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April 11, 2013

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

Robert Milliken talks about former neighbor Christopher Knight on Wednesday during an interview at Milliken's Albion farm.

Neighbor: Family believed 'North Pond Hermit' had run off to New York

By Betty Adams
badams@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

ALBION — The man now known across the nation as the "North Pond Hermit" might have practiced for his life alone in the woods by camping out for a year behind his own home, a neighbor of his family said Wednesday.

Authorities say Christopher T. Knight, 47, who was arrested last week and charged with burglarizing the Pine Tree Camp in Rome, told them he had been living in the woods since 1986, burglarizing unoccupied camps to get food, batteries, propane and clothes, and staying well clear of people.

Knight grew up in Albion and graduated from Lawrence High School in Fairfield. By 1986, he had disappeared. Police say he walked into the woods and never looked back, committing more than 1,000 burglaries over the years, taking what he needed to survive.

Robert Milliken, 57, who owns a farm near the Knight family's home in Albion, said he has known the family for years and attended Lawrence High School with Knight's older brothers.

Milliken said he heard many years ago from a cousin of the Knights that Christopher Knight had left home – and apparently had been camping in nearby woods.

"He said Chris had taken off when he graduated and the family had never heard (from) him," Milliken said outside his barn Wednesday. "They thought he had taken off and gone to New York City, you know, a country boy. Then they found about a year later (behind the house) where somebody had been camping out. They figured it was him."

Milliken said that cousin, Dana Nelson, died in 1986 in a logging accident.

He said he wonders how Knight managed to live alone and outdoors all those years.

"I don't know quite how he survived or why he would want to live that way," Milliken said. "Apparently he kept up on current events," referring to news reports that Knight listened to programs on battery-powered radios.

At least some of Knight's relatives, including his mother, Joyce, still live on Pond Road, where he grew up.

On Wednesday, an unidentified man escorting two women out of a black pickup truck at that home declined to talk about Christopher Knight.

In a news conference at the Augusta headquarters of the Maine Department of Public Safety, state Trooper Diane Perkins-Vance, who was with Maine Warden Service Sgt. Terry Hughes for Knight's arrest early on the morning of April 4, said Knight initially told her that he did not want police to contact anyone in his family.

She said she talked to Knight later at the Kennebec County jail and told him that the story of his capture would be coming out in the media, so he agreed she could break the news to his mother.

The Kennebec Journal first reported Knight's capture Tuesday night, after authorities had inspected Knight's encampment earlier in the day in the woods of Rome.

Although Knight may have been breaking into unoccupied camps for decades, the state can prosecute only the burglaries that occurred over the past six years because of the statute of limitations, Perkins-Vance said.

Burglaries at the Pine Tree Camp – believed to total at least 50 over the years – occurred in the spring and fall, when campers weren't there.

At the news conference, Dawn Willard-Robinson, the camp director, said, "He was using it like a local Walmart."

CAMERA AT CAMP ALERTED POLICE

Perkins-Vance and Hughes had been seeking what they called the "backpack burglar" for years because of repeated burglaries of unoccupied camps in the North, Little North and East Pond areas in Rome and Smithfield.

Hughes heard about the case when he joined the Maine Warden Service 18 years ago, and has been involved in investigating the burglaries in recent years.

"He made one fatal mistake," Hughes said. "He hit this year on my birthday."

That burglary in mid-March spiked Hughes' determination. Working with U.S. Border Patrol in Rangeley, he set up surveillance equipment that would trigger an alarm at Hughes' nearby home if someone entered the Pine Tree Camp's dining hall after hours.

"I knew sooner or later he was going to trip that camera," Hughes said.

That moment came before dawn on April 4. Hughes said he got to the camp within minutes and watched from outside as Knight went through the kitchen collecting food items.

Hughes said he knew it was the hermit.

"Hopefully, this will bring some comfort to people who live on the lake," he said Wednesday.

Perkins-Vance said Knight told her that he went into the woods in the year the Chernobyl nuclear plant accident occurred in the Soviet Union – 1986. He moved around a while before setting up the permanent camp in rural Rome in the early 1990s, she said.

After his arrest, Knight led the trooper and the warden to his campsite, where batteries littered the ground and a propane tank was hooked up to a cookstove.

