July 11, 2010

The Alternate Suspect: Is former Mainer linked, or 'nothing but speculation'?

By Trevor Maxwell tmaxwell@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

Lawyers, friends and supporters who believe Dennis Dechaine was framed for the murder in 1988 of 12-year-old Sarah Cherry have pointed fingers at several possible alternate suspects.

But one name -- Douglas Senecal -- has been at or near the top of their lists since the beginning.

At least three judges, however, have found no credible evidence linking Senecal to the crime, and they have said Dechaine's alternate suspect theory is nothing more than speculation.

Senecal himself says the target painted on his back forced him to move out of Maine shortly after Dechaine's conviction. Being labeled as a possible suspect in one of Maine's most infamous murders has essentially destroyed his life over the past 22 years, Senecal said in a brief telephone interview last week.

"Whose life is ruined?" he asked tersely.

Senecal, 57, said he hopes he outlives Dechaine, but he still wants to hear a confession from the prisoner so his own name might finally be cleared.

"He won't do it," Senecal said. "He can't confess because he is too far into it, and he is too intelligent."

During the telephone interview, the retired drywall mason used profanity to blast Dechaine's camp and the media, including The Portland Press Herald, for dragging his name through the mud in the past two decades.

Since leaving Maine, Senecal has lived in North Carolina and Florida. He wouldn't say where he currently resides.

In 1988, Senecal lived in Phippsburg and ran a drywall business. He was under indictment in Sagadahoc County for the alleged sexual abuse of one of his stepdaughters five years earlier.

Senecal was connected to Sarah Cherry through a series of divorces and marriages. His stepdaughters were stepsisters to Sarah, and the girls lived in the same home in 1983 at the time of the alleged abuse.

A few days after Sarah Cherry's body was found in July of 1988, a tenant of a property owned by Senecal called a state social worker to report that she believed Senecal had committed the crime. According to court records, the social worker contacted detectives and told them Senecal had been acting strangely since the murder and was the subject of several allegations of sexual abuse in addition to the pending indictment.

Tom Connolly, Dechaine's trial lawyer, wanted to call Senecal and his tenant as witnesses at the trial, under the theory of an alternate suspect. Connolly theorized that Senecal feared Sarah Cherry would testify against him in the sexual abuse case. Connolly also claimed Senecal could have known where Sarah was baby-sitting on the day she was abducted.

Senecal's attorney said his client was running errands the afternoon of the abduction, and his whereabouts were accounted for. The lawyer, Joseph Field, said Senecal had no motive because Sarah was not on the witness list in the sexual abuse case. Field said Senecal had no knowledge of Sarah's plans to baby-sit.

Justice Carl O. Bradford agreed with Field, and he would not allow Connolly to present his theory at Dechaine's March 1989 trial.

"I admire your ingenuity, but this is inviting the jury to engage in nothing but speculation," the judge told Connolly during a conference in chambers, according to a court transcript.

Nor was Senecal tried on the sexual abuse charge. His case was scheduled for trial in late July 1988, but prosecutors continued the case twice because Senecal's stepdaughter left Maine earlier that summer. Several witnesses said in affidavits that Senecal's wife arranged for the girl to travel to California so she would not be available to testify. Prosecutors did not resurrect the charge after the girl returned to Maine.

(Continued on page 2)

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