SACO — Robert Ouellette never lost faith in people. When he or an associate missed a real estate deal, he’d gloss it over with a joke and hope for better luck next time. When locals wanted to tear down one historic building or another, he’d try to reason with them and seek compromise.

And when his 15-year-old daughter Ashley was killed two years ago, he never stopped believing that the people responsible would be brought to justice.

So it is appropriate that, following Robert Ouellette’s death by heart attack Saturday at age 49, many in this tightly knit community are ready to carry on his effort to find Ashley’s killer and help the family cope with another loss.

“This shouldn’t be left unsettled,” said Thomas Ouellette, Robert Ouellette’s brother. “Bob felt very strongly about having answers. He was seeking justice and we will continue to support that endeavor.”

The family will pursue a wrongful-death lawsuit filed in February against Earl Sanborn Jr. and Muriel Sanborn, the Saco couple who owned the mobile home where Ashley spent her last night in February 1999.

The Sanborns filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy last month, a move that halted the Ouellettes’ civil case just days before the Sanborns were to be deposed. David Benemen, the Ouellettes’ attorney, said he is seeking a court order to free the civil case from the bankruptcy proceedings.

“We will carry on,” Benemen said.

Ashley Ouellette was found dead in the middle of Pine Point Road in Scarborough on Feb. 10, 1999. She had been strangled. The last location police can place her alive is the Sanborn residence at 50 Mast Hill Road in Saco. Ashley had been friends with the Sanborns’ two sons, Steven and Daniel.

No charges have been filed in Ashley’s death. Maine State Police remain optimistic about solving the case despite the loss of Robert Ouellette as one of their chief supporters. Eager to help the investigation in any way, the Ouellettes offered a $20,000 reward for information and even consulted with a psychic on national television.

“Bob was a good man,” said Sgt. Matthew Stewart. “The Ouellettes have been behind us through all the frustrations. We have our theories as to what took place and we are working to prove our case.”

Had she lived, Ashley would have graduated Sunday from Thornton Academy, like her father. To mark her absence, class officers will place a bouquet of roses on an empty seat in the front row. Ashley’s family was invited to attend before her father’s death. Her mother, Lise, and sister, Lindsay, still plan to be there.

“The seniors will be celebrating a joyous occasion, but one of their classmates is no longer with them, and they wanted to let the family know that others remember their loss,” said Cathy Coffman, spokeswoman for the high school.

Thornton also rescheduled its senior assembly to this morning so faculty and students may attend Robert Ouellette’s funeral Mass at 9 a.m. at Most Holy Trinity Church in Saco. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Ashley Ouellette Memorial Scholarship Fund, which now holds about $20,000, Coffman said.

Robert Ouellette’s death shocked his family and friends. He apparently passed a physical two weeks ago, his brother said, and previously showed no signs of heart disease.

While his condition may have been hereditary, family and friends have no doubt that losing one of his daughters and the stress of the last two years contributed to his death.

“I’m sure there was a lot of stress, but Bob didn’t show it,” said Arthur Tardiff, a Saco city councilor and an associate Realtor at Prudential Prime Properties, the Ouellettes’ real estate firm.

Ouellette’s civic involvement is well known throughout Saco, whether as trustee of the Dyer Library-Saco Museum or as chairman of Saco’s Historic Preservation Commission. As City Councilor Mark Johnston put it, Ouellette was a man of class, an expert at “soft politics” and a member of the city’s “silent leadership.”

“They are the people who really get things done,” said Johnston. “Bob knew how to talk to people, so he didn’t make enemies. I saw it time and again when he was on the historic commission. He was very sensitive to historic preservation. He had bought and restored a few houses himself. But even with people who wanted to bulldoze an old building, Bob would show them compassion and try to find another way.”

Above all, many say, Ouellette was dedicated to the search for those responsible for his daughter’s death. That search will go on without him.

“We hope that someday we’ll have an answer for Ashley’s case,” Thomas Ouellette said. “My family needs some good news.”