At the news conference, Hughes said officials were initially skeptical of Knight's claim that he had lived outdoors and spoken only once to another person – a passing hiker in the 1990s.

"It's surreal. He's surreal," said Perkins-Vance.

But a closer look at the well-concealed camp, where trees had grown around embedded ropes, backed up his story.

"You could be 100 feet away, and you would never know the suspect lived there," Hughes said. "There's no doubt in my mind he's lived out there the entire time."

They said Knight was clean-shaven, had short hair and was "decently manicured," wearing clothes he had stolen over the years.

Knight reportedly told authorities that his only possession that wasn't stolen was a pair of aviator-style eyeglasses that he has owned since his teens.

Hughes said Knight told him he spent his days reading books he had stolen and meditating at his well-camouflaged campsite, sitting on a bucket, looking into the sky and watching eagles.

"He had a pretty extensive knowledge of his surroundings," Hughes said.

CAMPS WERE 'SOFT TARGETS'

Wardens who did an initial survey of the campsite found an area that Knight had used as a bathroom and another area where he had buried garbage, Hughes said.

Knight told them he weathered Maine winters without heat by using multiple sleeping bags. He told them that he left his encampment only at night, which was when he burglarized the camps.

"He didn't have any indication of living off the land," Hughes said. A fishing pole was found at the campsite, but Knight told him he didn't hunt or fish.

"He said it was easy to obtain food from 'soft targets.' That meant camps."

Knight stepped on roots, stumps and rocks to avoid leaving tracks, and he didn't break into camps in the winter, when someone could track his footsteps in the snow, they said.

A black-and-white image of Knight – then an unknown suspect – was caught on film by a game camera last year. The image gained him the nickname "backpack burglar."

At that point, authorities published the photo and believed his capture was imminent, but no one called to identify the man.

The trail got hotter this spring, when Pine Tree Camp employees realized that the burglar was targeting their new $1.8 million dining facility. More sophisticated surveillance equipment was brought in, and law enforcement redoubled the effort.

The camp, operated by the Pine Tree Society, hosts programs for children and adults with disabilities, serving about 700 people.

Knight said he had burglarized the camp at least 50 times over the years, including twice this year, Perkins-Vance said.

"He was breaking devices, breaking windows and doing damage," said Harvey Chesley, the camp's facilities manager, who also spoke at Wednesday's news conference.

Chesley said that when he got a call at 1:15 a.m. on April 4 about a burglary suspect having been found leaving the dining hall, "I got down to camp as quick as I could."

He said he was "aggravated and frustrated" by the repeated burglaries and damage. "This situation is something that had been bugging us for years," he said.

Chesley said the burglar took several hundred dollars' worth of goods each time. "He didn't come and get a bag of marshmallows," Chesley said.

He said Knight apologized to him after the arrest.

Willard-Robinson, the camp director, said the burglaries didn't generate fear, but created an inconvenience because "you couldn't leave anything in camp."

At Wednesday's news conference, she pointed to a flashlight, a radio and hand tools that were seized from Knight. "A lot of stuff on the table was ours. We wished he would leave us a list of what he needed," she said.

Knight remains in jail on $5,000 cash bail, charged with a felony burglary and a misdemeanor theft, both at the Pine Tree Camp.

Neither Perkins-Vance nor Hughes named other locations that Knight might have burglarized, saying only that the case remains under investigation.

Hughes said he was glad to be a part of the collaborative investigation.

"I'm glad to solve the mystery," he said

Betty Adams can be contacted at 621-5631 or at:

badams@centralmaine.com



Staff photo by Andy Molloy Game Wardens, State Police and Somerset County Sheriff's deputies hike into Christopher Knight's camp site in Rome Tuesday April 9, 2013. Police believe Knight, who went into the woods near Belgrade in 1986, was a hermit who committed hundreds of burglaries to sustain himself. The camp was located in a heavily wooded location.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

Warden Service Sgt. Terry Hughes, left, and State Police Trooper Diane Perkins-Vance talk about capturing Christopher Knight -- known as the "North Pond Hermit — during a news conference on Wednesday in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

Warden Service Sgt. Terry Hughes, left, and State Police Trooper Diane Perkins-Vance talk about capturing Christopher Knight during a news conference on Wednesdayin Augusta.



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