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BELFAST — On March 17 a crowd gathered at the Belfast boat ramp. Around noon, the Belfast Police force arrived and ran into the frigid water without a moment’s hesitation. The actions of the law enforcement personnel were not directed to an open water rescue, nor was it a training exercise.

As it turns out, the officers braving the chilly North Atlantic were lending support to a cause embraced by the entire community — Special Olympics. Belfast Police Chief Robert Cormier joined his officers in taking the Polar Plunge.

“This is an annual thing,” Cormier said. “It coincides with the Maine Special Olympics Torch Plunge, which will be in Winthrop. This event raises funds for our local Special Olympians.”

Several staff members of Regional School Unit 71 joined the Police Department to lend support and funding to the local Special Olympics program. Participants sought donations for their willingness to take the plunge to support a great cause.

“This means everything to me,” said Belfast Sgt. Rick Smith. “This is supporting one of the greatest causes we have in the nation, the Special Olympics. What better way to support that cause than to make yourself uncomfortable, go in the cold water, and do it for the right reason.”

While most of the plungers exited the water quickly, Smith and fellow officer Andrew Chapman remained in the water for five minutes as a salute to the local Special Olympians — officially Team Bank of America — who were on hand to watch.

Jim Leonard / Photo by Jim Leonard 

Local Special Olympians lend support to Belfast Police officers taking the Polar Plunge on March 17. The event raises funds for Special Olympics. Photo by Jim Leonard

The Polar Plunge is an annual event across Maine. This is the first year that the Belfast Police have participated, and they have done very well.

The goal of the statewide plunge was set at $25,000. As of March 17, groups across Maine had raised over $42,000. Amongst the 19 teams participating, the Belfast Police were in third place with nearly $3,000 in donations.

Jim Leonard / Photo by Jim Leonard 

Belfast Police Chief Robert Cormier, right, pauses with Officer Gabe Jones after departing the chilly water. The two participated in the Polar Plunge, an event that raises funds for Special Olympics. Photo by Jim Leonard

For Cormier, getting his department involved with the fundraiser was instinctive.

“I try to support Special Olympics whenever I can,” Cormier said. “They are like family to me.”

Parents process Monroe Elementary School 'close call'

PROSPECT — Parents are still asking questions about how a 10-year-old came to possess a firearm that the student brought into Monroe Elementary School March 10.

Students saw the child with the gun on the bus that morning on the way to school and reported it to school officials when they got there, according to Regional School Unit 3 Resource Officer and Waldo County Sheriff Deputy Jordan Tozier.

Tozier and school officials took swift action to confiscate the gun without incident or injury, according to information from the district and the Sheriff’s Office. The unloaded .22 caliber handgun was found in a bag with bullets.

But many parents still consider the incident a close call. The student has since been charged with four offenses, including two felonies.

Monroe resident and father of a Monroe School student Ben Hooper just wanted to know what happened after he learned about the incident, he said. He wants to know what the school is going to do about the situation and what it is doing to prevent it from happening again. But the perhaps the most burning queston for Hooper is how the 10-year-old got a gun in the first place.

If an adult gave the child the gun or was negligent in properly securing the gun, then he hopes somebody is held accountable. “Somebody had the gun and I want to know it isn’t going to happen again,” Hooper said.

As of March 17, no adults have been charged in conjunction with the incident, according to Tozier, but it remains under investigation. “Right now we just don’t have those answers yet, but we are still tracking that down,” he said.

Hooper owns guns himself but they are properly secured so his children do not have access to them, he said. He has also discussed gun safety with his kids and they know not to touch firearms. He thinks most gun owners are responsible about keeping their guns locked up, but there are a few who do not do so.

Corey Mitchell lives in very close proximity to the school and has a 9-year-old who goes there, he said. When he got a text from the school about the incident at about 11 a.m. that day, he was first struck with worry and concern. He was also surprised.

He hopes the incident has motivated people to make sure their firearms are locked away where children cannot reach them, he said. He does not think the government can control people not properly securing their firearms, so there is a level of personal responsibility when a child gets a hold of a gun. There are resources available to help people, but it is a matter of taking the extra step to ensure guns are secure.

This situation could be indicative of a child in crisis, though it is hard to understand the situation without knowing more specific details about the child, Mitchell said. Children are just coming out of a lot of upheaval from the pandemic and many of them have fallen through the cracks.

