AUGUSTA — How did Christoper Knight end up in a Co-Occurring Disorders Court, where defendants usually carry a dual diagnosis of substance abuse and mental health disorders?
It was the best fit to reintegrate Knight, 47, dubbed the North Pond hermit, into society, say people who agreed to place him there.
“We’ll take a mental health diagnosis and a substance abuse problem or just a mental health diagnosis,” said Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills, who presides over the Co-Occurring Disorders Court. “If it’s just a substance abuse problem, the defendant could probably qualify for one of the drug courts.”
Knight spent the past 27 years living in the central Maine woods around Little North and North ponds in Rome and Smithfield, avoiding contact with people and making night forays into usually unoccupied camps to steal everything he needed to survive. His story gained national notoriety.
“Co-Occurring Disorders Court is the best place for people transitioning,” said Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty. “We had a good consensus that this was the best scenario for him. This was a unique situation. It probably was a looser fit (than other defendants in the court), but it was the best safety net we could provide him with existing resources. Everybody just wants this gentleman to transition well and succeed.”
Liberty’s jail has held Knight since April 4. That’s when he was arrested as he was leaving the dining hall of Pine Tree Camp in Rome with a backpack and duffel bag crammed with food and other goods. It was the third time in a year that Knight had burglarized the camp for children and adults with disabilities.
Last week, Knight pleaded guilty to those burglaries and thefts as well as to burglarizing three private seasonal camps, one of them in Somerset County, over the past six years.
Those crimes were a small fraction of the thousand burglaries and thefts he estimated he committed over the almost three decades since he left his family’s Albion home for his solitary existence.
He told authorities he spent his time reading books, camouflaging his camps and listening to battery-powered radios. Knight had no contact with his family until they visited him in jail.
Knight’s attorney, Walter McKee, said that Knight underwent – at McKee’s request – a complete evaluation by the State Forensic Service, which assesses defendants for the court.
“That identified significant mental health problems,” McKee said. “And there was evidence he’d been stealing alcohol and consuming it over some period of time.”
McKee wouldn’t specify the mental health diagnosis.
At last week’s hearing in Kennebec County Superior Court, where Knight was admitted to the specialty court after his guilty pleas, there was no mention of those problems, but the alcohol issue was already public.
“We discussed ahead of time what we were going to put before the public,” District Attorney Maeghan Maloney said shortly after the hearing.
Knight said little at his hearing except to respond to questions from Mills about whether he understood his rights and the consequences of his guilty pleas. When she asked if he wanted to address the court, he declined.
McKee later described Knight as “withdrawn, consistent with living in the woods for 27 years.”
“There’s no clear indication of why he decided to stay living in the woods for 27 years,” he said.
Weekly meetings of the Co-Occurring Disorders Court and the more frequent contact with members of the court team, some of whom make unannounced checks to make sure defendants comply with curfews as well as random drug screening, help ensure compliance and make problems clear almost immediately.
“Short of an ankle bracelet, you’re not going to get anybody more closely monitored,” McKee said.
McKee said he fully expects Knight to succeed in the court program. “I’ll be there for sentencing and graduation,” McKee said.
McKee credited Maloney for “thinking outside the box” and working to get Knight into the program.
Maloney said those admitted to the court can have either a mental health diagnosis or a substance abuse problems, although preference is given to those who have a combination.
“If the team thinks they can help someone, they will,” Maloney said. “We always make room for people we think we can help.”
The court program uses a team approach, with the team headed by Mills, who can veto admittance.
“She truly is one of the most compassionate human beings,” Maloney said. “She is a big reason we’ve had so much success. People in the court know she honestly believes in them and is rooting for them.”
The Co-Occurring Disorders Court was founded in 2005, and a veterans court portion was added in 2011.
Admission to the court – where the defendants plead guilty to crimes and are given the sentences under both the best-case and worst-case scenarios – is public, as are the final hearings when the sentence is imposed. However, the weekly meetings with the judge and the team are private.
Mills said those sessions include discussions of mental health and substance abuse problems, which federal legislation indicates should be closed. On the other hand, she said, “The legal aspects are not confidential.”
Mills, who founded the Co-Occurring Disorders Court, has been open to accepting defendants charged with varying crimes into the program, and particularly those who are veterans.
“They need our help,” Mills said. “They have very significant challenges, and you just can’t punish them by incarceration and have them come out with no changes.”
Betty Adams can be contacted at 621-5631 or at: