Whenever Maine game wardens find their way into the national news, people contact me to ask my thoughts about the big story everyone is talking about.
This week, the buzz is about Christopher Knight, 47, the so-called "North Pond Hermit," who was arrested early on Thursday morning by Warden Sergeant Terry Hughes. Knight has confessed to more than 1,000 burglaries of cottages, houses, and summer camps around Rome, Maine, over the course of 27 years. During that time, he says he lived entirely alone in a tent compound in the woods, never interacting with other human beings. Terry Hughes told me that Knight claimed he hadn't spoken to another person since the '90s — and Hughes, who has been doggedly pursuing the reclusive burglar for years — believes his story.
The saga seems so improbable it almost defies belief (the Kennebec Journal so far has the most comprehensive account of it, which you can read here).
I learned about the arrest of the hermit late last week, before it was reported in the media, and there are still important details in this case that I haven't seen discussed yet. Not being a journalist for a day paper or news site, I can't pursue the story as intensely as I might wish.
Among the questions still needing to be answered are:
- What really drove Knight into the woods in 1986? Was there a precipitating incident that involved wrongdoing on his or another person's part? His desire to simply "disappear" is suggestive of some trauma he suffered as a teenager.
- Terry Hughes told me that Knight seems quite intelligent. However, it doesn't seem that Knight's decades in the woods were prompted by a Thoreauvian rejection of civilization or some other philosophical choice (he did have an affection for Robinson Crusoe). There are signs of obsession compulsion in the neatness with which he maintained his camp and in the habits he acquired to escape detection. What is (and has has been) his mental state?
- What explains his family's seeming nonchalance to his disappearance? A neighbor is quoted as saying the family thought Christopher moved to "New York City" which is far from the reality of what the man actually did as can be imagined.
- The Knight family is well-established in the town of Rome (assuming Christopher is related to that branch) and well-known to wardens. How is it possible he was not recognized in the images law enforcement officers circulated widely in the community? Despite the affects of age, most of us bear some resemblance to other family members.
- Is it true that he had no assistance? Knight's compound is, by all accounts, a marvel to behold and yet he is very clearly no Bear Grylls or "Survivorman." He claims not to have hunted or fished but instead to have stolen and cached vast amounts of food.
- The section of Rome where he lived is remote and untraveled in relative terms, but non-Mainers might be tricked into believing it was the North Woods, when in reality it is only thirty minutes from the state capital and a shorter distance from one of the state's largest cities (Waterville). It would be analogous to someone hiding out for 27 years in a wilder pocket of Westchester County, New York. Did no one ever stumble upon him even as nearby land was sold, surveyed, and developed?
- Knight claims he never lit fires because he feared detection, but why was he so scared to be found? His burglaries, while sustained and sweeping, might ultimately be reduced to misdemeanors by the time this is over. Was his paranoia a result of his isolation and living situation or prompted by knowledge he hasn't disclosed?
- How will investigators assess Knight's truthfulness ultimatelty? What, if anything here, might be a hoax? Many of the outlandish aspects of the story don't much matter, except as folklore (i.e. whether he hadn't seen his own reflection in years). But there are other elements here—especially those might brush upon other crimes by the man or by others—that need to be evaluated. So far Knight seems to have been taken almost entitely at his word.
- Lastly, what will become of him, assuming he is convicted and serves what should be a relatively short time in jail? For his sake as well as society's, prosecutors have a duty to do everything in their power to untangle the enigma of the North Pond Hermit.
As if this strange story needed a new angle, now the unidentified person who owns the land where Knight was camped is prohibiting access to the media—after the media was invited by the state police to tour the compound. I expect the location will come out anyway in this age of Twitter. We should expect reporters to probe into the landowner's background, as well. Does this person have any connection to Knight? If not, how were they unaware someone was living in their woodlot for 27 years?