NORTH YARMOUTH — Merrill “Mike” Kimball and Leon Kelley had never met before the day one shot the other.
But the tension between their families had been brewing, and it had recently escalated.
At the center were Stanford Brown, a 94-year-old master beekeeper well known in the small community of devoted beekeepers, and the bee business he built. Brown had devoted a chunk of his 10 acres of land off Greely Road to meadow for his honeybees to forage.
Kimball’s wife, Karen Thurlow-Kimball, had worked at Brown’s Bee Farm for years tending hives, processing honey and selling equipment to hobbyists – gradually taking over more and more of the operation until she started referring to herself as the owner.
Then Brown made Thurlow-Kimball part of his will, an indication to his family that she, not they, would inherit the bee business and four acres of land.
Brown’s daughters – including Leon Kelley’s wife, Kathy Kelley – and other family members became concerned that Thurlow-Kimball was taking advantage of the older man, whose memory was fading.
There was no hint, however, that the conflict would escalate to violence.
But on Oct. 6, Leon Kelley lay dead and Kimball now stands accused of murder for shooting him to death during a brief confrontation at the bee farm. Kimball is 70. Kelley was 63.
The homicide shocked the small communities of North Yarmouth and Cumberland, which had not seen a murder since one out-of-state carnival worker stabbed another during the Cumberland Fair in 1994. The shooting stunned the maritime communities of Georgetown and Yarmouth, where the deceased and accused are well known. It also startled the state’s wide circle of beekeepers, many of whom consider Brown a founding father in the Maine apiary industry and have bought supplies from him for years.
How did family, property and suspicion combine to cause these disparate – but in some ways similar – people to come together in such a volatile way? The following account is drawn from interviews with family members, friends, lawyers and people familiar with the police investigation.
LOBSTERMAN AND HELPING HAND
Leon Kelley was a native of Five Islands, harvesting lobster off the picturesque fishing community at the eastern edge of Georgetown.
He was a big man physically, but was known for his wide smile, not his broad shoulders.
“Anybody you find that dealt with Leon will tell you he’s a gentle giant,” said his brother Joseph. Leon Kelley had no criminal record, according to the Maine Bureau of Identification.
Growing up, Kelley, who was older than his brother Bill by three years and Joe by six, didn’t pick on his brothers or anybody else, they said. Both admired him.
“Out of the three of us, he was the one that never had any trouble, did good in school,” Bill Kelley said.
Kelley served in the 25th Infantry Division during the Vietnam War. When he returned, he had lost any interest in guns.
“We used to shoot skeet, but when I asked to go out, he said no,” Bill Kelley said. “He just didn’t like guns anymore.”
Kelley was working for a trucking company in Massachusetts when he chose sobriety in his late 20s.
Ray Kane, who was active in Alcoholics Anonymous, worked with him.
“He came up to me one night at work and he said, ‘Ray, I need some help. Can you help me?’ I took him to his first AA meetings and we became good friends,” Kane said.
They stayed close.
“Leon was going to get his 34-year chip in AA,” Kane said, referring to a token representing 34 years of sobriety. “The day before Leon was shot, my son called and said, ‘I’m going to call Leon on Monday and go to the meeting with him and see him get his chip.’ Then Sunday he got that call,” Kane said, his voice quivering with emotion.
Brian Kelley, Leon’s son, said his father’s work helping people through AA was his legacy. “From the time I was a little kid, I can remember waking up in the middle of the night and the phone ringing. Somebody from the program would be having a hard time, somebody sideways drunk,” Brian Kelley said. “At 1, 2 in the morning, he’d make them a cup of coffee and they’d sit there and talk all night.”
Leon Kelley’s unflagging concern meant that when Brian got into trouble as a teenager, he would face lectures at their kitchen table that would go on for hours. But in the middle of his scolding, his father would break off the lecture and look at him from his large chair at the end of the oak table.
“He would take a big breath and tell me he loved me, and that was why he was doing that,” said Brian Kelley, now also a Georgetown lobsterman. “He was a really loving father and he was very open about it. He never held back that he loved anybody. He was a big guy but he wasn’t afraid to show affection.”
Leon Kelley met his second wife while he was driving for the oil company M.W. Sewall. Kathleen Brown worked in the office.
“They were good for one another,” Joe Kelley said.
Kelley lost one of his kidneys to cancer and eventually gave up driving, taking up lobstering instead. It was something that he and his brothers had done as kids.
He and Kathy often worked his 400 traps together, Joe Kelley said. “Kathy was his sternman.” But he enjoyed the solitude of the water as well, he said. His marriage to Kathy in 1999 brought him into the Brown clan.
“He adopted one of the children and was like a father to the rest of them,” Joe Kelley said of Kathy’s children from a previous relationship.
He also got along well with her father, Stan Brown. The couple often visited the older man on weekends.
Stanford Brown was born shortly after World War I, when his hometown of Cumberland was predominantly agricultural and had about 1,200 people.
He was handy and hardworking. He made a sawmill out of a Model T Ford and as a high school student worked summers as a superintendent for the Maine Department of Transportation, according to a profile of him on the website Unique Maine Farms.
