Town Shaken by Lobster Theft
Sunday, October 9, 2005
HARPSWELL, Maine -- During the weeks that a gang of thieves prowled this foggy old fishing village -- turning it into a place with floodlights on its wharves, watchmen in its bushes, and outboard-powered posses in its coves -- two things became obvious.
One: The thieves knew something about lobster.
Two, even more worrisome: They also seemed to know a good bit about Harpswell.
Six times, the gang slipped in through a maze of small coves here, on Maine's lobstering coast, and made off with some of the 90-pound crates used to hold freshly caught crustaceans. Their total haul was 3,000 pounds, worth about $13,500 wholesale, which made it one of the largest lobster-rustling operations in Maine's recent history.
Friday, when police finally broke the case, it brought news that many in this area -- recently buffeted by a lower-than-average harvest -- had feared. One of the suspects had been living among them.
"It is a sad thing that it happened right here in our town," said Jackie Toothaker, whose lobster operation had been robbed twice during the spree. "You wouldn't think any of your neighbors or anything would think along those lines."
On Friday, police arrested Harold Owen III, 39, of Harpswell, and Michael Taylor, 38, of nearby Topsham, and charged both with one count of felony theft. Each could face a maximum of five years in jail if convicted. Attempts to reach the two by phone Friday were unsuccessful.
Lt. Jonathan Cornish of the Maine Marine Patrol declined to say how police were led to the two, who he said worked with a female accomplice who has not yet been charged. But he said they had receipts showing the three had sold stolen shellfish to a dealer in another part of the state.
"We were able to prove they had possession of the lobsters," Cornish said.
Lobster thievery is serious business here, in a little town whose 5,200 people are spread over one peninsula and three islands in Casco Bay. Harpswell is now becoming a haven for retirees seeking the L.L. Bean life, but the town's economy and culture still revolve around its roughly 400 licensed lobstermen.
"The worst thing you could do in the Wild West was steal somebody's horse," said Gordon Weil, one of Harpswell's town selectmen. "That's about how it is here with stealing lobsters."
Despite that code, somebody did. On Sept. 6, eight crates full of lobster were stolen from Doug Pilon's Bailey Island Lobster Co. Pilon said his neighbors -- transplants "from away," as Mainers say -- actually saw the thieves' boat but did not know to report it.