July 4, 2010

The Day of the Crime: What investigators found on path to grisly slaying

By Trevor Maxwell tmaxwell@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

On the day she was kidnapped, Sarah Cherry of Bowdoin went to baby-sit for a local couple whose regular sitter had backed out.

It was the 12-year-old's second baby-sitting job, and her first time watching a baby. But John and Jennifer Henkel did not have reservations about hiring Sarah. She was known in town as a mature, good-natured and athletic kid who was looking forward to starting junior high school that fall.

It was July 6, 1988, and a heat wave had settled over Maine, bringing temperatures close to 90 degrees.

According to court records, Jennifer Henkel checked in on Sarah by phone around noon. The girl was feeding the baby and preparing hot dogs for herself.

When Henkel arrived home around 3:20 p.m., she noticed some papers in the driveway. There was a notebook and a truck repair bill bearing a name: Dennis Dechaine. Henkel had never heard the name before.

Two exterior doors were slightly ajar. The mother found her baby asleep in her crib, but Sarah was gone. Some of the girl's belongings, including her eyeglasses, socks and sneakers, were left neatly in the living room.

Henkel called the Sagadahoc County Sheriff's Office, and the search commenced for both Sarah and Dechaine, a 30-year-old farmer from the adjacent town of Bowdoinham.

It was getting dark around 8:45 p.m., and as the search for Sarah was growing more frantic, Dechaine walked out of the woods in Bowdoin on Dead River Road, about three miles north of the Henkel home.

He met an elderly couple and told them he had been fishing, gotten lost and could not find his pickup truck. Harry Buttrick drove Dechaine around for a few minutes before they came across a cruiser from the Sagadahoc County Sheriff's Department. Buttrick suggested the police might be able to help, and Dechaine agreed.

Dechaine told the officers his name, and he got in the back seat of the cruiser. He gave them the same story about getting lost while fishing. The officers told him about the missing girl and asked how his papers could have ended up in the Henkel driveway.

Dechaine said he didn't know anything about a girl, and that someone must have taken his papers to set him up.

His truck was found around midnight on a discontinued logging road off nearby Hallowell Road, and he consented to its search and removal to the state crime lab. Investigators gave Dechaine a ride home just before dawn.

The search for Sarah Cherry over the next two days included every resource the state could muster, from lone citizen volunteers to helicopters.

Word began to spread at noon on July 8 that Sarah's body had been found in the woods about 450 feet west of the spot on Hallowell Road where Dechaine's truck had been parked.

Except for the top of her head, Sarah's body was covered in leaves, pine needles, sticks and dirt. Her hands were bound by a yellow plastic rope in front of her body. The killer had placed a bandana as a gag in Sarah's mouth and wrapped a plaid wool scarf around her neck and mouth.

She had been sexually assaulted with birch sticks. She had been stabbed about a dozen times, apparently with a small blade, in the left temple, neck and chest. The cause of death was strangulation and stab wounds.

The bandana, scarf and rope were all items that had been in Dechaine's truck.

Dechaine later told the jury at his trial that he made up the fishing story because he didn't want to get into trouble for using drugs. He said he had been in the woods injecting amphetamines and wandering around.

 

Staff writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at:

tmaxwell@pressherald.com

 

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