ROME, Maine » A man who lived like a hermit for decades in a makeshift camp in the woods and may be responsible for more than 1,000 burglaries for food and other staples has been caught in a surveillance trap at a camp he treated as a "Walmart," authorities said today.
Christopher Knight, 47, was arrested last week when he tripped a surveillance sensor set up by a game warden while stealing food from a camp for people with special needs in Rome, a town of about 1,000 whose population swells with the arrival of summer residents.
Authorities on Tuesday found the campsite where they believed Knight, known as the North Pond Hermit in local lore, has lived for 27 years.
Some residents say they’ve been aware of the hermit for years, often in connection with break-ins that have occurred. He was so well known to some summer cottage owners that they left food out for him so he wouldn’t break in during the colder months, state Trooper Diane Vance said.
But others were hardly aware of the hermit living within their midst without detection since 1986.
"I was born in 1987. He was there before I was," Rome resident Melissa Witham said outside her home.
Paul Anderson, a selectman in the town about 20 miles northwest of Augusta, acknowledged local talk about a man living alone in the woods.
"I’ve lived in the town for 32 years, and I’ve never, ever met the guy," Anderson said.
Attempts to reach people who might be Knight’s relatives were unsuccessful today. Officials said they had no information on whether Knight has an attorney. A message could not be left after hours for officials at the Kennebec County Jail in Augusta, where Knight was being held.
Knight’s living quarters in the woods included a tent covered by tarps suspended between trees, a bed, propane cooking stoves and a battery-run radio, which he used to keep up with the news and listen to talk radio and a rock station, authorities said.
Since vanishing from his Maine home for no apparent reason and setting up camp when he was about 19, Knight sustained himself on food stolen from dozens of cottages, but his favorite target was the Pine Tree Camp, where game warden Sgt. Terry Hughes, who’s been trying to nab Knight for years, set up a surveillance alarm, authorities said.
Knight was caught Tuesday as he left the camp’s kitchen freezer with a backpack full of food, they said.
"He used us like his local Walmart," said Harvey Chesley, the camp’s facilities manager.
Ron Churchill, owner of Bear Spring Camps in Rome, said employees who maintain his camp’s lakeside cabins have seen the man thought to be the hermit in the past. Churchill said his business has lost propane containers to thefts, the latest of which were discovered today.
"I did an inventory this morning, and we’re missing two," Churchill said.
Despite Maine’s harsh winters, during which temperatures sometimes struggle to get above 10 degrees for a week at a time, Knight stayed at his encampment and avoided making campfires so he wouldn’t be detected, and he used propane only for cooking, Hughes said. To stay warm, he would bundle himself in multiple sleeping bags, authorities said.
When arrested, Knight was clean-shaven and his hair was cut short, in contrast to the iconic hermit with a shaggy beard and long hair. He was still using his aviator-style eyeglasses from the 1980s.
"When we went to the site where he has been living, it only took a few minutes looking around and making observations such as ropes that were imbedded in the trees that had grown around them that he used to hold his tarps up, shoes that were under rocks that had been there for years, there was enough indication to me … that he had been there for a lot of years," said Hughes.
During questioning after his arrest, Knight said that the last verbal contact he had with another person was during the 1990s, Vance said.
"He passed somebody on a trail and just exchanged a common greeting of hello and that was the only conversation or human contact he’s had since he went into the woods in 1986," Vance said.
The trooper said that the case of the North Pond hermit sometimes seemed a "myth" that might go unsolved and bringing it to a conclusion is "amazing."
"I think it’s still sinking in," Vance said. "I don’t think I will ever be involved in such an incident or case it this magnitude."
Knight had been charged only with the Pine Tree Camp burglary, in which $238 worth of goods were taken, and was being held at the jail on $5,000 bail on burglary and theft charges.
Knight had attended a high school in Fairfield, about 20 miles away.
Why he decided to disappear in the woods remained a question today.