Jan. 2—The year 2021, as with most years, was a mixed bag of good news, bad news and wild turns that were either terrible or glorious, depending on whom you ask.
The pandemic continued to wreak its havoc, more political battle lines were drawn and as 2021 slides into an unknown new year, an air of uncertainty seems to hang over us all.
Locally, the year was vexed by the usual array of events we all wish we could avoid. Fires killed and burned people out of their homes. Savage crimes left the region shocked and disgusted. There was even a series of stories highlighting ghastly misdeeds committed against the dead and their families.
But no year is ALL bad, and in 2021, we also shared stories of human triumph, incredible generosity and a slew of projects aimed at improving the lives of thousands across the region.
As 2021 comes to a close, in no particular order, we take a look at the top local stories that impacted our communities and shaped us all for better or for worse.
Few stories throughout the year galvanized and divided the population quite like the matter of the CMP corridor.
In November, Mainers voted decisively to kill a $1 billion transmission line project through the state. Analysts say the referendum vote was fueled in part by distaste for the state's largest utility and concerns about environmental impacts to the North Woods.
Throughout the year, proponents and opponents of the plan had argued viciously about its merits, benefits and potential pitfalls.
When it was time to vote, roughly 60% of Mainers voted yes to the controversial Question 1, followed by a state court promptly halting the plan in its tracks.
The vote was considered a repudiation of Central Maine Power Co., its parent company Avangrid, and Canadian energy supplier Hydro-Quebec, as well as plans to finish the New England Clean Energy Connect project and put it into service.
But did the vote spell the end of the project? Not quite. Power line supporters came out almost immediately after the final votes were tallied to say they would continue the fight to keep the plan on track.
Question 1 opposition group Clean Energy Matters, a political action committee funded in large part by NECEC's developers, issued a statement after the vote indicating that it planned to challenge the referendum in court.
"We believe this referendum, funded by fossil fuel interests, is unconstitutional," group spokesman Ted Varipatis said. "With over 400 Maine jobs and our ability to meet our climate goals on the line, this fight will continue."
NECEC is a high-voltage, direct-current transmission line with a capacity of 1,200 megawatts, enough energy to run roughly 1 million homes, proponents say. It would carry energy from Quebec to an alternate-current converter station in Lewiston, where it would enter the New England electric grid. It's being built largely for the benefit of Massachusetts electric customers, who will pay the $1 billion cost.
Supporters of the plan in Lewiston had been hoping the vote would go the other way — the city stood to benefit, and had already benefited, from tax revenue tied to the CMP converter station. The new valuation allowed the city to lower the property tax rate in the previous year.
By the time the vote was cast, site work for the $250 million converter station on outer Main Street in Lewiston was reported to be nearly 80% done. Construction did not immediately come to a halt when the vote was over, but by December, with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection suspending the license and prohibiting ongoing construction on NECEC's transmission line because of the vote, work at the Lewiston converter station was shut down as the project wends through the courts.
In the wee hours of the morning of Feb. 12, Troy Varney and his wife, Dulsie, were asleep in their beds at their Knight Farm Road home when an intruder entered their bedroom, beating and stabbing the couple in what would turn into a vicious and inexplicable double homicide.
In the aftermath of the bloody assault, police arrested 24-year-old Patrick Maher, a tenant of the Varneys who investigators say had crept through a downstairs window while they slept.
Both Dulsie, 48, and Troy, 54, would succumb to their wounds. Police said Troy, with the help of relatives who rushed to their aid, had been able to subdue Maher until police arrived.
Maher, a lifelong Turner resident who has no criminal history in the area, escaped with minor injuries. He had been living in a nearby home owned by the Varneys.
The double killing shocked the Turner community and the region as a whole. Troy had operated a fourth-generation dairy farm and was owner/operator of T.W. Varney Excavation. Dulsie worked as a nursing instructor at Lewiston Regional Technical Center.
In the aftermath of the slayings, shock and horror remained in the community, but satisfying answers were in short supply.
Why had Maher so horrifically turned on the couple who had befriended him?
A Varney family member said Maher had rented a room from the couple in Turner Center. She also said that in recent days, Dulsie Varney had become afraid of Maher, although the circumstances around that were not immediately clear.
