Albert Cochran is escorted by Maine State Police on March 21, 1998, to a waiting police cruiser at Portland International Jetport. Cochran returned to Maine from Florida to face murder charges in the death of Janet Baxter, of Oakland, in 1976. Staff file photo

The death of a convicted killer has prompted Maine State Police to ask the public for help in solving a 41-year-old cold case.

Albert P. Cochran, 79, died Tuesday in a Rockport hospital while serving a life sentence for murdering and raping Janet Baxter of Oakland in 1976. Cochran’s girlfriend at the time, Pauline Rourke, disappeared two weeks after he murdered Baxter and was never found.

Albert P. Cochran is seen in a photo from the Maine Department of Corrections website. Photo courtesy of Maine Department of Corrections

In interviews Wednesday with the Morning Sentinel, authorities revealed for the first time that Cochran had told them that Rourke’s body was in a well in the Smithfield area, although he did not admit that he had killed his girlfriend.

The Maine State Police Unsolved Homicide Unit believes it is close to solving the case, and Cochran’s death spurred police to ask the public for help in finding the well that might contain Rourke’s remains.

“We haven’t been talking about some of this investigative work of the unit because we don’t want to give the impression that some cases have priority over others,” said Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety. “They are all equally important to us. But we are taking this unusual step to go public because we are convinced Cochran was responsible for Pauline’s death and he likely was the only person to know where her remains are.

“In the aftermath of Cochran’s death, we share this new information with the public, and hopefully someone will help solve this mystery and bring Pauline home after 41 years.”

The Unsolved Homicide Unit met with Cochran several times in an effort to unravel Rourke’s disappearance, said Lt. Jeffrey Love, who oversees both the Homicide Unit and the Major Crimes Unit.

Police drove around the Smithfield area with Cochran twice this spring to try to find the well that Cochran claimed contained Rourke’s body, but they did not find it.

“We searched three wells in Smithfield and we excavated two of those wells and we also excavated a piece of property in Fairfield,” Love said.

Two of the wells were on a dirt road off East Pond Road in Smithfield and the other was off East Pond Road itself, he said.

Janet Baxter

Cochran told police that during the year before Rourke died, he and Rourke were on the property where the well is located and Cochran stole two wagon wheels from the property, which also had a barn on it, said Detective Jay Pelletier, who worked with the Maine Department of Corrections and was with Cochran on the trips.

“He described it as a dilapidated barn that had caved in,” Pelletier said. “It had a well between the barn and the road and the well was lined with slate rocks on top and there was a hayfield out back.”

Pelletier said the slate may be an important piece of information the public may be able to help with because there were no other wells in the area police searched that were capped with that kind of rock.

The wells they searched were not working wells, but they probably were 25 or 30 years ago, he said. Of the wells that police examined, two were filled in and the third was covered over.

Police asked anyone who may be able to help with information about the well, which also could be in the Oakland or Fairfield area, to call police at 624-7076.

SOLVING A MYSTERY

In addition to the 18 years that Cochran served of his life sentence, he previously had served nine years in an Illinois prison for murdering his 19-year-old wife, Patricia Ann, in 1964 in Joliet, Illinois. He admitted to strangling her.

Cochran also was charged, but never convicted, of stabbing their three children to death in Illinois. At the time, he claimed his wife had killed them.

He was on parole in Maine when he killed Baxter. Baxter was murdered on Nov. 23, 1976, but Cochran’s connection to the killing wasn’t discovered until DNA testing 23 years later. He was convicted in 1999 and was serving his sentence at the Maine State Prison in Warren.

He was never charged in connection with Rourke’s disappearance.

Love said that over the last 10 years, several investigators spoke to Cochran about the Rourke missing-person case, and police have had lengthy discussions with him about her whereabouts.

“Throughout a number of meetings with him, the impression I got was that he would only give so much and then he’d just hold back – almost like he was scheming and calculating,” McCausland said.

The behind-the-scenes work with Cochran is an example of what the new Unsolved Homicide Unit has been working on – “quiet and dogged investigation to solve Maine’s most difficult homicide cases,” McCausland said. “It’s a mystery we came very close to resolving, but whether Cochran was mistaken (about the well location) or whether he was just manipulating, we don’t know.”

BRINGING HER HOME

In 1976, Cochran had moved in with Rourke at her mobile home in Fairfield Center. She disappeared around Dec. 12, 1976.

A copy of a 1974 family photograph of Pauline Rourke, who was the live-in girlfriend of Albert P. Cochran when she disappeared in 1976. Staff file photo

Love said Cochran would not admit that he had anything to do with her death, but he would disseminate “tidbits” of information to police.

“For instance, her location – but he would never say it was him that caused her death or put her there – he just knew this information. He did say that he’s the only one in the world that knows where she is,” Love said.

Authorities always have wanted to bring her home to her daughter, Honey Rourke; and when Cochran’s health began deteriorating, they increased the frequency of those visits. Police said they have been in close contact with Honey Rourke over the years.

Honey Rourke told the Morning Sentinel in March 1998, after Cochran was arrested for Baxter’s murder, that she was 12 when she lived with him and her mother. She said he always looked angry, never smiled and was always fighting with her mother.

“I remember he had huge, huge hands,” she said. “He always turned beet, beet red like a tomato. That’s when my mother would back off.”

‘SHE WAS SCARED’

Baxter had driven from her Oakland home on Nov. 23, 1976, to the A&P supermarket in the JFK Mall on Kennedy Memorial Drive in Waterville. She had a cold and went to the store to buy cold medicine.

She never returned home. Her boyfriend at the time reported her missing.

Police later found Baxter’s body in the trunk of a car along the Kennebec River in Norridgewock. She had been shot in the head and chest.

She had no known connection to Cochran.

After Baxter’s killing, Cochran seemed obsessed with the crime.

At some point, Honey Rourke said she overheard her mother say to a relative that she was scared that Cochran might have been involved in Baxter’s killing.

“She was scared and she didn’t know what to do,” she said.

Cochran once drove Honey and Pauline Rourke from their Fairfield home to the crime scene, Honey Rourke said.

“He wanted us to see where this happened,” Honey Rourke recalled in March 1998. “My mother thought that was real odd. From there on, the fighting got real bad between them. … Then all of a sudden, my mother disappeared.”

Cochran was married again and living in Stuart, Florida, when police charged him with Baxter’s murder in 1998.

McCausland said Wednesday that Cochran had been hospitalized in recent days and had been in poor health, although he did not know the exact cause of his death.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

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Twitter: @AmyCalder17