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Hot Lobsters

When crates of valuable lobsters began mysteriously vanishing from the waters of a Maine fishing village, residents couldn't help wondering if the brazen thieves were their neighbors, friends, maybe even boatmates.

lobstering
On Bailey Island in Harpswell, Maine, lobstering is life for residents like Charles Leeman, who begins his days in the soft pre-dawn light of Mackerel Cove. (Globe Photo / Fred J. Field)

The soggy piece of rope lands on Doug Pilon’s desk with a thud. It’s noon, and the lobster dealer has already been at work for six hours. He figures he has another 10 to go. Long days are typical for the squat, salty-tongued bachelor, but this particular day is about to stretch out longer than most. His wholesale company, Bailey Island Lobster, which buys lobsters from about 30 boats, is housed in a cramped, weather-beaten shack in Mackerel Cove along the midcoast region of Maine, about 35 miles north of Portland. Like other dealers, Pilon stores his hundreds of trapped lobsters in blue and gray plastic crates that are submerged in the Atlantic and strung together like the cars of a train. The night before, most of the crates had been roped off into groups of 10 – with the exception of a lone string of eight.

The 46-year-old Pilon is entering catch totals into a computer, about 500 yards from his floating buying station, when an employee, Rob Bernat, bursts into his office, a coiled, wet rope in his fist. He throws it down.

That’s what’s left of your eight crates,” Bernat says.

That evening, September 7, as the sun fell over the horizon and Pilon’s long day crept into the night, he couldn’t bring himself to go home. He paced the wharf until midnight, hoping that whoever had snatched his haul might be bold enough to return for more.

Harpswell, Maine, seems an unlikely place for trouble. And while lobster thievery might sound merely prankish, it’s serious business to the 5,239 residents of this fog-shrouded fishing village whose economy, culture, and character have been shaped by that most familiar of Maine icons. No wonder, then, that the people here have been shaken, and angered, by one of the most methodical, brazen, and bizarre crimes in the state’s recent maritime history.

Comprising a peninsula 10 miles long and a constellation of islands, Harpswell, incorporated in 1758, is both cussedly independent and an unspoiled retreat for summer tourists. There’s one blinking traffic light. Side streets have names like Meditation Lane and Sweet Haven Lane. Yards are full of the tools of the lobsterman’s trade – buoys, boats, and traps – as well as cords of firewood gathered to brace for Maine’s harsh winters. The haunting solitude inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel The Pearl of Orr’s Island and John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem “The Dead Ship of Harpswell.”

Carl Jung once held a dream seminar on Bailey Island. The town’s history includes eccentric tales of pirates burying treasure and rumrunners storing hooch in chicken barns. So it’s not entirely outlandish that a passel of purloined lobsters might someday become the stuff of town legend. After all, lobstering is the backbone of all of Maine’s fishing industries, which sustain 26,000 jobs and almost $1 billion in economic activity.

In order to understand just how Harpswell’s traditional way of life changed, perhaps irrevocably, this past summer, all one has to do is look up: Before the thefts, the moon

was the only light in the night sky. After, Robert Watson, 59, a lobsterman who owns the 150-year-old Watson’s General Store in Cundy’s Harbor, installed floodlights to avoid

becoming a victim like his neighbor-lobstermen. Others did the same. Now, any night, he says, “You could go out in the middle of the cove and read a book.”

Though lobster fishing is a year-round enterprise, roughly two-thirds of the harvest is historically hauled in between August and early December, before lobsters migrate off the coast into deeper waters. The 2005 numbers aren’t tallied yet, but Maine lobstermen fear that the harvest will turn out to be far worse than in 2004, when nearly 71 million pounds were trapped at a value of $286 million.

However, the prospect of a down year must be weighed against the fact that Maine’s licensed lobstermen – there are now 6,405 of them – have been enjoying record catches since the late 1980s and have often been able to make upward of $100,000 a year. Maine’s annual lobster harvest averaged 20 million pounds from 1947 to 1988, then shot up precipitously, more than tripling in recent years, according to James Acheson, a professor of anthropology and marine sciences at the University of Maine in Orono and author of The Lobster Gangs of Maine. The reasons behind this unprecedented boom are not totally understood, Acheson says, though the depletion of lobster predators like codfish and haddock, better enforcement of conservation laws aimed at avoiding overfishing, and compliance with the so-called V-notch law – which prohibits the taking of any female lobster with a notch carved into her tail, an indication that she once carried eggs and is proven breeding stock – were no doubt contributing factors.

Biologists are still evaluating the conditions that led to the anticipated decline in the 2005 lobster landings but believe heavy rainfall in the spring and fall that diluted the salty Gulf of Maine and cooler water temperatures that delayed molting may be partly to blame. “If the salinity drops, lobsters won’t come as far into shore,” explains Dan Schick, director of bio-monitoring and assessment for the state Department of Marine Resources. “If they got into a freshet, they would die.”