In the following months, Maher appeared in court several times. A judge ordered a mental evaluation for the suspect and a not guilty plea was entered.
Maher remains jailed without bail.
No clear motive for the killings has been offered. Maher is scheduled to be back in court Feb. 1.
In August, it was the delta variant. Months later, along came omicron, and the COVID-19 pandemic had a few more terms to add to the already plump lexicon.
In spite of continued masking and a vaccine mandate, the pandemic continued to plague the region and the effects of it were felt in a variety of ways.
In area schools, there was hope followed by a descent into confusion and chaos. In the spring, with the number of COVID cases dropping, a return to some semblance of normalcy seemed to be in the works. There was more in-person learning in the schools and extracurricular activities resumed at last.
And then, mayhem. The COVID numbers began to rise again and the ripple effect was felt across entire school systems.
Schools were sometimes unable to provide transportation for students due to ongoing shortages of bus drivers. Shortages of teachers and other school staff made things even worse. And school board meetings just about everywhere were tense and chaotic affairs as issues such as mandatory masking were hotly discussed.
Some people had hoped the rollout of vaccines would get the situation in schools under control, but it didn't work out that way. Students were in and out of classes, in large part due to individual contact tracing. Some days it was in-person learning at the schools and the next they would be back to remote arrangements as new cases of the virus were discovered.
The pandemic was acutely felt, in 2021, in the areas of medicine and emergency care, as well. With a shortage of nurses and emergency responders compounded by a vaccine mandate, getting emergency care in 2021 was no longer a straightforward affair.
In October, Central Maine Medical Center announced that it was suspending pediatric and trauma admissions due to "acute nursing staffing shortages in key areas."
A similar shortage of EMS workers meant fewer paramedics available to respond to emergencies, and with hospitals no longer accepting certain cases, patients were often rerouted to other hospitals.
With COVID numbers still climbing by early December, Gov. Janet Mills announced the deployment of 38 Maine National Guard members to 10 health care centers across the state to help increase capacity.
Not long after that, a Maine EMS panel recommended discontinuing all trauma patient transfers to CMMC from LifeFlight and from other hospitals, although the full board later voted to let area hospitals and CMMC decide which trauma patients will be sent to CMMC based on the conditions at that time.
Nothing about the pandemic was easy to understand. Vaccines continued to be rolled out throughout the year, but by the later months of 2021, CDC officials began discouraging people from taking the Johnson & Johnson vaccine — which many had already received — due to a very low risk of blood clots and low platelets. Booster shots were recommended to all as new variants of the virus emerged. CDC officials cautioned that even those who were vigilant about vaccines could still contract and spread COVID-19, but symptoms would be substantially reduced in most cases and the chances of spreading would be less.
By the end of the year, Maine had one of the highest vaccination rates in the nation, with more than 74% of all eligible Mainers fully vaccinated. Yet COVID continued to spread across the state.
After another full year of masking up, social distancing, vaccines and boosters, Mainers would like to have ended 2021 on a positive note.
It was not to be, however. CDC officials announced at the end of the year that November had been the deadliest month of the pandemic for Androscoggin and Franklin counties — Franklin County had recorded more deaths per capita than any other county in the state.
In November, 22 residents of Androscoggin County died with COVID-19 and 11 residents of Franklin County died.
Only one other county in Maine saw a higher case rate per capita last month than the tri-county region. Aroostook County recorded the highest number of new cases per 10,000 residents in November for the entire state.
It was a verdict that very few expected.
In late September, at the conclusion of a weeklong trial, it took a jury just over three hours to acquit a 23-year-old Auburn man of murder in a 2019 shooting in the Auburn Walmart parking lot.
The acquittal was a stunning one and the friends and family of the victim, 41-year-old Jean Donald Fournier of Turner, reacted with shock and disgust.
Fournier had been shot twice in the back July 27, 2019, during a dispute with Dalphonse.
Video footage of the incident from Walmart security cameras shows Fournier running away from Gage Dalphonse's Volkswagen GTI hatchback, and getting two or three steps past the end of the car before he collapsed to the ground after being shot in the back.
To investigators and to the family of Fournier, it looked like murder.
