Lawyers, friends and supporters who believe Dennis Dechaine was framed for the murder in 1988 of 12-year-old Sarah Cherry have pointed fingers at several possible alternate suspects.
But one name — Douglas Senecal — has been at or near the top of their lists since the beginning.
At least three judges, however, have found no credible evidence linking Senecal to the crime, and they have said Dechaine’s alternate suspect theory is nothing more than speculation.
Senecal himself says the target painted on his back forced him to move out of Maine shortly after Dechaine’s conviction. Being labeled as a possible suspect in one of Maine’s most infamous murders has essentially destroyed his life over the past 22 years, Senecal said in a brief telephone interview last week.
“Whose life is ruined?” he asked tersely.
Senecal, 57, said he hopes he outlives Dechaine, but he still wants to hear a confession from the prisoner so his own name might finally be cleared.
“He won’t do it,” Senecal said. “He can’t confess because he is too far into it, and he is too intelligent.”
During the telephone interview, the retired drywall mason used profanity to blast Dechaine’s camp and the media, including The Portland Press Herald, for dragging his name through the mud in the past two decades.
Since leaving Maine, Senecal has lived in North Carolina and Florida. He wouldn’t say where he currently resides.
In 1988, Senecal lived in Phippsburg and ran a drywall business. He was under indictment in Sagadahoc County for the alleged sexual abuse of one of his stepdaughters five years earlier.
Senecal was connected to Sarah Cherry through a series of divorces and marriages. His stepdaughters were stepsisters to Sarah, and the girls lived in the same home in 1983 at the time of the alleged abuse.
A few days after Sarah Cherry’s body was found in July of 1988, a tenant of a property owned by Senecal called a state social worker to report that she believed Senecal had committed the crime. According to court records, the social worker contacted detectives and told them Senecal had been acting strangely since the murder and was the subject of several allegations of sexual abuse in addition to the pending indictment.
Tom Connolly, Dechaine’s trial lawyer, wanted to call Senecal and his tenant as witnesses at the trial, under the theory of an alternate suspect. Connolly theorized that Senecal feared Sarah Cherry would testify against him in the sexual abuse case. Connolly also claimed Senecal could have known where Sarah was baby-sitting on the day she was abducted.
Senecal’s attorney said his client was running errands the afternoon of the abduction, and his whereabouts were accounted for. The lawyer, Joseph Field, said Senecal had no motive because Sarah was not on the witness list in the sexual abuse case. Field said Senecal had no knowledge of Sarah’s plans to baby-sit.
Justice Carl O. Bradford agreed with Field, and he would not allow Connolly to present his theory at Dechaine’s March 1989 trial.
“I admire your ingenuity, but this is inviting the jury to engage in nothing but speculation,” the judge told Connolly during a conference in chambers, according to a court transcript.
Nor was Senecal tried on the sexual abuse charge. His case was scheduled for trial in late July 1988, but prosecutors continued the case twice because Senecal’s stepdaughter left Maine earlier that summer. Several witnesses said in affidavits that Senecal’s wife arranged for the girl to travel to California so she would not be available to testify. Prosecutors did not resurrect the charge after the girl returned to Maine.
Connolly focused on Senecal again in 1992 in a motion for a new trial for Dechaine. At the hearing, five witnesses provided information implicating Senecal in the murder. One man claimed to have heard Senecal’s voice and the voice of a little girl on a road near the spot where Sarah’s body was found.
Justice Bradford found the testimony was either not credible, hearsay or otherwise inadmissible. The judge ruled that the new evidence “still lacked the substantial link between Douglas Senecal and the alternative perpetrator theory of defense.”
Then in 1994, laboratory testing done by Dechaine’s legal team discovered a partial DNA profile from an unidentified male on Sarah Cherry’s clipped thumbnail. The profile is sufficient to rule out some people, including Dechaine, but there is not enough genetic material to conclusively match the profile to any other individual. There are potentially thousands of people worldwide whose DNA would match the partial profile.
Undeterred by the odds, Dechaine’s defense team has tried to identify the man whose DNA was left on or under Sarah’s thumbnail.
In 1996 and in 1998, Dechaine asked the Superior Court to order Senecal to provide a sample of his saliva for the purposes of a comparison. Dechaine made the same request to a federal judge in 2000. The requests were denied.
In a 2004 interview with Bill Nemitz, columnist for The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, Senecal said he would not provide a DNA sample to Dechaine’s defense team because he did not trust them. Senecal believed lawyer Connolly might have already secretly obtained his DNA – perhaps by taking one of his hairbrushes or a dropped cigarette butt — and transferred it onto Sarah Cherry’s thumbnail.
Senecal reiterated that deep sense of suspicion in last week’s telephone interview.
“There is not a soul on this earth that I trust, except my wife and son,” he said, while noting that his wife died three years ago.
Senecal is aware that his name could come up once again in Dechaine’s pending bid for a new trial. Dechaine’s current attorney, Steve Peterson of Rockport, has said he will try to introduce evidence to support his theory that another man killed Sarah Cherry. But Peterson said a court order prohibits him from talking about that aspect of the appeal.
“When is it going to be done? I’ve been waiting 25 years,” Senecal said. “I don’t need an attorney, I have done nothing wrong except be born.”
His son, 29-year-old Isaac Senecal, said anyone who truly knows his father knows that Doug Senecal had nothing to do with Sarah Cherry’s death.
“Having seen what my dad and the rest of my family has had to go through, it is disheartening,” Isaac Senecal said of the constant intrusions by reporters and private investigators.
Isaac Senecal lives in North Carolina and serves in the Air Force Reserves. He went on reserve status three years ago after seven years of active duty that included three years in the Iraq war. Isaac was 7 years old when his father’s name was first connected with the Dechaine case.
“He is my best friend in the world,” Isaac Senecal said of his father. “He is an awesome person, and I have a very close circle of friends that would say the same thing.
“You can go to anybody in prison and they have an army of people behind them who say they didn’t do it. What bothers me is they have no facts,” he said. “A name came up on the radar, it was my dad’s, and he has had to live with that.”