SKOWHEGAN – Ten friends and relatives of Rita St. Peter watched Thursday as the man who’s accused of murdering her told a judge he is innocent.

Jay Mercier, 55, of Industry pleaded not guilty in Somerset County Superior Court to the killing more than 31 years ago in Anson.

Mercier, who was arrested on Sept. 28, told Justice John Nivison in the five-minute hearing that he understood his rights. He is charged with murder in the killing of St. Peter on July 5, 1980.

Outside the courthouse, St. Peter’s sister Christine Belangia of Weld read a statement.

While more than three decades passed before an arrest was made, “We never gave up hope. God is good,” she said. “Just don’t give up hope because, one day, you never know.”

Belangia remembered St. Peter as a “fun-loving, awesome person, a very good mom and a wonderful sister.”

St. Peter was adopted by Belangia’s parents before she was a year old. “Being the youngest, I was closer to her than any of the other members of my family; I was 9 when she came to live with us in Anson,” Belangia said.

St. Peter was 20 when she died. She left behind a 3-year-old daughter, Terri Lynn, whom Belangia described as “the greatest joy of her life.”

Terri Lynn has “now grown to be a wonderful mother to her own children,” Belangia said.

After St. Peter’s death, Terri Lynn lived with her grandparents. Because of their poor health and age, she was put up for adoption.

“Her new family loved her as their own child,” Belangia said. She did not give their name.

She thanked the state police and others who “have worked so hard” on the investigation.

Also on the courthouse steps, Assistant Attorney General Andrew Benson said Mercier’s trial may be scheduled for late spring. He acknowledged that forensic evidence led to a breakthrough in the case but would not provide specifics.

While it is satisfying to make an arrest after many years, he said, the age of the case makes it challenging. “First of all, people’s memories change and get worse. It is always more difficult to prove foundation for physical evidence. And third, after 30 years, people die,” Benson said.

If convicted, Mercier could spend 25 years to life in prison.

An 18-year-old man who was exercising horses found St. Peter’s body in a field off Campground Road in Anson. She had been beaten and her skull had been fractured. Police said she may have been run over by a car or a truck. The official cause of death has never been released.

On the night she died, St. Peter was seen leaving the Main Street Depot tavern in Madison about 12:30 a.m. Witnesses told police they later saw her get into a pickup truck on the Madison-Anson bridge.

Benson said St. Peter was identified by police officer William Wright, who later became Somerset County sheriff and is now deceased.

Nivison said any motions in the case must be filed within 90 days. Defense attorney John Alsop said he will let the court know when he’s ready for a hearing at which the prosecution will request that Mercier’s right to bail be revoked.

Mercier is being held without bail in the Somerset County Jail.

Morning Sentinel Staff Writer Erin Rhoda can be contacted at 612-2368 or at: [email protected]