March 4, 2010

Persistent police work closes 1986 murder case

TREVOR MAXWELL

— By

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Roger Roy Bernier, suspect in the murder of Mary M. Kelley.

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Courtesy Myava Escamilla: Myava Escamilla was 7 years old when her mother, 33-year-old Mary Kelley, was murdered at her Portland apartment. These handout photos are provided by Myava Escamilla, who now lives in California and recently graduated from law school.

Staff Writer

PORTLAND — A hair. A handprint on a bathroom wall.

Roger Roy Bernier left just enough at the scene of the crime in 1986 to keep his name at the top of the suspect list in the killing of Mary Kelley.

But it was never enough to convict him.

Ultimately, it took Bernier's own words -- to the detectives who reopened the cold case in 2006 and methodically interviewed Bernier over several months -- to bring resolution to one of Portland's unsolved crimes.

''He gradually acknowledged his responsibility,'' said Bill Stokes, head of the criminal division in the state's Attorney General's Office.

''Sometimes you get the big, dramatic DNA discovery. That wasn't the case here,'' Stokes said. ''This was a case of detectives who were persistent and were willing to put in the time.''

Bernier pleaded guilty Tuesday to manslaughter, more than two decades after Kelley's body was found in the bathtub in her apartment on Congress Street. He admitted that he strangled her to death.

''He told the officers that he knew what he had done was wrong,'' Assistant Attorney General Leane Zainea said during the plea hearing in Cumberland County Superior Court. ''But he could never give an explanation as to why he did what he did.''

When he is sentenced later this year, Bernier will face as much as 20 years in prison, the maximum penalty for manslaughter in 1986. Until his sentencing, the 62-year-old disabled veteran will be held without bail in the Cumberland County Jail.

Mary Kelley was 33 when she was killed. Her only child, a daughter, was 9 and staying with her grandmother in Boothbay.

A free spirit with aspirations to become a veterinarian's assistant, Kelley was friendly with many people who hung out on Congress Street. She often let homeless people, including Bernier, spend time in her apartment.

On the night of April 25, 1986, Kelley had supper with Bernier and four other friends at a soup kitchen, said Zainea, who summarized the case on Tuesday for Justice Thomas Warren.

Bernier and a man who has since died, David Maynard, went back to Kelley's apartment after supper. The next day, a friend of Kelley's named Walter Cole went up to the apartment to check on her. Cole found Kelley's naked body in the bathtub.

He went down to the reception desk and had an employee call police. There were ligature marks on Kelley's neck. The medical examiner ruled that she had been strangled.

Police interviewed Bernier, Maynard, Cole and others who had seen Kelley that night. They noticed that Bernier had a fresh cut on the bridge of his nose. He gave an explanation and insisted that he had left Kelley's apartment when she told him she wanted to take a shower.

Detectives found Bernier's handprint on a bathroom wall, and there was a hair on Kelley's body that was similar to a hair provided by Bernier. It wasn't enough to prove Bernier's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

There were several other suspects, and Bernier could argue his handprint was in the bathroom because he had used the toilet and that his hair could have transferred to Kelley in any number of ways.

Police did dozens of interviews and worked on the case hard for three years. Bernier moved to New Hampshire about a year after Kelley's death, and detectives interviewed him several times. But there were no breaks, and the case went cold.

Portland Detectives Karl Rybeck, Joe Fagone and Mark Gibbons reopened the case in 2006 as part of a concerted department effort to solve old crimes. They tracked down and interviewed all the witnesses from the original case file and zeroed in on Bernier, still the top suspect.

''What these detectives did is very persistently, but very effectively and professionally, they kept going back to him,'' Stokes said.

On the day of his first admission, Oct. 5, 2007, Bernier shook Fagone's hand, thanked him and told him it felt good to finally tell the truth, Zainea said.

Prosecutors and the detectives decided not to arrest Bernier right away. They needed more specific information from him to ensure his conviction. Stokes said Bernier had no criminal record, and he didn't feel he was risking public safety by not arresting Bernier immediately.

''More details came out'' in the later interviews, Stokes said.

Bernier told the detectives that he had touched Kelley on the buttocks, and that she had slapped him in the face. His glasses cut his nose. Bernier said he then strangled Kelley to death, but he couldn't remember much of it because he ''blacked out.''

The prosecution presented the case to a grand jury, which returned an indictment on July 11, 2008, on a single count of murder. Bernier was arrested without incident at his apartment in Manchester, N.H.

Stokes said there were several reasons why he and Zainea gave Bernier the chance to plead guilty to manslaughter.

''You are going to have issues at trial, just because of the age of the case,'' Stokes said. The memories of witnesses are not as credible 23 years after the fact, and the other man who went to Kelley's apartment that night is dead. Also, Bernier's confessions are inconsistent in some ways with the physical evidence.

''I'm not convinced that he has told us the whole story,'' Stokes said.

The manslaughter plea eliminates the risk that comes with a trial and ensures a significant sentence, he said. The state will likely seek the maximum 20-year sentence.

Myava Escamilla, Kelley's daughter, intends to speak at Bernier's sentencing, tentatively been scheduled for Nov. 9. The State Forensic Service must complete a psychological evaluation of Bernier in the meantime.

Escamilla, now 32 and a lawyer in California, pushed the Portland detectives to deliver justice for her mother. After Tuesday's hearing, Rybeck said he was glad to be able to tell Escamilla that her mother's killer had pleaded guilty.

''It's a good day,'' Rybeck said. ''Twenty-three years later, and it's over.''

Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at:

tmaxwell@pressherald.com

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