GORHAM — When a jury in Massachusetts convicted 18-year-old Gary Alan Irving of raping three women in the summer of 1978, he faced life in prison.

The crimes were horrific: Irving knocked one woman off her bicycle, forced her to a secluded area and raped her repeatedly. He forced another woman into his car at knifepoint and assaulted her.

He was convicted of rape, kidnapping and unnatural acts, but the judge, in a gesture of leniency, gave him one last weekend as a free man, to say goodbye to his family and put his affairs in order before he was sentenced. Irving’s father was an auxiliary police officer, so the judge reasoned that he was unlikely to flee.

Irving returned the judge’s trust by disappearing for the next 34 years.

Until Wednesday night. That’s when state troopers from Maine and Massachusetts knocked on the door of his modest two-story house in Gorham as he watched television with his wife.

As he was being arrested, police said, he asked the officers, “How did you find me?”

They didn’t answer him. Nor have they released many details about what led them to one of Massachusetts’ most-wanted fugitives after more than three decades of searching.

Irving, now 52, is due in court Friday on charges of being a fugitive from justice.

Maine State Police Lt. Walter Grzyb said police will use DNA analysis and other advances in forensic science to determine whether Irving could be a suspect in any unsolved crimes in Maine.

Police say it is unusual for a convicted serial rapist to make the leap to law-abiding citizen without lapsing back into crime along the way.

AN ORDINARY LIFE

Irving’s lawyer, Christopher Leddy, said Thursday that Irving fled to Maine because he had camped here as a child and was fond of the state.

He changed his name only slightly, calling himself Gregg Irving, and proceeded to live like someone with nothing to hide.

He married Bonnie Messenger of Gorham just a few years after his conviction. They lived in her mother’s house and eventually bought it. The house is listed in his wife’s name.

They raised a son and a daughter. Irving attended his son’s football games. He became a grandfather. He even registered to vote, in 1984.

Just last month, he and his son helped shovel snow at a neighbor’s home after she came home from the hospital.

“That’s what neighbors do,” he reportedly said, though the woman, who would not give her name, said she rarely saw him.

For 20 years, Irving worked for National Telephone and Technology in Scarborough. He helped install wiring for businesses and municipal offices, including police stations, Leddy said.

The company’s office was closed for much of Thursday, and phone calls to the business number went unanswered.

NEIGHBORS HAD NO SUSPICIONS

“They were just watching tv, doing what a typical family would be doing on a work night, getting ready for dinner,” said Maine State Police Sgt. Robert Burke, who participated in the arrest. “It seemed like they were getting ready to put the grandchild to bed.”

“His wife appeared like she was in a state of shock,” knowing nothing about her husband’s hidden, violent past, Burke said. “She seemed to be a very nice lady.”

In the house, police found numerous guns, which Irving wasn’t allowed to have as a convicted felon.

Neighbors near the house at 151 South St. say they didn’t know Irving well, but could hardly believe he was the man who committed such heinous crimes.

“There was nothing remarkable or unusual about him,” said Leroy Dixon, who lives next to the Irvings.

While the neighbors were cordial, they weren’t close friends. They didn’t share tools or play cards together. The neighborhood on the outer edge of downtown Gorham, with busy Route 114 funneling heavy traffic to and from the village, isn’t that kind of place, Dixon said.

But the Irvings were friendly and seemed like decent people, he said.

“They were good neighbors,” Dixon said. “I would be happy to hear he’s innocent, but it appears he isn’t. I’m very concerned for his family.”

A man and a woman who were approached at the Irvings’ home Thursday declined to discuss the case and asked that reporters respect their privacy.

Irving is being held in the maximum-security unit of the Cumberland County Jail. He, too, declined to talk to a reporter.

After speaking with Irving at the jail, Leddy said his client was remarkably calm. “I think this hasn’t even sunk in yet,” he said.

Irving’s wife, however, is in shock. “The rug just got pulled out from under their entire family,” Leddy said.

He said Irving did not discuss the specifics of his crimes in Massachusetts.

ANSWERING FOR HIS CRIMES

It’s not clear how Irving was able to hide in plain sight for so long, as detectives criss-crossed the country searching for him.

Over the years, he was featured on television shows such as “America’s Most Wanted,” “Unsolved Mysteries” and “Real Stories of the Highway Patrol.” None of the publicity yielded results.

Police say he used the assumed name, a different birth date and a Social Security number that wasn’t his own.

At the time he disappeared, there was no Internet to help track people and no vast databases of easily accessible personal information.

If the Massachusetts governor’s warrant is in order Friday afternoon when Irving appears in Cumberland County Unified Criminal Court, the only question will be whether police can prove that the man who has lived for 34 years as Gregg Irving, an unassuming father and employee in Maine, is really Gary Irving, fugitive rapist from Massachusetts.

Police say there’s no question.

Gary Irving had distinctive scars on his chest and back, from heart surgery when he was a child. The man who was arrested Wednesday night has those scars. And in the jail, police took fingerprints and confirmed his identity, Burke said.

‘GOOD POLICE WORK’ PAYS OFF

After chasing leads in New England, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Colorado, authorities, including members of the Massachusetts Violent Fugitive Apprehension Section, developed leads recently that led them to an up-to-date photo of Irving.

They would not say what led them to Irving, but the chief investigators apparently were in Florida before hurrying north as police assembled to arrest Irving on Wednesday night.

Michael Morrissey, the district attorney in Norfolk County, Mass., called the discovery of Irving’s whereabouts “good, old-fashioned police work,” but he would not elaborate.

Gorham police Lt. Chris Sanborn said police had contact with Irving once over the years, in 2006, when his wife was a victim of identity theft. Somebody had misused her credit card, an account she shared with Irving.

Sanborn said the community should be glad that Irving has finally been caught.

An investigator will now start building a timeline of Irving’s movements since his escape in 1979, working backward to determine when he was hired, where he lived and what he has been doing for 34 years.

“We’re just starting to know who this guy is,” said Grzyb, the state police lieutenant.

Irving’s long-delayed sentence for the rapes could be more severe now because he fled. But his lawyer argues that in the 34 years since Irving evaded punishment for his crimes, he has demonstrated exactly what incarceration is designed to accomplish: rehabilitation.

“How many people can say they worked at the same place for 20 years and have been married for 32?” Leddy said. “It should count for something. I don’t know whether it will.”

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com