ROME — Christopher Knight went into the central Maine wilderness 27 years ago.

He built a hut on a slope in the woods, where he spent his days reading books and meditating.

There he lived, re-entering civilization only to steal supplies from camps under the cover of darkness. During those nearly three decades, he spoke just once to another person – until he was arrested during a burglary last week.

In between, Knight told police, he committed more than 1,000 burglaries, always taking only what he needed to survive. He became so familiar for his thievery and elusiveness that he spawned the local legend of the North Pond Hermit, who for years confounded both locals and police investigating the break-ins.

In June 2005, the Morning Sentinel published a story about the “hermit of North Pond,” who, it said, “for the last 15 years has been picking his way through dozens of the 300 or so camps around North Pond.”

“It’s been a myth, or legend, that a hermit was responsible,” Maine State Trooper Diane Perkins-Vance told the Kennebec Journal on Tuesday. “That happens to be the case.”

The 47-year-old hermit now awaits his future at the Kennebec County Jail, where he is being held in lieu of $5,000 cash bail on charges of burglary and theft.

Even as law enforcement continues to piece together a story that sounds too incredible to be true, every new layer of evidence uncovered since Knight’s arrest has buttressed the legend of the hermit burglar in the area of the pond, which is surrounded by Smithfield, Mercer and Rome.

On Tuesday, police uncovered the ultimate evidence of Knight’s odyssey: the makeshift campsite in the woods of Rome that was Knight’s home for 27 years.

“He said he just came into the woods one day in 1986,” Perkins-Vance said. “He claims he hadn’t had a conversation with another human being since the mid-1990s, when he encountered someone on a trail. I was the first person he talked to since the 1990s. People are like, ‘No way!’ But yeah, it’s true.”

While police are still investigating how Knight managed his decades-long withdrawal from society, they have not learned why. And they may never know.

Knight has always been interested in hermits, according to Perkins-Vance, and loved the book “Robinson Crusoe,” the story of a man stranded on an island for decades.

Beyond that, Perkins-Vance said, Knight had no deeper explanation for heading into the woods. He said he had a good childhood growing up in Albion. He left society after the April 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Russia, but Perkins-Vance said Knight remembers that event to mark the date of departure rather than to provide its motive.

“He didn’t give a reason,” Perkins-Vance said. “He said he frequently asks himself that same question.”

“I couldn’t fathom why he has done what he has done,” said Sgt. Terry Hughes of the Maine Warden Service.

There must have been times during the winter, Hughes said, when it was well below zero and the wind was howling that Knight dreamed about checking into a motel or a shelter.

“To maintain his position is phenomenal,” Hughes said.

Hermit arrested

Christopher Thomas Knight’s first contact with another human being in 27 years — outside of that hiker with whom he exchanged a greeting in the mid-1990s — came around 1:15 a.m. Thursday.

Hughes said he arrested Knight as he carried meat and other food from Pine Tree Camp in Rome, which serves children and adults with disabilities.

Knight estimated he had broken into the camp more than 50 times over the years and taken thousands of dollars of meat, beer, coffee and other supplies.

Hughes heard about the case when he joined the Maine Warden Service 18 years ago and has been involved in investigating the burglaries in recent years.

“He made one fatal mistake,” Hughes said. “He hit this year on my birthday.”

That mid-March birthday break-in, combined with Hughes’ interest in the case, spiked his determination to catch the burglar. Working with U.S. Border Patrol in Rangeley, Hughes set up surveillance equipment that would trigger an alarm at Hughes’ nearby home if someone entered the camp’s dining hall after hours.

“I was extremely confident he would be apprehended,” Hughes said. “I knew sooner or later he was going to trip that camera.”

That moment came last Thursday morning. Hughes made it to the campground within minutes and watched from outside as Knight went through the kitchen collecting food items.

Hughes said he knew it was the hermit. “There was absolutely no question,” he said.

Knight left the building and Hughes identified himself as a warden before ordering Knight to the ground and placing him under arrest. Knight had been carrying about $280 worth of food.

Knight was relatively clean-shaven, his hair was cut to a normal length and he was balding, Hughes said. He was wearing a clean pair of jeans and a clean shirt.

“You could walk into a store and walk by him and never know,” Hughes said.

Police said they found Knight carrying a wad of bills — some of the money dated back to the 1990s — and some of it was moldy. Knight told them “he carried it in case he ever needed to go to a store someday,” Perkins-Vance said.

‘Every step was calculated’

Knight has admitted to committing about 40 burglaries a year for the past 27 years, according to Perkins-Vance.

“I would say it’s well over 1,000 burglaries,” Perkins-Vance said. “He did it to survive. Everything he stole was to survive.”

Knight said he stole everything he has, except for his aviator-style eyeglasses, which are the same pair he wore in 1986.

“He did make the comment that he’s having a hard time seeing,” Perkins-Vance said.

Knight’s dramatic story began to take shape under questioning by Perkins-Vance and Hughes.

“He was very intelligent,” Perkins-Vance said.

“He thought about what he wanted to say before he said it and was very articulate,” Hughes said.

