Trial and Error

The Outcry for Justice in the Dennis Dechaine Case

Summary of Evidence

By former federal agent James P. Moore (1935-2022)

The late Jim Moore retired from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms as ATF’s agent-in-charge for Maine and New Hampshire. His career included two years with the Federal Organized Crime & Racketeering Strike Force and two years with INTERPOL where he directed international investigations of robbery, rape, murder and terrorism. Moore had developed a high regard for Maine law enforcement, so when charges surfaced that Dennis Dechaine had been wrongfully convicted for the 1988 murder of Sarah Cherry, he decided to see for himself. At that time, Moore regarded Dechaine’s supporters “as a bunch of bird brains out to trash law enforcement.” However, while conducting an independent investigation at his own expense, Moore concluded that Dechaine indeed had been wrongfully convicted. He has since written two books on the case, Human Sacrifice and State Secrets, all proceeds of which are donated to securing a retrial for Dechaine.

What follows is Moore’s summary of the case, including all evidence presented by the State. It is part of a report Moore submitted to Defense Attorney Tom Connolly in December, 1992. The indented portions of the summary, which indicate the state’s evidence, had been sent to Assistant Attorney General Eric Wright, who prosecuted Dechaine. Moore asked Wright to inform him if any significant element of the State’s case had been omitted. As of May, 2012, neither Wright nor anyone else has ever indicated any correction, defect or deficiency in Moore’s summary.

SUMMARY OF EVIDENCE,  with comments

This summary, including all of the evidence presented by the State, was part of a report submitted to Defense Attorney Tom Connolly in December, 1992.

On October 29, 1992, the indented portions of this summary were sent to Assistant Attorney General Eric Wright with a request to inform the undersigned whether any significant element of the State’s case had been omitted.

As of January 21, 2004, neither Mr. Wright nor anyone else has ever indicated any correction, defect or deficiency in this summary.

[Segments of this report which are not indented comprise my own analysis.]

Evidence presented to jurors by the State fall into three categories:

  1. Dechaine’s proximity to location where the victim’s body would later be found.
  2. Property from Dechaine’s Toyota pickup truck, linked to the crime and the victim.
  3. Lies told by Dechaine regarding his places of employment and residence, and his actions (i.e. that he had been fishing) on the day of the abduction.

Evidence presented by the State:

Shortly before 5:00p.m. on Tuesday, July 5, 1988 (the day before the crime), a truck resembling Dechaine's (including damage to one headlight) drove past the Henkel residence more slowly that vehicles usually travel on that road. The truck came back to pass the Henkel driveway again about five or ten minutes later again driving slowly. Its driver was described as a white male in his 20s or 30s wearing a green T-shirt. Witness was unable to identify the driver. (Witness West. Transcript pages 65-81)

Witness Emmons (Dechaine’s wife) testified that she and Dechaine were about 100 miles from this scene at this hour on July 5th, returning from Madawaska in their Tercel automobile. (Transcript page 1058) Numerous witnesses place Dechaine in Madawaska until approximately noon that day. Witness Landry’s sworn statement places Dechaine and his wife about 300 miles away, in St. Agathe, Maine until 1:00pm that day. No one else ever described a truck exactly matching Dechaine’s as being in the area on any day.

On July 6, 1988, Dechaine was in Gardiner, Maine from About 11am to 11:30am (Gilley, Transcript pages 81-90)

This evidence, irrelevant to the crime, does not incriminate Dennis Dechaine.

Sarah Cherry was alive and well at the Henkel home at 12 noon on July 6, 1988, and was preparing hotdogs for lunch. (Mrs. Henkel, Transcript pages 165-193)

This evidence does not incriminate Dennis Dechaine.

At approximately 1:00pm, a neighbor heard a vehicle slow down near the entrance to the Henkel driveway. About 15 minutes later, this neighbor saw a red pickup, possibly a Toyota, heading north from this area. (Johnson, Transcript pages 335-351)

The Henkel dogs were heard barking some time between 2:00pm and 3:00pm. (West, Transcript pages 65-81) These dogs were identified by owner John Henkel as a hundred-pound mixed Shepherd and a 90-pound Labrador (John Henkel,. Transcript pages 116-158)

None of this testimony incriminates Dechaine. Mrs. Henkel testified that their dogs also barked when she entered her driveway on the day of the crime.

At 3:20pm, Mrs. Henkel returned home, found a notebook and auto repair estimate (later identified as Dechaine's) in her driveway. Upon entering the house, she found Sarah Cherry missing. Sarah's shoes, socks, eyeglasses and jacket remained at the house. (Mrs. Henkel, transcript Pages 165-193)

This evidence proves that two items from Dechaine’s truck, items identifying Dechaine, lay in the Henkel driveway after Sarah Cherry had vanished form that house.