The incident is a symptom of a larger discord and the school should identify other kids who are struggling also, he said. Hooper said he would like to see more resources for disadvantaged children who might be at risk of this behavior.

Tozier said that whenever a student threat against the school is reported, school officials assess the comment and the child who made the threat. Most threats are transient, he said, meaning the student has no intention of actually doing harm but made the comment out of spite.

The Comprehensive School Threat Assessment guidelines help school officials decide how to address a situation in which a student makes a threat against the school, he said. He might try to hook a student up with services, resources, a criminal summons and he might get the juvenile corrections office involved as a last resort. Social workers will check in with children and also help get them services, he said.

Students identified as witnesses or victims of the incident were referred to social workers or guidance counselors, he said.

Mitchell’s son saw the police officers going into the school but he was not in the classroom with the child who brought the gun to school, the father said. The principal came in to talk with the students but did not define what had occurred, trying to limit the children’s exposure to the incident but encouraging them to follow up with their parents.

During a time when he was looking for leadership, Mitchell thinks the district came through with that, he said. In the school days following the incident, the school provided children with resources, gave them space to reach out and provided kids with as much time as they needed to process the situation.

His child’s teacher followed up with them early the following week, he said. Considering what had happened the Friday before, the district provided the right response that Monday. The school provided counselors for children and gave them a chance to talk about the situation individually or in small groups.

Hooper would like to know how the school is going to prevent situations like this from happening again, he said. He thinks relying on the kids to report dangerous activity as the last line of defense is problematic.

He received only two emails from the school about the situation, he said, but has received little additional information about the incident. He understands that the school has gone as far as it can and it is up to the Sheriff’s Office to pursue the case further.

Hooper commends the teachers and staff who helped diffuse the situation without anybody getting hurt. “I think we dodged a big one here. That teacher is really a hero,” he said.

Though he understands it is unlikely to happen again, he was still too shaken up about the situation to let his 6-year-old son return to school, he said. He does not think the school is a bad place but he does not know if the Sheriff’s Office has drilled down to the root cause of the situation.

Mitchell feels like the school is still a safe place for his son but having a weekend to process the Friday incident really helped his family process and deal with the situation, he said. They moved a lot that weekend and made sure to connect with their community and friends through fun activities. They allowed him the space to let his feelings come out naturally.

Once the third grader realized what happened, he was shocked, had a little fear and then thought about his friends who were close to the situation, Michell said. At first, he and his partner just listened to their child and tried to help him identify his feelings. Then, they talked about how dangerous it is for a child to possess a gun at school.

It was a hard conversation that they felt was necessary to keep their child and his friends safe, he said. “Those were tough conversations,” he said. “We weren’t trying to scare him at all but we were just trying to be really realistic so that he could understand it. … From a viewpoint of him keeping himself safe and him keeping his fiends safe.”

Hooper’s 6-year-old son is too young to understand the complexities of the situation, he said. His child had no knowledge of the situation when it had happened.

The school provides all staff with ALICE (alert, lockdown, inform, counter or evacuate training), Tozier said. One of the most important parts of that training is telling students to report unsafe situations. Because of that aspect of the training students came forward and a possible tragedy was avoided.

He appreciates the students and staff for the way they handled the situation, he said. It allowed him to make a quick response based on student information. He acknowledged he cannot be everywhere and the teachers cannot see everything so they need everybody’s help. It helps create a safe learning environment.

ALICE training information determines that school settings are still safe and violent critical incidences occur in other public places, Tozier said. Since his days teaching in the RSU 3 district from 2007 to 2012 to his time as the resource officer, this is the first time he has ever known of or been involved with a gun coming into one of the schools, calling the situation rare in the district.

If there is any more information the Sheriff’s Office can release as the investigation unfolds, then it will, the officer said, but because most of those involved are minors, investigators have more limitations around how much information can be released.

The situation put a scare into a lot of families, Mitchell said. This incident may have involved only one child in crisis, but there may be others. The community needs to make sure all students are having their needs met, in and out of school.

“I hope as a community we can see this as our kids, plural, in crisis or maybe not all of our kids in crisis but understand as a community this is a chance for us to kind of look at what we can do better and look at how we can make a safe school experience for all of our kids,” Mitchell said.

Prospect man perishes in second house fire in same week
  • Updated

VERONA ISLAND — One man has died and two others escaped safely from a fire that destroyed a home at 322 East Side Road the evening of March 15.

