MADAWASKA – The boys would play on the train tracks near their neighborhood, climbing ladders on the sides of the freight cars and jumping from one to the next.
Down across the flood plains of the St. John River, they’d launch into the air on Tarzan swings that stretched from tall trees across old gullies.
One, Jesse Waltman, had moved to town when he was in fifth grade, after his dad died in Vietnam. The other, Dennis Dechaine, was 9 years old and had lost his mother to cancer. The two became best friends.
But in 1988, Dechaine’s life took a dark turn. He was 30 when he was charged with the murder of 12-year-old Sarah Cherry. Dechaine has been incarcerated since his 1988 arrest.
His path from life in this small mill town to the central role in one of Maine’s most contentious and notorious murders is inconceivable to those who knew him.
“I’ve never been able to accept that Dennis could have done this,” said Roger Martin, Dechaine’s guidance counselor at Madawaska High School.
“I didn’t see him getting into any fights in school, altercations with other kids … Dennis was just a good kid, easy to talk to, always very polite — just a nice kid.”
Dechaine, the youngest of four brothers, grew up in a big house in a neighborhood off Main Street, behind the town’s police station.
His father owned a gas station and ran a taxi service. After Dechaine’s mother died, an aunt helped keep house and watch the kids.
But then, when Dennis was 14, his father died of a heart attack. His oldest brother, Phil, left the Coast Guard and returned home to take care of his brothers.
Dechaine was a good student, recalls Carol Waltman, Jesse Waltman’s wife, who herself was a good friend of Dechaine’s in high school. She is the founder and main force behind Trial and Error, the advocacy group that has been pushing for a new trial for Dechaine.
Even after losing both parents, Dechaine was a very positive person, said Carol Waltman, adding that he enjoyed photography and took pictures for the school yearbook.
“In high school, all you’d see was Dennis with a smile, and a camera — and the camera was bigger than him,” she said.
Carol Waltman said she didn’t know Dechaine was experimenting with illegal drugs during high school. At his 1989 trial, Dechaine said he tried to hide that aspect of his life because he was embarrassed. He began smoking marijuana around his sophomore year, and he also tried cocaine and LSD while he was a teenager. At his trial, Dechaine said that when he was in his 20s, he sporadically used marijuana and cocaine.
In high school, Martin, the guidance counselor, recommended Dechaine for the Upward Bound program at Bowdoin College, an outdoors-based education experience.
Martin said Dechaine didn’t have a lot of parental oversight, and he wanted him to experience a bit of the world, and to get him thinking about college. “I probably felt he had more ability than he used,” he said.
Dechaine took part in the program for three years. After graduating in 1976, Dechaine enrolled at Vermont Technical College, where he studied agricultural business management.
Dechaine received his associate’s degree and moved on to Western Washington University.
Steve Young didn’t know Dechaine well in high school. But when Young was at the University of Maine at Orono, Dechaine came for a concert and stayed with him. The two became good friends.
The two talked about nature and jazz music, and canoed the Allagash. When Dechaine moved to Washington state, he convinced Young to join him.
Dechaine was always working, keeping busy, said Young.
“Dennis was the kind of guy that if it rained, he was out there picking up night crawlers to go fishing,” said Young. “He represented to me what people say about the work ethic of people from northern Maine.”
Dechaine had met a woman, Nancy Emmons, at Western Washington University. They graduated together in 1983, married that fall in Colorado and returned to Maine to work on a sheep farm in Bowdoinham.
The couple started their own business, with a vegetable stand, greenhouses and Christmas wreaths and gift baskets. They bought a house and called it Basswood Farm, where they raised sheep, goats, chickens, rabbits, geese and ducks.
Days before his arrest, Dechaine was in Madawaska for a family reunion. He visited with Young’s parents, and with Young, who had a 3-week-old daughter. Dechaine wanted Young, an accomplished photographer, to take some product shots of the gift baskets he and his wife were selling.
“He was real happy,” said Young.
A few days later, Young’s sister called to tell him Dechaine had been arrested for murder. Young called the jail and spoke with Dechaine; his friend told him he didn’t know what was going on.
“It was like a dream, but like a bad one, of course,” said Young.
Nancy Dechaine and Dennis Dechaine divorced shortly after he was convicted in March 1989.
Tom Connolly, Dechaine’s trial lawyer, said Nancy still supported Dennis but needed the divorce to protect her half of the marital property in a wrongful death lawsuit filed against Dechaine by Cherry’s family. The family later won its case.
Nancy moved out of Maine, remarried and had children. She eventually told Dechaine that she would not be in contact because she did not want to expose her new family to the case, Connolly said.
Reached last week by e-mail, Nancy Emmons declined to comment for this story.
Over the years, Young said, he would visit regularly with Dechaine in prison, bringing photos of his daughter. But Dechaine eventually asked him not to communicate so often.
“It’d bum him out — he’d think about what it was, about what it could have been,” said Young.
Young firmly believes his friend is innocent, and a guilty person is free.
And his close friends wonder how Dechaine’s life — and their own — would be different if he hadn’t been charged and convicted.
“Compared to Sarah Cherry’s family, or to Dennis — you can’t compare. But all his close friends and relations have never been the same,” said Young.
At the end of an interview, Jesse Waltman leaned forward, tapping his finger where his neck meets his head.
“The Dennis thing’s always here, in the back of my head.”
Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell contributed to this report.
Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at: