BAR HARBOR – The sole identified suspect in the brutal January beating death of an elderly Southwest Harbor woman is a former human services caseworker who has lived a troubled life.
Michelle Mills, 37, was arrested last week and charged with the murder of Jacqueline Evans, 83, who apparently was bludgeoned with a ceramic gargoyle and left lying to die in pools of blood in her kitchen.
But Mills’ problems began long before her arrest.
Her childhood was a difficult one. Her mother, Jean Young, and adoptive father, David N. Grant, married as teenagers. The marriage was rocky, according to Young’s family friend and attorney Steven Juskewitch.
“It was a terrible time for Jean,” he said earlier this week.
Grant has a record of violence that stretches from convictions of assault and rape in Hancock County in the 1980s to his conviction last month for the 2004 murder of his elderly mother-in-law. He was not an easy husband or father to have, the attorney said.
“David Grant is a person who has earned the fear that he’s generated in other people,” Juskewitch said. “[Michelle] did not get along with her [adoptive father].”
Despite the turmoil at home, friends and teachers who remember Michelle during her grammar school years recall her as a good student and a nice girl. She joined the swim team and wrote poetry printed in the school’s literary booklet.
“I’ve known her pretty much since she was a little girl. She was the sweetest thing you ever saw,” Peter Alley, a family friend and former neighbor, said this week. “I find it hard to believe she’s capable of that.”
Mills made a particularly thoughtful gesture this January, Alley said – the same month Evans was attacked and killed.
Alley’s 17-year-old son, Blaine, was killed last summer after a high-speed car crash, and Mills wrote a letter of condolence that meant a lot.
“She said, ‘words can’t say enough,'” Alley said. “It was a sweet letter … a two-page letter. It was genuine.”
Alley figured that his son’s death may have struck Mills close to home as her younger half brother Matthew died in an accident at age 17. Her younger sister, Angeline, who lives in Vermont, was a high school basketball star, classmates remembered.
When Mills was 12 years old, her mother and adoptive father were divorced. She unofficially changed her last name, calling herself “MacLeod” after her biological father, Robin MacLeod, about the time she entered high school, Juskewitch said.
By her freshman and sophomore years at Mount Desert Island Regional High School, yearbook photos show a pretty, thoughtful-looking girl with a cloud of dark hair. According to the yearbooks and Juskewitch, she participated in softball, cheerleading, junior varsity basketball and the Gilbert and Sullivan musical “The Pirates of Penzance,” playing one of the singing policemen.
Burt Barker, who was a guidance counselor and basketball coach at the high school when Michelle was a student, remembers her, too.
“She was happy-go-lucky, always smiling, very happy,” he said. “Just a normal high school kid.”
Barker, like many members of the close-knit communities of Mount Desert Island, knows Michelle’s mother and current stepfather, Jean and Gordon Young, well. Her mother is a nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital and her stepfather is a retired bank officer.
“They are very well thought of,” he said. “Her mom was a classmate of mine … her stepfather and real dad are just great people. I’m sure it’s hard for them.”
Last week’s news that Michelle Mills was charged with murder was a “surprise to most of us,” he said.
“It’s been bad luck. Bad things have happened. It’s hard,” Barker said. “Most people who know the family just really feel for them and hope for the best.”
Mills disappeared from the yearbooks after her sophomore year. She dropped out of school, but earned her general equivalency diploma in 1987, the year she would have graduated. She worked at Epi Sub and Pizza in downtown Bar Harbor, former classmates recalled.
During this time her adoptive father, David Grant, remarried and made headlines when he was accused of gross sexual misconduct with a 15-year-old girl and convicted in 1988 of attacking his estranged wife.
During the trial, the judge told Grant that the night his estranged wife “experienced at your hands was more horrifying than anything I have ever experienced in fiction.”
But Michelle Mills apparently had moved on. She attended the University of Maine beginning in the spring of 1992. She earned solid grades and majored in social work, according to university officials. She graduated in December 1997 and began work as a human services caseworker in Bangor immediately after graduation. She worked there until July 1999, officials at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services said.
By then, Mills had married Peter Mills, an islander more than a decade her senior, in an August 1995 ceremony at the Main Sail restaurant overlooking bucolic Northeast Harbor. The couple – who have no children together – moved to Sarasota, Fla., where she volunteered at the local rape crisis project, according to Juskewitch. Officials at the project did not return phone calls to verify this information.
More trouble, though, was on its way. The couple moved back to Maine in 2004 and separated shortly thereafter, according to the attorney. They divorced in March after a tumultuous year during which Peter Mills himself was charged with a serious crime.
In February, not long after Evans’ slaying and the start of the criminal investigation, the Southwest Harbor man was indicted on 22 counts that included charges of gross sexual assault for incidents that allegedly occurred last summer. The indictment alleged that Mills drugged and raped the female victims. He has a co-defendant, Stephanie Stark, 44, of Bar Harbor.
Bar Harbor Police Chief Nate Young said that the investigation of these incidents is continuing.
“I won’t confirm or deny whether [Michelle Mills] is part of that investigation at this time,” he said.
Mills now is at the Hancock County Jail, awaiting a bail hearing. She pleaded not guilty earlier this week to the murder charge.
According to Juskewitch, Mills asserts that the $11,000 that the victim paid her last November for caring for Dari Burke was used for paying off bills, fixing her car and being “very generous with friends and family at Christmastime.”
The attorney suggested that the prosecution’s case may be missing a motive and that it wouldn’t make sense for Mills to kill her employer’s benefactor.
“This is a lot like killing the goose that laid the golden egg,” he said. “There are more questions than answers at this point.”