SOUTH PORTLAND — The homeless man spent his final hours alone in a tent in the woods along Interstate 295.

A passing motorist reported the fire after seeing the glow of flames from the highway. Firefighters found the campsite in ashes around 4 a.m. April 3, about 100 feet off the road near Exit 4.

The man, who never escaped the tent, was Rodney Jewell, by all accounts a loner, petty thief and chronic alcoholic who had been estranged from his family in far northern Maine for many years.

But when Detective Scott Corbett got to the scene, there was little left to see of Jewell’s troubled life, except for an old red mountain bike with a white rear fender. It would be the key to identifying his remains and finding his family.

Rodney Jewell

“We didn’t have much to go on from the beginning,” Corbett said. “Most of the personal items at the campsite were destroyed.”

Throughout the next few weeks, Corbett would work with other law enforcement agencies across Maine to piece together the final hours of the unidentified man who died in the tent and try to contact family members.

It was a first-time experience for Corbett, a 19-year veteran of the South Portland Police Department who became a detective last October. For many involved in the investigation, including a homeless man who helped to crack the case, it proved to be a humane effort to bring some closure to the life of a forgotten community member. It also sparked a sense of duty that many in law enforcement feel when faced with identifying a deceased person and notifying family members.

The autopsy on the remains of “S. Portland John Doe” by the state Medical Examiner’s Office provided little help to Corbett, beyond details of the death. It was ruled accidental and the result of carbon monoxide intoxication from breathing smoke, possibly from a fire started by a propane heater near the wall of the tent. The remains also showed that the man was about 5 feet 2 inches tall, had heart and liver disease and was acutely intoxicated at the time of his death, with a life-threatening blood-alcohol level of 0.396 percent. Chronic alcoholism was listed as a contributing factor.

Corbett immediately posted a photo of Jewell’s bike on the department’s Facebook page, asking for any information that might help in the investigation.

Many people called wondering if the man in the tent was a missing loved one, including a Millinocket resident who had been looking for a family member for 15 years. No one called to ask if it was Rodney Jewell.

Corbett also reached out to staff members at Preble Street, an agency in Portland that provides support and shelter to the area’s transient population. They helped to spread the word that Corbett wanted to speak with homeless people known to live in South Portland. The hope was that one of them might know who lived in the tent that burned.

A BREAK IN THE CASE

Corbett’s initial break came when Paul Pogue heard that police were looking for him.

Pogue was reluctant to respond at first, he said in an interview for this story. He’s a former prison inmate from Florida who lives in the woods of South Portland in the summer and stays with a friend in Portland in the winter. Eventually, Pogue called Corbett and told him what he knew.

Pogue said he’d seen the man the afternoon before the fire, when the two men were turning in bottles for cash at Shaw’s Supermarket in the Mill Creek shopping area. Pogue had never met Jewell before and didn’t know his name, he said, but he remembered that the man had an old red bike with a distinctive white rear fender.

“He actually started a conversation about our bikes,” said Pogue, 46. “He said, ‘Hey, man, nice bike.’ We talked a little. He was obviously inebriated.” His speech was slurred, his eyes were bloodshot and he reeked of alcohol, Pogue said.

Paul Pogue, 46, was one of the last people to see Rodney Jewell alive and gave police information that helped identify Jewell, a homeless man who died in a tent fire April 3 off Interstate 295 in South Portland. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Pogue told Corbett that they were at Shaw’s around 4 p.m. that Sunday. He mentioned that the supermarket has security cameras in the bottle redemption area, so police might be able to get a photo of the man and his bike.

Sure enough, Corbett got a photo from the supermarket’s video, and the folks at Preble Street were able to identify Jewell, a man who was known to stay in the woods near the interstate in South Portland. They said that Jewell might have been involved in a major accident around 2000 that led to his downfall and that he might have come from a large family living in northern Maine, Corbett said.

With that basic identification, Corbett was able to get a date of birth, which showed Jewell was 48 years old, and other information from his police record.