But Dalphonse, through his lawyer, James Howaniec, claimed he acted in self-defense after Fournier walked over to his parked car and punched him in the mouth.
The trial was held at the Capital Judicial Center in Augusta for administrative reasons. After a week of testimony, the eight women and four men of the jury found Dalphonse not guilty of both murder and manslaughter.
The reaction to the verdict was immediate, with nearly 700 people weighing in on the Sun Journal Facebook page alone. Most questioned the notion of a self-defense argument since Fournier had been shot in the back.
Dalphonse was set free after the verdict was read.
On Halloween, a notorious drug kingpin and convicted murderer from New York was gunned down in Harlem.
The violent death of 55-year-old former drug boss Alberto "Alpo" Martinez would have been no more than an idle curiosity here in Maine but for one crucial detail that emerged shortly after he was slain: Martinez, it was revealed, had laid low in Lewiston for a time under the name Abraham Rodriguez after he was placed in Maine through the federal witness protection program.
The news was a bit of a shock for locals who read the Sun Journal's report on the matter. For years, according to one Maine man he befriended, this violent drug boss and convicted killer had been living among them.
According to a New York Times report, Martinez had once led a cocaine-dealing empire that spanned territory from New York to Washington, D.C. It ultimately fell apart when he was arrested in 1991 and convicted of 14 counts of murder. Sentenced to 35 years, he got out in 2015 after cutting a deal with the government to provide information on other crimes, according to the New York newspapers.
On the afternoon of Sept. 11, fire ripped through the upper floor of a Blake Street tenement. Even in the earliest moments of the blaze, there were signs that this one was going to be a horror.
As fire crews raced to the blaze at 226 Blake St., several people reported on the street and on social media seeing someone falling from an upper floor.
Firefighters who came to attack the flames desperately tried to reach the man trapped on the top floor. Before they could get to him however, 70-year-old Felicien K. Betu jumped to escape the fast-moving fire and died on the ground below.
The fire heavily damaged the third and fourth floors in the 10-unit apartment building and displaced 27 people. And there was more ugly news to come.
Fire investigators soon determined the fire had been set. The police investigation led to two 13-year-olds and a 14-year-old who were charged first with arson and later with one count each of felony murder.
The teens, whose identities are sealed by court order after defense attorneys requested their names remain confidential, were detained at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland.
Residents of both Lewiston and Auburn were stunned by the horror of the blaze and by the fact that it was said to be the work of area children.
But in the midst of all that ugliness, some good did come out of the ashes; namely the overwhelming show of support by the community for the tenants who had survived the blaze.
A 70-bed shelter was constructed in the gymnasium at Lewiston High School to house the 27 people displaced by the fire. The Green Ladle, the culinary program at the Lewiston Regional Technical Center, stepped up to provide meals, while The Store Next Door, which operates out of Lewiston High School and supports homeless teens, donated resources, including clothing.
Meanwhile, several fundraisers began to appear on social media, some by individuals, others by groups, including the Lewiston Farmers' Market, which raised $642 in donations in one day.
Others rounded up household items, including clothes, cookware and furniture for the displaced tenants.
Beginning in late spring, Sun Journal readers were informed of a gross mishandling of corpses at a Lewiston cremation service.
The news coming out of Affordable Cremation Solution got a little stranger with each new revelation.
The first story was published June 16 and began with a sentence that may have caused a few readers to spit out mouthfuls of coffee.
"After discovering the remains of 11 people sitting unrefrigerated at Affordable Cremation Solution last week," the story began, "state regulators filed an order Monday suspending both its operations and the funeral license of its owner."
The business was shut down and its funeral licenses were suspended in June by Maine's Board of Funeral Service, which said it found unrefrigerated bodies stacked in its basement.
An investigator who visited the Main Street establishment in June found an "odor of decomposition" in the upstairs office, it was reported, and got a headache as he waited to enter a room downstairs where the remains turned up.
Earlier that same week, the investigator saw "reddish brown fluid on the floor" that appeared "to flow into the drain."
At least eight bodies had sat there since mid-May, the investigator said, and one "was too large to fit in a body bag and was accordingly in an unsealed box."
