The Altvater home was on a lonely stretch of road, just over the reservation boundary. It’s still standing: small, two stories, its rear perched at the top of a steep hillside with views of the lower-lying parts of the Pleasant Point reservation and Cobscook Bay beyond. At the time, the front door was boarded shut. A barn across the street had collapsed, leaving a pile of nail-studded lumber. Christy Altvater hadn’t been able to work since he had been beaten by a white man in 1960, and his family of eight survived on disability payments. They owed $1,000 in back taxes and were being threatened with eviction by the town of Perry, a move being fought by their pro bono attorney, Don Gellers.
“Because the house was 200 yards off the reservation, nobody protected us,” recalls Christy’s daughter Lisa, who was 10 at the time. “But we never locked our doors. Our house was always open for people to come and eat.”
At dusk on Nov. 14, 1965, Lisa, her 8-year-old brother, Kirk, and her mother, Rita, returned home with their uncle, John Nicholas, having picked up his chainsaw from a repair shop in Dennysville. They were surprised to find four white hunters drinking beer in their kitchen. Another, much drunker hunter was in the downstairs bedroom “talking about atoms and nuclear stuff” with Christy and Peter Francis, who worked on nuclear submarines at the Groton Navy Yard in Connecticut and was visiting his home reservation for hunting season. Two daughters, 15-year-old Valerie and 18-year-old Gerarda, were doing homework in another bedroom.
Rita later described the situation as “crowded” and said her young son was immediately unhappy with the scene.
They had every reason to be concerned. The hunters told the mother of six they “wanted to see some girls.” One of the visitors, James Ellinwood – whom the Indian children would later describe as “the fat one” – kept inquiring about the whereabouts of Rita’s 16-year-old daughter, Judy, who he’d heard was pretty. He kept trying to go upstairs to find her. Judy was at the house of her boyfriend’s parents in Eastport, but none of the Altvaters told this to the hunters.
One of the hunters, a hulking ex-Marine named William Robbins, suddenly slapped Kirk several times in the face. “Go help your uncle,” he commanded.
Ellinwood struck up a conversation with young Kirk, charming the little boy and proposing they go off in his car to “shop for girls,” as Kirk would later testify. Before Rita knew what was happening, her son was headed up the road in the front seat of Ellinwood’s ’61 Cadillac convertible.
Meanwhile the atmosphere in the house grew tense. From the bedroom, drunken Danny Frobese could be heard mocking Peter, sneering at the idea that an Indian worked as an electrician on nuclear submarines. When John Nicholas came in from sawing wood outside, Robbins made disparaging racial remarks about Indians. Robbins and another hunter propositioned Gerarda and Valerie, asking them to go to their Princeton camp with them. They said they “wanted companionship” and were using foul language.
“The air was very heavy, full of the spirit of ominous problems,” Rita later recalled in a detailed letter to each of her children. “I was too uneasy. I did not remember us having a phone to call for help or even the police. I felt like I could hardly move, I was so filled with the spirit of fear. I didn’t know what to do.”
Peter came into the kitchen and started making dinner. “I smell a rat,” he said in Passamaquoddy to the Altvaters. “Don’t trust these guys. They are up to something. They keep trying to start trouble. … Get the children ready, and get them out.” He and Christy would stay and feed the hunters who, they hoped, would leave if the girls were out of the house.
Rita got the girls dressed and left the house in the family’s truck, bound for her niece’s home. “I’m glad we are out of that house,” one of the girls told her as they drove through the night. “Those men are scary.”
Meanwhile, Ellinwood and young Kirk were back at the home of George Francis, whose teenage niece was studying with two friends. Ellinwood had barged in, imploring 14-year-old Susan Tomah to “take a ride” with him and promising, “We’ll go slow,” according to her later testimony. He then demanded coffee, and kept sending Kirk in and out of the bedroom with a dime and messages on his behalf. The hunter, Susan recalled, offered twice in this fashion to give her the dime if she would “go out with him” in his car. Rebuffed, Ellinwood sent Kirk to make the same offer to 15-year-old Maureen Tomah, who also refused.
