March 18, 2010

Man charged in grisly killings

By DAVID HENCH and GREGORY D. KESICH Staff Writers

NEWRY -- Maine State Police today will resume their search for answers into what provoked a shooting rampage over Labor Day weekend, in which police say a 31-year-old cook burned a man's body after killing him and then dismembered three women he shot later.

Christian Nielsen remains at the Oxford County Jail, charged in one of the grisliest murders in recent Maine history, a crime that has left this tourist town reeling with shock and loss. Three of his victims were well-known professional women in the Bethel area. Two of them left behind young children.

The women's bodies were found outside the Black Bear Bed & Breakfast, where Nielsen was renting a room. The carcasses of three golden retrievers were found inside.

Police say Nielsen has been cooperative since his arrest Monday night, but concede that they still don't know why a man with almost no criminal record could suddenly turn so violent.

''The police didn't get involved until Monday,'' said Deputy Attorney General William Stokes. ''How it happened, when it happened and why it happened is still unclear.''

Police believe that Nielsen, a line cook at the Sudbury Inn on Main Street in Bethel, shot James Whitehurst of Batesville, Ark., on Friday night, burning the body and hiding the remains in deep woods a few towns away in Upton.

Whitehurst and Nielsen - who acquaintances described as ''an awkward loner'' - were renting rooms from Julie Bullard, 65, owner of the bed and breakfast on Monkey Brook Road near the Sunday River ski area. Bullard had been painting the 1830 inn, a smart, white 2 1/2-story building with a swimming pool and tennis court, and was trying to sell it.

Nielsen had been staying there for about two months, Whitehurst for about a month.

Police, who spent several hours interviewing Nielsen on Monday night, said Tuesday that he killed Julie Bullard at the inn on Sunday, though it's unclear whether it was before or after the shift he worked at the restaurant.

Friends say that on Monday, Bullard's daughter Selby Bullard, 31, and her friend Cynthia Beatson, 43, both area real estate agents who live in Bethel, went to check on Julie Bullard because they hadn't been able to reach her by telephone and were concerned.

Police said Nielsen killed both women. They said the three bodies were dismembered, but provided no further details.

Police first learned something was wrong at 5:34 p.m. Monday when Nielsen's stepmother called police and told them there was a body behind the Black Bear. Nielsen's parents, who live in nearby Bryant Pond, came to the bed and breakfast after talking with Nielsen on the telephone. She said Nielsen had told his father that he had killed four people, according to a police affidavit filed in Oxford County Superior Court.

''It's a crime of horrific proportions,'' said Col. Craig Poulin, chief of the state police.

News of the killings swept through Bethel and Newry on Tuesday, making some residents wonder if the peaceful mountain towns will ever be the same.

Dorothy Duddy, a Bethel real estate broker who knew three of the victims, said the tightly knit western Maine towns of Newry and Bethel were in a state of shock. ''We are a small community, and up until today, we were in a paradise,'' she said.

Nielsen, who grew up in the Farmington area, smiled slightly and raised his eyebrows Tuesday afternoon as he was led past news cameras in Oxford County Superior Court in South Paris to his initial appearance before a judge.

Tall and thin with closely cropped light hair and a tattoo on the back of his neck, Nielsen wore a bulletproof vest over a jail- issue orange jumpsuit. His lawyer, Ron Hoffman, said police took that precaution because of the nature of the case and not any specific threat against Nielsen.

Nielsen did not enter a plea, and spoke only to acknowledge his name when Justice Robert E. Crowley asked him to. Nielsen was returned to Oxford County Jail and will be held without bail at least until a court hearing next Tuesday. The case is expected to go before a grand jury the first week of October.

Nielsen graduated from Mount Blue High School in Farmington in 1994. He was a fairly anonymous student who apparently didn't participate in extracurricular activities, said assistant principal Randy Cook.

In the school yearbook, Nielsen was one of a handful of seniors who left a blank space in the part of the page used to describe school activities. That was uncommon, Cook said.

