The Killing of Karen Wood | Yankee Classic
In letters and guest editorials to the Bangor Daily News, though many sympathized with Karen, some readers took issue with the fact that she was wearing white mittens, and why wasn’t she wearing blaze orange, as anyone who lives in Maine knows well enough to do during hunting season?
It was as if they were saying that Karen was to blame for her death. And there were overtones of provincialism — she was from away and didn’t know enough to keep herself out of trouble. One guest column by Theodore Leavitt began by saying that Karen’s death illustrated several important issues, “the most important of which are the development of what were traditionally wilderness areas and the influx of large numbers of people who do not share or understand the traditional views and values of native Mainers.” He went on to question Karen’s “common sense, going into the woods dressed as she was.” The facts of the case — a man had made a mistake, a woman had died in her own backyard — became obscured. What took over was a fiery debate between hunters and non-hunters, all the old arguments over who owns the woods.
Unaware of all this, on Monday, December 5, Kevin returned to work, feeling he could slowly ease back into the job. He had seen one client in the morning and was about to settle in with an afternoon patient when a call came through from Maine’s Assistant Attorney General, Jeffrey Hjelm. Unknown to Kevin, that morning Hjelm had brought the evidence gathered by the wardens before a grand jury.
It was the task of the grand jury to determine, on the basis of that evidence, not whether Rogerson was guilty of the crime of manslaughter, but merely whether there was sufficient cause to suspect that the crime may have been committed. Manslaughter is defined as causing death through conduct that is either criminally reckless or criminally negligent — to fail to be aware of a risk or to disregard the risk that your conduct could cause death. Under Maine law the proceedings of the grand jury are secret and the identity even the numbers — of members of the grand jury are concealed, so what was presented in that session may never be known. Whatever it was, the grand jury decided not to indict Donald Rogerson for manslaughter in the shooting death of Karen Wood.
This is what Hjelm had to say to Kevin that afternoon. Stunned, Kevin got up and walked out of the office, without a word, and drove home to Binghamton, where he remained, paralyzed with grief, for seven long months.
It was not the first time that Kevin had suffered loss. The way he describes growing up in his family of four children is, “I was the one who dodged the bullets.” His older sister was mentally retarded, and his younger sister died at age 14 of cystic fibrosis, a slow, painful death that monopolized the family during his adolescence. His younger brother died of leukemia in 1987. He feels there is little question that these experiences led to his interest in psychology and his work with children. And it was definitely a factor in his and Karen’s decision to delay having children. The twins, conceived following his brother’s funeral, underwent prenatal testing for retardation as well as tests in their early infancy for cystic fibrosis.
In fact, few lives had been charted so carefully and consciously to avoid mistakes, to maximize the best options. After they were first married, they lived awhile in New York and then in Virginia. In 1978 they moved to Iowa where Kevin planned to complete his doctorate at the University of Iowa and Karen hoped to get her degree in business. They worked while they studied — Karen as a loan officer at a bank and Kevin at a local hospital — and so it took them ten years to do it, but when they completed their objectives, it was sweetened by the birth of Laura and Lindsey.
In fact, Kevin views 1987 as a kind of watershed in their lives. “Nineteen-eighty-seven was a bittersweet year,” he says. “Mike died in February. We found out there were twins in early May. I graduated in late May, and the babies were born in October. It was a crazy year. ”
A crazy year that signaled the need for another conscious change in their lives. Laura and Lindsey were the first grandchildren for both their sets of parents, and the need was clear to leave Iowa and get back to the East Coast, closer to the grandparents. Kevin’s work was specialized and so he focused his job search throughout the Northeast. “I couldn’t have written a better job description,” Kevin says now of his job at Eastern Maine Medical Center.
They had not been so lucky in looking for a house once they moved to Bangor. They were disappointed to find the housing market in Maine much pricier than that in Iowa. Unwilling to settle for just any place, they rented a place in town and devoted themselves to the house hunt. For six weeks, they went looking at night and on weekends, walking through endless possibilities in and out of Bangor.
In August they found it, a dormered Cape in a new development called Treadwell Acres in Hermon, a small town on Bangor’s periphery. They loved the country setting — this was the last house on the road so there would be virtually no traffic to worry about with the girls, and the house itself was everything they were looking for. Out back was a yard big enough to make a kennel for Maxie, Kevin’s hunting dog. The only drawback was that it was still above their budget. It was only through Karen’s background as a loan officer that they were able to push through to a mortgage they could handle.
On Labor Day Kevin and Karen moved their furniture and their twins into their new home in a kind of triumph. “We were convinced that this was where we were going to live for a long, long time,” Kevin says.
Though they had been in the area only a few months, they had begun to make friends, most especially with Tim and Maggie Rogers. They went to dinner often, and Kevin joined Tim’s Thursday night poker group. Kevin and Tim planned to hunt together in the fall, and they talked of camping trips. Tim was Kevin’s boss, and Tim was one of the first persons Kevin called when he arrived home to that grim scene on that November afternoon.
The day following the shooting, Tim stayed and watched the wardens mark the spots — where Karen lay when she died, where Rogerson stood when he took aim and fired — and measure the distances. He watched them and remembered, for that has been their only access to the facts that surround Karen’s death, a situation that remains one of the most troublesome aspects of this painful experience. The rest he and Kevin have pieced together for themselves.
They have stood on the spots where the hunter stood and where Karen lay, time and again, and seen his line of fire, which they say was a clear shot across an opening recently logged. They have gone back out there at that same time of day and seen that the sun was at Rogerson’s back, that it shone brightly off the white house next door, and off the chain-link dog fence so near to Karen.