unsettled

Michael-Corey Francis Hinton, a Passamaquoddy Indian living and working as a lawyer in Washington, D.C., stands on the spot near the Pleasant Point reservation in eastern Maine where his great-grandfather, Peter Francis, was killed after a confrontation with five white hunters from Massachusetts in 1965. Hinton, who is working to get the case reopened, said: “For me it’s not so much about bringing justice to Peter Francis per se as to bringing justice to my people, period.” Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

PLEASANT POINT — On a dark November evening in 1965, Passamaquoddy tribal constable Raymond Moore was making his regular rounds of the Pleasant Point reservation when the headlights of his car illuminated a man lying face down in the road, a river of blood pouring from his head.

He stopped the car, jumped out and ran to discover Peter Francis, the 59-year-old brother of the reservation’s former governor, George Francis, comatose and dying, a nail-studded two-by-four lying nearby, covered in blood. Peter’s arms were outstretched, his brain apparently having shut down before his body even hit the ground.

Francis died the next morning – Nov. 15, 1965 – at the hospital in Eastport, the result of two heavy blows to the back of the head he had received during a violent confrontation with five young white hunters from Massachusetts. The men had sped off in their Cadillac convertible seconds after Francis hit the ground. They had also beaten Peter Francis’ friend Christy Altvater senseless in front of his own 8-year-old son, Kirk.

Nobody has ever been held accountable for the incident, which claimed one life but affected countless others. Murder indictments were drawn up against all five hunters but never served. One was charged with manslaughter but found innocent by an all-white jury in Washington County by reason of self-defense. In the brutal beating of Altvater – who later killed himself – the county and state prosecutors brought no charges at all.

For nearly half a century and through four generations, the Francis family has been seeking justice. Today they hold out hope that recent exposure of the case in the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram – and the discovery just months ago of a piece of key evidence that had mysteriously gone missing – may prompt state or federal prosecutors to take another look at one of the most disturbing chapters in the long, sordid story of Maine’s interactions with a people who have lived on these lands for at least 13,000 years.

“I’d like to see justice – not just for my grandfather, not just for the other victims of bias and prejudice in the state of Maine, but for my family and my people who carry this burden, who carry this cloud,” says Peter Francis’ grandson Randy Hinton, 61, a giant of a man who chokes up when he recalls his mother getting the terrible phone call that night when he was 12. “I would like to see that cloud slowly disappear in my lifetime.”

Lila Hinton, Randy’s mother and Peter’s eldest child, attended the 1966 trial and spent years trying to get authorities to take another look at the case. “She talked about it for the rest of her natural life, but nobody would respond,” Randy recalls of his mother, who died in 1978. “I remember her saying to me once: ‘You know, it’s just another Indian.’”

Her brother, Peter Francis Jr., spent his life advising family members that there would be no justice for Indians like themselves. He had spent his early childhood in grinding poverty at Pleasant Point before their father relocated the family to New London, Connecticut. There his brother Skea Francis, a Marine veteran of the Korean War who had survived the horrific Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, died under suspicious circumstances in the late 1950s, with the family believing local police might have been involved.

“When my grandfather Pete … was killed, (Uncle Pete) was crushed,” Randy Hinton recalls. “I don’t think he ever got over the pain of his father dying. He let my mom and his older sisters carry the torch. He just sat in the background for many years and watched and waited, waited until the day he died.”

But before he died in February 2013, Peter Jr. – then the family patriarch – gave permission to his nephew Randy to try to seek justice. He warned Randy and his son that they shouldn’t expect justice, though. “It will never change,” he said as tears suddenly poured down his face, an exchange captured by Maine filmmaker Ben Levine, who is working on a documentary about the killing.

Randy has never given up. Earlier in life he had considered going to law school to acquire the tools to seek justice for his grandfather, but, as he puts it, “life got in the way.” Over the decades he researched the case and talked to legal and civil rights experts; nobody was very encouraging.

But now he has a powerful ally: his 27-year-old son, Michael-Corey Francis Hinton, who is – not coincidentally – a tribal law attorney at Akin Gump, one of the most influential law firms in Washington, D.C.