Dechaine's left front tire was “consistent with” a tire track in the Henkel driveway. The state's expert testified that the track could have been made by any tire with a similar tread design. This expert also testified that none of the other three tires on Dechaine's truck matched any track found in that driveway. (Otis, transcript pages 645-698)

This evidence does not incriminate Dennis Dechaine. The expert I consulted stated that 30,000 tires on Maine roads were “consistent with” the tracks in the driveway.

At about 8:30pm, July 6th, Dechaine emerged from a woods where where Sarah Cherry's body would be found on July 8 th . (Spaulding, transcript page 199)

This evidence does not incriminate Dennis Dechaine. No link to the crime.

At about 8:45pm on July 6 th , Dechaine was observed on the Dead River Road. He told local residents that he had been fishing and he could not find his truck. Dechaine also lied about his place of employment and his town of residence. He did, however, give these people his true name. These neighbors testified that Dechaine “acted like a gentleman.” They detected no indication that he had committed a violent crime. (Helen Buttrick, transcript pages 200-213; Harry Buttrick's taped deposition.)

Not incriminating; irrelevant with respect to the crime.

Dechaine lied to police by claiming that he had been fishing that day. Under questioning, he stated that he had stopped in a never-identified driveway, somewhere, to urinate. After being advised of his Miranda rights, and following more questioning, Dechaine acknowledged that the repair estimate and notebook found in the Henkel driveway were his. He stated, “Whoever grabbed the girl” must have placed these items there to set him up. (Reed, transcript pages 265-336; Westrum, pages 354-392)

Deputy Reed testified that Dechaine initially denied ownership of the paper and notebook found in that driveway. Reed admitted, however, that his original report, which he had amended, had shown that Dechaine readily admitted ownership of these items. Dechaine’s lies to conceal his drug use do not link him to Sarah Cherry or the crime.

Dechaine had a fresh scratch about 1 to 2 ½ inches long on his left bicep, a bruise on his left arm, a round scratch on his right knuckle. There was a muddy handprint of a left hand on the shoulder area of the right side on the back of Dechaine's shirt. Dechaine trembled while being questioned by police “about a missing 12-year-old girl.” Dechaine's eyes were large. (Scopino, transcript pages 213-244; Hendsbee, transcript pages 429-479.)

The scratches (none deep enough to draw blood, according to State’s witnesses) are consistent with a walk through brush in the woods. The handprint was explained by Dechaine as a result of having reached over his shoulder to swat at bugs. Det. Hendsbee, who observed that handprint, never disputed that the size of the handprints was the same size as Dechaine’s hand. The bruise on his left arm and dilated eyes are consistent with Dechaine’s testimony that he had “shot up” a drug on the afternoon in question. Trembling during an interrogation in fear that officers would detect his recent use of an illegal drug, is consistent with Dechaine’s personality. Not incriminating.

Note: Judge Bradford stated that the unprofessional conduct of Deputy Reed and Detective Westrum was “established . . . ad nauseum.” (Transcript page 381)

Upon being informed of the true nature of the police inquiry, Dechaine blurted, “Oh my God, you think I did that?” (Westrum, transcript pages 354-392.)

This evidence does not incriminate Dennis Dechaine.

Dechaine told police he left his truck keys in the vehicle; later they were found hidden in the police cruiser. (Westrum trandscript pages 354- 402; Haggett, transcript pages 392-397)

Irrelevant re the crime. Dechaine’s explanation: he believed he had left the keys in the truck; when he found them in his pocket he feared officers would resume their aggressive, accusatory interrogation, so he hid the keys. This explanation is consistent with everything known and testified to about Dechaine’s personality.

Dechaine's Toyota was found parked 75 feet into a lane which ran at a 45-degree angle off the Hallowell Road, across that road and about 450 feet (the length of 1 ½ football fields, and through a woods) from the spot where Sarah Cherry's body was found in the woods. The truck's doors were locked; an unlocked sliding glass rear window permitted access. Plant growth inconsistent with this location was caught in one of the locked doors. The cab of the truck was littered with papers and a depression in those papers indicated that someone had sat on the passenger side. (Clancy, transcript pages 397-403; Bureau transcript pages 404-427; Hendsbee transcript pages 429-479.

Not incriminating; irrelevant to Dechaine’s involvement in the crime.