THE LOBSTER WASN’T always a creature worth poaching. In the early 20th century, it was considered a poor man’s food. “My grandfather used to say that if anybody saw you lugging a bunch of lobsters home, they knew you couldn’t afford baloney,” says Sheldon Morse, a 44-year-old Harpswell Center lobsterman. But that has changed. In Maine, lobsters have become, like cattle in the West, a tempting, albeit perishable, target for thieves. Aside from the Harpswell episodes, 14 other incidents of lobster thefts had been reported as of mid-December to the Maine Marine Patrol – and many others go unreported – but none matched the combined size of the hauls that vanished from Harpswell in August and September.

“Quite often you can lose a few,” says Morse. “Somebody having a cookout or something, they’ll grab a few or haul a few traps.” It’s such a common occurrence that locals have a name for it: “shacking gear.” But what happened in Harpswell was no amateurish operation. “This,” says Morse, “was quite a thing.”

The theft from Pilon’s Bailey Island business was the second in a lobster-stealing spree that spanned 24 days, from August 29 through September 21, on this isolated peninsula and maze of islands with 217 miles of ragged shoreline. In all, 34 crates holding roughly 3,060 pounds of lobsters, valued at $15,300 wholesale, were stolen during a half-dozen separate hits, according to Maine Marine Patrol Sergeant Paul Joyce.

If the lagging harvest stabbed lobstermen in their wallets, the thefts twisted the knife. K.R. Toothaker, 70, and his wife, Jackie, owners of Ken’s Lobster in Cundy’s Harbor, had to scramble to come up with the cash to cover expenses after 12 of their lobster crates, a catch valued at $5,400, were grabbed.

“I couldn’t say to my fishermen, ‘My lobsters have been stolen; I can’t pay you,’ ” says Jackie

Toothaker, 59. “That’s their living. They’ve got families, and they’ve got boat payments.”

As crate after crate disappeared, Harpswell’s lobstermen could not help but wonder whether the culprits might belong to the ranks of the lobstermen themselves. It was a theory that Pilon refused to believe. “You could put a $100 bill down on this wharf,” he says, “and nobody will pick it up, because it’s not theirs.”

Some lobstermen and dealers began to change the way they do business: locking down their so-called lobster cars rather than simply stringing a rope through the end loops, installing floodlights and surveillance cameras, moving catches closer to shore, and taking

lobsters to market more quickly, so that fewer crates were left overnight at wharves. Some even began keeping night vigils, and one lobsterman said he was considering putting an identifier on the bands lobster fishermen snap on the crustaceans’ claws to prevent injury – and cannibalism.

The first theft victim, Dick’s Lobsters in South Harpswell, lost five crates on August 29. Then Bailey Island Lobster lost eight on September 6. Cundy’s Harbor Wharf lost five three days later. Ken’s Lobster was hit twice – six crates on September 11 and six more on the 14th. Finally, Morse Lobster lost four on September 21.

The day after Sheldon Morse’s crates disappeared, the lobsterman’s 21-year-old daughter, Ashley, spent the night with two friends in her mother’s gift shop on the wharf, about 400 feet from the house. One friend brought her bull mastiff, Buddha, who did considerably more snoring than growling. Sometime around midnight, a jittery Ashley Morse heard footsteps, grabbed a spotlight, and raced outside, only to discover a sheriff ’s deputy making the rounds. “We just wanted to catch someone,” she says.

Her father bought floodlights and a surveillance camera and endured a string of sleepless nights watching Jay Leno on one screen and his own nature show on another. “It was quite

interesting to watch the birds,” he says. “And you could hear fish jumping.”

As the reports rolled into the Cumberland County Sheriff ’s Office, the Maine Marine Patrol, as well as sheriff ’s deputies, Topsham police officers, and Maine State Police detectives, staked out the waterfront at night and tapped wholesalers from Portland to Boothbay for information by day. Residents organized an impromptu neighborhood watch – a kind of modern-day posse – along the wharves after the third theft. “Somebody was telling me this story about a woman who was out checking her sailboat one night in Cundy’s Harbor,” Morse recalls. “I guess they damn near lynched her.” It was clear that whoever

was responsible was not just passing through town, because the thefts suggested an intimate knowledge of the industry and a lay of the mainland and islands, not to mention unmitigated moxie.

Maine Marine Patrol authorities – the locals have dubbed them “lobster cops” – say the thieves, on occasion, used a stolen skiff to get at the stalk-eyed decapods in underwater cages. “They come in the middle of the night and steal what we have been working all day for,” says Chris Carrier, an 18-year-old lobsterman from Harpswell.

