Karen and Kevin Wood were newcomers to the Bangor, Maine, area—”blow-ins,” as some locals derisively refer to the young professionals who have pushed back the forests with their paved roads and upscale developments. Donald Rogerson was a third-generation native of the area. They lived in neighboring towns, but they had never met—until that terrible instant when Rogerson put a bullet into Karen Wood’s chest.
It was a crisp November day two years ago. Fifteen minutes earlier, Karen had been on the phone with a neighbor discussing gunshots, presumably from deer hunters nearby. Leaving her twin daughters, Laura and Lindsey, 1, safely in the house, she grabbed a bluejacket and white mittens and walked fewer than 50 yards toward the back of her property. Sixty yards away, Rogerson, a hunter with at least 25 seasons’ experience, fired his Remington, 30-06 at what he later said was a buck. Then he said he saw two “flags,” the white underside of a deer’s tail raised in flight, and fired again. Hurrying over to mark his “kill,” he found Karen Wood lying on the ground. The white flags had been Karen’s mittens. Peter Anderson, his hunting companion that day, heard Rogerson cry out, “I’ve shot a human being! Oh, God! Why does God allow this to happen?” Rogerson saw the wound in her chest and tried to stop the bleeding with some kind of compress. It was too late.
Maine, which annually licenses more than 200,000 hunters, averages two hunting fatalities a year, but this one aroused emotions that none other had, dividing the Bangor community. Two weeks ago the acquittal of Rogerson on a charge of manslaughter inflamed emotions anew. Says former supermarket owner Doug Brown, voicing a common native sentiment: “If [Karen Wood] had been living here for any length of time, I think she would have been better educated as to the proper attire.” Others have objected to blaming the victim. Wrote Dan Namowitz, a Bangor Daily News editor: “The attitude seems to be: ‘We were here first, you moved in later. We saw a deer and shot at it, you dressed wrong and got hit.’ ”
At bottom is the continuing tension between natives and newcomers. “The blowins, if you will, see their role as the park ranger and the locals as the naive critters of the forest,” says Bangor Mayor Tom Sawyer. “And the big park ranger has to look out for the little critters so [they] do not foul their own nest.”
It was ironic that Karen Wood, 37, should have become the focus of this anguished debate. Thanksgiving dinners at her parents” home in Binghamton, N.Y., were routinely delayed because the men were out in the woods hunting. Kevin, 38, was also an occasional hunter.
The third of seven children, Karen Veninsky graduated from Catholic Central High School in 1969, then took jobs in a department store and as a waitress while attending Broome Community College. She had known Kevin Wood from high school, and after he started attending the State University at Binghamton, they began dating. They were married in August of 1975 and in 1978 moved to Iowa.
According to their friends, they were a perfectly matched couple—family oriented and hardworking. She was a bank loan officer while he earned his Ph.D. in pediatric psychology from the University of Iowa in 1987. In July 1988 they moved to Bangor. Kevin took a job as a child psychologist at the Eastern Maine Medical Center. They wanted to be closer to their families in Binghamton. “Maine was kind of a compromise place,” says Karcn”s sister Sharon Young. “It was eight hours away instead of 16.”
After two months, the Woods bought a moderately priced Cape in a new development called Treadwell Acres in Hermon, a little town outside Bangor. “It just shows you how crazy life can be and how quickly your dreams come true can be changed into nightmares,” says Kevin Wood, looking back at that blissful moment in their lives when they were busy with wallpaper and furniture and settling in. He recalls a large rock that sits in front of the Hermon house. “Karen and I talked about the girls sitting out there waiting for the bus to come pick them up,” he says.
Don Rogerson, 47, never had grand ambitions. A plainspoken man, he was born in Bangor, the son of a roofer. He was on the rifle team in high school. He served for two years in the Navy, studied produce marketing at the University of Maine for two years, and eventually took a job in a Bangor supermarket. He married his twin sister’s best friend, Sandra, and they reared three children—Joseph, 22, Marcia, 20, and John, 12.
Not long after the accident, Rogerson made a $ 122,000 out-of-court settlement of Kevin Wood’s wrongful-death suit. His homeowner’s insurance paid only $100,000, plus $2,000 in medical benefits. Rogerson made up the difference with a $20,000 second mortgage on his house. A Little League coach and scoutmaster, Rogerson was a popular man in Bangor. In the wake of the tragedy, customers would make a point of coming by to offer him support. “He’s probably one of the most sensitive, sincere persons I’ve ever known,” says Brown, who once owned the market where Rogerson has worked for 22 years. Says Rogerson: “I have tried to live a model life. I try very much to live by the Scout law.”
Time and again he expressed his sorrow about Karen’s death. He doubts he will ever hunt again. “I just wish that there was some way that they can understand,” he says. “I don’t ask them to forgive me—just some understanding that I am a real person, that I have feelings and emotions. I’ll never forget it.” For two years, he says, he has not slept more than three hours at a time. He was disturbed by the frequent pictures of Karen and her twin babies in the news. “I have a family too,” he says.
After a grand jury failed to indict him in 1988, the case finally came to trial in mid-October and lasted a week. Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Hjelm, charging Rogerson with reckless and criminal negligence, pointed out that, on the day of the accident, Rogerson had parked his truck at the end of the street where the Woods lived. He was 306 feet from their house, but 286 feet from a neighbor’s house—short of the 300-foot limit specified by Maine fire-arms law—when he took the fatal shot. Game wardens found no evidence of deer near where Karen stood, although defense lawyer Lewis Vafiades suggested the crime scene had not been kept intact and that tracks could have been obliterated by investigators’ footprints.
The jury of eight women and four men deliberated nine hours. When forewoman Roberta Flynn stood, her arms crossed, and said, “Not guilty,” the packed gallery was stunned. Seconds later, Rogerson’s wife, Sandra, his twin sister, Donna, and his children began to sob with relief. “We felt that there was no proof that there was no deer in the area,” juror Kelli Hurley said afterward, seeming to give little weight to Rogerson’s proximity to residences. As they sat in Miller’s Restaurant in Bangor, one of Karen’s brothers and a sister heard three women discussing the verdict in a booth just behind them. “Don Rogerson has suffered enough,” said one of the women. “Karen Wood didn’t suffer.”
A few hours later, a dazed and disappointed Kevin Wood flew back to Bettendorf, Iowa, where he had returned shortly after Karen was killed, to be home with his daughters. “They give my life purpose,” he says. “And, also, quite frankly, they are what I have left of Karen. I see her in them frequently. That’s both a joy and a pain.”
—Ken Gross, Stephen Sawicki in Bangor