The Murder of Rita St. Peter (Maine)

On the night of July 4, 1980, an evening of celebrations in the rural town of Anson, Maine ended in the murder investigation of a young local mother. Tire tracks at the scene raised suspicion and rumor, but despite the evidence and apparent confidence of investigators, years passed without any movement in the case.

By the time it went to trial, Rita St. Peter’s case would be the longest standing unsolved homicide in the state of Maine. Yet the person believed to be responsible for her violent death had been at the top of the suspect list from the very first day of the investigation. This story is proof that even decades later, cold cases can be solved.

About Rita St. Peter

Rita St. Peter was born in Dexter, Maine on March 16, 1960. She was adopted as a baby by Eva and Eugene St. Peter, and they raised Rita alongside their other children in Anson, Maine. As a teenager and young 20-something, Rita was a dynamic personality. David Robinson and Erin Rhoda write for The Morning Sentinel that she was a member of the drama and photography club at Carrabec High School, and also was a two season athlete, playing basketball and softball. Rita was in the pep club, the business league, and a vocational training program while also participating in the Future Homemakers of America organization. She found something to love about everything she tried.

In October of 1977 when Rita was 17-years old, she became a mother to a little girl and she was, “the greatest joy of [Rita’s] life.” The Morning Sentinel reports that in 1979, Rita may have been preparing to enter the military as she granted guardianship of her daughter to her mother. However, in July of 1980, 20-year old Rita was working at Ken’s Drive-in restaurant – a favorite central Maine spot that’s still around today – and living at home with her parents and daughter in Anson.

The small town of Anson and its friendly neighbor Madison were built up around the once flourishing Great Northern Paper Company mill. And like many of Maine and New England’s mill towns, the scaling back of operations, the layoffs, the change in demand and the eventual closure of the mill over several decades put the residents of the area, many of whom moved to town for jobs at the mill, in a tight spot.

But there’s more to these small Maine towns than the mill, of course. There’s the historic Lakewood Theatre in Madison, one of the oldest running summer theaters in the country, the Maine wilderness to enjoy along the Kennebec River that runs between the two towns, and the unique character of a rural downtown. The facades of the buildings along Main Street in Madison, which runs across the bridge over the river into Anson, are largely unchanged except for the signage of new businesses and maybe a paint job or two. But if Rita St. Peter could see it today, she’d likely recognize everything as the same small Maine town where she once spent her life.

On the night of July 4, 1980, Rita had been out celebrating Independence Day the way many people from small Maine towns do – at a party at someone’s camp. I’ve learned that the term “camp” is kind of a Maine thing. If you’re from away, you might call it a vacation home, a lake house or the family cabin, but in Maine, if you have a place you go primarily in the summer, usually on a body of water, then it’s a camp.

So, according to reporting by Thomas Lizotte for the Morning Sentinel, Rita and some friends had a few drinks at a camp in Embden and then decided to venture the 20 minutes back into Madison to check out a new bar and dance hall that had recently opened called the Main Street Depot. Rita walked in around 10 p.m.

About two and a half hours later, Rita decided to call it a night and stepped out the door of the Depot around 12:30 a.m. She was alone and witnesses say Rita was visibly intoxicated as she made her way down Main Street. From my understanding, the bridge that connects Madison to Anson has since been reconstructed, but still today and back in 1980 there was a set of train tracks that ran perpendicular to the bridge. As she tried to step over them, Rita’s toe caught the protruding steel. She tumbled to the ground but righted herself and continued on her way. She clutched the side rails as she walked towards Anson, the waters of the Kennebec River flowing steadily beneath her.

Reports vary a bit on where Rita was heading that night. From what I can discern, she was supposed to be staying the night at a friend’s house, but Rita never made it there. Walking across the bridge, alone in the darkness, was the last time anyone saw Rita St. Peter alive.

