November 24, 2013

Long-simmering rift led to killing at Maine bee farm

Mike Kimball and Leon Kelley had never met before their fatal confrontation, but their families had been at odds in North Yarmouth.

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

NORTH YARMOUTH — Merrill “Mike” Kimball and Leon Kelley had never met before the day one shot the other.

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Brown's Bee Farm on Greely Road in North Yarmouth.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Brothers Joseph and William Kelley hold a picture of their deceased brother, Leon, while standing in the kitchen of Joseph's Woolwich home Wednesday. Leon Kelley was shot dead at a North Yarmouth bee farm last month, and Merrill “Mike” Kimball, 70, of Yarmouth was indicted on murder charges.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below

But the tension between their families had been brewing, and it had recently escalated.

At the center were Stanford Brown, a 94-year-old master beekeeper well known in the small community of devoted beekeepers, and the bee business he built. Brown had devoted a chunk of his 10 acres of land off Greely Road to meadow for his honeybees to forage.

Kimball’s wife, Karen Thurlow-Kimball, had worked at Brown’s Bee Farm for years tending hives, processing honey and selling equipment to hobbyists – gradually taking over more and more of the operation until she started referring to herself as the owner.

Then Brown made Thurlow-Kimball part of his will, an indication to his family that she, not they, would inherit the bee business and four acres of land.

Brown’s daughters – including Leon Kelley’s wife, Kathy Kelley – and other family members became concerned that Thurlow-Kimball was taking advantage of the older man, whose memory was fading.

There was no hint, however, that the conflict would escalate to violence.

But on Oct. 6, Leon Kelley lay dead and Kimball now stands accused of murder for shooting him to death during a brief confrontation at the bee farm. Kimball is 70. Kelley was 63.

The homicide shocked the small communities of North Yarmouth and Cumberland, which had not seen a murder since one out-of-state carnival worker stabbed another during the Cumberland Fair in 1994. The shooting stunned the maritime communities of Georgetown and Yarmouth, where the deceased and accused are well known. It also startled the state’s wide circle of beekeepers, many of whom consider Brown a founding father in the Maine apiary industry and have bought supplies from him for years.

How did family, property and suspicion combine to cause these disparate – but in some ways similar – people to come together in such a volatile way? The following account is drawn from interviews with family members, friends, lawyers and people familiar with the police investigation.

LOBSTERMAN AND HELPING HAND

Leon Kelley was a native of Five Islands, harvesting lobster off the picturesque fishing community at the eastern edge of Georgetown.

He was a big man physically, but was known for his wide smile, not his broad shoulders.

“Anybody you find that dealt with Leon will tell you he’s a gentle giant,” said his brother Joseph. Leon Kelley had no criminal record, according to the Maine Bureau of Identification.

Growing up, Kelley, who was older than his brother Bill by three years and Joe by six, didn’t pick on his brothers or anybody else, they said. Both admired him.

“Out of the three of us, he was the one that never had any trouble, did good in school,” Bill Kelley said.

Kelley served in the 25th Infantry Division during the Vietnam War. When he returned, he had lost any interest in guns.

“We used to shoot skeet, but when I asked to go out, he said no,” Bill Kelley said. “He just didn’t like guns anymore.”

Kelley was working for a trucking company in Massachusetts when he chose sobriety in his late 20s.

Ray Kane, who was active in Alcoholics Anonymous, worked with him.

“He came up to me one night at work and he said, ‘Ray, I need some help. Can you help me?’ I took him to his first AA meetings and we became good friends,” Kane said.

They stayed close.

“Leon was going to get his 34-year chip in AA,” Kane said, referring to a token representing 34 years of sobriety. “The day before Leon was shot, my son called and said, ‘I’m going to call Leon on Monday and go to the meeting with him and see him get his chip.’ Then Sunday he got that call,” Kane said, his voice quivering with emotion.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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The Beekeeper: Stan Brown, a 94-year-old beekeeper, changed his will to give ownership of the farm to Karen Thurlow-Kimball.

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The Farm Manager: Brown's family says Karen Thurlow-Kimball was taking advantage of the 94-year-old farm owner.

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The Shooting Victim: Leon Kelley, Stan Brown's son-in-law, was killed by Merrill Kimball during a confrontation at Brown's farm.

Gabe Souza

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Accused of Murder: Merrill "Mike" Kimball, married to Karen Thurlow-Kimball, is charged with murding Leon Kelley.

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A photograph of Stan Brown with Karen Thurlow-Kimball appears on the Unique Maine Farms website.

Uniquemainefarms.com

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A sign by the road aims to attract honey buyers to Stan Brown's farm in North Yarmouth.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer



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