Brown worked for years professionally as a plumber, electrician, septic system installer and was the code enforcement and plumbing inspector for North Yarmouth. Even in recent years, Brown could be counted on to fill in if a project in a neighboring town needed an inspection, said Yarmouth Town Manager Nat Tupper.
At 93, he was still driving a snowplow.
But his real passion began when he was 12 and found his first swarm of bees.
He became a master beekeeper long before the hobby became popular, and many sought him out for advice. He is now the oldest registered beekeeper in the state, possibly the country.
Brown has been an advocate for bee sting therapy. He says the stings helped him stave off the worst of his rheumatoid arthritis and people with conditions such as multiple sclerosis sought him out. He drinks a mixture of apple cider vinegar and honey every day and takes a bee pollen pill.
K.C. Hughes lives across the street and speaks highly of Brown, describing him as the kind of neighbor who plowed Hughes’ driveway when he was away and unable to do it himself.
Brown’s second wife, Kitty, died five years ago. His son Robert, the one child who had been most involved in the beekeeping and supply operation, also died.
After that, Karen Thurlow-Kimball showed up and offered to help him. Although she has declined requests for interviews since the shooting, her work at Brown’s Bee Farm has been discussed in beekeeping newsletters and articles.
Growing up in Massachusetts in a Newburyport fishing family, she was working on a dairy farm and helped an older woman with her beehives when the woman couldn’t keep up with them. In return, the woman gave her two hives, Thurlow-Kimball told American Bee Journal.
Most of Thurlow-Kimball’s life has been devoted to animals. She eventually became a veterinary technician, operated a small farm, handled show dogs and got certified in pet massage therapy.
She is of Micmac heritage, and studied the medicinal plants of the Native American Wabanaki tribe, according to a biography on Unique Maine Farms.
She moved to Maine in 1995 and married Merrill Kimball, a Yarmouth lobsterman, helping manage the landward side of their lobster business, while Kimball tended about 800 traps. At times she would join him as a sternman.
She started working at Brown’s Bee Farm about five years ago, tending hives and other aspects of the business.
“They were kindred spirits because she likes to raise bees,” said Daniel Lilley, the Kimballs’ attorney. “The kids in the family didn’t have much interest and didn’t pay any attention. She helped him. There was no ulterior motive.”
Brown says Thurlow-Kimball was a good worker and quick study.
“You showed her something once, you didn’t have to show her again,” he said.
She helped modernize his business, designing a website that lists her as manager. It’s not clear what financial arrangement existed between her and Brown, though she has described running the bee supply business and tending the hives as her full-time job. On her LinkedIn page, a social networking site for business professionals, Thurlow-Kimball described herself as the owner of Brown’s Bee Farm.
In a February article in American Bee Jounral, she said she had 51 hives and that Brown had three. That report puzzled friends, who thought Brown had many more hives.
“I always knew Stan to have 50 or so hives,” said Harland Storey, a former town councilor who is also a bee hobbyist and buys supplies and gear from Brown. The last time he was in the store, Storey recalled, he handed the money to Thurlow-Kimball, who then turned and handed the money to Brown.
A hive is worth about $250 and, depending on the year, 50 hives might generate 1,900 pounds of honey, with an average retail price of about $5 per pound.
Kimball has also refused to speak to the press, but friends and acquaintances say his involvement in last month’s shooting doesn’t square with the man they know.
Deborah Delp runs Yankee Marine in Yarmouth, where Kimball keeps his lobster boat.
“Mike is a good friend and a great customer,” Delp said, adding that they have worked together on waterfront issues, including the need to dredge Yarmouth’s harbor.
“He’s 70 years old and he’s still lobstering. He’s just a real hard worker,” she said.
Kimball participated in meetings with U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, and had planned to take the senator out on his 42-foot lobster boat, the Adam and Joshua, to see firsthand the issues affecting the harbor and its fishermen.
Tupper, the Yarmouth town manager, knows Kimball from his service on the town’s Harbor and Waterfront Committee. In dealings with U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ office on the issue of dredging the town harbor, Kimball was the voice of the fishermen, Tupper said.
Kimball was married to Nan Jordan Kimball, a longtime Yarmouth schoolteacher, until her death from cancer in 1988. The town dedicated the children’s playground on North Road to her. The Lions Club, of which Mike Kimball was a member, donated $15,000 to develop the park.
Kimball and Thurlow-Kimball live in a 140-year-old house on Portland Street, with a greenhouse in back with some of his lobster gear. They have four grown children, according to published reports.
Maine Marine Patrol Officer Thomas Wale, who has covered the southern Maine coast for almost 18 years, said he has never had a problem with Kimball.
“I’ve always had really good dealings with Mike Kimball,” he said. “The only thing I ever found for him was, he was short a life jacket or flares.”
Wale said he has heard the nickname “Mike the Knife” attributed to Kimball, but thinks that stems from disputes over lobster territory 20 or 30 years ago. In the only serious confrontation he’s aware of involving Kimball, another man threatened to climb on Kimball’s boat and attack him.
