"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)
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.
The soggy piece of rope lands on Doug Pilons desk with a thud. Its 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.
Thats whats left of your eight crates, Bernat says.
That evening, September 7, as the sun fell over the horizon and Pilons long day crept into the night, he couldnt 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, its 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 states 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. Theres one blinking traffic light. Side streets have names like Meditation Lane and Sweet Haven Lane. Yards are full of the tools of the lobstermans trade buoys, boats, and traps as well as cords of firewood gathered to brace for Maines harsh winters. The haunting solitude inspired Harriet Beecher Stowes novel The Pearl of Orrs Island and John Greenleaf Whittiers poem The Dead Ship of Harpswell.
Carl Jung once held a dream seminar on Bailey Island. The towns history includes eccentric tales of pirates burying treasure and rumrunners storing hooch in chicken barns. So its 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 Maines fishing industries, which sustain 26,000 jobs and almost $1 billion in economic activity.
In order to understand just how Harpswells 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 Watsons General Store in Cundys 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 arent 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 Maines 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. Maines 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 wont 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 WASNT always a creature worth poaching. In the early 20th century, it was considered a poor mans food. My grandfather used to say that if anybody saw you lugging a bunch of lobsters home, they knew you couldnt 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, theyll grab a few or haul a few traps. Its 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 Pilons 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 Kens Lobster in Cundys 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 couldnt say to my fishermen, My lobsters have been stolen; I cant pay you, says Jackie
Toothaker, 59. Thats their living. Theyve got families, and theyve got boat payments.
As crate after crate disappeared, Harpswells 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 its 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, Dicks Lobsters in South Harpswell, lost five crates on August 29. Then Bailey Island Lobster lost eight on September 6. Cundys Harbor Wharf lost five three days later. Kens 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 Morses crates disappeared, the lobstermans 21-year-old daughter, Ashley, spent the night with two friends in her mothers 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 Cundys 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 didnt 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 theyd ever come in to sell to him, Joyce says, explaining how the caper was eventually solved. And that dealer
said, No, Im 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 Taylors 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. Taylors 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 peoples livelihoods away, says Assistant District Attorney Andrew Wright. Compared to a lot of things, it isnt 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 dont 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. Im not going to lock my doors, Moseley declares. Im 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, theres a code, says Sarah Sparks, a retiree who has lived in Harpswell all her life. They take care of one another. Its 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 towns soul. Its us stealing from each other, Henry says. I dont want something
like this to shake our sense of trust and make us feel like . . . were 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, Pilons 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 aint 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 email@example.com.
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