TRUE STORIES OF THE MAINE WARDEN SERVICE

IN THE DEAD OF A MAINE WINTER'S NIGHT

By Daren Worcester

Warden Nathaniel Berry was brushing his teeth for bed on a cold January night in 1981 when the phone rang.

“You get it,” his wife, Chong Ae, yelled to him. She was already tucked under the covers, and she knew better. Late-night calls are an ominous sign in any household, but for a Maine game warden, it’s seldom good news. “Hurry, before it wakes the girls.”

Nat answered on the bedroom phone. He listened as dispatch relayed a missing person’s report on a patient at the Pineland Hospital and Training Center, a state-run inpatient institute for the mentally challenged in New Gloucester. Nat lived near the facility, so he knew it wasn’t uncommon for patients to wander off. He also knew that the resources allocated to Pineland and the treatment of its patients were a political firecracker, and so it was no surprise that the center preferred to air its dirty laundry out of the public eye. In fact, the last time Nat worked with Pineland, he called them after finding a patient hiding in his garage.

There was only one reason they were asking for help now—they were desperate.

“I’m on my way,” he said. Nat quickly changed into his wool Warden Service blues.  

“Good luck,” Chong Ae said. She’d heard enough of his stories to know what it meant when someone was missing in the dead of a Maine winter’s night.

In the breezeway, Nat pulled on his service boots and blue, goose-down parka. The thermometer mounted to the side of the house was frozen at zero.

“Good luck is right,” he said to himself.

A collection of brick buildings situated atop an open hill, the Pineland campus could be mistaken for a small college from the outside. Postcard worthy on a sunny morning, Pineland projected a cold and lonely feeling on this night. The grounds were covered in a fresh coat of snow from a nor’easter earlier in the day, and the now clear sky and bright moon were casting long, haunting shadows from the buildings and oak trees. Nat parked before a snowbank that towered over his department truck. The walkways hadn’t been shoveled yet, so he shuffled through the foot-deep snow and entered the Welcome Center.

“Nat,” John, Pineland’s head of security, said. A portly man, he got up from behind his desk to shake Nat’s hand. “Thanks for coming out.” There was a nasal tone to his voice, and it was clear from his red nose and sniffling that he had a cold. John turned his head to sneeze and then blew his nose on a handkerchief. Before Nat could say anything, the entrance door swung open, and a group of Pineland’s guards and facility personnel entered.

“Anything?” John asked them.

“Nope,” a guard dressed in a black ski jacket and a red winter hat, said.

A sinking feeling overcame Nat. He’d almost pinched the guard, a man in his late twenties named Steve, for spotlighting a field adjacent to Pineland the previous fall. Steve was looking for a lost patient on that night, too, but since security didn’t carry any form of identification, the situation nearly escalated into a shouting match before John was called in to corroborate Steve’s story.

“Who are we looking for?” Nat asked to take his focus off of Steve.

“The patient’s name is Ricky Marcel,” John said. “He’s about five foot nine, moppy brown hair, brown eyes, twenty-two years old. Here’s his photo from our patient board. It was taken last fall.”

The young man in the picture was standing before a birthday cake and wearing a Red Sox cap. There was a nurse at his side, who had one hand on his forearm and the other around his waist. Ricky wore a wide-eyed expression with a giant smile, and the image left the impression that the nurse was keeping him from diving face-first into the cake.

Nat couldn’t help but smile.

“Do you know what he’s wearing?”

“We’re not positive, but his jacket, hat, and mittens are missing, so we assume he’s got them. The coat is red. Hat and mittens are blue. If you find any articles of clothing, look on the inside for a patch with the patient’s initials.”

Nat jotted down notes on the clothes.

“What about footwear?”

“Those are gone, too. They’re—oh, what do you call them?”

“Moon boots,” Steve said.

“Right. Moon boots. They’re crap, lightweight. Definitely not something you’d want to wear out at night. He’s probably also wearing jeans.”

“Probably?”

John wiped his nose. “Ricky only wears jeans. It’s a quirk of his. If he doesn’t have jeans on, then he’s likely bare legged.”

“Let’s hope he’s got his jeans.” Nat looked up from his spiral notepad. “I’m not sure how to ask this next question. How well does Ricky function?”

“Not well,” John said. “He requires assistance with everything from eating to tying his shoes. There’s a reason his boots are Velcro. His verbal communication skills are nonexistent. Sometimes he’ll respond when his name is called, but I wouldn’t hold your breath. We’ve been running around screaming his name for the last three hours with no luck.”

“Three hours?” Nat said rhetorically. “Have you checked all the rooms?”

“Checked the rooms?” Steve scoffed. He yanked off his hat, uncovering wiry blond hair that sprouted in all directions. “The thought occurred to us.”

Nat ignored him. “What about the grounds, did you look in dumpsters?”

“Yessss,” Steve said.

“How about the roads?”

Steve crossed his arms. “Yep.”

“All of them?”