Jewell had no convictions for major crimes, although he had many run-ins with law enforcement for misdemeanors dating back to 1988, including thefts, car burglaries, public drinking and trespassing. He made headlines in 2013 when he was charged with making a bomb threat that shut down the Portland Transportation Center for four hours on New Year’s Day. No bomb was found. He was convicted and sentenced to 90 days in jail for terrorizing and giving a false public alarm.

But Corbett still had unanswered questions. Who was Jewell, beyond his offenses, addiction, isolation and solitary death? And where was his family, if he had any, to notify them of his passing?

IDENTIFYING THE UNIDENTIFIABLE

Corbett next turned to Lindsey Chasteen, records coordinator in the state Medical Examiner’s Office. In the year since she started working there, Chasteen has embraced the responsibility of identifying the “unidentifiable” people who pass through the office.

Security video image of Rodney Jewell, captured near the bottle redemption area at Shaw’s Supermarket the day before he died, was helpful in identifying his remains. Photo courtesy of South Portland Police Department

“Currently we have four unidentified individuals and 14 partial remains, some of them going back to the 1960s,” Chasteen said. “It’s not something we just push to the side. These are people. They had loved ones. Somebody out there might be looking for them and it’s up to us to bring them some closure.”

Chasteen took Corbett’s information about Jewell and searched law enforcement databases for clues. She ranged around the internet, on Google and Ancestry.com, looking for Jewell’s parents or siblings. She zeroed in on a large cluster of Jewells with possible family connections in the Houlton area, in Aroostook County, and shared what she learned with Corbett.

Corbett called Houlton police, who were able to give him a list of several people around Jewell’s age who most likely were his siblings.

“Police are people. They have families. There is compassion and a sense of urgency to a case like this,” said Houlton Police Chief Tim Deluca, who previously worked in the Old Orchard Beach Police Department for 33 years.

Unfortunately, Jewell’s potential siblings lived in Monticello, a small town just north of Houlton on the Canadian border, so it was outside DeLuca’s jurisdiction. With no local police department in Monticello, Maine State Police were enlisted to contact the siblings and try to get DNA samples. One of the men reached by police provided a sample that was a familial match for the remains of Rodney Jewell.

CLOSURE FOR THE NAMELESS

When Corbett called the brother to inform him of the match, the conversation was brief and subdued, Corbett said. The brother said he hadn’t had contact with Jewell in many years, had no knowledge of a major accident around 2000 and was unaware of what was going on in Jewell’s life recently.

The brother did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this story and other family members couldn’t be reached for comment. The family directed the Medical Examiner’s Office to release Jewell’s remains to a Houlton funeral home. No obituary for Jewell has been posted on its website. Corbett issued a news release identifying Jewell on April 27.

Corbett would learn no more about Jewell from his interactions with the local homeless community and advocates who work with them. It remains unknown how long Jewell was living in the tent near I-295, or what circumstances led him to be estranged from his family. But Corbett has found some satisfaction knowing that he did what he could to identify the man who died in the tent.

For Corbett, the case was an eye-opener, even after 19 years as a police officer. It was the first time in memory that South Portland police had so little to go on in identifying an unknown deceased person, he said. He was surprised how many people called him, wondering if the deceased person was a loved one they hadn’t seen in years. And he’s grateful that Pogue came forward and shared what he knew.

Paul Pogue: “It sucks out here to be nameless and faceless.” Staff photo by Ben McCanna

“Usually we have something to go off of. An address. Something,” Corbett said. “It truly was the bike that sparked our investigation. If we didn’t have that, I’m not sure we would have ever figured out it was Rodney Jewell or found his family.”

Pogue said he feels good about helping to bring some closure to Jewell’s life. It’s like looking into a mirror for a man with no home or family and few friends.

“It sucks out here to be nameless and faceless,” Pogue said. “People walk by us with our bottles and they look through us and they judge us. But I’m glad to have helped to identify this man. When I leave this Earth, I don’t want to be just a nameless person.”

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at:

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