comscore Hermit in Maine is legend to some, and thief to others | Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Hermit in Maine is legend to some, and thief to others

    A 2012 handout surveillance photo of Christopher Knight
  • who was at first referred to as the "backpack burglar."

NORTH POND, Maine >> When a 200-pound black bear was pawing around David Proulx’s house here a couple of years ago, Proulx went out and shot it. It was a straightforward situation compared with another kind of prowler who menaced his home for almost three decades.

That turned out to be a hermit who had set up house in the nearby woods. Over the years, the hermit, in search of provisions to sustain himself, repeatedly burglarized Proulx’s home. He slit screens, crawled through windows and helped himself to packets of chicken, burgers and steak, jars of peanut butter, tanks of propane and all the batteries he could find. He was picky. He left the tuna. In beer, his taste ran to Bud; he skipped the Coors Light. The house was broken into 46 times.

The hermit stole from other neighbors too. And when he was finally caught this spring, while pilfering bacon, coffee and marshmallows from a camp for the disabled, the police said he confessed to having committed at least 1,000 burglaries.

Residents and second-home owners here in the Belgrade Lakes area of central Maine were relieved to learn of the arrest of the hermit, Christopher Knight, 47. But they were unnerved that a local legend of a hermit-burglar had turned out to be true, that someone really had been lurking in the woods all this time watching them and studying their habits: when they would be home, when they would stock their freezers.

But to some, he was a figure of sympathy, like Boo Radley, the recluse in "To Kill a Mockingbird." Like Boo, Knight was initially feared but came to be seen not as someone who was dangerous but who needed to be protected.

The extensive media coverage of Knight’s emergence from 27 years of solitude captured the imagination of people around the world, who began sending him bail money and even marriage proposals.

He had lived in someone else’s woods, undetected under camouflage-colored tarps and completely off the grid; he paid no taxes, had no address and never used a cellphone. He told the police he had not spoken during his decades of self-exile except for one day in the 1990s when he uttered a greeting to a passing hiker.

Knight is now living at the Kennebec County jail in Augusta, with a half-dozen cellmates, in lieu of $25,000 cash bail. Clean-shaven when captured, he has grown a beard and has a new pair of glasses.

His fate rests in the hands of Maeghan Maloney, the new district attorney for Kennebec and Somerset counties, who must decide how to prosecute the curious case and what punishment to seek.

"When you have more than one victim, what becomes difficult is the range of punishment that victims would like to see," she said. "There are people who don’t see any need for jail time; there are people who think life imprisonment is appropriate."

Knight has been charged so far with only a handful of burglaries, since most fall outside the statute of limitations. A single count of burglarizing a home carries a maximum sentence of up to 10 years, but Maloney said Maine courts rarely imposed the maximum when no one was assaulted.

She said she would not seek an indictment until Knight had a mental health exam, which could take months because of a backlog. In the meantime, she is reviewing police reports, victim-impact statements, the cash value of repairs for damage and the value of stolen items, though several victims have said they could not replace their lost sense of security.

But she wants victims to receive restitution and is weighing the best way to achieve that, whether through jury trial or plea agreement, and perhaps a sentence of community service.

Knight has yet to explain why he shed his life as a computer technician at the age of 19 or 20 in the small town of Albion just east of here, beyond a fascination with Robinson Crusoe.

"He doesn’t have a reason," said Diane Vance, a state trooper with whom Knight, who has given no interviews, has developed a rapport.

Nor is it clear why his family did not file a missing-person report when he disappeared in 1986. Vance said she had learned about his family members, some of whom have visited him in jail, but she declined to discuss them since he had asked her not to.

She said he was highly intelligent. He had spent much of his time in the woods reading — mainly books and magazines that he had stolen — and was up on current events.

"He read People magazine and listened to talk radio every day," she said. "When he mentioned the Kardashians, I kind of had to laugh; I don’t think my husband knows who the Kardashians are, but he did."

As details of his life emerged, local musicians romanticized him in ballads. A Maine deli named a sandwich after him, "the Hermit," consisting of barbecued roast beef, pastrami, pepperoni, American cheese and onion rings — perhaps a start for fattening up for a long Maine winter.

All the hagiography has been a bit much for Proulx, 65, a retired maintenance man, and his wife, Louise, also 65, who is retired from her job in human resources.

"He’s not a hero, he’s not a folk star, whatever you want to call him," Proulx said the other day as he pointed out new windows he had installed to try to foil the burglaries. "He’s a thief. He chose to do this. He wanted to live this way, apparently, and he did well for 27 years, and now he’s got to pay the fiddler."

Louise Proulx said those years of being broken into were unsettling. "I wasn’t really afraid," she said. "It was more a feeling of being violated, that somebody had been in your place when you weren’t around."

It is easier for those who were not victimized to sympathize with him, and many are still sending him money. His defense lawyer, Walter McKee, is putting it toward a fund to repay victims.

"Given the extraordinary interest in helping Chris, we have decided to open an account today to help Chris pay what will be the substantial restitution he will owe for what he took," McKee wrote in an email in April to Maine newspapers. Despite skepticism that payment from other people would really hold Knight accountable for his actions, McKee said: "Chris very much wants to make things right."

And some day, he hopes to acquire his own piece of land in the woods and set up camp all over again.

"He wants to resume his life, kind of in the same way," Vance said. "But legally."

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