''It was rare that we had kids like that. We almost always have something for somebody,'' Cook said.

Robin Zinchuk, director of the Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce, said she supervised Nielsen in a church youth group in the mid-1980s, but recalled little else about him.

A classmate, Christopher Neal, 30, of Farmington said Nielsen was popular among a group of students who enjoyed alternative music known as ''grunge music.''

He said Nielsen was a quiet student who sometimes displayed a dark or ''barbed'' sense of humor. ''I never knew him too be psychotic,'' he said. ''It is quite shocking to learn that he might be.''

State mental health officials said they could not release information on whether Nielsen had ever sought treatment for mental illness.

Carol Carothers, National Alliance for the Mentally Ill Maine, cautioned against assuming Nielsen is mentally ill because of the details of the crime.

''I think that there's sometimes a perception that if a person is really violent, they're mentally ill. That's not necessarily true,'' Carothers said. ''Generally speaking, all human beings can be violent.''

Kenny Brechner, 44, who owns a downtown bookstore, said Nielsen often came in to pick up books for his father, Charles Nielsen, head of the English Department at Dirigo High School in Dixfield.

The father is a highly respected member of the community, Brechner said. But his son was seen as a loner. ''He was an odd kid,'' he said. ''His affect was not normal.''

But there was nothing about him that suggested he would commit crimes like the ones he is accused of, Brechner said.

Nielsen's parents declined comment when contacted by telephone. Nielsen declined media requests for an interview.

Before Nielsen moved to the Bethel area, he lived in a five-unit apartment house at 248 High St. in Farmington. For several years he worked as a cook at Farmington restaurants, including the Homestead on Broadway. About a year ago he was fired from his job at the Family Fare after working for only a few months, said Dominique Nelson, 26, a waitress there.

She described him as an ''awkward loner'' who kept to himself and was often rude to co-workers. ''He didn't last long. Nobody got along with him,'' Nelson said. ''He was very strange.''

Still, he was not the kind of person who could be violent or even get in a fistfight, Nelson said. He seemed to be struggling with an internal conflict, she said.

''He had a lot on his shoulders,'' she said. ''He was burdened by something.''

Nielsen had little in the way of a criminal record before his arrest Monday. He had several traffic offenses and was charged with drunken driving in 1998.

''The name didn't jump out as somebody that we knew,'' said Farmington Police Chief Richard Caton III.

Nielsen's last brush with Farmington police was in August 2005 when he was issued a summons for driving after his license was suspended.

Nancy White, proprietor of the Sudbury Inn where Nielsen worked as a cook, was stunned to hear about the allegations.

''He was a reliable employee, a competent cook and a soft- spoken individual,'' she said. ''I'm shocked and stunned and appalled. It's horrible.''

Hoffman, Nielsen's attorney, said he had not discussed the details of the case with Nielsen and knew little about the man. Hoffman is working on the case with Margot Joly, a former prosecutor in Androscoggin County who was retained by Nielsen's father.

Little is known about Whitehurst, the man whose killing set off the violent spree on Friday. Police said his last known address is Batesville, Ark., and that he had come to Maine on ''family business.'' They did not know what relationship he had with Nielsen.

Julie and Selby Bullard had lived in San Francisco, where the mother ran the Church Street Bed and Breakfast. They moved to Maine to buy the Black Bear about two years ago, friends said. The Black Bear has had a ''for sale'' sign out front since February. Bullard had cut back on her business and began renting rooms.

Selby Bullard began selling real estate in Bethel a year ago and met Beatson, who was also a new broker at Apple Tree Realty, run by Bonita Sessions. The two women were best friends and did a lot together, she said.

On Monday, Bullard became concerned when she couldn't reach her mother by cell phone. She drove to Newry with Beatson, Sessions said.

The four-victim homicide is believed to be Maine's deadliest crime since December 1992, when four people were killed in an apartment fire in Portland, set by Virgil Smith.

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