SEAL COVE, Maine — In the dying hours of 1997, in the bleak and black Maine night, Thomas Varnum drank half a bottle of liquor, propped a shotgun between his legs and blasted off the top of his head.
There were few mourners.
"It may be a terrible thing to say, but I don't think it's a big loss," said David Farley, a lobsterman who lives down the road.
Not that he knew Varnum well. Not many people around here did. Varnum had moved into the small apartment over Tim Butler's garage in October, just a couple of months after he came to Mount Desert Island.
Nobody paid much attention until Dec. 29, when sheriff's deputies arrived on Kelley Town Road with fliers bearing Varnum's mug shot and his history: He had been convicted of gross sexual assault.
It didn't say precisely what he had done. It didn't say he had served his time in prison and had been free for a year and a half.
But in the spirit of Megan's Law--the nationwide movement to ensure that no community should unknowingly harbor a molester--local officials publicized Varnum's past.
Few residents saw the fliers. Most of them weren't home when they were distributed. Farley says he didn't learn about Varnum's crimes until later, and the facts unnerved him; he has a 15-year-old daughter who often walked past the house where Varnum lived.
"I'd a killed him if he'd a touched my daughter," Farley said. Of course, he was speaking theoretically. By that time, Varnum had killed himself.
Local interest came and went. "People die here all the time--by sickness, at sea, in accidents," said Alison Price, chairman of the Tremont Board of Selectmen.
But no one had ever died by Megan's Law--by the fear that they would be hounded forever for the crimes of the past.
If, in fact, that is what killed Thomas Varnum.
Mount Desert Island is best known as a summer playground--favored by the Rockefellers, renowned for the beauty of Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor.
But there is another side of Mount Desert Island, more typical of Downeast Maine. Many of the 10,000 year-round residents struggle. They lobster or fish, work construction, take odd jobs.
Richard Donovan runs Acadia Muffler and Brake. A bear of a man with gray-blond, shoulder-length hair and a full beard, he employed the 31-year-old Varnum as a mechanic on weekends. He was, he says, Varnum's best friend.
"He loved it down here. He loved the island," Donovan said. "He just liked the people down here. They left him alone."
Is it true that you met in prison?
"I won't talk about that. And I'll tell you what I told another reporter: If you print that, I'll sue you."
An hour later, Donovan was talking all about how he was convicted of sexually assaulting a stepdaughter, a charge that he emphatically denies.
Yes, he says, he met Varnum in prison. No, he insists, he did not know Varnum was a sex offender--Varnum claimed he was convicted of passing bad checks and beating his wife. Donovan says he believed him.
When Varnum got out, in June 1996, he worked for a mechanic in Bangor but spent his weekends at Donovan's shop in Tremont. He was alone. While he was in prison, his wife divorced him and moved to North Carolina with their daughter.
In August, Varnum took a construction job in Tremont and moved into Donovan's house, next to the shop.
"As far as I'm concerned, he was a good kid," Donovan said. "He never bothered anybody. He was a funny kid--a real comical kind of guy."
With that, he came out from behind the counter and tracked down a battered photo album. Here's a picture of Varnum sitting in a rear seat yanked from a car, a V-6 engine in the wheelbarrow in front of him. Here's another of Varnum, feigning unconsciousness on the driveway, his head on a pompon, a cane on the ground next to him.
"All he was trying to do was to get on with his life," Donovan said. "He made a mistake. Anybody can make a mistake. You can make a mistake."
But can Varnum's crimes be described as a single blunder?
"This wasn't just a case where a mistake was made," said Det. John Burke, who arrested Varnum in 1992 in Bowdoinham, 150 miles to the south. "It wasn't a crime of opportunity, where, say, a drug user under the influence abuses a kid."
The Varnum Burke remembers is not a lovable clown. The Varnum he remembers was a cunning sexual predator, a big guy--6 feet, 200 pounds--who lured two 9-year-old boys to his house by asking them to do yardwork.
"Courting was taking place, or at least the child's trust was being won," Burke said. Varnum gave the kids clothes, toys, friendship. At some point, Varnum conducted a "blood-brothers ceremony." He and the boys pricked themselves and allowed their blood to intermingle. Later, after he was arrested, investigators found typewritten "contracts" listing the boys' names and birth dates.
Over six months in 1992, Varnum repeatedly had sex with one of the boys. He was grooming the other boy, he later told Burke, but ran out of time.