At about 1:30-2:30 on the morning of Thursday, July 7, 1988, a police dog handled by Trooper Bureau (accompanied by Detective Hendsbee) followed a trail from the driver's side door of the Toyota about 150-feet east, into the woods (i.e. the opposite direction from Hallowell Road) and looping back to the driver's door. No track was detected across the front of the truck. The dog tracked a trail from the passenger door, across Hallowell Road, into the woods to a steam. About 75-100 feet to the side of from where the body Would be discovered on Friday, the dog gave “a strong indication of the presence of something.” up ahead,” but the dog did not continue tracking. The dog “had been trained not to track animals.” Bureau and Hendsbee “heard some commotion in the woods” from the direction where the body would later be discovered, sounds “we felt were deer going through the woods.” Bureau, transcript pages 404-427; Hendsbee transcript pages 429-479)

This testimony establishes that someone left the Toyota and entered the woods. The State’s expert indicated that death probably occurred at about 2:00am on Thursday The “commotion” could have been the victim’s struggling as she was strangled, or noise by her killer, heaping the forest debris (which would be found on the body) from the forest floor onto the body. The fact that the victim’s head was exposed supports the conclusion that this was done in the dark. Dechaine had, at this time, been with various State’s witnesses, including police officers, for more than five hours.

The tracking dog, given Sarah Cherry’s clothing to sniff, failed to detect her scent in Dechaine’s truck. (Sworn statement by Bowdoinham Police Officer Jay Reed; confirmed in tape-recorded interview with Detective Hendsbee.) This fact, along with the canine officer’s report, were withheld from the defense. The absence of any trace of the victim in the truck – no fingerprint, fabric, blood hair or scent – even after a thorough vacuuming, chemical swabbing and microscopic examination of the truck’s interior and its contents at the State Police Laboratory in Augusta, supports a conclusion that the victim was never in that truck. (Transcript pages 56 and 93.)

On Friday, July 8th , after discovery of the body, the tracking dog found a length of rope which had been cut from a rope in Dechaine's truck, lying about 200 feet from the body. (Bureau transcript pages 404-427; Woodward, transcript pages 506- 520; Gallant, transcript pages 529-546; Brinkman transcript pages 702-792.)

This proves that a piece of rope taken from Dechaine’s truck was found in the woods.

During a second effort, after the body was found, Trooper Bureau had a hard time getting the dog to Approach the site where the body lay. The dog “kept veering off to the side . . . kept coming down …by the stream.” The dog had to be forced to go to where the body had been found. Trooper Bureau speculated that the dog disliked the scent of a dead body. (Bureau, transcript pages 404-427)

This testimony proves that, although Trooper Bureau attempted to have the dog track a trail to the body, the dog insisted on going past that site. This testimony is equally susceptible to an interpretation that, despite Trooper Bureau’s attempt to read the dog’s mind, the dog was performing the task for which it was trained – i.e. tracking the trail of someone (probably Dechaine) who had not gone to the site where the body lay.

Sarah Cherry's body was found at about noon on Friday, July 8 th . Medical Examiner Ronald Roy came to the scene and examined the body at 2:00pm. He testified that rigor mortis was still present in the limbs and large joints but was “passing off.” Based on that fact, he stated that she had been dead for somewhere between 30 and 36 hours. At one point, Roy added, “and it could have been longer.” At another juncture, Dr. Roy testified that post mortem evidence was consistent with death having occurred two days prior, i.e. “within a few hours of eating her last meal.”   (Woodward, transcript pages 506-520; McGee, transcript pages 521-528; Roy, transcript pages 547-609)

Every pathologist interviewed, and every forensic pathology textbook agrees that, in this situation and circumstances, rigor mortis would last a maximum of 36 hours. This places the earliest time of death at 2:00a.m. on Thursday– more than five hours after Dechaine’s actions are accounted for by State’s witnesses and police officers. Every other suggestion advanced by Roy (i.e. “two days prior,” “could have been longer,” and “within hours of eating her last meal,” are totally contradicted by every other pathologist interviewed and every forensic pathology textbook. Jurors heard none of these facts . Asked about these inconsistencies in a recorded interview, Dr. Roy blurted, “This case is why I left the State of Maine.” Dr. Roy also said that he would not return to Maine under any circumstances.

The importance of this evidence is established by the prosecutor’s effort to conceal it.

A – During the trial, prosecutor Wright never asked the standard question always posed to medical examiners in murder cases, i.e., “At what time, in your professional opinion, did the victim die?”

B – Prior to trial, the autopsy report furnished the defense as discovery material contained no indication of time of death.

C – The question on that report’s cover sheet asking “Date and Time of Death” was not answered. Instead, the only entry there was, “Found, 7/7/88.”

D – The former Chief Forensic Pathologist for the State of Vermont stated that the autopsy report given the defense was a “preliminary report,” i.e. incomplete.

E – When the complete report was requested, after trial, Deputy Attorney General Fern LaRochelle directed the medical examiner’s clerk to “show him what we gave [defense lawyer Tom] Connolly, and nothing else.” ( Note : Under the law, there is not supposed to be anything else .)