Failing in his attempts, Ellinwood went out to his car, to George’s relief. But a few minutes later, Kirk scurried into the bedroom a third time to tell Susan her mother wanted her at the door. Susan went to the door. Instead, it was Ellinwood again. “I want to take you for a ride,” he said. “I want to take you out first.” She closed the door. He drove off with Kirk.
Ellinwood drove around the reservation with Kirk, trying to convince other girls to get into the car. With Kirk’s help, he eventually persuaded 17-year-old Elsie Paul to take a ride, claiming Kirk’s sister wanted to see her. A young girl now seated beside him, Ellinwood steered his Cadillac back toward the Altvater home.
Back in the Altvaters’ kitchen, violence broke out. All sides agreed that the conversation turned to marijuana and that the hunters had asked if they could get some. As a prank, Christy offered Robbins an aspirin, claiming it was a “marijuana pill.” Robbins refused to take it.
Robbins, the former football star and Marine, would testify at trial that Christy then tore off his undershirt and came at him “like a raving maniac,” with “eyes as big as saucers.” Christy said Robbins attacked him suddenly and without provocation 10 minutes after the marijuana pill incident. Both agreed that Robbins tackled and punched his host.
Peter came into the room and said something to the effect that there was to be no fighting. Some of the hunters would later claim he was wielding a chair held over his head when he did so. If so, it must have been not overly intimidating, as Hugh O’Neill, one of the hunters, testified he walked up to Peter and apologized for the fighting.
The four hunters got up and left, followed first by Peter and then by Christy. At that very moment, Ellinwood pulled the Cadillac to a halt in the road with Kirk and Elsie inside.
Ellinwood turned to Elsie and said, “How about it?,” she would later tell a grand jury, presumably a proposition to, at the least, travel with him to the hunters’ camp in Princeton. Both children saw three of the hunters on the right side of the road, opposite the house, where the wreckage of the old barn lay. Kirk said he saw them picking up some pieces of wood. The hunters approached the car to get in. Both children were scared out of their wits.
Events unfolded rapidly in the minutes and seconds that followed.
Elsie Paul opened the car door, scampered between the hunters, and began running uphill toward the Francis home. Ellinwood opened his door and hollered after her. Kirk slipped out after Elsie, intending to run around the back of the car to his house.
The hunters piled into the car and had to help an inebriated Frobese get in back. Kirk, rounding the car, saw Peter Francis approach Ellinwood, who was standing at the open driver’s door. The two men had words, the boy later testified, adding that Peter was unarmed. He also saw his father walking behind the car; Christy testified he had found a 4-foot stick lying in the driveway, picked it up, walked across the road and threw it in the brush pile by the barn.
Over the long, low trunk of the Caddie, Kirk saw Ellinwood strike Peter twice, unprovoked, with what he thought was a knife. At least three of the other hunters clambered out of the car and charged Christy.
The hunters would later testify that the two older men had come at them with clubs and that they struck in self-defense. They were unable to explain why, if this had been the case, they didn’t simply drive away, as Ellinwood was poised at the door and the other four men were already in the car.
The Press Herald spoke to two of the four hunters who are still alive. Romolo Capobianco claimed not to remember anything about the incident because of his advanced age. Frobese said he was a “blackout drinker” at the time and had only fragmentary memories of the day, the critical minutes around the beatings not among them.
Kirk saw three men, one carrying a “stick,” start beating his father, who crumpled to the ground. Christy Altvater would later report having been kicked and beaten with “more than fists.” He thought he might have briefly lost consciousness.
“Stop!” Kirk screamed at the three men. Ellinwood called out to them to get back in the car. They piled into the convertible and it screeched off into the night.
Kirk fled into the house in a panic. Christy stumbled after him in a state of shock.
Peter, 59, lay motionless, face down on the pavement. From the back of his head, a river of blood flowed down the hill. A nail-studded two-by-four lay a few feet away, soaked in Peter’s blood. His hair was stuck to a fresh splinter lying on the ground nearby.
Most of his brain had already shut down, traumatized by a blow so severe it could have killed him instantly. He would never awaken.
Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at:
From the authorities, a tepid response