LISBON FALLS – Faith, friends and family.
Those are the pillars on which her loved ones have leaned during the 22 years since Sarah Cherry was kidnapped and brutally murdered.
“It’s amazing how much support there is out there, and how it has come to us in so many different ways,” Peg Cherry said on a recent afternoon, sitting in her living room with her husband, Bud.
Their granddaughter, Sarah, spent a lot of time here with them and her cousins, aunts and uncles. Most of those relatives attended the trial of Dennis Dechaine in March 1989, and they often prayed together outside the courtroom.
Dechaine was convicted and sent to prison for life, but claims he is innocent and continues to press for a new trial.
The Cherrys believe the right man was convicted.
They don’t understand why Dechaine has attracted so many supporters, many of whom are active in a group called Trial and Error. The attention sought and received by the group, both from the media and the general public, continues to frustrate the family.
“They weren’t there,” Bud Cherry said. “That’s one of the things that really bothers me, that most of these people never saw the trial.”
Peg Cherry said she understands that Dechaine’s motion for a new trial, scheduled to be heard this fall, will thrust the case back in the public spotlight again. She said it is important for her to speak up for her granddaughter.
“Her name comes up at every family gathering,” Cherry said. “She’ll never be forgotten.”
Peg and Bud Cherry had five daughters, including Sarah’s mother, Debbie Crosman. Debbie and Sarah’s stepfather, Chris Crosman, raised Sarah in Bowdoin. Chris Crosman’s daughters sometimes lived with the family.
Chris and Debbie Crosman are still married.
“She and her husband have managed to survive and get through it, but of course she is still devastated,” Peg Cherry said of Debbie Crosman.
Sarah’s death was one of two tragedies for the family in 1988. Debbie’s sister, Melissa Cherry, died about five weeks after the murder, when a truck went out of control and hit her car.
The Cherry Camp Fund, in honor of Sarah and Melissa, helps pay for kids to attend a Christian summer camp in Maine. There also is a scholarship fund in Sarah’s name at Mt. Ararat High School in Topsham.
The Rev. Robert Dorr of Waldoboro has been a loyal and trusted supporter of the Cherry family.
He had just started working as pastor of the United Methodist Church in Lisbon Falls when he received word that a member of his congregation was missing.
Dorr was among those who searched the woods for Sarah and prayed over her body after it was discovered on July 8, 1988. In the aftermath, he counseled not only the Cherry family, but an entire congregation that was in shock and grieving.
At Dechaine’s trial, Dorr led the Cherry family in prayer circles. When the sheriff’s deputies asked them not to pray inside the courtroom, the family took their prayer sessions to the parking lot.
“Faith is a hard thing to describe,” Dorr said. “I was just their support person. All I know is that they just stood together, and that was their grounding.”
Dorr has acted as both a spokesman and guardian for the family. When a Dechaine supporter was aggressive attempting to speak with the family, Dorr confronted leaders of Trial and Error about their insensitivity.
“A family can be put through over 20 years of this, first of all the murder itself, and then to have to endure, time and time again, the appeals and the confrontations they have dealt with from the people who support Mr. Dechaine,” Dorr said.
“There are a lot of families that would not have been able to withstand it,” he said. “They stand as one.”
Peg Cherry said the family also has received support through the Maine Chapter of Parents of Murdered Children.
“Going back all the way to the trial, they reached out to us when we needed it,” Cherry said.
Sarah Cherry was a straight-A student at Bowdoin Central School. Whenever the relatives and neighborhood kids gathered to play at Peg and Bud Cherry’s house, Sarah pretended to be the teacher.
Peg Cherry thinks her granddaughter would have gone on to do exactly that.
“She would have been a great teacher,” she said. “Sarah had that maturity that really stood out.”