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February 19, 2013

Portland police collect and photograph evidence at 105-107 India St. following the still-unsolved shooting death of 24-year-old Matt Blanchard during the early-morning hours of July 11, 2012.

Search for answers in a senseless killing

By David Hench
dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Matt Blanchard was despondent over the death of his girlfriend, Casey Green, so much so that the 24-year-old couldn’t bring himself to return to the apartment they shared in Gray.

It had been two weeks since Blanchard dozed off at the wheel of Green’s car and crashed into a tree, killing her.

He couldn’t focus or sleep. He often seemed oblivious to the people around him.

Those closest to him – half brothers and cousins he grew up with – stayed by his side trying to help him through his depression.

It was that concern that brought Blanchard and three of his brothers together last summer, late on the moonlit night of July 10. They wandered around Portland, eventually stopping at a stoop on India Street to eat a snack of potato chips and soda.

Not long after, in the early morning hours of the next day, Blanchard was dead – shot by an unknown gunman. Months later, his killer is still at large and investigators are still seeking clues.

As time goes on, family and friends, including the three young men who were with Blanchard that night, worry that the case is no longer a priority for police.

They also know that many people believe the four did something to provoke the shooting, that it must have been a drug deal gone bad or some racial confrontation. Otherwise, people would have to believe, as the brothers contend, that the shooting was random, suggesting a level of deadly violence in a city that has seen very little of that.

Unsolved homicides in Portland are rare. Before Blanchard’s death, there had been only 10 since 1985.

Police say they remain committed to solving the case, that homicides are always the department’s top priority.

They say they are continually reviewing the file on Blanchard’s death, looking for new leads.

Detectives have examined all the surveillance videos taken that night from area businesses, collected trace evidence and interviewed many people who saw Blanchard and his friends that night.

But the reality is that random crimes, with no obvious connection between suspects and victims, are the hardest to solve.

Sometimes, the only way a case is resolved is when somebody with information is arrested for something else, and wants to trade that information for leniency.

Another possibility is that a ballistics match will be found for bullets taken from the scene of Blanchard’s killing. If the same gun turns up at another crime scene, police will have a starting point, if not a road map, to finding Blanchard’s killer.

KEEPING THE CASE ALIVE

Blanchard’s friend Matthew Tracy said it was the current debate over gun control that led him to reach out to the Portland Press Herald recently in an effort to draw attention to Blanchard as a victim of gun violence.

Tracy said he saw a commercial with pictures of people killed by guns and he wondered why his friend wasn’t among them.

“We never owned guns,” he said. The only time they even handled a gun was when he and Josh Hersom found one behind a fence on Douglass Street more than 12 years ago, when they were still kids, he said. They turned the gun over to police.

Tracy worries that police and the public are making assumptions about Blanchard and that his case gets less attention because he is from a low-income family.

Tracy said the photo of Blanchard that media outlets used when he died show him partying, looking like a tough kid, even though there were other photos that showed him dressed nicely.

“I feel like the whole way they did it all made it seem like he was not a good person, a punk dealing drugs or something,” he said.

That wasn’t Blanchard, he said. His friend was outgoing and funny, often the life of the party, but he also was someone whom ohers respected.

Blanchard grew up within a complex family. The young men with him that night were his half brothers and a step-brother.

The young men were a tight-knit bunch and Blanchard was the oldest, someone they looked up to.
He was handy and savvy about mechanical things, and he often bought items on craigslist – a four wheeler, a boat motor, bicycles – that he repaired and resold for a profit.

He worked at Petco for a while, but felt he wasn’t getting enough work. Last summer he worked odd jobs, trying to earn enough to help cover the rent, while taking classes at Southern Maine Community College to become a plumber.

When Green died, Blanchard was charged with being involved in a fatal crash while driving on a suspended license, a felony.

Green had been good for Blanchard, said his father, Ron Blanchard. They were happy together. He was on a good path, but when she died, his life seemed to stop, too.

“Matt was a wreck,” recalled John Howard, who was with Blanchard the night he died. “He was like coming in and out of consciousness and just crying ... You couldn’t talk to him about it ... He felt guilty.”

“He wasn’t suicidal, but he didn’t want to live. That’s normal for anyone with a big heart,” Ron Blanchard said. Getting outside and walking was one of the few things that would clear his head.

WALK TOWARD TRAGEDY

The night Blanchard was killed, he and his friends gathered at Ron Blanchard’s small apartment on Washington Avenue,  off the peninsula, trying to keep Matt Blanchard’s mind off the tragedy. On an impulse, they set out for the 7-Eleven at Washington and Cumberland avenues, which is open 24 hours.

It was not unusual for Blanchard and his friends to walk through Portland late at night, Tracy said. They were familiar with the city and had always felt safe.

As they made their way down Washington Avenue, they kept to the sidewalk, heading in the same direction as traffic.

Blanchard, his ankle still in a cast since the car crash, was astride a BMX bike, rolling ahead of the group and occasionally turning back to rejoin them.

At first he had the cane he had been using balanced across the handlebars, but passed it to Howard, who hid it in the woods.

They were cheerful. They said they had been drinking but not excessively.

When they got to Tukeys Bridge, they followed the pedestrian walkway underneath, an area where youths sometimes hang out. They met a couple of teenagers from Limerick, also out on the town, who asked for directions to the 7-Eleven, where Blanchard and his friends were headed.