Corey Hinton, at the time a third-year law student, was deeply affected by his uncle Peter’s warning not to expect justice for Indians in America.

“It was heartbreaking. Here was a man I revered – everything about him was cool and confident – to hear him say those words and become overcome by emotion, it just crushed me,” Corey recalls. “If there were any doubts in my mind about what we need to do and about what my mission and my career would be, all doubts were erased at that point.”

Corey had grown up in upstate New York, in a town where he and his sister were the only Indians in the school system. There were attorneys on his mother’s side, but they had been practitioners of divorce and family law, and even in his youth, Corey had an interest in social justice. He says he didn’t fully realize the systemic oppression native peoples have faced until taking a college class while interning for the National Indian Gaming Commission. And it all didn’t fully hit home until that moment with his Uncle Pete.

“He was saying that, ‘I’m an Indian, and my rights will not be protected,’” Corey recalls. “I cannot allow that to be the status quo for myself and my children and my children’s children.”

He says his great-grandfather’s slaying had always influenced him, but after that day it became a conscious motivation.

“The events of that night have been an invisible guiding hand for me,” says Corey, who has represented his tribe pro bono in recent disagreements with the state over saltwater fishing rights. “For me it’s not so much about bringing justice to Peter Francis per se as to bringing justice to my people, period. His story is a microcosm of what has happened to indigenous people across the world.”

Nor has the slaying of Peter Francis and the state’s handling of it been forgotten by the Passamaquoddy, a tribe of 3,000 people with two reservations in eastern Washington County.

“The whole community went into shock, because it involved young people who saw it all happen and the victims were two beloved members of the tribe that didn’t have a mean bone in their body,” says tribal historian Donald Soctomah, who notes that at least four Pleasant Point Passamaquoddy were killed in the 13 years leading up to the incident, without any charges filed. “This is the one case where the tribe thought we were going to get justice. … When they didn’t it was like a dark day over the community.”

Together, father and son have been lobbying the U.S. Department of Justice to revisit the case. Two years ago they approached the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Maine, which agreed to take a look. Federal prosecutors quickly discovered what the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram also learned: Virtually the entire official court record for this, arguably the most high-profile case of its era, disappeared from the Washington County Courthouse records sometime before the case file was to be transferred to the Maine State Archives.

Conspicuous among that court’s case records for the mid-1960s, only three random sheets of paper have survived. Even the documents recording the official complaint and judgment have disappeared.

U.S. Attorney Thomas E. Delahanty II says his office organized a search of the Machias court’s cluttered storage attic in 2012 but came up with nothing. “We would need official court evidence from the trial, which no longer can be located,” to consider moving forward with a case, he told the Press Herald last winter.

A few months ago, however, an archivist found the transcript of the grand jury testimony for the case in the courthouse attic, copies of which are now in the possession of both the Francis family and the Press Herald. The 411-page transcript contains testimony, under oath, from investigating officers, doctors, the coroner, and 18 Passamaquoddy witnesses.

Corey Hinton says the family provided the transcript to the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., in hopes that the case might be reopened under recently revised federal hate crimes legislation. But after several months, an attorney there recently told the family by email that the department did not believe the revised law would apply because the killing happened so long ago. The family says they are not deterred by a single email from a federal attorney.

Separately this winter and spring, the family’s phone calls and emails to Delahanty’s office in Portland went unreturned, and they did not receive a response to an offer they made to personally deliver the transcript there.

Delahanty told the Press Herald in June that he knew nothing about the transcript’s existence but said he is interested in reading it. Based on a description of its content – and the fact that grand jury evidence does not include material from the defense’s side – he said it is unlikely to result in new charges.

“It’s a matter that has not been closed,” Delahanty said of the case, “but my observation at this time is that it doesn’t look like there would be sufficient evidence to go forward.”

The transcript, when added to detailed newspaper accounts of the trial itself and interviews with surviving witnesses, enables a fine-grained reconstruction of the events surrounding the slaying and its troubling aftermath.

