Lawmakers, grieving parents teaming up to find $500,000 for cold case squad

Good morning from Augusta, where there will be some tragic stories flying around from families and loved ones looking for closure. 

What’s worse than losing a child? Not knowing what happened to her. There are unsolved murder and missing person cases all over Maine but the one I can tell you the most about is Ayla Reynolds, who was a year old when she disappeared from her father’s home in Waterville in December 2011. In the course of years of covering the story, I got close enough to the maternal side of Ayla’s family to witness the heartbreak, anger and hopelessness that results from a little girl disappearing forever, maybe without a trace. 

I wore a “bring Ayla home” bracelet for about two years until it broke one day while I was stoking my wood stove. Someone once asked me how I could ethically wear the bracelet while covering the story, to which my response was “if I’m biased because I want a little girl to come home one way or another, so be it.” 

Anyway, Ayla’s mother, Trista Reynolds, will be one of the speakers at a noontime press conference to promote a bill to fund a cold-case homicide squad in the attorney general’s office. Also expected at the press conference are Ramona Torres, whose 21-year-old son, Angel Torres, disappeared on Mother’s Day in 1999 and hasn’t been seen since, and Lise Ouellette, the mother of 15-year-old Ashley Ouellette, whose body was discovered in Scarborough 15 years ago. 

No one has been charged in any of these cases and there are more than 120 unsolved murders on the books in Maine.

Democratic Sen. Linda Valentino and a bipartisan group of co=sponsors have brought forward a bill that would appropriate about $511,000 next year to fund two state police detectives and a forensic chemist, as well as other costs related to creating a cold-case homicide unit. A bill to create the squad passed in 2014 but lawmakers could not find the funding and neither could members of the congressional delegation. 

Valentino’s bill is up for a hearing this afternoon in the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, though whether the bill receives funding won’t likely be decided until late in the legislative session, when it will compete with the fiscal notes on numerous other bills. Lawmakers lining up behind the issue now could help push the bill to the front of the line, but only time will tell. Unfortunately for people like Trista Reynolds, Ramona Torres and Ashley Ouellette, time is all they have. 

Also holding a noontime rally today is a group of people who want a clearer path to labeling food coming into Maine that is produced with genetically modified organisms. A bill to do that is on the books but it requires a trigger clause that doesn’t put the law into effect unless four contiguous states pass GMO labeling laws. This afternoon, lawmakers will be introduced to four related bills, including LD 991, a bill brought by Rep. Michelle Dunphy, D-Old Town, which would strip the law of the contiguous states clause. Also up for debate in that committee today is a resolution proposed by Democratic Rep. Craig Hickman of Winthrop that would amend the Maine Constitution to provide that everyone has a “natural and unalienable right to food.” 

This isn’t just a Democratic issue. Republican Sen. David Burns of Whiting is sponsoring a bill that would define genetically modified products along with disclosure clauses and penalties for non-compliance. 

Also on today’s docket: 

You can see the full list of bills on today’s docket by clicking here. — Christopher Cousins 


Poliquin co-sponsors bill to locate deadbeat parents

Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin announced Wednesday that he has introduced a bill to help state and local agencies collect child support payments. The bill is designed to help government agencies locate deadbeat parents with data from financial credit reporting agencies.

Poliquin’s bill, which is co-sponsored by Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, would amend the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

“It’s imperative for Congress, Republicans and Democrats, to work together and ensure that our kids have all the possible opportunities to succeed and have a bright future,” said Poliquin in a press release.

The bill will be working its way through Congress in the coming weeks. — Christopher Cousins

Plastic bag ban bill killed

Say that five times fast.

A bill that would have prohibited store owners in Maine from using plastic shopping bags for their customers’ purchases died in the Senate on Wednesday. Opponents of the bill called it a job killer and a burden on businesses. Some said there are more pressing environmental concerns to deal with. The bill was defeated 24-10. — Christopher Cousins

Pingree voted “best politician”

Readers of the Portland Phoenix have voted 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree the “best politician” in that publication’s annual poll. This poll is, of course, unscientific and may say as much about the Phoenix’s readers it does about Pingree, but the alternative weekly cited Pingree’s advocacy for defense contracts vital to Maine while also endorsing a gradual draw-down of overall defense spending.

“Members of Congress aren’t the most popular people these days, so I’m honored to be recognized by readers of the Phoenix,” said Pingree in a press release. “I feel fortunate to be able to serve Mainers by looking out for their interests in Washington and I’m glad Phoenix readers are happy with the work I’m doing.” — Christopher Cousins

Reading list


‘Probably work ’til I drop’

You’ve got to check out this gem of a story from J.W. Oliver of the Lincoln County News about a gem of a man, Millard Hassan of Newcastle.

Hassan, who makes hoes used to harvest clams and bloodworms from the mud of coastal Maine, is gearing up for a May 13 appearance on the National Geographic Channel’s “Filthy Riches” reality show.

Among the wisdom imparted by Hassan: “If you do a good job, you get business; make junk, you don’t get no business.”

Amen.

What’s it like having a television crew following you around? It gets in the way of progress, says Hassan, who said he was “a little nervous” by the end of the shoot, but not for the reason you might think.

“I wanted to get back to work,” he said. — Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.