According to a press release from Maine Department of Public Safety, Terrance Leach, 68, of Prospect was not able to get out of the home where he was staying as a guest in the Verona Island fire, the cause of which is under investigation.

The day before, on March 14, Leach narrowly escaped a fire that destroyed his own home on Route 1 in Prospect. According to Republican Journal Prospect columnist Barbara Tilley, a passerby helped the wheelchair-bound man to safety and he was taken to Waldo County General Hospital with burns.

According to the March 16 press release from the Department of Public Safety, the cause of the Prospect fire was accidental; Leach was smoking while using a home oxygen tank.

Called out at approximately 6:45 p.m. March 15, crews from several towns responded to the Verona Island fire, the press release said. Three people were home at the time of the fire. Two of them, including the homeowner, were able to get out safely, but Leach did not survive.

An autopsy was conducted today, the press release said, and there are no indications of foul play.

Leach went to stay at his friend’s residence on Verona Island after the earlier fire destroyed his Prospect home.

Luck of the Irish

NORTHPORT — Jim Walsh was curious.

The Alabama resident, an adoptee, wanted to know more about his biological family. Walsh’s wife of 31 years, Mishael, was also an adoptee with a similar desire to find out more about her roots.

With encouragement from Mishael, Walsh took a test with the genealogical organization Ancestry in 2019. That test helped Walsh confirm the identity of his biological father. Little did Walsh realize that, years later, that same test would produce a rainbow that led to a pot of gold in Northport, Maine.

With Mishael taking the lead, the two continued to work with Ancestry, and Ancestry genetic specialist Tonia Erickson, to find additional family members outside of their biological parents. During a Christmas 2022 holiday in Kansas City a message from Ancestry changed their lives.

“It was December 23,” Mishael said. “There was a blizzard in Kansas City. Everything was shut down. Jim slept and I logged into Jim’s account on Ancestry and a message said ‘you have a close match daughter’.”

The message contained a photo of Northport resident Jenny Hoover. The Walshes were confused. They did not have a daughter. Confused, Mishael contact Erickson to discuss the match. Erickson informed Mishael the match was confirmed, Jim Walsh had a daughter.

The couple scanned the photo of Hoover sent by Ancestry and any doubts were suspended.

“It was a surprise,” Walsh said. “There was no question about it. Looking at her profile photo was like looking in a mirror.”

Determined to find out more about Hoover, Mishael and Erickson began digging and located Hoover’s biological mother.

“We put some pieces together,” Mishael said of her efforts with Erickson. “We were able to quickly find out that (Hoover’s biological mother) was living in Fayetteville, North Carolina, at the same time Jim was stationed at Fort Bragg.”

In the early 1990s Walsh was a member of the 82nd Airborne Division, based in Ft. Bragg, N.C.

“It was a no-brainer,” Mishael said. “Clearly, around 1991 Jim and Jenny’s biological mother shared a connection, and Jenny was the result.”

Jenny’s profile was in the Ancestry system because she, too, was looking for biological connections.

“I was looking for other family members,” Hoover said. “I was not raised by my mother. I was raised by a man I believed to be my father and a woman he married when I was 2.”

The man whom Hoover believed to be her father was also stationed at Ft. Bragg during the early 1990s.

“Tonia began sending me messages saying I had a confirmed parental match,” Hoover said. “I told her I didn’t think she had the right person.”

Hoover reached out to her biological mother for more information and began putting things together. Erickson assured Hoover the parental match with Jim Walsh was confirmed. When Erickson supplied Hoover with a photo of Walsh, all doubt faded away.

“I saw the family resemblance,” Hoover said. “That was it for me. I knew they had the right person.”

By this time Hoover, and boyfriend James Arsenault, has moved from Michigan to Northport. Hoover and Walsh began communicating and set up a time to connect in person.

On March 16, Jim Walsh and Jenny Hoover connected, in person, in Belfast.

“They drove all the way up here from Alabama to see me,” Hoover said. “It’s emotional. It means a lot. I’ve never had this type of love from a parental figure and, to get that from someone who doesn’t know me and just found out about me, it’s overwhelming.”

For Jim Walsh the discovery of his daughter provides new perspective.

“I’m blessed,” Walsh said. “There’s no other way to say it.”

BELFAST PIPER — Peter Beckford of Rebel Hill Farm in Liberty plays the pipes on St. Patrick’s Day outside Darby’s Restaurant on High Street. Beckford performs on March 17 every year and says, “It used to be epic, now it’s fun.” Photo by Jim Leonard