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Public safety's voice of Maine for a generation set to retire

Camden resident been public information officer for 32 years
By Stephen Betts | Jun 25, 2020
Maine Public Safety spokesman Stephen McCausland

Camden — Stephen McCausland has reported on more than 500 homicides, 500 fatal fires and thousands of car crashes during his 32 years as the public information officer for the Maine Department of Public Safety.

But a law enforcement case from the fall of 1975, when he was a news director for a radio station, may have been his most memorable case. In that instance, he and a Rockland-based newspaper reporter interviewed three Maine State Prisoners who were holding a guard at knife-point inside a wing of the old Maine State Prison.

To get to the interview, he and the late Bangor Daily News Bureau Chief Ted Sylvester had to step over the body of an inmate who was killed during the prison uprising.

McCausland will be retiring Tuesday, June 30. He spoke Thursday about his career.

"It's been a great ride. I'm honored to have been the messenger for the men and women of public safety," McCausland said.

McCausland grew up in Brunswick. He worked for eight years as news director for Bath radio station WJTO. After radio, he sold insurance for a decade.

Then the job as public safety information officer opened and he applied for the post. He applied a decade earlier when he worked at the radio station, but did not get the job.

McCausland as a younger reporter became familiar with law enforcement, covering crimes, fires and car crashes. The next time around, in 1988, he was successful.

"I looked at myself and I thought I could contribute," McCausland said.

The cases that stick out to McCausland during his time with the public safety department include the 2003 arsenic poisonings in New Sweden, the motor vehicle crash in the Allagash waterway in 2002 that killed 14 migrant workers, and the explosion in Farmington last fall.

But topping those was the disappearance of Ayla Reynolds in 2011.

"I had hoped I would make the announcement of the case being resolved. But it will be resolved someday," McCausland said.

The disappearance of Ayla was the largest police investigation ever conducted in Maine and is an active investigation. The child has not been found.

Ayla was 20 months old and staying with her father, Justin DiPietro, at his mother’s house on Violette Avenue in Waterville when he reported her missing Dec. 17, 2011. In September 2017, a probate judge ruled that the child was dead, opening up the right of the child's mother to sue DiPetro for wrongful death.

Prior to joining the public safety department, the prison hostage taking was the most memorable event of his career.

On the day of the prison hostage crisis, McCausland was reporting on a soccer game in Brunswick on a Saturday afternoon, taking video for WCSH 6 television station. A state trooper was also at the game when he was alerted about the takeover at the prison. The inmates demanded to be interviewed by the media about their grievances.

The trooper asked McCausland if he would be one of the interviewers and he agreed. McCausland was escorted to the prison in Thomaston by the state trooper. McCausland and Sylvester were allowed to go into the wing that the inmates seized. The state police remained outside the wing.

The two reporters had to step over the body of the inmate who was stabbed to death and then thrown from the upper level of the wing to the floor below.

McCausland handed one of the three inmates a tape recorder as another held a knife against the throat of the guard. The then radio station news director also turned on the lighting for the video camera.

"Before we had gone in, we were told that if things started to go bad, to drop down and police would come in," McCausland said.

He knew that meant they would come in firing guns and he kept looking around the concrete walls, realizing there would be ricocheting bullets flying around if things went bad.

Once the prisoners spoke, the situation de-escalated and they freed the guard and the inmates were arrested, tried and convicted.

"That was a major story. I'm glad and honored that my small part could help resolve it," McCausland said.

Coincidentally, the assistant attorney general who handled the prison hostage case was John Atwood. The then prosecutor told McCausland that he wanted the film taken of the inmates.

"I told him, not until it airs," McCausland said. 13 years later, Atwood was public safety commissioner and appointed McCausland to the public information officer post.

Technology changed the job. He recalled there was no fax machine in the public safety office. He spoke to Atwood during the first week or two and was told to go out and buy one.

The fax posed some consternation with members of the media, since he could only fax to one news organization at a time. He said it could take 10 minutes from when he sent news releases to the first media member to the last one.

In the 1990s came personal computers in which news releases could be sent out via email. Now, in addition to emails, there are social media postings.

McCausland has had a front seat view to the change in the media over the past 50 years. There are fewer newspapers, and fewer reporters both in print and television. There also use to be many radio stations with strong newsrooms but now radio newsrooms are virtually gone.

As for the future, McCausland, who moved to Camden three years ago, said he looks forward to spending the summer on the lake without getting telephone calls throughout the day and night.

He said when he hears of police investigations in the future, he may have a good idea of what is happening internally with law enforcement, but he will have wait for the news to be released.

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