“He was shook up,” he said. Kimball reported the incident to police a couple of days later. Wale wasn’t called on to intervene.
Kimball has no criminal record, according to the State Bureau of Identification.
The signs that rifts were brewing between members of Brown’s family and Thurlow-Kimball were evident for some time.
One rift culminated in a call to the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office in August 2012.
Thurlow-Kimball said she caught Brown’s daughter Anne in the shop on Honey Comb Drive, trying to take an old Brown’s Bee Farm sign that was hanging in the office. She had already taken another sign from the garage. Anne Brown, who lives in a log cabin across the street from her father’s business, said the signs were hers.
The report to the sheriff came from Stan Brown’s daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Adams, according to the police report on the incident. Adams had power of attorney for Brown at the time but said Friday she no longer serves in that role, that Kathy Kelley took it over in August.
Adams said in the report that Anne Brown was trespassing and Stan Brown agreed, saying his daughter shouldn’t be allowed on the property.
Stan Brown and his daughter appear to have reconciled and Anne has been with her father at his house frequently since the shooting.
Asked whether the family was concerned about Thurlow-Kimball’s influence over her father, Anne Brown refused to be specific, saying only that she believed the woman had been taking advantage of the situation for some time. She said her father was starting to experience dementia. While still physically active, he might have become more vulnerable than he had previously been.
On the day of the shooting, a Sunday, Thurlow-Kimball, her son Damon and Kimball pulled onto Honey Comb Drive about 3 p.m. She was retrieving the honey she had spent the previous several months gathering and processing – almost two dozen 50-pound jars, worth about $6,000, Lilley said. Her son and husband came along to help load the jars into the two vehicles they brought.
Thurlow-Kimball knew family members had been accusing her of stealing and otherwise taking advantage of Brown.
“When they found Stan’s will, they were horrified,” Lilley said, even though he characterized the four acres of land as wetlands that were worth little. “It’s a bee shack and it’s got some bee equipment. Unfortunately, it didn’t include the family because they had no interest.”
They sent an email to her saying that if she was going to inherit the business, she would have to start working regular hours there, he said.
“They have apparently considered this to be some sort of sinister plot to get his inheritance,” Lilley said. “That’s not true. They’ve taken it out on her, falsely accused her of stealing, accused her husband of stealing. … It’s all based on emotions. Jealousy, envy.”
That Sunday, Kelley and his wife and their son were visiting Brown at his house on Greely Road, across from the Val Halla golf course.
Brown told his visiting family he didn’t want Kimball, at least, at the shop.
“He was told two months ago to stay away from the property,” Brown said recently.
Leon Kelley “thought a lot of Stan and loved Kathy to death,” his son Brian Kelley said. “If Stan said he doesn’t want that guy here,” he would have volunteered to help Stan.
Kelley drove the short distance to the driveway of the business and confronted Kimball, blocking his path to the garage and telling him to leave.
Moments later, Kelley – a man whose family called him a gentle giant who disliked guns – lay mortally wounded, his wife and son crouched over him.
Kimball was left standing in a daze, holding his .38-caliber Ruger handgun.
There is some dispute over whether Kelley simply shoved Kimball several times or if Kimball tried to push past him toward the doorway of the business. At the same time, somebody may have pushed Kimball’s wife.
Lilley says Kelley initiated physical contact. His client is 70 and noticeably smaller than Kelley, and acted in self-defense because he reasonably feared for the safety of his wife and himself, Lilley said. He also said Kimball routinely carries a gun.
Kimball did not back down. Instead, he pulled the revolver holstered at his hip and fired three times at Kelley’s chest.
Brian Kelley believes his father, a good judge of people, saw something in Kimball that made him react uncharacteristically.
“My father was not a confrontational person,” he said. “He could (defuse) anything by making light of a situation.”
It’s not clear what words were exchanged and when the gun came out, but at least some portion of the encounter apparently was videotaped with a cellphone, and some was caught on dispatch audiotape when one of the witnesses called 911.
Both sides say there was no reason for the dispute to escalate to violence. Kelley and Kimball had no personal animosity against the other. They had never argued, or even said one word to each other before that day.
“It’s just crazy. You just can’t show up and shoot somebody,” Brian Kelley said. “It’s not like my father kicked in the door to someone’s house and shot somebody. The guy was somewhere he wasn’t wanted and everybody wanted him to leave.”
Now, Kathy Kelley has lost her husband. Sons and daughters have lost a father.
Thurlow-Kimball’s husband – and a father of four himself – could spend the rest of his life in prison.
The trauma has taken its toll on Stan Brown, whose health has worsened since the ordeal, family members say.
The whole event appears to be an epic tragedy over a few jars of honey that easily could have been prevented, said Assistant Attorney General Lisa Marchese, who is prosecuting Kimball on the murder charge.
“The thing that strikes me about this case is that Leon Kelley did not need to die and that by bringing a handgun to this dispute over honey, the defendant escalated the situation needlessly and it resulted in this man’s death,” she said. “What needed to happen is people needed to call the police.”