July 11, 2010

The Hometown Perspective: For those who knew the young man, disbelief endures

By Matt Wickenheiser mwickenheiser@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

MADAWASKA - The boys would play on the train tracks near their neighborhood, climbing ladders on the sides of the freight cars and jumping from one to the next.

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In a yearbook photo from Dennis Dechaine's junior year at Madawaska High School, the teenage Dechaine, left, holds a camera that he used when he was on the yearbook staff. "The camera was bigger than him," said his childhood friend Carol Waltman.

Courtesy photo

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Jesse and Carol Waltman of Madawaska were childhood friends of Dennis Dechaine and remain among his supporters today. Carol Waltman is the founder of Trial and Error, the group advocating for Dechaine's freedom.

Maatt Wickenheiser photo

Additional Photos Below

Down across the flood plains of the St. John River, they'd launch into the air on Tarzan swings that stretched from tall trees across old gullies.

One, Jesse Waltman, had moved to town when he was in fifth grade, after his dad died in Vietnam. The other, Dennis Dechaine, was 9 years old and had lost his mother to cancer. The two became best friends.

But in 1988, Dechaine's life took a dark turn. He was 30 when he was charged with the murder of 12-year-old Sarah Cherry. Dechaine has been incarcerated since his 1988 arrest.

His path from life in this small mill town to the central role in one of Maine's most contentious and notorious murders is inconceivable to those who knew him.

"I've never been able to accept that Dennis could have done this," said Roger Martin, Dechaine's guidance counselor at Madawaska High School.

"I didn't see him getting into any fights in school, altercations with other kids ... Dennis was just a good kid, easy to talk to, always very polite -- just a nice kid."

Dechaine, the youngest of four brothers, grew up in a big house in a neighborhood off Main Street, behind the town's police station.

His father owned a gas station and ran a taxi service. After Dechaine's mother died, an aunt helped keep house and watch the kids.

But then, when Dennis was 14, his father died of a heart attack. His oldest brother, Phil, left the Coast Guard and returned home to take care of his brothers.

Dechaine was a good student, recalls Carol Waltman, Jesse Waltman's wife, who herself was a good friend of Dechaine's in high school. She is the founder and main force behind Trial and Error, the advocacy group that has been pushing for a new trial for Dechaine.

Even after losing both parents, Dechaine was a very positive person, said Carol Waltman, adding that he enjoyed photography and took pictures for the school yearbook.

"In high school, all you'd see was Dennis with a smile, and a camera -- and the camera was bigger than him," she said.

Carol Waltman said she didn't know Dechaine was experimenting with illegal drugs during high school. At his 1989 trial, Dechaine said he tried to hide that aspect of his life because he was embarrassed. He began smoking marijuana around his sophomore year, and he also tried cocaine and LSD while he was a teenager. At his trial, Dechaine said that when he was in his 20s, he sporadically used marijuana and cocaine.

In high school, Martin, the guidance counselor, recommended Dechaine for the Upward Bound program at Bowdoin College, an outdoors-based education experience.

Martin said Dechaine didn't have a lot of parental oversight, and he wanted him to experience a bit of the world, and to get him thinking about college. "I probably felt he had more ability than he used," he said.

Dechaine took part in the program for three years. After graduating in 1976, Dechaine enrolled at Vermont Technical College, where he studied agricultural business management.

Dechaine received his associate's degree and moved on to Western Washington University.

Steve Young didn't know Dechaine well in high school. But when Young was at the University of Maine at Orono, Dechaine came for a concert and stayed with him. The two became good friends.

The two talked about nature and jazz music, and canoed the Allagash. When Dechaine moved to Washington state, he convinced Young to join him.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Dennis Dechaine,1976 senior class photo

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Steve Young, a good friend of Dechaine’s from Madawaska, said “he represented to me what people say about the work ethic of people from northern Maine.”

Matt Wickenheiser photo

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Retired Madawaska High School guidance counselor Roger Martin knew Dechaine as a student. "I've never been able to accept that Dennis could have done this," he said.

Matt Wickenheiser photo

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