because they are limited by existing laws and regulations, and by misunderstandings about physical illnesses of the brain. At both state and federal levels, he insists, people in true positions of power have neglected time and again to properly define schizophrenia or to direct funds to help the many who suffer with it. 

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“It’s like trying to gnaw through Maine granite,” he said, “trying to get the federal government to put money into research… These deaths are so completely unnecessary.”

Perhaps some examination of all those issues will come to light in the gloomy aftermath of this sad case.

For me, it just never felt like a standard crime story; a story where you have your bad guy, your poor dead victim and a motive that can be nailed down, analyzed and understood. 

Maybe the Butterfield case will turn out that way in the end. Maybe by the time it reaches trial, it’ll be just another scene where angry villagers hoist their torches and demand justice for a crime committed. 

Scream and yell and wish the accused offender to hell if you want to, my friends. That’s how these things often go, although in this case, I’m not sure the sentiment applies so well. 

In this case, I have a feeling that Justin Butterfield is already there. 

Mark LaFlamme is the crime reporter for the Sun Journal and can be reached at [email protected]

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