Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Searching themselves: New book recounts the hunt for a woman and her killer

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The authors of Finding Amy: A True Story of Murder in Maine had no way of knowing their book about the search for Amy St. Laurent, who went missing, as the news reports ominously intoned, “after a night out in the Old Port” in 2001, would come out at a time when the Portland City Council was talking about how to control the nightlife in the city’s busiest district.

They didn’t know that it would come out just a few months after the Old Port disappearances of two other people — one of whom, Lynn Moran, was later discovered dead of no apparent foul play in the water near the Portland ferry terminal; the other, Siphat Chau, is still missing.

Joseph K. Loughlin, who is credited on the book’s cover with his former rank of captain (he is now a deputy chief of the Portland police), and Kate Clark Flora, a former Maine assistant attorney general, don’t directly address the issue of partying in the Old Port, but their book offers a law-enforcement officer’s view of Wharf Street.

After a lovely description of the Old Port — “a mecca for tourists, who . . . flock to the interesting shops and restaurants” — even Flora’s prose gets shrill: “At night, it also becomes a destination for another crowd. . . . Underage teens looking for life beyond the empty streets of their small towns rub elbows with bikers, college students, drug dealers, gangsters, and young professionals. Fights are common. Crowd control is a perennial problem, especially late in the evening as the bars and clubs close, releasing thousands of patrons who are drunk, rowdy, and uninhibited onto the narrow old streets. At closing time, the swarm of bodies on Wharf Street can become so dense in the summer months the uniformed cops find it difficult to see each other when they’re only 10 to 15 feet apart.”

The book veers back and forth between two voices, Loughlin’s play-by-play first-person recollections of the investigation, and Flora’s reporter style, explaining, giving context, sharing an outsider’s wonder at the dedication police officers have to bring to their jobs. Loughlin's tone is authentic and gives an interesting picture of the demands of everyday police life. But Flora's tone misses. Having set the stage, she then waits more than 60 pages to point out that — oh yes! — Amy St. Laurent didn’t disappear in the midsummer crush on Wharf Street, but in late October, and voluntarily left a bar on Middle Street, a far less-busy place in terms of crowds at closing time, for a house on Brighton Avenue.

But despite these shortcomings, the book is a strong read, with a compelling set of elements — it is, after all, a true-crime book — that will bring readers closer to the story behind the news coverage.

Loughlin, who headed the city's detective bureau at the time, defers credit even from himself: “The real heroes in this book are” Danny Young and Scott Harakles, the lead detectives on the case, who spent sleepless nights and countless hours searching for St. Laurent and her killer.

But the most riveting moment, by far, in the entire volume, is the recounting, in tight counterpoint, by Flora and, most compellingly, Loughlin, of the discovery of St. Laurent’s body.

The disbelief is almost raw, even years later, as Loughlin says, “I still can’t believe we found her.”

The fulfillment of the title, easily the most voyeuristic chapter of the book, comes only halfway through the narrative. Finding Amy quickly turns to the subject of convicting Amy’s killer, Jeffrey Gorman, who was arrested while on the lam in Alabanma four days after St. Laurent's body was found, and the story becomes a cautionary tale, of sorts — warning would-be criminals about the vast resources police can draw on, most strikingly their personal commitment to doing the job.

But the book also, and particularly in the endnotes, serves as a warning to women. Loughlin notes that sexual predators are drugging drinks in the Old Port, as in most other club districts, and sexual assaults are common, though fatal ones are still rare.

Finding Amy: A True Story of Murder in Maine (University Press of New England) | Captain Joseph K. Loughlin + Kate Clark Flora | May 12, 7 pm | Books Etc, 38 Exchange St, Portland | 207.774.0626 | May 18, 7 pm | Kennebunk Public Library, 112 Main St, Kennebunk | 207.985.2173

Amy St. Laurent Foundation | Box 664, Yarmouth, ME 04096 | supporting Rape Aggression Defense training + other programs receives a portion of the book-sales proceeds