The Discovery

Around 10:30 the next morning, Saturday, July 5, 18-year old Tim Dyke was suiting up his team of draft horses at his family’s farm off Campground Road in Anson. His father was the Shorty Dyke, kind of a legend on the horse pulling scene at Maine’s many fairs so with the season underway and a family legacy to uphold, Tim wanted to get his team in top shape. With a heavy sled affixed to their collars and leather reins in hand, they made for the fields about a quarter mile away from the barn for a little exercise.

As they trotted down the well-worn trails alongside the fields, the horses stopped suddenly. Tim hadn’t signaled for them to pause, not even so much as a gentle tug on their bits, but their hooves seemed rooted on the spot. He asked the horses to go, but still they disobeyed. As they shifted on their feet, Tim peered between the horse’s legs and to the ground below. He could see something in the way, but at first he thought it was just a tree limb. With a second glimpse, the obstacle in their path became clear. It was a human body.

Tim didn’t need or want to look any closer. He later said that he was scared to death of what he saw and so he steered his team around the body towards the path back home and signaled the horses to run.

Anson didn’t have 9-1-1 that rang into the local PD at the time, but Tim’s family contacted law enforcement to report the discovery. A Maine State Police trooper and a Game Warden arrived sometime after 12 p.m. – it was common for them to ride together to save gas money at the time.

According to court records, Trooper Barry DeLong and Game Warden James Ross parked off Campground Road and followed Tim Dyke down the dirt path. As the three men approached the body, Game Warden James Ross identified the victim as a young woman. She was laying on her back with her legs across the path and her head at the edge of it. The woman’s clothing and undergarments were in disarray and torn in places, exposing much of her body. Her head was severely bloodied and it didn’t look like anyone had tried to cover her up or conceal the scene in any way. Whatever happened to the woman, it was obvious that her death was extremely violent.

One of the first things Warden Ross and Trooper DeLong noticed as they approached the scene were fresh, uncut tire tracks on Campground Road and on the path leading up to the body. The treadmarks were pristine and looked to Ross like snow tires or aggressive mud tires. As they followed the tracks closer, it appeared they went right up to and maybe even over the body, and then they reversed direction, backed up and turned away from the body, heading off the path and across the field back to the main road.

Around 1:30 p.m. Maine State Police Detective A.J. Carter of the Criminal Investigation Division arrived at the scene off Campground Road. As he stepped out of his car and made his way towards where the other law enforcement officers were clustered together, he also noticed the tire impressions in the mud. His trained eye and detective’s mind was already turning – he had a sense those tire marks would be part of the investigation to come. Now, troopers didn’t carry department issued cameras with them at the time, but Detective Carter had his personal Polaroid camera in the back of his car from a family outing a few days earlier. So, he decided to snap a couple shots of the undisturbed tire impressions. The first one didn’t develop very well – Polaroids can be finicky like that – so he threw it away. But the second was pretty good, so he stuck it in his pocket and waited for the evidence technicians to arrive.

Meanwhile, Warden Ross remained on scene to assist where needed. Even though Game Wardens didn’t have jurisdiction over homicide investigations, it was typical for wardens to assist in crime scene searches, particularly those that extended into Maine’s wilderness. As additional investigators arrived at the scene, Warden Ross instructed everyone to park at the end of the path like he and DeLong and Carter had done to preserve the perfect tire tracks.

But around 2 p.m. that afternoon, Somerset County Sheriff Bill Wright arrived, and though Warden Ross had asked him to park at the end of the road to protect the scene, Sheriff Wright apparently had no interest in that request. He turned his car onto the dirt path and cut through and over a mud puddle which contained the deepest and cleanest of the suspect tire tracks.

Thankfully, before any more destruction could be done, CID evidence technicians showed up to collect and photograph everything. Among the other evidence was some sort of white paper products (possibly napkins or paper towels or something), as well as a beer bottle.

Meanwhile, the woman laying there in the dirt path remained nameless for hours as law enforcement processed the scene around her. The first tentative identification came from Sheriff Wright. He instructed Detective Carter to go find the family of Rita St. Peter.

Rita St. Peter’s story continues on Dark Downeast. Press play wherever you listen to podcasts to hear the full episode.

Episode Source Material

  • Transcript, State of Maine v. Jay S. Mercier, Maine Superior Court – Docket No. CR-11-318
  • Madison woman murder victim by Thomas Lizotte, Central Maine Morning Sentinel 08 Jul 1980
  • State silence on autopsy of woman by Ginny Cost, Bangor Daily News, 08 Jul 1980
  • Police probing homicide by Thomas Lizotte, Central Maine Morning Sentinel, 09 Jul 1980
  • Police have suspects in St. Peter murder, Bangor Daily News, 10 Jul 1980
  • Anson murder similar to others by Bruce Hertz, Bangor Daily News, 30 Jul 1980
  • Anson slaying investigation is continuing, Bangor Daily News, 26 Aug 1980
  • A year later, Anson woman’s death a mystery by Gerry Boyle, Central Maine Morning Sentinel, 13 Jul 1981
  • Police: no leads in St. Peter case by Gerry Boyle, Central Maine Morning Sentinel, 28 Jul 1982
  • Family seeks closure by Doug Harlow, Morning Sentinel, 03 Jan 2005
  • Arrest made in 31-year old murder case by David Robinson and Erin Rhoda, Morning Sentinel, 29 Sep 2011
  • Ex-DA happy to see break in 31-year-old homicide by Nick McCrea, Bangor Daily News via Lewiston Sun-Journal, 30 Sep 2011
  • Sister: Suspect is father of St. Peter’s child by Doug Harlow, Morning Sentinel, 01 Oct 2011
  • Man who found body in field was ‘scared to death’ by Erin Rhoda, Morning Sentinel, 01 Oct 2011
  • Suspect in 1980 killing appears before judge by Erin Rhoda, Portland Press Herald, 01 Oct 2011
  • Victim’s friends speak up by Doug Harlow, Morning Sentinel, 04 Oct 2011
  • Man pleads not guilty in cold-case murder by Alex Barber, Bangor Daily News via Sun-Journal, 04 Oct 2011
  • ‘We never gave up hope’ by Erin Rhoda, Morning Sentinel, 07 Oct 2011
  • DNA key to resolving decades-old criminal cases, both defense, prosecution find by Doug Harlow, Maine Sunday Telegram, 07 Oct 2012
  • A troubled past by Erin Rhoda, Morning Sentinel, 16 Oct 2011
  • DNA from cigarette led to arrest in murder case by Alex Barber, Bangor Daily News via Sun-Journal, 08 Dec 2011
  • Trial of 1980 murder suspect to begin Thurs by Alex Barber, Lewiston Sun-Journal, 16 Sep 2012
  • Cold case on trial by Judy Harrison, Bangor Daily News via Lewiston Sun-Journal, 21 Sep 2012
  • Experts testify in cold case by Judy Harrison, Bangor Daily News, 23 Sep 2012
  • DNA in cold case homicide shown to match defendant by Doug Harlow, Portland Press Herald, 25 Sep 2012
  • Murder suspect says he never met victim by Doug Harlow, Portland Press Herald, 26 Sep 2012
  • Man found guilty in cold case killing by Alex Barber, Bangor Daily News via Lewiston Sun-Journal, 28 Sep 2012
  • Man gets 70 years for 1980 murder by Doug Harlow, Portland Press Herald, 08 Dec 2012
  • Forensics error could affect cases by Judy Harrison, Bangor Daily News via Lewiston Sun-Journal, 25 Oct 2015
  • Convicted killer Mercier gets new lawyer for review by Doug Harlow, Portland Press Herald, 29 Aug 2016
  • Convicted killer seeks DNA study by Doug Harlow, Kennebec Journal, 03 Oct 2018
  • Day 2: Attorneys face questioning in appeals case by Doug Harlow, Morning Sentinel, 24 Apr 2019
  • Convicted murderer in court for 3rd appeal by Doug Harlow, Morning Sentinel, 29 Apr 2019