Press Herald Online

Sunday, August 17, 1997

Fatal crash causes a free-spirited community to assess its values

At left: Brooke Olsen, 21, loved the ocean and was doing a summer internship at the Darling Marine Center.

At right: Jeff Legere, 22, shown in a 1994 yearbook photo, faces a manslaughter charge.

At left: The Rev. Robert Leon of Great Chebeague Island pauses near the new phone pole that replaced the one struck by a car, killing Brooke Olsen. The new pole has been adorned with shells and flowers.

Staff photos by John Ewing

Staff Writer
©Copyright 1997 Guy Gannett Communications
GREAT CHEBEAGUE ISLAND - The island cemetery smells of burnt August grass and is as quiet as an ocean breeze. Near the back of the ragged rows of graves stands a headstone for a 16-year-old girl who died in 1975.

Until this summer, Linda Griffin was the last person killed in a car crash on this island in Casco Bay. Today, just down the hill from her grave, where the cemetery meets the road, there is another monument to early death - a new telephone pole.

At 1:15 a.m. on June 8 a Honda Accord carrying five young adults hit the old pole so hard that the pole broke.

The crash awoke ghosts from the island's past, shattered the tranquility of the present and created memories that will haunt the island and some of its residents for many years to come.

A beautiful 21-year-old woman with a powerful sense of adventure died. Two young men face manslaughter charges and the potential of time in prison.

The crash has raised questions about whether islanders drink too much. It also has some islanders wondering whether their community's isolation breeds a false sense of security that makes the ''laws of the mainland'' seem frivolous.

''These things aren't supposed to happen here, because this is Oz,'' said the Rev. Robert Leon, pastor at the island church. ''But of course that's not true. Perhaps the saddest part is that nobody was surprised.''

Great Chebeague Island is 4 miles long and 1 mile wide. About 350 people live on the island year-round. The population swells to 2,000 in the summer.

Only a 15-minute ferry ride separates the island from the mainland, but that's enough to give Chebeague its own speed - slow - and its own identity - independent. It's also enough to leave the island without a permanent police presence, except in the summer months.

The night of June 7 was the kind of night that makes island life intoxicating. A cool breeze rose off Casco Bay, stars sparkled in a clear sky, a small sliver of moon rose above the trees, leaving the island, and its roads, in darkness.

Brooke Olsen, Jeff Legere and Scott Belesca went to a party at the home of Brooke's brother, Mark. They were celebrating the completion of Mark's 42-foot lobster boat.

Brooke Olsen had helped build the boat, and enjoyed doing most anything that involved the sea. For four summers she had worked on lobster boats. Just the day before, she had come down from Walpole, where she was doing a summer internship at the Darling Marine Center.

Olsen came to love the sea while growing up in a house in Cumberland Foreside that overlooked Casco Bay. She impressed people with her captivating enthusiasm. One of her favorite expressions was just to shout ''Yes!'' while tossing her arms above her head.

She cared deeply for the people around her, so much that at Christmastime, instead of buying presents, she would take the time to make gifts and cards.

One islander said ''she could have been a Hollywood model, but she had no use for that,'' while another said she ''was the kind of person who when you met her you felt like you'd known her forever.''

Her father, Frank Olsen, said, ''She was not interested in material things. She was interested in learning, teaching, laughing, love, peace.''

Legere and Belesca were known to islanders as good kids. Their families had lived on the island for many years. Legere, 22, worked as a sternman on a lobster boat. Belesca, 26, worked for a construction company on the mainland.

The two were not known as troublemakers, said Joe Charron, police chief in the town of Cumberland, which includes Chebeague.

But both had had brushes with the law. A week earlier, Legere was arrested on the island on a charge of drunken driving. He pleaded innocent, and the case is pending.

Belesca was cited for driving to endanger in Falmouth in 1995. He paid a $500 fine.

The three knew each other well, and Legere and Olsen were especially good friends. They both graduated in the class of 1994 from Greely High School.

Olsen's senior quote was: ''Help me push myself - beyond what I know. Let me challenge myself. Just give me room to grow.''

Legere's quote was: ''Hey, keep smilin'.''

From party to inn's bar

Mark Olsen's party ended around 10:30 p.m. Some people drove from there to the bar at the Chebeague Island Inn. They sat beneath a ceiling lined with fish nets and lobster buoys and looked out on the lights of Cousins Island across the bay.

Around 1 a.m., closing time, the group left the bar. Legere climbed into his Honda with Olsen in the passenger seat and three friends - Amy Sidor, Matthew Stromgren and Mark Wilson - in the back.

Belesca got into his Ford Escort.