Knight graduated from Lawrence High School in 1984. His senior photo in the yearbook shows him standing with his arms crossed and no hint of a smile on his face. Knight listed no clubs or activities and, for future plans, said he would be a computer technician.

Two years later he took to the woods.

He spent a few years at one camp before moving to a new location because of fears he would be spotted. Warden Dan Christianson said Knight had been at his current location since 1989.

On Tuesday, Christianson pointed to a spot a few feet away from Knight’s tent: “He said he’s watched that mushroom grow for the last four years.”

Knight went to great lengths to make the camp invisible from the ground and the air, even covering a yellow shovel with a black bag. Knight never had a fire, even on the coldest days, for fear of being detected. He covered shiny surfaces, like his metal trash cans, with moss and dirt and painted green a clear plastic sheet over his tent.

Knight even situated his campsite facing east and west to make the best use of the sun throughout the day.

Knight’s abilities at concealment at first made Hughes believe that he must be a military veteran.

“I don’t know how he learned that,” Hughes said.

Hughes, who spent eight years in the U.S. Marines and 18 years with the warden service finding and tracking experienced woodsmen, marveled at Knight’s meticulousness.

Knight, who led Hughes and Perkins-Vance to his campsite, carefully avoided snow, stepped on rocks when he could and even avoided breaking branches in thick growth. Knight usually put on weight in the fall so he would have to eat less in the winter and thus avoid making treks for food and risk leaving prints in the snow.

“Every step was calculated,” Hughes said.

Inside the encampment

Knight often made the trip at night, carrying stolen supplies, using only a pen light.

He draped dark tarps over rope strung between trees, and tarps underneath, to give added protection from rain. One of those ropes has been in place so long that it has grown deep into the tree.

Inside the tent on Tuesday, there was a bed, somehow raised off the ground, surrounded by Rubbermaid totes that he used as nightstands to hold his radio and other supplies.

Outside he had fashioned an antenna to the top of the tree, about 30 feet in the air, with a cable running into his tent. Knight told police he listened to talk radio, such as Rush Limbaugh, and WBLM. For a short time Knight even had a TV but he found it drained his batteries too quickly.

Knight cooked with a pair of propane stoves. A large stockpile of empty tanks was stashed in the makeshift dump he created near his tent.

The campsite is neat and orderly — remarkably civilized for someone who tried so desperately to avoid civilization. Knight even set up mouse traps inside his tents to keep the critters from eating his food.

Knight stole all the food he ate, including meat and other perishables. Wardens were unsure what he did to preserve those items.

“He doesn’t hunt,” Hughes said. “He tried fishing a few times but it was too much work.”

Beer caps and batteries of all sizes dot the ground outside the tent. There also were a number of larger boat batteries and some the Pine Tree Camp had used to power their electric four-wheelers.

Nearby Knight had stashed under a rock a pair of leather boots, weathered badly from exposure.

Clothes hung for drying on rope stretched between trees immediately outside the tent. Nearby, Knight had erected a makeshift shower well hidden behind a small growth of fir trees.

There were no permanent structures — nothing was nailed down. The dirt was worn in the area, but otherwise there were no permanent reminders of a life lived in the space.

Knight said he spent his days at camp reading and meditating.

“I asked him, ‘What kind of books do you read?'” Hughes said. “He said, ‘Whatever I can steal.'”

Stranger in a photo

Last fall police released to the media a surveillance photo of a man with aviator glasses and a backpack breaking into a camp in Smithfield.

Knight said he heard about the photo on the radio and figured it was him, police said.

“He assumed we were getting close,” Perkins-Vance said.

Hughes showed Knight a copy of that photo, which showed Knight’s face clearly. She asked him if he could identify the man pictured in the photo. Knight studied the photo for some time, but was unable to identify himself, Perkins-Vance said.

Knight, who shaves without a mirror, said he has caught only glimpses of his reflection in pools of water.

“He hasn’t seen himself in the mirror for well over 20 years,” Hughes said. “It’s a very unusual situation.”

Knight expressed shame and remorse over the burglaries, Hughes said. He referred to a pair of boots he was wearing not just as boots, but “stolen boots.”

“He owned up to it and understood it was wrong,” Hughes said. “He immediately identifies things as being stolen. He connected the dots of his actions being wrong. I was very surprised by that.”

Knight said he never got sick in those 27 years because he never had contact with any people, Hughes said. Knight managed to avoid significant injuries, such as broken bones, despite traipsing through the woods at night.

But Knight is concerned now that he has diabetes.

“He had a sore on his hands he was looking at,” Hughes said. “He said, ‘My wounds don’t heal like they used to.'”

Knight admitted to Hughes that there were times when the effort was too great and he considered suicide. Knight told Perkins-Vance and Hughes that he was glad his solitude had ended, but he offered no better explanation for that relief than he did his decision to enter the woods in the first place.

“I think he’s been alone for so many years that a part of him wanted to give up,” Hughes said. “But the other part that wanted to stay was stronger.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642
ccrosby@centralmaine.com