Husband of woman killed 25 years ago urges hunters to use caution in Maine woods

Many readers of a certain age will read the headline above and immediately recall the 1988 incident it refers to.

Those who weren’t born yet might not. But add the words “white mittens” to the equation, and they, too, have likely heard of the infamous case that took place 25 years ago.

Kevin Wood doesn’t want anybody to forget.

And that’s why he reached out this week to touch base from his home in Iowa City, Iowa.

Kevin Wood (right), husband of Karen Wood at press conference Oct. 18, 1990 following trial of Donald Rogerson for the hunter shooting death of Karen Wood in Hermon. (BANGOR DAILY NEWS FILE PHOTO)

“You may or may not be aware of the fact that [Nov. 15] marks the 25th anniversary of my wife’s untimely death at the hands of a local deer hunter,” Wood wrote in an email to the BDN. “I realize that many of your readers are either too young or have not lived long enough in the area to remember the events surrounding the shooting death of Karen Wood in Hermon on Nov. 15, 1988.”

That’s probably true.

A few key things to recall: Karen Wood was shot in her own backyard. News reports at the time suggested that she may have been hanging laundry on the line at the time, or that she may have been trying to warn hunters that they were too close to houses.

And she was wearing mittens with white palms, which some said may have been mistaken for the tail, or “flag,” of a fleeing deer.

A hunter, Donald Rogerson of Bangor, was on the scene. He said he shot at a deer. One grand jury refused to indict him. A second did, but after standing trial he was acquitted of the charges.

And the saddest part of all: Some local Mainers, in letters to the editor and in conversations around their towns, blamed Karen Wood for her own death, saying that the mother of young twins should have “known better” than to be close to the woods while not wearing orange clothing during deer season.

Five years ago, during an interview that Kevin Wood granted me, he admitted that he was stunned at the reaction of some locals, who seemed painfully provincial and eager to blame someone like his wife — a recent Maine transplant, or person “from away” — for her own death.

He recalled an incident that was still shocking, 20 years after his wife’s death.

“My friend or his wife were at a junior high school soccer match,” Kevin Wood said back in 2008. “Obviously the [Rogerson trial] was big news in Bangor. [The verdict] was announced over the loudspeaker and the crowd cheered.”

Kevin Wood didn’t understand.

Today, thankfully, many of us don’t, either. But that wasn’t the case in 1990, when the trial was held. Back then, things were different. Back then, it was more common for hunters to shoot other hunters in the woods during November.

How skewed were Maine’s hunting laws at the time? Consider this: According to former Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife deputy commissioner Paul Jacques, in a 2008 interview, the laws when Karen Wood was shot were a hodge-podge of inconsistency.

Shoot and wound somebody by hunting, Jacques said, and a hunter faced a mandatory 10-year license suspension. Shoot a moose illegally and you got a $2,000 fine.

“But if you [shot and killed a person] and you said you thought it was a deer when you shot them, it was a $200 fine and there wasn’t even any jail sentence imposed,” Jacques said.

The shooting of Karen Wood changed all that. New laws, including a target identification law, were passed. The responsibility for hunting safely was made a priority. The age-old “I thought it was a deer” excuse was no longer accepted.

Jacques told me back in 2008 that the Karen Wood shooting was the single most important incident that led to increased safety in the Maine woods. The numbers bear him out.

In the 20 years before Karen Wood’s death, 67 people were shot and killed in the Maine woods by hunters. In the 20 years since (including 1988, the year of year of her death), just 13 died.

Still, Kevin Wood knows that refocusing on safety can never be a bad thing.

“I would like to respectfully request that this year’s anniversary of her death be used to remind those engaged in hunting, as well as those living in and around areas hunted, of the fundamental rule of hunting and firearms safety,” Kevin Wood wrote. “That is to ‘be absolutely sure of your target beyond any doubt, and to be aware of the area beyond your target.’ I would also hope [any editorial or story] might underscore the principle that once a licensed hunter enters the woods, he or she bears the entire responsibility [for] where that bullet travels.”

Consider it underscored.

 Follow John Holyoke on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke
John Holyoke

About John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. Today, he's the Outdoors editor for the BDN, a job that allows him to meet up with Maine outdoors enthusiasts in their natural habitat. The stories he gathers provide fodder for his columns, and this blog.