No fingerprint, blood, fabric or hair of victim found In Dechaine's truck. Type A blood under victim's nails; Dechaine's blood is Type O. Rope binding the victim's wrists “moderately tightly,” was “similar to” rope found in Dechaine's truck, and similar to rope found in Dechaine's goat pen. (Brinkman transcript pages 702-792; Hendsbee transcript pages 429-479)

This indicates that rope from Dechaine’s truck was probably used to bind the victim. The knots binding the victim, however, differed from any knots detectives took and preserved from Dechaine’s barn, pens and other places. No sign that victim was ever in Dechaine’s truck. Blood under Sarah Cherry’s nails not Dechaine’s. Not incriminating to Dechaine.

Dechaine stated to officers on Friday, 7/8/88, after the body was found, “I can't believe I could do such a thing . . . it must have been somebody else inside of me . . . I can't believe I could do that.” (Hendsbee, transcript pages 793-826)

Extensive professional research shows that such statements, even false confessions, are consistent with the behavior of suspects with personalities similar to Dechaine’s, when their memories are clouded by the use of alcohol or drugs, and when confronted by confident officers with apparently incriminating evidence.

In an extremely emotional scene, Dechaine allegedly made the following statements to Detective Westrum: “Oh my God, it should never have happened . . . Why did I do this? . . . I went home and told my wife that I did something bad and she just laughed at me . . . I told her I wouldn't kill myself; besides, that's the easy way out . . . [P]lease believe me, something inside must have made me do that . . . Why would I do this? . . . I didn't think it actually happened until I saw her face on the news; then it all came back to me. I remembered it . . . Why did I kill her? . . . What punishment could they ever give me that would equal what I've done? . . . I feel so bad for her. My God, how must her mother and father feel? It was something inside that must have made me do that . . . How can I live with myself again? . . . I wish I had never gone on that road that day. Why couldn't my truck have broken down instead? . . . I don't think my wife believes me. . . Why did I let this happen? (Westrum transcript pages 826-842)

Detective Westrum’s original notes of Dechaine’s alleged ramblings, contain the phrase, “How could I kill her?” His notes also show clearly that Westrum went back later, crossed out “How could” and wrote over them, “Why did” – thus changing Dechaine’s alleged statement from “How could I kill her?” to a statement suggesting guilt: “Why did I kill her?” Those notes were withheld from the defense and concealed until the legislature opened the file in 2003.  Click on “Pages” to see copy of notes:  Page 1Page 2, and Page 3 (with the critical changeover).

Westrum’s notes also said that Dennis said that he told his wife that something bad had happened, although he testified that Dennis said that he told his wife that he did something bad. P. 392 HS2

In addition, Dechaine’s wife testified that, upon seeing the victim’s picture on the TV news, he said, “I’ve never seen that girl in my life.”

During the time when Westrum claims that Dechaine made these statements, experienced detectives in an adjoining room with a tape recorder were never summoned to witness the monologue. Westrum, himself, had been a detective for two days.

In any event, the alleged admissions contain no detail of the crime, nor of the victim. It may, or may not be significant that, at this point, Detective Westrum did not know details of the crime which he could have incorporated into the so-called confession.

Dechaine stated to jail guards, “You people need to know that I'm the one who murdered that girl, and may want to put me in isolation.” ( Maxcy, transcript pages 850-868; Dermody, transcript pages 869-873.)

Dechaine states that what he said was, “I’m the man accused of murdering that girl.” In addition, the term “in isolation,” is rarely if ever heard from civilians, most of whom refer to such accommodations as “solitary.”

During this entire trial, despite the evidence linking items from Dechaine’s truck to the crime, no witness testified to any link between Dechaine and Sarah Cherry. No evidence linked Dechaine, himself, to the crime or to Sarah Cherry.

The following items of evidence which do not link Dechaine to the crime (but could have incriminated someone else) were among many items destroyed by the State: the rape kit, a hair found on the victim’s arm, a hair found on the rope binding victim’s wrists, mystery fingerprints on the door of the house from which the victim was abducted – fingerprints which do not match Dechaine, Sarah Cherry, or the residents of that house.

The State successfully prevented DNA testing of the Type A blood under the victim’s nails. Dechaine’s blood is Type O.

DNA tests performed after the trial by the CBR Laboratories in Boston found the DNA of Sarah Cherry and another person who is not Dennis Dechaine.

These results were subsequently confirmed with respect to the integrity and ability of the CBR Lab’s chemist and his procedures, by a former FBI expert on DNA who was working for the State. That expert’s report was concealed until the Attorney General’s file was opened by an Order of the state legislature.

The jury’s Guilty verdict is a tribute to prosecutor Eric Wright’s clever concealment of vital evidence, his manipulation and presentation of a string of circumstances, all augmented by a generous helping of imagination required to fill in the blanks between facts. Wright’s trickery fooled the jurors and many others.

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