Kevin Foley always distinguished himself, whether as an athlete in high school, an infantryman in Vietnam or a telephone company repairman who went 27 years without missing a day of work, and yet his gift was making other people feel special.

Gregarious and generous, Foley was the kind of man people loved and admired.

His shooting death in a Westbrook cemetery last month is so out of character with his lifestyle that relatives and friends are mystified and police are struggling to build a case.

”Those kinds of things don’t happen to people like Kevin, ” said his sister Linda Pendexter, who teaches school in some of Houston’s tougher neighborhoods. ”His life was enviable. The end of his life is so not fitting with how he started out, as just the greatest little kid.”

Most murders in Maine are solved quickly, with clear ties linking the victim and killer and a crime scene that is relevant to one or the other. Witnesses often describe a relationship gone awry.

Then there are the mysteries.

”There’s always the puzzles or whodunit cases, where you’re going to have a difficult time finding the connection between the perpetrator and victim, ” said Maine State Police Lt. Brian McDonough, head of detectives for southern Maine. ”They may not be connected. Those become very, very difficult.”

The killing of 58-year-old Kevin Foley represents such a challenge.

Foley left his house in Portland’s north end on June 21. He was found shot to death the following morning at Woodlawn Cemetery in Westbrook, not far from his car. He had no family buried there that he might have been visiting. Police won’t say whether they believe he drove there of his own free will. They do believe he was targeted, that it was not a random crime.

The circumstances seem entirely incongruous with the Foley described by friends and relatives.

A POPULAR STUDENT

Kevin Foley was a shining star from an early age, the oldest grandson in a tight-knit Irish family. He grew up in Westbrook, where he was a standout football player and track star and a popular student.

”He was just this perfect little kid. He couldn’t have been cuter or better looking, couldn’t have been more coordinated or athletic, ” Pendexter said. ”He had senior girls calling him for dates as a freshman. People just thought Kevin was adorable.”

After graduating from Westbrook High School in 1967, Foley was sent to Vietnam, where as an infantryman he earned medals for valor. While there, he contracted an illness that later in life required the removal of two feet of his lower intestine, said Don Doane, his cousin and longtime coworker at Verizon.

”He was eligible for probably a full disability from the military, and I argued with him about this, ” Doane said. ”’They’re taking part of your stomach out, you’re entitled.’ He said, ‘Those disabilities are for the guys who came back with no arms and no legs.”’

Foley would tell elaborate and entertaining stories of free time spent in Hong Kong while in the service in 1967 and 1968, but never about the fighting itself.

”Kevin was an open book for most of his life, but Vietnam is the only thing we know nothing about, ” Doane said.

Foley did give his cousin a glimpse of his war experiences, however. Doane suggested his cousin join him doing telephone repairs in manholes for extra overtime.

”He said ‘Donny, after I came back from Vietnam, I vowed I would never go into anything like that. They used to send me down in those tunnels, ”’ Doane recalled, referring to the elaborate tunnel systems used by the enemy during the war.

In 1982, Foley married Christine Rafferty, and they had three children, Katherine, Brittany and Bartley (”B.J.”) – admired as good students and good people and a source of immense pride for their father.

”People would say, ‘Kevin, you have three of the best-looking kids in the world.’ Of course he did. Chris was the prettiest girl in Portland and Kevin was the best-looking guy in Westbrook, ” his sister said.

Doane and Foley would talk often about their children and about parenting. They both quit drinking more than 20 years ago.

”He used to joke ‘Now we have to grow up and be fathers.’ He just worshipped those kids. He worshipped Chris, ” Doane said.

Work was a privilege, and Foley reveled in it. He had perfect attendance for 27 years until his abdominal surgery forced him to miss time, Doane said. During the ice storm of 1998, he worked 12- to 15-hour shifts for 84 days straight.

Foley had reportedly been feeling depressed, and Linda Pendexter thinks her brother did not enjoy early retirement, which he took in 2004.

