Classic: The Killing of Karen Wood
Inside the house, neighbors and rescue workers tried to comfort the babies, who cried and cried for their mother. Night turned to day. Kevin did not sleep and neither, it seemed, did the wardens. Kevin turned away reporters. He could not talk, he could not imagine talking.The next day Kevin, in numb disbelief, carried out the sorrowful task of following Karen’s body home to Binghamton, New York, where they had been born six months apart, where they went to high school together, where they fell in love, where they married. Before Kevin left, Gary Sargent, the warden in charge of the investigation, assured him that all this, gathering of evidence was being done in preparation for the trial, which would surely follow this ungodly event. Over the next several days, the wardens took extensive measurements, photographs, videotapes, and even pictures from the air. They cut down the tree Karen had stood beside when she was shot and took away the trunk in which was lodged the other bullet.
Three weeks after the shooting, Kevin returned to Bangor from Binghamton where he had stayed with his parents following the funeral. He left the twins in the care of their four doting grandparents until he felt settled enough to bring them back to the house at Treadwell Acres. While he’d been gone, he had read none of the newspapers, which had throbbed almost daily with the news and opinions about Karen’s death. Because the investigation was still underway, few facts about the shooting could be released. In the write-ups there were few details about Kevin or Karen, nothing about the funeral, and only a brief obituary for Karen. The focus was on the hunter.
More than one front-page story featured tearful apologies from Rogerson, who, it was headlined, was a scoutmaster in Bangor. “A most wonderful kind of person,” one of the Woods’ neighbors was quoted as saying. One report opened by setting the scene at the supermarket where Rogerson is the produce manager. It described customers lining up to shake the hunter’s hand and make offers of prayers and support, as if he were somehow the victim. While Kevin had been silent, Donald Rogerson had talked, and graphic details of his experience emerged. “I almost fainted when I came up on her,” he told one reporter. “I…messed my pants.”
What didn’t emerge were the details that mattered: what he was shooting at, how long he’d been in the woods, how many shots he fired, whether or not there were deer seen nearby. One warden excited much comment by saying Rogerson may have mistaken her white mittens for the tail of a deer, overlooking the fact that Rogerson was hunting for buck and needed to identify the head, not the tail, of the deer before shooting. What Rogerson did say, over and over, was how sorry he was, to almost anyone who would listen. He didn’t know he was so close to houses; he thought he was shooting at a deer, he said.
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.