March 18, 2010

After 26 years, suspect in killing faces trial

By BETTY ADAMS, Kennebec Journal

(Continued from page 1)

click image to enlarge

Staff photo by Joe Phelan Thomas Mitchell, left and his attorney Jim Strong appear for an arraignment in Kennebec County Superior on Thursday Sept. 28, 2006 Court in Augusta, Maine. Mitchell is charged with the January 6, 1983 murder of Judy Flagg that occurred in Fayette, Maine. His attorney declined to enter a plea.

AP

UNFAMILIAR CAR DRAWS ATTENTION

Investigators had suspicions but not enough evidence to charge anyone.

They interviewed neighbors and took casts of footprints in the snow that weren't Judy Flagg's. They clipped her fingernails, swabbed body cavities, printed color photographs of the position of her body.

They set up a roadblock to try to determine whether anyone saw anything suspicious.

One woman came forward early.

Eloise Ault of Wayne, then a U.S. Postal Service employee, was delivering mail along Watson Heights Road late on the morning of Jan. 6, 1983, and remembered how a tan-roofed maroon car swerved into a ditch to avoid colliding with her vehicle on the crest of a hill.

She described the driver as a young, clean-shaven man with light brown hair. She had never seen him, and wondered why he was on the rural road. She remembered the car the most, with its heavy chrome grille. Ault helped police put together a composite sketch.

Police also looked into the background of the house.

The Flaggs had bought the home from the estate of Thomas H. Mitchell Sr. in September 1980.

Mitchell's son, Thomas H. Mitchell Jr., who had been convicted of kidnapping a 16-year-old Portland girl, was out on probation in the summer of 1981. He went to the Flagg home when both Ted and Judy were there to retrieve a duck lamp that had belonged to his father.

Investigators say he returned to the home the morning of the slaying.

At a pretrial hearing in January 2007, Thomas Roche, formerly a detective sergeant with the South Portland police, testified that he knew Mitchell well and saw him driving north toward Brunswick early on Jan. 6, 1983. Roche said he wondered where Mitchell was heading in his 1973 Ford Thunderbird.

Mitchell's car, olive-colored except for maroon primer on the driver's side, had a tan vinyl top.

When questioned about his whereabouts that day, Mitchell referred investigators to his daily diary, which ran from 1982 to June 1985, when he was charged with raping and attempting to murder a woman in Cumberland County. He said he kept meticulous track of his movements at the request of his family members, who believed police were hassling him.

His aunt, Eleanor Foley (who died in 2000), made his diary entries for Jan. 6, 1983.

Mitchell's day, as detailed in that diary, revolved around sleep, showering and getting a haircut.

He told his aunt he got out of bed at 8:15, showered and got coffee before going to town with his aunt. They stopped at Bentley's for breakfast, then he went to Head Hunters for a haircut while she ran an errand. At 11:45 a.m. he met up with his aunt, exchanged a shirt he got for Christmas, and had a snack when he got home at 12:30 p.m.

He went out to a friend's house, returned home at 2 p.m. and napped until 4:30 p.m., ate supper, went to another friend's and got home at 11:45 p.m. to have a snack and go to bed.

DNA TESTS REVIVE COLD CASE

Police continued to look at Mitchell as a suspect. They put together a photo lineup 18 months after the murder, but Ault was unable to identify him as the driver of the car that almost hit her. Then they seized his shoes in July 1984 to compare to the cast of the footprint found in the snow outside the Flagg home.

But without enough evidence to charge Mitchell – or anybody else – the murder case went cold. Then in 2006, just months before Mitchell was scheduled to finish a 20-year prison term, forensic scientists said DNA tests on old evidence implicated Mitchell.

Mitchell's defense attorney, James Strong, challenged the evidence at pretrial hearings, questioning the custody of the evidence, reconstruction of the footprint casts – which had fractured into dozens of pieces in the intervening years – and the length of time between the slaying and the indictment. A forensic scientist testified at a January 2007 hearing that the heel of Mitchell's left loafer fit the cast.

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