“All. Of. Them.”

“Okay,” Nat said. “We need to patrol the roads again.”

“I just told you we already did that.”

Nat locked eyes with Steve. He was trying to keep a calm, professional demeanor, but his blood was boiling beneath the surface. “Did you find him?”

“Obviously not.”

“Then we need to look again. At the risk of stating the obvious, don’t just look for Ricky, look for signs of him—footprints, trash, clothing, anything that seems out of place.”

Steve took a step toward Nat. “Do you think we’re stupid?” His unflinching glare might as well have been a roundhouse punch.  

Nat opened his mouth to speak but found himself fumbling for the right words.

John blew his nose, cutting the tension with a cartoonish honk.

“Cut the crap, Steve,” John said. “Nat is just doing his job.”

“So are we.”

“What did I just say?”

“It’s okay,” Nat said. “Look, we all know what’s at stake here, so I understand the frustration. Three hours is a long time for someone of Ricky’s abilities to be outside without an aide in this weather. We have to assume he’s already in critical condition. With the fresh snow and unshoveled sidewalks, there’s nowhere Ricky could have gone without leaving a trail. I’m not trying to criticize anyone, but there has to be something we’re missing, so the best thing to do is start at the beginning.” Nat looked to John. “Please split your crew into groups of two and cover Route 231, the Depot Road, and the Gray Road. I’ll take the Morse Road.”

Nat had only been inside Pineland for fifteen minutes, but it was long enough for his truck’s engine to sputter before returning to life. Glad to be relieved of the tension inside, he sat back in his seat and took a deep breath, which fogged the windshield. As intense as it had gotten inside, another empty road search only promised to make the next round worse. Steve was a hothead, but he clearly cared. He’d worked at Pineland for several years, and one thing Nat learned from his conversations with John was that personnel didn’t last that long without a soft spot in their hearts for the patients. Nat was now calling the shots on the search, which meant the blame for any wasted time was his. Still, doubling back on the roads had to be the right move. With the fresh snow, where else could Ricky have gone?

Once the windshield cleared, Nat drove onto the Morse Road. The sky was speckled with stars, and the fields adjacent to the road were coated in the moonlight’s blueish hue. The snowstorm had ended right around when Ricky was believed to have gone missing so his tracks would stick out in most places. On the flip side, town plow trucks had made several passes on the road, and there’d been enough subsequent vehicle traffic to cover any footprints if Ricky had ventured out after the plows.

When Nat got to the Royal River, he stopped his truck and stepped out to walk the bridge. If the previous search party had missed something, this was a possible location. Aglow in the truck’s headlights, the long wooden handrail stole Nat’s attention. It was topped with several inches of fresh snow that nearly ran the length undisturbed. The lone exception was in the middle, where a two-foot wide section had been cleared.

Expecting the worst, Nat braced himself on the handrail and shined his flashlight onto the frozen river below. There wasn’t any open water, and except for a smattering of plow debris, the snow covering the ice was undisturbed. Nat breathed a sigh of relief. There were a couple sets of adult footprints along the edge of the bridge, so it was likely that Pineland’s security had uncovered the handrail during their initial search. Nat checked the other side of the bridge, which yielded the same result, and climbed back into the truck.

A short distance up the road, Nat came to the railroad crossing, where he once again got out to inspect the scene. It didn’t look like anyone had walked the tracks, but Nat lived close enough to know the schedule, and the last train had come through an hour prior, so any footprints would have been erased. If nothing turned up on the road inspections, this would be the next place to look.

The fruitless repetition of climbing in and out of the truck was giving Nat a gnawing angst. What if they didn’t find Ricky? Soon. He thought of the young man in the picture with the bright smile and the Red Sox cap—scared, alone, and freezing to death. The clock was ticking, and knowing that Ricky couldn’t fully comprehend his situation, or do anything to aid his survival, only added to the growing sense of desperation.

Then, a ray of hope.

Nat spotted a set of footprints leading into the New Gloucester gravel pit. It was unusual for people to go in there, especially in the winter. He parked the truck and radioed dispatch.

“Find out if anyone searched the gravel pit.”

“Ten-four.”

Nat followed the footprints with his eyes. A straight shot up the hill, the dug-in pit road had high banks lined with tall pine trees, the branches of which sagged under the fresh coat of snow. Aglow in the moonlight, the road looked like a tunnel into the woods. The whole scene had a serene, inviting feel, begging to be explored by anyone who didn’t know better, and there was little doubt in Nat’s mind that curiosity had drawn Ricky into the pit.

The radio crackled. “I have John on the phone now,” the dispatcher said. “He’s saying that nobody entered the pit.”

Nat eyed the tracks in the virgin snow, a trail up the middle of the road.

How could they have missed it?

“Chances are this is our missing person,” Nat said. “I’m going in, tell John to get his medical team out here just in case.”

“Ten-four.”