At the time of the thefts, lobster prices were running high – averaging about $5 per pound wholesale – making Homarus americanus a highly salable, quick-cash commodity. “Lobstering is analogous to a store being always open,” says Joyce, the Marine Patrol sergeant, “because the traps have no locks.” (At least they didn’t use to.)

IN THE END, BEING BIG NEWS IN A small town led to arrests that, at least for now, have put an end to the thievery. Tips from the public, the cooperation of a lobster dealer, and hundreds of man-hours of investigation by the multiagency task force all led to the break.

The pattern was always the same: snatch the lobster crates out of the ocean under the cover of dark, let the water drain, load them into a blue Ford Windstar, drive about 40 miles up the coast, and sell them to a dealer in Boothbay in Lincoln County, pretending to be the lobstermen who caught them. But the plan began to fall apart, according to authorities, when that merchant in Boothbay became suspicious.

“He called another dealer to see if he might recognize the vehicle, if they’d ever come in to sell to him,” Joyce says, explaining how the caper was eventually solved. “And that dealer

said, ‘No, I’m not familiar.’ . . . So we got wind of a vehicle description, and we worked backward from there.”

Maine Marine Patrol authorities charged four people, none of them, it turns out, a part of the lobstering fraternity: Michael Taylor, 39, of Topsham; Harold “Mickey” Owen III, 40, of Harpswell; Scott Greenleaf, 31, of Boothbay; and Stephanie Gray, 39, of Topsham, who wardens say is Taylor’s girlfriend.

The motive? “Money,” Joyce says.

Taylor, Owen, and Gray were each charged with one count of felony theft, and Greenleaf was charged with one count of receiving stolen property and one count of conspiracy, both felonies, Joyce says. Under Maine law, a person convicted of Class C felony faces up to

five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. A Lincoln County grand jury will likely consider indictments in February. Taylor’s attorney says his client will plead not guilty

if indicted. Gray and an attorney for Owen had no comment. Greenleaf could not be reached.

“Lincoln County is not a place that tolerates people taking other people’s livelihoods away,” says Assistant District Attorney Andrew Wright. “Compared to a lot of things, it isn’t that much,” he says of the stolen goods, “but [nearly] $16,000 worth of lobsters is a lot of lobsters.”

In the days since the thefts, Harpswell residents have been forced to reconsider their lifestyle. “I don’t even know where the key to my front door is,” Morse says. Others, like Anne Moseley, who runs the Harpswell Inn with her husband, Richard, steadfastly refuse to lock down their lives. “I’m not going to lock my doors,” Moseley declares. “I’m not going

to take my car keys out of the car.”

Keys, like lobsters, are emblematic here, symbols of a small town where nothing newsworthy ever happens and the pace of life is as old and rhythmic as the sea. “With the lobstermen, there’s a code,” says Sarah Sparks, a retiree who has lived in Harpswell all her life. “They take care of one another. It’s been that way since time began. When one of them gets hurt, they all get hurt.”

The Rev. James Henry, minister of the Elijah Kellogg Congregational Church, says outsiders may not see the significance of poaching lobsters, but the thefts stole a piece of this town’s soul. “It’s us stealing from each other,” Henry says. “I don’t want something

like this to shake our sense of trust and make us feel like . . . we’re always looking

over our shoulder.”

Still, ripples of uneasiness persist, and there is little doubt that a measure of trust has been lost. “You feel a lot more suspicious of everybody,” Morse says. “If I hear a boat at night now, I pay attention.”

Back in Mackerel Cove, where a cat picks its way between stacks of pallets and squealing seagulls stab at pieces of bait lying on the wharf, Pilon’s 31-year-old nephew, Bryan Arsenault, is philosophical about the $3,600 loss Bailey Island Lobster sustained. “They took money out of our pocket,” he says with a shrug. “Well, people steal credit cards and cash every day. Same thing, I guess, right? There ain’t much to say.”

His uncle is less stoic. “Have fun in jail,” Pilon says to whoever stole his lobsters. “Burn in hell.”

Stacey Chase is a freelance writer living in Maine and Bill Porter is a copy editor at The Boston Globe. Send e-mail to magazine@globe.com.

Steve Morse and Doug Pilon
"You feel a lot more suspicious," says Sheldon Morse (bottom), who lost four crates of lobsters to theft. Thieves also targeted Doug Pilon (top), owner of Bailey Island Lobster. (Globe Photo / Fred J. Field)
Robert Watson
Robert Watson installed floodlights to keep his floating lobster crates visible at night. (Globe Photo / Fred J. Field)
map of Harpswell, Maine
(Globe Staff Graphic / Ed Wiederer)
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