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April 25, 2004

Fiery end to a house of abuse

From: Press Herald - Portland,ME,USA - Apr 25, 2004

By KEVIN WACK, Portland Press Herald Writer

Copyright © 2004 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

FALMOUTH — Onto a rickety porch the former students threw old photographs and other scrawled expressions of their pain. The mementos would soon be ashes, indistinguishable from the charred remains of a 19th-century farmhouse they remember as a den of physical and sexual abuse.

Some of the victims - graduates of the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf - watched Saturday as authorities lit a controlled fire that quickly destroyed the onetime home of former Principal Robert E. Kelly.

Kelly avoided prosecution - he now lives in Florida at age 72 - but the state Attorney General's Office accused him and two other school employees of abusing students. Former students say the problem was even more widespread, but Kelly was among the worst offenders.

It had been the wish of many survivors to have the white farmhouse demolished. When flames shot from its windows, some took pictures and some cheered.

"It makes us feel great," said Donald Boilard, who attended Baxter during the early 1960s. "It's all burned in the fire. Now we can go on with our lives."

Before the fire was ignited, former students wrote personal messages on small blocks of wood.

"I hate, hate you," read one.

"Dr. Kelly's soul be burned to hell!" read another.

A third former student wrote: "Let the healing begin."

One larger piece of wood was dedicated to the memory of James Levier, a former Baxter student who was fatally shot by police in a standoff in 2001. Members of the deaf community believe Levier - described by police as suicidal - was despondent over the state's handling of abuse allegations.

Written on the wooden block honoring Levier were the words: "This is your day today."

In an emotional scene, former students threw the blocks onto the house's porch shortly before a thick plume of black smoke rose to the sky. Claude Bolduc, a 1975 graduate of Baxter, threw onto the pile photographs he said were snapped by Kelly.

"Kelly took a lot of pictures - numerous pictures," he said. "It's time to throw them, throw them into the fire."

Others said the farmhouse was a symbol of a culture of abuse that long persisted at Baxter.

Peter Martineau, a 1973 graduate, remembered how anytime he was walking on Mackworth Island, where the school is located, he would avoid going near Kelly's house.

Raymond Gorneau, who attended the school from 1950 until 1969, recalled how trees blocked views of the house, and music sometimes muffled the sounds from inside.

"In my mind Kelly is in there. His evilness goes down with this house," Gorneau said.

Boilard said that some former Baxter students refused to return to the island as long as the farmhouse was standing.

"All the victims, their prayers have been answered," he said.

It has now been 22 years since state prosecutors accused Kelly, former superintendent Joseph P. Youngs, and a teacher, of abuse. All three men denied the allegations but resigned. There were no charges filed, in part because the statute of limitations had expired.

Since 2001, when state lawmakers set aside $6 million for a compensation fund, 240 former students have filed claims.

Larry Taub, the current superintendent of Baxter School, said he hopes Saturday's fire helps bring closure for former students.

"I will never be able to say enough to make people feel better, but I hope this ceremony helps to some degree," he said. "It's just better if it's taken down. Take it away from the island."

Others made similar assessments.

"I'm never going to recover 100 percent," Bolduc said. "But compared to then I have recovered."

"They're starting to heal," Boilard added. "They'll never forget."

Staff Writer Kevin Wack can be contacted at 282-8226 or at:

Copyright © Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.