Eight local people, horrified by how their deceased family members had been treated, would ultimately bring a lawsuit against the company. The court filings began to shine a light on the unraveling of Kenneth Kincer, owner of the cremation business.
Affordable Cremation Solution, which opened in 2016 on Main Street, began falling apart in 2020 when Kincer "began spending long periods of time away" because he "was getting drunk in his home," according to the lawsuit filed against the business by New Gloucester lawyers Taylor Asen and Meryl Poulin.
Based on the deposition of a part-time funeral attendant who had grown "increasingly uncomfortable" with "taking in human remains with no plan to responsibly care for them," the suit alleges that, by 2021, Kincer had "stopped coming into the office altogether."
If Kincer had problems before, he faced a whole slew of new ones.
In September, his attorney issued the beginnings of an explanation.
"The last year and a half of Mr. Kincer's life has been what can only be called a living nightmare," said Kincer's attorney at the time. "He is deeply in the grip of depression and alcoholism."
But Taylor Asen, the attorney representing the families who are suing, said that while he sympathized, the families, not Kincer, are the victims in this case.
"I feel sorry for Mr. Kincer," Asen said. "He had a difficult year. We've all had a difficult year. Needless to say, that doesn't excuse his conduct over the months in which he was taking bodies that he wasn't able to care for."
Affordable Cremation Solution has ceased to exist. Kincer's funeral license has been pulled for at least a decade, though regulators said if he stays away from drugs and alcohol he may someday get it back.
Seems like everywhere you turned in the Twin Cities in 2021, you'd find a housing project in the making.
In Auburn, the Planning Board in October approved 128 housing units by A.R. Building Company, next to BJ's Wholesale Club on Mount Auburn Avenue.
The units will be a mix of one- and two-bedroom apartments in two four-story buildings connected by a clubhouse. Amenities will include a gym, pool and in-unit laundry. Construction is expected to start this winter or in the spring with a 24- to 36-month timeline.
But that's not the only thing in Auburn. With housing shortages in mind, the city has already seen several large housing developments come forward, both for market-rate and affordable units. There are the new apartment complexes on Hampshire and Spring streets, and market-rate units under construction on Gracelawn Road and North River Road.
Late-year permits were secured for constructing 48 units near Turnpike exit 75, while 10 super luxury apartments opened Jan. 1 in the former synagogue on Laurel Avenue.
Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque said a plan is in the early stages for another "Choice Neighborhood" 100-unit development near Lowe's.
"We have roughly 300 new units: a mix of homes, condos and apartments in a state of planning for next year as well," Levesque said. "My goal is to encourage and spur the building of 100 owner-occupied duplexes next year, and over 300 single-family homes. We're going big."
Lewiston isn't doing too shabby, either.
In that city, the first major step toward redeveloping the massive Continental Mill moved forward in December after housing developer The Szanton Co. secured funding from MaineHousing.
Szanton said the funding will allow design plans to continue for the 72-unit Picker House Lofts, which will redevelop the central building of the mill complex owned by Chinburg Properties.
When complete, the mill that has been vacant for decades will feature 46 units of workforce housing and 26 market-rate units — a mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom units. The workforce housing units will be set aside for households with incomes at or below 60% of the area median income, which is roughly $42,000.
City officials consider the project an important shift toward the eventual redevelopment of the entire complex, as well as the city's larger riverfront island area.
Also in Lewiston, the first phase of construction for Lewiston's Choice Neighborhoods initiative moved closer to reality in early December after receiving additional funding.
The city and its development partners were awarded MaineHousing tax credits in December toward the first of three major sites — a 74-unit mixed-income development between Pine, Walnut, Bartlett and Pierce streets.
Early in the year, Lewiston became the smallest city ever to receive the $30 million redevelopment grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is slated to bring $100 million worth of investment into the city, creating 185 new housing units over three sites in the Tree Streets neighborhood.
The other development sites planned in the Choice Neighborhoods effort include a 66-unit, mixed-income housing development with ground floor commercial space along Pine Street, across from Kennedy Park, and the eventual replacement of the Maple Knoll housing complex with between 13 and 15 townhouse-style homes.