The five hunters were all from Billerica, Massachusetts, 20 miles northwest of Boston, and knew one another from high school or shared work experiences on construction sites. Four are still alive, and three still live within 30 miles of their hometown. According to one of them, Daniel Frobese, the survivors all still know and see one another from time to time.

They drove to eastern Maine in James Ellinwood’s white 1961 Cadillac, a convertible with recessed rear wheels and long sharklike fins.

Ellinwood, 25, was a tall, husky former football player who worked construction and had a prior conviction for assault and battery. William Robbins, the group’s leader, was a 32-year-old former Marine and Hall of Fame athlete at Billerica Memorial High School and worked as a truck driver. Frobese, 23, was a roofer and, by his own admission, a “blackout drinker,” who also had a prior conviction for assault and battery. Hugh O’Neill, a 25-year-old data-processing specialist, had played football with Ellinwood. Romolo Capobianco, 25, was a married father of two who had hunted in the area in the past; some witnesses say he expressed reservations about some of his friends’ subsequent actions.

Nov. 14 was a Sunday, and deer hunting was forbidden by state law, so the hunters had left their camp near Princeton late that morning in search of other entertainment. Their camp was just a few hundred yards from the Passamaquoddy’s other reservation at Indian Township, but according to then-Gov. John Stevens, they’d been run off a few days earlier. “Don’t come around with liquor and try to entice young girls into drinking and taking them out and raping them somewhere,” Stevens recalls telling them. “Stay the hell away.”

That afternoon, they pulled up outside the home of former Gov. George Francis, 72, at the Pleasant Point reservation, 50 miles south of Princeton. They barged in and over the next few hours attempted to entice numerous teenage girls on the reservation – some as young as 14 – to take off with them, sometimes offering money, according to testimony by more than a dozen Indian witnesses. (At trial, the hunters would deny having propositioned any girls that day.)

Ultimately they were diverted to neighbor Christopher “Christy” Altvater’s home, where George’s younger brother Peter offered to make them dinner. He would die for his trouble.

Peter Francis was visiting home for hunting season from New London, Connecticut, where he was an electrician at the naval submarine yard there. He was 59 but looked much older, with failing vision and a permanent limp from a workplace knee injury.

He was a man of impressive endurance. After the Japanese torpedoed his transport ship during World War II, he survived for many days on a tiny life raft in the South Pacific without food or fresh water; others aboard the raft perished.

He was later feared lost when he failed to return home from a moose-hunting trip early one winter, only to walk out of the woods in the spring, having survived alone in his disabled panel truck through months of storms and subzero temperatures. He had heard the search planes overhead, but they were unable to see his forest-green truck amid the pine and spruce; his next vehicle was bright orange.

“He was an outdoorsman and his church – his world – was the outdoors,” Randy Hinton recalls. “He was comfortable with who he was. He spoke his mind.”

His brother-in-law, Christy Altvater, was 5-foot-2 and had mild paralysis on his left side, the result of having been clubbed in the head with a rifle butt by a much larger white man from Eastport. (No charges were ever filed in that incident.) He had just returned from the Togus Veterans Administration hospital – he too had served in World War II – where he was being treated for related headaches and dizziness.

One of the last Passamaquoddy porpoise fishermen, Altvater was 45, puckish and physically unthreatening. The father of six, he was in the midst of fighting an effort by the town of Perry to seize his house, located just a few hundred yards off the reservation, for $700 in back taxes.

“He was the kindest, most generous person you could ever meet,” recalls his granddaughter Patricia Altvater Morang Graffam. “He would take fruit down the hill to the reservation and give it to anyone or everyone. He gave everyone a chance and was a peacemaker, even to obnoxious drunks.”

At the Altvater house, the Indians said the hunters became rowdier and some propositioned Altvater’s girls. Ellinwood swept up Christy’s 8-year-old son and took him off in his car in search of more girls. When he returned 35 minutes later with a 17-year-old girl in the front seat, his four hunting companions had just left the house, followed by Peter and Christy.

