When it comes to evoking the sympathy of Gov. Paul LePage, Sarah Whynaught suffers from one distinct disadvantage.
She doesn’t bark.
“We all have to own up to what we did – and most of us do,” Whynaught said Wednesday. “But if a dog gets a second chance, then why can’t I?”
She’s 51 and lives in the western Maine town of Peru. Long, long ago, before she singlehandedly raised three children to be fine, upstanding citizens, before she started her own business, before she earned not one, not two, but three college degrees, Whynaught became a convicted felon.
But she’s no Dakota, the combative Husky who late last month fetched what may well be the first gubernatorial pardon of a dog in Maine history.
Try as she might, Whynaught can’t persuade LePage to grant her a pardon and thus help her get off the often-maligned “cycle of dependency” and on with her life.
Way back in 1990, after growing up an only child in the tiny town of Bryant Pond, Whynaught fell in with a bad crowd in nearby Rumford.
They did drugs. They bought and sold drugs. And when a task force of local, state and federal law enforcement officials finally moved in, there was Whynaught with a quarter-ounce of cocaine in her possession.
She pleaded guilty to furnishing a schedule W drug, a Class C felony. She served 11 days at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, paid an $850 fine and successfully completed 18 months of probation.
Fast forward to 1998. Pregnant with her second child, Whynaught and her boyfriend found themselves under siege from a previous boyfriend who would sometimes show up at her home with a baseball bat.
The second boyfriend, fearing for his life, brought an unloaded handgun into the home – unbeknown to Whynaught – and hid it in the drawer of a bedroom night table. No ammunition, mind you, just a gun to pull out as a deterrent should ex-boyfriend go completely off his nut.
Enter the police again – this time acting on unsubstantiated claims that Whynaught was again dealing drugs.
They found not a speck of drugs. But they did find the gun – prompting them to charge Whynaught with being a felon in possession of a weapon. Another felony.
Whynaught, fearing a long prison term, again pleaded guilty. That got her 16 days in the Oxford County Jail, a $450 fine and another clean stretch of probation.
In the ensuing years, she had another child and singlehandedly raised all three kids to be model citizens. No drugs, No arrests. No trouble whatsoever.
She supported her family by building a summer rental business on property she inherited from her father in Bryant Pond. Life was, at long last, good.
But then the financial collapse hit in 2008, leaving Whynaught suddenly under water on a mortgage and investment property she’d picked up along the way.
“I lost everything,” she recalled. “So at that point, I decided to put myself through school.”
She earned an associate degree in digital communications, followed by a bachelor’s degree in business systems, both online from the University of Phoenix.
When it came to finding work, though, the two degrees weren’t enough to counterbalance the two felony convictions. So Whynaught enrolled at Kaplan University in Lewiston and got her master’s in business administration.
Since then, her life has been an endless procession of resumes, hopes raised and dreams dashed.
“I’ve applied and applied and applied for jobs,” she said. “I’ve had great interviews.”
But then, near the end, prospective employers invariably ask if she’s been in trouble with the law. Whynaught always answers yes, explains what happened and, with that, the job goes poof.
So there she sat in late 2015, volunteering at her local food pantry while living off disability payments stemming from a serious car accident that shattered her ankle 17 years ago.
She and her youngest, a 17-year-old daughter, also receive $148 per month in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and $198 per month in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.
Proud of how she’d forged ahead with her life yet frustrated with the perpetual roadblock to employment, Whynaught gathered all her records, hired a lawyer, and applied for a pardon to the Governor’s Board on Executive Clemency.
She thought she was a good candidate – and others thought so, too.
“Sarah has done well in educating herself and doing her best to become a creditable person,” wrote state Rep. Fran Head, R-Bethel, in a letter to the board. “She has worked very hard to turn her life around and I believe she should be given every consideration in this clemency decision.”
Echoed Whynaught’s counselor at the Maine Department of Labor’s Bureau of Vocational Services, “Sarah wants to work and have a career and would shout it from the rooftops if she thought anyone would listen.”
But despite those and other endorsements, the board said no. As did LePage after Whynaught sent him a two-page letter expressing her sincere belief “that I am a worthy candidate for a second chance in life.”
“I want to know that if I grant a pardon, the recipient is truly worthy of it,” LePage wrote back. In her case, he concluded, “my decision to deny you a pardon stands.”
Whynaught knows better than to try again as long as LePage is in office. (Petitions for a pardon can be resubmitted after a year.)
Still, she wonders how he can prattle on as he does about the need for welfare recipients to get out there and get a job, only to turn a deaf ear when she pleads with him for help in doing exactly that.
“The governor wants everybody to go to work. Well, here I am,” she said. “If anybody wants to get off the (welfare) system, it’s me.”
Back to the dog.
Imagine Whynaught’s surprise when she turned on the news two weeks ago to find that LePage had granted a “full and free pardon” to Dakota. A judge had ordered the Husky from Waterville put down after it attacked and killed a neighbor’s dog and later went for the throat of the same neighbor’s new pup.
That action, like so much of what LePage does, was of dubious legitimacy at best.
On Wednesday, Waterville District Court Judge Valerie Stanfill flat-out ignored LePage and ordered the dog put down within 48 hours – the decision is now on hold pending the dog owner’s appeal to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
It’s all a bit much for Whynaught.
Last year, upon being told by the governor that she was not pardon-worthy, Whynaught asked her lawyer about going public with her story – not just for herself, but for others like her who have earned another chance.
Her lawyer’s response: “Don’t rock the boat.”
“But to give a full pardon to a dog?” Whynaught said. “You know what? I’m going to rock the boat.”
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at: