Thursday, May 27, 2010

Yeah, I thought he did it.

The show is finally over in New Portland, Maine, where Jeffery LaGasse pleaded guilty yesterday in the 2007 murder of Louise Brochu, his former employer.

At the time of the murder, I was editor of the Franklin Journal, a weekly that covered the region, and, after LaGasse was identified as a "person of interest" in the case, I went up there and interviewed him. It was something of a surprise -- I expected him to at least decline if not throw me off the property. My publisher told me to call him as soon as it was over so he'd know I was safe, though, of course, it happened that the rural location was a dead spot anyway.

No pun intended.

I also poked around the community, trying to turn up something that would help shed some light on what had happened, not to solve the case -- I know I'm not a cop -- but to let readers know if the death had been part of a sex crime or a robbery. I thought people deserved to know what level of danger was in their small community, and the police were being extremely tight-lipped.

Shortly after the interview appeared, my notes and I were subpoenaed by the grand jury, which put me in a tough ethical spot, since I had no intention of appearing and was not sure how far the paper would back me up. It's all very good to have principles, but at some point the landlord was going to want to know what to do with my stuff.

I blogged about this back in September when LaGasse was indicted, and you can see the published interview and the subpoena that it inspired here.

In that blog entry, I said I would elaborate a little more on the search warrant once the trial was over. What I found revealing in the search warrant was that they were looking for her ATM and credit cards, together with papers on which her PINs might have been written. They were also looking for bandanas and a tent. I suspected, and it has been confirmed, that there was a photo from a security camera showing an attempt to withdraw money from an ATM with her card. The linked story about Wednesday's guilty plea doesn't mention disguises or attempts to cover up with a tent, but my guess is that there was something of that nature involved.

What had touched off the subpoena, I believe, was a conversation I had with an investigator when I was trying to get some kind of statement on the record about the nature of the crime. I said that I wasn't trying to derail the investigation and that there were all sorts of things I wasn't going to print -- for instance, the fact that the search warrant specified the PINs, or that the body had been found under a sheet of tin roofing material.

That last bit of information didn't come from LaGasse, but the police were certainly interested in knowing if he had said it, since it would have indicated that he knew more than he was admitting. Unfortunately, it also didn't come from anyone who I had permission to quote, and so I couldn't tell them where I got it. However, I bent ethics slightly after I was subpoenaed and said that, if that was what they wanted to know, I was willing -- completely off the record -- to tell them that I got it in town and not from him. But that I couldn't even say that much in front of the grand jury. It was offered purely in good faith, to avoid confusing the investigation and on deep background only.

I was never formally told I didn't have to appear before the grand jury, but when I called to confirm the time and place, I was told I didn't have to be there.

As noted in the linked blog entry above, the lead investigator later asked me if I thought he'd done it. I responded that I'd known cons who you'd invite to your kid's birthday party, and I'd known cons who scared the bejabbers out of me, and that guilt and innocence have little to do with personal charm or lack thereof.

However, I will say now that I always thought LaGasse did it. The real tipoff came when he was recounting for me his various stays in the joint, and he said he got out of prison one time and then had his parole revoked on a domestic assault complaint because he found out his girlfriend had been unfaithful while he was locked up. The "tell" was that he recounted this along with the other seemingly minor scrapes of his life, as if it were perfectly understandable and only technically a violation -- like saying he'd been locked up for unpaid parking tickets.

It wasn't the fact that he beat up his girlfriend. It was that he didn't seem to consider that to be something he should conceal in telling his life story to a reporter. He was a likeable, articulate fellow, but there just happened to be this line between normal behavior and sociopathic behavior that he honestly could not see.

That, to me, is a lot scarier than some gibbering, slavering, chain-saw wielding maniac in a hockey mask.

And I'm glad he's going to be locked up. As Richard Pryor observed after his own time in the can, "Thank GOD we've got jails!"


ronnie said...

Fascinating stuff. Thanks for the update!

Brian Fies said...

Nice post, and excellent tightrope walking with the grand jury. I think everyone in journalism, no matter how vaguely or briefly, imagines themselves in the "won't reveal my source on principle" situation. Never came remotely near it myself, but like to think I'd've done the right thing. As I think you did--source protected, justice served. Good insight on the guy's "tell," too.

You should write about your career more often.