The two Indian children in the car both testified that as they pulled to a stop they saw three of the hunters on the far side of the road, where the wreckage of an old hay barn lay, and 8-year-old Kirk said that he saw them picking up pieces of lumber. The hunters opened the car door, and the kids slipped out and away.

In the next few minutes, the hunters got into and then out of the car. Three attacked Christy, beating him with a heavy object. Ellinwood hit or straight-armed Peter Francis.

Then someone hit Francis twice in the back of the head with a blunt object, causing much of his scalp to separate from the back of his skull. A nail-studded two-by-four fell to the ground nearby, splintered from a powerful blow. Both board and splinter were soaked in Peter’s blood type, and police found one of Peter’s hairs stuck to the splinter.

The hunters sped off.

The Press Herald recently spoke to two of the four hunters who are still alive.

Capobianco claimed not to remember anything about the incident.

“I just turned 74, and I’m telling you my memory isn’t as good as it once was. I don’t remember anything about that,” he said. “Why are you interested in that? It was so long ago; it’s forgotten.”

Robbins, who had lived in Keene, New Hampshire, died in March 2009.

O’Neill, who lives in Hollis, New Hampshire, did not respond to telephone messages.

Ellinwood, a recent resident of Spring, Texas, could not be located.

In a brief interview, Frobese said he was a “blackout drinker” in 1965 and had only fragmentary memories of that day in November, the critical minutes around the beatings not being among them.

Frobese said he didn’t recall himself or others propositioning girls, although he thought Ellinwood had “given two girls a ride to a community center or something” while they remained at the Altvaters. “We went to the reservation for alcohol.”

He said Ellinwood was a “scrapper” but that, in all the time he’s known him, “I’ve never known him to do anything with more than a fist.” Frobese also said that he didn’t believe he himself was involved in any part of the final fight.

When asked who did kill Peter Francis, Frobese said he didn’t know.

In the hours after the slaying, County Attorney Francis Brown drew up murder indictments against each of the five hunters. They were never served.

Attorney Don Gellers, the idealistic young native of the Bronx who had started aggressively and effectively representing the tribe, called a Press Herald reporter and charged Brown with a “deliberate flouting of the law” that would not have occurred had the victims been white. Randy Hinton’s mother, Lila, who had traveled to Eastport from her home in Syracuse, New York, told the Press Herald she would not leave “until justice is done.”

Instead, the county attorney issued a single manslaughter indictment against Ellinwood. No charges were ever brought in Altvater’s beating.

The case received national attention. U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin, a North Carolina Democrat who chaired the Senate subcommittee on constitutional rights, demanded an accounting from Maine’s Attorney General Richard J. Dubord. The National Council of Churches urged the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate.

“This is the sort of situation you would expect in the Deep South but not in Maine or any other New England state,” council spokesman Fletcher Coates told a reporter.

At Ellinwood’s trial in Machias in March 1966, an all-white jury found him not guilty. Many whites in the courtroom rose in applause.

The victims’ families were devastated.

Christy Altvater was never the same after the beating. He hanged himself in his basement in 1971.

After the attack, Christy’s son Kirk suffered from panic attacks that would leave him doubled over and hyperventilating. “He never even talked when we played together, and when he did talk he would stutter quite a bit, which he hadn’t before,” recalls his cousin Brian Altvater. “We’re more aware of trauma and stuff like that nowadays, but back then I doubt very much there was any help.”

Kirk killed himself in 1979. He was 21.

“The tragedy of all this isn’t just the murder; it’s all the fallout and all the collateral injustice and pain and anger that revolves around that night,” Randy Hinton says. “Justice was never served, and those guys got away with murder.”

He says his family is in it for the long haul, drawing on an enduring strength exhibited by his deceased mother and grandfather.

“That spirit is in me, and that’s a spirit I pass on to my children,” he says. “If justice doesn’t prevail for my grandfather in my lifetime, I’ve got my son and my daughter.”

“They’re well-equipped,” he says. “They’re not going to fight half a battle.”

Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at:

cwoodard@pressherald.com