The entire group ambled toward the intersection of Cumberland and Washington avenues, spread out in smaller pairings.

Matt’s brother Corey Blanchard and Hersom took one route while Howard, Blanchard and one of the teens from Limerick split off to follow a path that was less steep.

The group reassembled at the 7-Eleven. Howard remembers talking to an older black man wearing a military-style jacket. He had been drinking and they talked amiably for several minutes.

Police have interviewed the Limerick youths, who they say seem to corroborate the account of that night given by Blanchard’s brothers.

Police say surveillance video at the store shows Blanchard rolling on his bike out of view of the camera, while Howard bought chips and a soft drink.

The group then walked a block along Congress Street to India Street and, at a stoop near the corner, Blanchard and Hersom sat down to eat while Howard and Corey Blanchard stood nearby.

Blanchard was just about to open his bag of potato chips when the world erupted.

The first shot hit Blanchard’s bicycle. Howard has a photo of the metal bar between the seat and handlebars, flattened by a bullet.

There were sparks and Hersom warned that someone was throwing fireworks.

“He hadn’t comprehended he got shot,” said Corey Blanchard.

Then Howard was hit by a bullet that shattered the bone of his upper arm.

“It was ‘bang, bang’ and then I got hit,” Howard said. “I felt it snap ... I looked down at my left arm and screamed ... It was pouring blood. It was like a faucet in my arm.”

Howard said he looked up to see a large man pointing a gun at them and then took off running.

“As I’m running, I hear ‘bang, bang, bang, bang.’” He sprinted down a driveway and ducked into a corner of the parking lot, where he hid.

Corey Blanchard stood, stunned, staring at the man about 75 feet away on Congress Street who was pointing a gun at them with two hands.

He remembers the shooter as a large black man, 6 feet tall maybe, wearing a white shirt and a light-colored, flat-brim baseball cap.

“Josh was holding his arm. Johnny just kind of dropped. I heard the first two shots and then four more,” Corey Blanchard said. “I see a guy like this walking toward us in the middle of Congress,” he said, clasping his hands extended ahead of him, imitating a shooter holding a handgun.

Matt fell backward and Corey could see his shirt darkening over his chest.

The sharp sound of metal hitting the Metro sign next to his head shocked Corey into ducking.

Then the gunman was gone, headed down Congress Street in the same direction as a group of youths whom Blanchard and Howard said called them names moments after shooting.

A taxi drove by, and they remember yelling to the driver to call police, that they had just been shot. The driver kept going.

Corey looked down at his brother lying on the stoop. He saw Matt staring back at him, blood pouring from the bullet hole in his chest. He reached up toward Corey and gasped, but was unable to speak.

Corey held his brother until seconds later when police arrived.

As police swarmed the area, an officer ordered Corey Blanchard to the ground at gunpoint, unsure of his role in the shooting.

Then rescue workers quickly put his brother on a stretcher and loaded him into an ambulance. Corey Blanchard went to the police station to be interviewed. After 45 minutes, one of the detectives took him aside.

“He said, ‘I have some bad news, your brother didn’t make it,’” Corey recalled. “I just started bawling.”

To this day, the friends still wonder why Matt was killed.

“We didn’t have a beef with anyone. We didn’t talk to anyone except those two kids,” said Corey Blanchard.

Police have struggled to identify any suspects who might have been in the area at the time. Reports that night say the gunman headed west on Congress Street.

Detectives examined security video from a number of area businesses taken that night. They released a description of someone they were seeking: an Asian man with tattoos on his neck.

They did not say whether they thought that person was the gunman or someone who might be able to identify a suspect. Police would say only that he was a person of interest whom they wanted to interview. Blanchard and Howard are adamant that the man they saw was black, though the lighting was poor.

Police would not explain the discrepancy.

One of the only gaps in the friends’ account of that night is any possible interactions Blanchard may have had with others during the time they were separated. Security videos show Blanchard riding his bicycle in and out of view, and he could have ridden down the street for a distance before returning to his friends, police said.

Blanchard’s brothers say they believe the gunman walked out to Congress Street from Smith Street, which is almost opposite India. They had not seen him or anyone else suspicious on Washington or on Congress before they turned down India.

A HIGH-PRIORITY CASE

Detectives are not neglecting the case, said Lt. Scott Pelletier, head of the criminal investigations division. Leads are still trickling in, and they continue to analyze forensic evidence collected at the scene.

“People call these cases cold. We don’t call them cold. We work them when we have information to go on,” Pelletier said. “There’s still a number of angles forensically we’re looking at in that case.”
Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said the case will never be neglected.

“All homicides are incredibly important from an investigative standpoint and from a safety perspective for the entire city,” he said. “That has nothing to do with an individual’s background or how it occurred. We give it all of our resources.”

“The India Street homicide is an anomaly of sorts, with three individuals shot,” he said. “That’s a very violent act in a very safe city and something we will never stop investigating till we have a suspect in custody.”

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:
dhench@pressherald.com



Matt Blanchard

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

Ron Blanchard, left, father of murder victim Matt Blanchard, talks about his son along with Logan Howard, Matt’s uncle, and John Howard, Matt’s brother. They insist the killing was a random act of violence.



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