Witnesses told police that as the drivers pulled away from the inn's dirt parking lot, they were ''playing leapfrog,'' passing each other.

They sped down North Road, one of the island's two main roads. There would have been little, if any, traffic.

Golf carts, bicycles and sneakers are the preferred modes of travel on Chebeague. Cars are so scarce on North Road, even during the day, that someone has nailed a basketball net to a telephone pole near the cemetery. The road serves as the court.

The only threat to the people in the two cars came from themselves.

The cars went well over the 35 mph speed limit, perhaps more than 50. As they neared the cemetery, the right front bumper of the Escort collided with the Honda's rear driver's-side door.

Passengers in the Honda were scared. Stromgren yelled, ''Let me out!'' Olsen screamed at Legere to slow down, according to investigators.

The cars crossed paths. The Honda began to spin. It slid from the right side of the road toward the cemetery on the left. It twisted nearly 180 degrees and slammed into the telephone pole.

Rescue squad alerted

Marlene Bowen was sleeping when she got the phone call from the emergency dispatch center. Bowen is the leader of the island's rescue squad.

She was dressed and in her rescue vehicle in minutes. She has a lot of experience responding to emergencies. She began training 22 years ago, soon after her daughter, Linda Griffin, died in a car crash.

Griffin was in a car driven by 21-year-old Michael Hall. The car slid off North Road and hit two trees, about 100 feet from Bowen's driveway and a mile from the cemetery. Hall died at the scene. Griffin died in the hospital 10 days later. After the crash, Bowen became committed to providing the island with modern rescue services.

When she arrived at the cemetery in the early morning on June 8, she wasn't thinking of her daughter buried 50 yards away, or feeling sorrow for the young woman bleeding and unconscious in the front passenger seat of the Honda. She was just focused on the task at hand.

''Nothing will ever make me feel like I did when I lost my daughter,'' Bowen said. ''I just do what has to be done.''

Bowen talked briefly with Jeffrey Soper, a Cumberland police officer stationed on the island at the time. She learned that Olsen's was apparently the only severe injury. Belesca and his Escort were fine. In fact, he had driven away soon after the crash to call police.

Bowen walked to the Honda. The passenger door was caved in, hard against the telephone pole. Shattered glass littered the inside of the car. Legere was still inside with Olsen, holding her and crying.

''Please, Brooke. Talk to me. Talk to me,'' he said, according to Bowen.

Olsen was bleeding from a cut on the right side of her forehead. Her breathing was shallow. Rescue workers sawed off the roof of the Honda and slid her out on a board. They drove her to the ferry, which brought her to the mainland where an ambulance was waiting to bring her to the hospital.

She remained at Maine Medical Center for 16 days. She never regained consciousness. She died on June 24.

Two young men indicted

On Aug. 7, after a long police investigation, Legere and Belesca were indicted in Cumberland County Superior Court. Legere faces a charge of manslaughter and five other charges, including driving drunk.

Three and a half hours after the accident, Legere's blood alcohol content was measured at 0.13 percent, well over the state limit of 0.08 percent, according to court documents.

Belesca faces a charge of manslaughter and three other charges. He is not charged with driving drunk.

The two will likely be arraigned in court sometime in the next couple of weeks. A trial could begin in the next few months. Manslaughter carries a penalty of as much as 20 years in prison.

The Legere and Belesca families declined to be interviewed for this article. Through their lawyer, the Legeres said their deepest sympathy goes out to the Olsen family.

Islanders 'devastated'

The island has not recovered from the accident, and may not for many years. Leon said that tragedy hits small communities harder than most, because ''everybody is involved. There are no bystanders.''

At the island's annual July 4 party, few people celebrated. Usually, more than 100 people attend. This year only 50 showed up, and most didn't stay for long.

''Everybody was just devastated,'' said Ed Doughty, who owns the island market.

''I feel deep sympathy for the family,'' said Bowen. ''I know what they are going through.''

The accident has caused some to look at the community and wonder if changes are needed. Leon said he plans to bring in a drug and alcohol counselor to talk to his congregation.

He said the accident was not an aberration. He said there is a lot of drinking on the island, accompanied by a false sense of freedom to do as one pleases.

''Part of the island freedom is that there's a feeling that nobody is out there, so who can you hurt,'' Leon said.

Charron said he is considering instituting some stricter law enforcement, particularly trying to have some contact with people before they drink and drive.

For the Olsen family, any changes will arrive too late.

''We will never, ever recover from this,'' said Frank Olsen, looking out from his porch on the bay his daughter loved.

- Alan Clendenning and Sarah Ragland, staff writers, contributed to this article.

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