December 1, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Monhegan cold case heats up 60 years later

At what point should the investigation involving a N.Y. ‘socialite’ no longer be kept secret?

Phil Bowler has a simple, straightforward question for Maine’s Office of the Attorney General.

click image to enlarge

Jamie Wyeth’s “Portrait of Rockwell Kent, second in a series of untoward occurrences on Monhegan Island.”

Image of 2013 painting courtesy of artist

“Why the hell won’t they give me the file on a 60-year-old murder case?” Bowler, 75, asked last week after going toe-to-toe with Deputy Attorney General William Stokes in Kennebec County Superior Court. “What the hell is the big secret?”

In all likelihood, there isn’t one. Still, as Freedom of Access Act requests go, this case is one for the ages.

It has what this newspaper once called a “New York City socialite” who disappeared without a trace from Monhegan Island in the summer of 1953 – that is until three weeks later, when the Coast Guard pulled her lifeless body from the Atlantic Ocean some 50 miles off Portland Head.

It has not one, but two famous Maine artists and enough rumor and gossip to span 60 years, four months and 22 days (but who’s counting?).

It also has a fundamental question regarding the public’s right to know: At what point should a cold murder investigation – in this case a 518-page file chock full of details about the tragic demise of one Sally Maynard Moran – no longer be kept secret?

“I’ve got a lot of arrows pointing at a lot of people,” said Bowler, whose long white hair and beard suggest a man too busy finding stuff out to waste time on a shave and a haircut. “I told Stokes if I can look at that file, I’ll be able to tell within two days who did it.”

Even without knowing what’s inside?

“I don’t care,” replied Bowler. “Trust me.”


A little history ...

Sally Moran, 49, was a close acquaintance of the renowned artist Rockwell Kent, who lived and worked on Monhegan at various times throughout the first half of the 20th century. Thus, when Sally’s marriage to the wealthy advertising executive Daniel E. Moran fell apart and she lost her New York City apartment in 1953, Kent and his third wife, also named Sally, invited her to spend the summer in a cottage they owned on Monhegan.

The Kents’ daughter and her two children had joined Moran there by the evening of July 9, when Moran went for a pre-dinner walk along the island’s majestic cliffs and never returned.

“Monhegan Search for Guest Fails,” reported the Portland Press Herald three days later, after an exhaustive search of the island and the waters around it turned up nothing.

Three weeks later, however, fishermen in the Gulf of Maine came across Moran’s body and summoned the Coast Guard Cutter Acushnet, which transported the corpse to Rockland for an autopsy.

The results, inexplicably not released until that October, showed a skull fracture caused by blunt-force trauma, a broken right arm and no other injuries that might have indicated a fall from the cliffs to the rocks and surf below. Nor was there any indication of drowning.

“I have a feeling someone knows more than they have told us,” said then-Lincoln County Attorney J. Blenn Perkins, who by then had been joined in his investigation by Attorney General Alexander A. LeFleur.

“This case will remain a live entry in my files and in those of the attorney general,” promised Perkins. “We are not going to give up despite all of the complexities of the case, some of which are exasperatingly baffling. It could be quite an extended investigation but we intend to keep trying for a break.”


That break, alas, never came. And as the decades passed, the voluminous witness statements and other investigative material gathered dust at the Attorney General’s Office in Augusta.

(Continued on page 2)

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