Through a cold, steady drizzle, several RCMP officers escorted a handcuffed mill worker past 400 noisy onlookers outside the courthouse in Newcastle, N.B., a rural town of 1,755, in the northeast of the province. Facing charges of first and second degree murder, attempted murder and sexual assault, Kenneth Esson, a slight, curly-haired 21-year-old dressed in blue jeans and a checked shirt, looked straight ahead. He did not respond to the jeers of a group of teenagers—many of whom had been friends of the young victims in the series of crimes that has horrified communities in the Miramichi River region. Said Gracia Savoie, a 42-year-old housewife whose husband, Ernest, had found the battered body of 19-year-old Therese MacLaughlin two days earlier: “We were shocked.”
MacLaughlin—known as Big Red because of her long red hair—was last seen leaving a local bar alone at 10 p.m. on Sept. 21. The next day Savoie, a 50-year-old unemployed woodsman, discovered her body in a gravel pit. The site was about two kilometres from the victim’s home in the village of Lower Neguac, where the single mother had lived with her six-month-old son, Daniel, and her parents. According to police, MacLaughlin had been beaten to death. Said Gracia Savoie: “Ernest didn’t realize it was Therese. He didn’t go close.”
MacLaughlin’s death came six weeks after another brutal killing which raised fears among Miramichi residents that a killer was living in their midst. In the early evening of Aug. 10, 13-year-old Tara Prokosh and her 14-year-old friend Gina Guitard left Prokosh’s home in Russellville, 30 km from Newcastle, to ride their bikes. At 6 a.m. the next day, Guitard’s parents discovered Prokosh’s sexually assaulted and stabbed body on a dirt road a few kilometres from her home. Guitard, who was also sexually assaulted, suffered multiple stab wounds but recovered. Before the murders, people in both small communities had rarely bothered to lock their doors. But Newcastle Mayor John McKay said that anxiety there quickly heightened. “Parents are more attentive to what their kids are doing,” he added.
For his part, Esson, who worked at the Miramichi Pulp and Paper Mill in Newcastle, stood quietly and without expression in the crowded courtroom while provincial court Judge Andrew Stymiest read the charges. Before his next court appearance, scheduled for Oct. 1, Esson was to be held in a Moncton jail. At MacLaughlin’s funeral last week, one of her classmates said that she has been afraid to leave her house at night. Even the arrest of a suspect, she said, provided little consolation, particularly since she knew both the victim and the accused. It was an uneasiness shared by many in the small communities along the Miramichi.
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