The moment Nat stepped out of the truck, he was out of radio contact. He didn’t bother with snowshoes because there was no time to spare. Kel-Lite in hand, he started up the hill, his boots easily plowing through the knee-deep snow. The tracks followed the road around a bend to the gravel pit, where they veered off course. If these were Ricky’s footprints, he’d chosen to climb a bank on the left side of the road and walk toward the pit’s upper rim. Sandpits are dangerous enough in the summer; the added snow and ice could have been a deadly combination for Ricky. Nat scanned the inside of the pit with his flashlight. There wasn’t any sign of someone having fallen in.

The footprint trail traversed the pit’s back rim and turned into the woods. Nat followed the tracks through a thicket of fir trees, where they came to a small opening overlooking the railroad tracks. There was a wire fence at the top of the embankment to prevent animals from getting hit by the trains, but at four feet tall with several thin wires spaced a foot vertically apart, it was useless. Deer could easily jump over the fence, and smaller critters wouldn’t have issues going underneath or between the wires. In this case, however, it did keep Ricky—or whoever’s footprints Nat was following—from going down the slope.

The area in front of the fence was packed-down with boot prints. The pattern reminded Nat of how coyotes at the State Game Farm would pace back and forth in their cages. The implication was clear: Ricky didn’t know what to do.

A single set of footprints led away from the packed-down area and into another snow-covered thicket. The branches tugged at Nat’s arms as he pushed his way through. On the other side, he spotted something blue in the snow—a single mitten. The initials R.M. were inscribed on the tag. Nat’s heartbeat kicked into another gear, the second-guessing over whether he was following Ricky’s footprints now erased.

Continuing on the trail, Nat came upon another blue mitten. And then he found the hat. Was this intentional? At first, he’d assumed Ricky accidentally dropped the mitten, but the additional items of clothing were now suggesting the worst-case scenario.

Nat didn’t have to go far to get his answer. The red coat was lying in the snow several feet ahead.

This wasn’t good.

It’s not uncommon for people engulfed in hypothermia to discard clothing. As they become increasingly disoriented, their nerves are also getting damaged, causing them to feel abnormally hot when, in fact, they are freezing to death.

Was it already too late for Ricky?

A guttural moaning sound startled Nat. He froze. Listening. Then he heard it again. A chill went down his spine. As a warden, Nat was no stranger to hearing unusual sounds in the woods. Moose, in particular, made haunting calls that could rattle one’s nerves. But this hoarse wail was unlike any noise he'd ever heard a person or animal make, and it was coming from the direction that Ricky’s footprints headed.  

Nat forged ahead through the thicket. The fir trees were clustered so closely together that he nearly stepped on a body lying in the snow. A young man that met Ricky’s description was flat on his back, pants pulled down around his knees, wearing only a white tee shirt and underwear.

“Ricky!” Nat shouted. “Ricky, can you hear me?”

Ricky’s eyes were wide open. He was looking up—more through Nat than at him—as he continued to moan. Ricky was far enough into hypothermia that he wasn’t shivering; his lips had turned purple and his skin a whitish blue. There was no time to go for help and come back. If Ricky didn’t get immediate medical attention, he was going to die.

Nat pulled Ricky’s pants up, put his coat back on, and then picked him up over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry. It was slow, unsteady going in the snow. At one point, Nat slipped on the slick crust beneath the fresh powder and dropped to a knee, before regaining his balance and reaching the wilderness fence. In the distance, flashing red lights from Pineland’s ambulance and the headlights from several other vehicles could be seen where the railroad tracks crossed the Morse Road. People were moving around in the lights; they had to be more than a hundred yards away.

“Help!” Nat yelled several times over.

There was no response. They were too far away, and the snow-covered trees were absorbing the sound of his voice.

Nat was beginning to feel Ricky’s weight on his shoulder. With his opposite arm, he waived his Kel-Lite in the air. When this failed to get their attention, he took out his service pistol and fired three shots into the trees.

Nothing.

Time was running out.

Nat had no choice but to lower Ricky over the fence and climb over after him. Once on the other side, he picked Ricky back up and began the descent to the railroad tracks. It wasn’t easy. The weight of carrying a full-grown man over his shoulder this far was taking its toll, and he nearly lost his footing on the steep embankment in a couple of places.

At the bottom of the hill, Nat hurried along the snow-crusted railroad ties in a semi-jog. He grew short of breath, and the pang of a cramp dug into his side.

“Hey!” Nat yelled as he neared the commotion. “Help!”

Someone pointed to Nat, and two men rushed out to help. One of them was Steve. Altogether, the three of them lifted Ricky into the back of the ambulance, where two EMTs were waiting. The medics immediately started stripping Ricky of his clothes and covering him with blankets. Nat heard one of them say that Ricky’s body temperature was 90 degrees. Then the back doors were slammed shut, and the ambulance rushed off to the infirmary.

Nat felt a hand clap him on the back. It was Steve.

“Thank you,” Steve said. “Hell of a job you did tonight.”

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