In the middle of November, 11 defendants in an alleged marijuana and money laundering scheme in Franklin County pleaded not guilty to charges on which they had been indicted just days before.
It was one more development in the Farmington area incident that has grown to involve several prominent locals.
The federal government alleges that Lucas Sirois, 41, of Farmington was the leader of a conspiracy and he reportedly structured operations to appear that he and co-conspirators complied with Maine's medical marijuana laws while he regularly sold bulk marijuana on the illicit market, including $1 million worth of marijuana for out-of-state distribution between 2018 and 2019.
Sirois and his co-conspirators are accused of realizing in excess of $13 million over six years through the illicit sale of marijuana, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
The list of those accused of involvement reads like Who's Who lineup of local notables. Many of them are no longer in the positions they held during the time when the allegedly illegal actions they are accused of occurred.
Kayla Alves, a former Franklin County assistant district attorney, was charged with tampering with proceedings and tampering with documents. Alves, 36, of Farmington had a preliminary examination hearing Nov. 5 before Magistrate Judge John Nivison, with her lawyer, Walter McKee of Augusta, present.
Former Rangeley Selectman David Burgess, 53, of Rangeley, pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute controlled substances; conspiracy to commit money laundering; conspiracy to commit honest services fraud, bank fraud; and conspiracy to defraud the U.S. and impede and impair the Internal Revenue Services.
Ryan Nezol, 38, of Farmington and Sirois' father, Robert Sirois, 68, of Farmington, each pleaded not guilty to a charge of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute controlled substances.
Former Franklin County Sheriff's deputies Derrick Doucette, 29, of Jay and Bradley Scovil, 33, of Rangeley each pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute controlled substances, conspiracy to commit honest services fraud and bank fraud.
Tax preparer Kenneth Allen, 48, of Farmington pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to defraud the U.S. and impede and impair the IRS, and tax fraud.
Former Oxford County Sheriff's Deputy James McLamb, 29, of Auburn and Wilton police officer Kevin Lemay, 33, of Farmington each pleaded not guilty to a charge of tampering with documents.
Sirois also pleaded not guilty on behalf of three pot businesses he co-owns.
Others, too, have entered not guilty pleas as the case against them moves forward. The case stretches back to July 2020, when local and federal authorities first raided Narrow Gauge Distributors, a medical marijuana cultivation business housed in a former shoe factory on High Street in Farmington.
Over the next year and a half, details about the alleged scheme trickled out little by little, until court documents began to reveal much more about the true extent of the operation.
Further court action is expected to get underway immediately in the new year, beginning with a conference on the case the week of Jan. 10.
It was a year in which people craved good news and for some, there was at least a morsel of it in October, when it was announced that the beloved Italian Restaurant Olive Garden was coming to Auburn.
"Lewiston-Auburn has had a long, well-documented clamoring for its soup, salad and endless pasta bowls — 47% of readers in a Sun Journal survey as far back as 2007 demanded the restaurant open here, stat," we reported in September.
A month later, it was made official when the Auburn Planning Board approved the new Olive Garden for 649 Turner St., at the site of the former Ruby Tuesday restaurant.
The $1.1 million, 6,600-square-foot project will have a larger footprint than the Ruby Tuesday building and eliminate 10 parking spaces.
Mayor Levesque called the announcement "another shining example of the economic development that is happening and will continue to happen within the city of Auburn."
Top 10 stories online
According to website analytics, these were the top read stories at SunJournal.com in 2021:
1. A giant red hamster wheel washed up on a Florida beach. And a man was inside.
2. Hold those thongs! After $1.2 million trash bill, Goodwill encouraging people to look before they donate
3. He's been asking Walmart to pick up its trash for three years. But when he did it himself, Walmart called the police.
4. Suspect charged with murder in stabbing of Turner couple
5. Sheriff's deputy was cleaning crash debris from road when he was hit by truck
6. Former drug kingpin led surprisingly simple life in Lewiston
7. Falling tree branch kills Waterville motorist in Farmington
8. The Lawn Goodbye: Homeowners cultivate non-traditional yards
9. Max Linn, colorful candidate, dead at 62
10. 'I'm still in shock': Vehicle upends SUV in Auburn Walmart parking lot