Life on Matinicus Island
Most of this is pretty certain. A good part of the rest, including the bigger questions of background and intent, and who was right or wrong, depend mostly on whom you ask. It’s also at this stage of things that the silence sets in. Or you get your answers off the record.
“Vance and Chris getting into it, there’s nothing new there,” one islander tells me. “The Bunkers and the Youngs feuding–that goes back. It could have been something their grandfathers were fighting about.”
This from someone who recalls the days, 30 and 40 years ago, of church suppers, bingo nights, and community softball games; when times were so tight that most of the men fished year-round (the norm these days is April through December) and still went out at night with herring nets; and grudges, no matter how bitter, were nearly always trumped by need.
“I cut a few of yours [traps], you cut a few of mine–that was always going on–until the time came when somebody lost their boat or their roof blew off in a storm,” the islander says. “Then it didn’t matter if it was your worst enemy; you were there for them–because you knew you’d need the same if it was you. That’s how things are when you have to fight to survive. And we did. Now you’ve got the big fishermen with their fast boats–Alan Miller, he’s got two boats, he’s not a young guy anymore, he’s already made his money–who come in not caring about anything, just looking to fish some sweet waters.”
When Miller arrived at the Matinicus dock that morning, Ames and Young were awaiting him. So was his wife, Janan–who had seen from her window the men converging on the harbor, and had brought with her a 12-gauge shotgun she would claim she didn’t know how to use. And Vance Bunker was there; he’d arrived with his sternman in a blue pickup with a .22-caliber handgun and an AK-47 assault rifle with nine loaded magazines.
There was some shouting. At some point Janan Miller yelled “Hey!” and pointed the shotgun at the stepbrothers. “Shoot me, you stupid bitch!” Weston Ames may have said, at about the same instant he grabbed for the gun. Bunker fired his handgun and missed. His second shot hit Chris Young in the neck. He collapsed in a pool of blood at his stepbrother’s feet. He would survive: his hands mostly paralyzed, his left arm no longer of much use, his lifetime earning power reduced by $2.4 million, according to the lawsuit he would file.
“Greed, that’s what’s behind all this,” Vance Bunker would tell me months later. He wasn’t talking about the lawsuit. “It used to be, you had to work for every dollar you got. No more. Today, there’s not a lobsterman on the island under 50 who’s ever had to scrape for a living. It’s all come easy to ’em. So now they think they got a right to it. And as soon as things get a little tough, they get all pissed off and start setting up rules–about property, and family and whatever, and who can fish and who can’t–and writing them down and passing them out. Then at the next meeting, they go and change the rules.”
It was mid-April of last year, a little more than a month since a jury had taken a day and a half to acquit him of all charges stemming from what had happened on the island dock that day. (“What type of father would pull the trigger?” his lawyer had put to the jurors. “The real question is What father wouldn’t?“) We were sitting together, he and I and Sari–known by most on the island as “S.T.,” short for “schoolteacher,” which is what she was when they met here more than 20 years ago–in the living room of the modest, red-shingled house they’ve shared seasonally for 17 years in a small coastal town just across the water from Matinicus.
I’d heard by now the story of his family’s early years: how his grandfather had been a rumrunner on the island during Prohibition, hiding the bottles in deepwater puddles; of his father, a lobsterman, and how he’d met Vance’s mother, who’d come there to work as a nurse; how he’d started pulling traps as a teenager and never stopped; how it used to be that when you had an argument with a neighbor, “you got over it real quick, ’cause you needed each other more than you needed to stay mad.”
Working his way around Sari’s occasional outbursts (“Yes, I’m bitter–I don’t expect my closest friends to go against my family, and do it publicly …” “Easy now, you’re getting yourself worked up …”), he’d told me his story of how it had all come to pass: how his son-in-law had played by the rules–“He married my daughter, they bought a house there”–and had still been run off the island; how he’d gone to see Chris Young’s stepfather, futilely, to try to settle the dispute; how he’d feared for his life, and later for his daughter’s (“The man threatened to kill me”); how Young’s and Ames’s civil suits, (the former settled this year, the latter still making its way through the courts) could take most of what he and Sari had; and, finally, how the island was no longer home to him, and his friends were no longer his friends. “They won’t even talk to me,” he said.