”Kevin was the happiest guy in the world when he was working. He loved making money, he loved working overtime, ” his sister said. ”We’re all pretty high-energy kind of people. I don’t think not working is all that good for us. I think Kevin needed that reason to get up in the morning.”

Foley valued his family above all else, never got in fights and had no interest in guns. He charmed everyone he met.

”Kevin could talk his way out of anything, ” she said. ”He had a gift.”

NO VOLATILITY IN HISTORY

Police have spent the past three weeks trying to understand every facet of Foley’s life, trying to learn his habits and determine exactly who he was with and where he was in his final hours. But because Foley’s lifestyle was so unlike his demise, his death differs from most homicides in the state.

About half the state’s murders – which average 19 a year – are related to domestic violence, where there is a history of volatility and witnesses who observed the conflict, McDonough said.

”Also the location, the scene of the crime, is either a home or a place extremely familiar to an offender.”

Common homicide motives are money, love or drug issues. Sometimes it’s an eruption of anger.

”You have two people who just don’t like each other, that end up in a confrontation, ” McDonough said. ”Intoxication plays a role in a majority of these murders as well, which indicates the best judgment is not being used.”

Foley’s case doesn’t seem to fit any of those descriptions.

Police have been conducting interviews with people who knew Foley to get as precise a picture as possible of the man, while at the same time looking for inconsistencies in the intelligence that might justify closer scrutiny.

The timeline of a victim’s movements becomes very important, McDonough said, and modern investigations often benefit from a person’s electronic trail: cell phone records, e-mails and other computer information.

State police are investigating other recent unsolved homicides, each of them posing unique challenges.

Louise Brochu, 50, was found dead outside her home and business in New Portland on June 8, and Alexandra Mills, 19, was found slain inside her family’s home in Wayne on July 10. Tad Howard, 27, of Ellsworth was found in a ditch in Amherst. Those deaths happened outside of southern Maine.

Detectives from the southern district were sent to help immediately after the slayings, but the cases have not diminished the manpower police are devoting to the Foley investigation, McDonough said.

”They’re adamant that they do it right and they solve these types of cases, and it takes a lot for them to get exhausted, ” McDonough said.

Investigators met with members of the Foley family about a week ago to brief them as much as they could on the progress of the investigation and thank them for their patience, he said.

The circumstances of Foley’s death have forced his friends and family to consider a wide range of disturbing possibilities, but none that make any sense, they insist.

”It is absolutely the most unbelievably mysterious thing, ” Pendexter said. ”When the police would ask us questions – ‘Could he have this problem or that?’ – No.”

She said he wasn’t a big-time gambler and had no enemies she knew of. ”I have no idea in the world why anyone would want Kevin dead. There’s nothing hidden that I know of or I could even imagine.”

Westbrook police say the cemetery where the shooting occurred is not known as a hotbed of illegal activity; amorous teens and youths looking for a place to drink will sometimes go there, police say. Pendexter suspects her brother must have been forced to go there and notes that it was not a gathering spot when they were growing up.

Foley’s wife reported him missing the morning after he left the house, about the same time his body was found.

Foley’s brother Michael Foley said it was not unusual for his brother to stay up late after Christine went to bed, and that his failure to come home would only become apparent the next morning.

Police have examined Foley’s finances looking for clues. There appears no relation to a brother’s recent sentencing in Tennessee on federal charges of improperly collecting insurance commissions.

Police say extensive interviews have uncovered no hidden life, no sullied dark side to Foley’s existence. But they are withholding much of what they know to protect the integrity of the investigation.

”For the people who don’t have the information we do, it does have a bizarre nature to it, ” McDonough said.

Friends and family say that besides desiring to unravel the mystery and gain justice, they hope police solve the case soon so the family can begin to heal.

”I just hope for the family’s sake – for Chris and the kids – they get some closure, ” said Doane.