2015-11-20 / Front Page

Seeking justice for ‘The Girl on the Bridge’

Funds from craft fair will assist in the making of documentary
By Duke Harrington Staff Writer


Donna Merrill-Walls and Rik O’Neal take a seat on a bench dedicated to Mary Ellen Tanner in Kennebunk’s Rotary Park. Merrill-Wells, a high school friend of Tanner, has organized the Mary Merry Christmas Craft Fair, to be held from 9 a.m .to 4 p.m. on Satruday, Dec. 5, in the Kennebunk Town Hall auditorium, to raise money for “The Girl on the Bridge,” a film directed by O’Neal, about Tanner’s unsolved 1978 murder. Left, Donna Merrill Walls and her niece, Hannah Hussey, stand near the Mary Tanner bench with details on the first Mary Merry Christmas Craft Fair. (Duke Harrington photos) Donna Merrill-Walls and Rik O’Neal take a seat on a bench dedicated to Mary Ellen Tanner in Kennebunk’s Rotary Park. Merrill-Wells, a high school friend of Tanner, has organized the Mary Merry Christmas Craft Fair, to be held from 9 a.m .to 4 p.m. on Satruday, Dec. 5, in the Kennebunk Town Hall auditorium, to raise money for “The Girl on the Bridge,” a film directed by O’Neal, about Tanner’s unsolved 1978 murder. Left, Donna Merrill Walls and her niece, Hannah Hussey, stand near the Mary Tanner bench with details on the first Mary Merry Christmas Craft Fair. (Duke Harrington photos) KENNEBUNK — Donna Merrill Walls has no doubt that somewhere in Kennebunk lives someone who knows who killed her friend.

In the early morning hours of Saturday, July 8, 1978, Mary Ellen Tanner was seen on the Mousam River Bridge along Route 1 in downtown Kennebunk. Tanner, then 18 and heading into her senior year of high school, was hitchhiking to her home on Cat Mousam Road after attending a beach party in Kennebunkport earlier that night.

Friends who were gassing up at a nearby convenience store declined to give her a ride, saying they were heading in a different direction, but, feeling bad, soon turned back to look for Mary in the area of the bridge, where they had seen her last. But by then, Mary was nowhere to be found.

Two days later, Mary’s body was found dumped in a secluded field in Lyman. She had been violently raped and bludgeoned to death with some blunt object. Other reports have said a chainsaw chain was employed in the slaying.

Either way, between that trauma and two days left in the hot summer sun, Mary’s body was so badly mangled, dental records had to be used to identify her corpse. It took three days – days area residents spent on edge, wondering who the dead girl might be – to put a name to the body.

More chilling, a subsequent autopsy showed Mary had been three months pregnant at the time of her death.

“Not a day goes by that I don’t think about her,” said Merrill-Walls, on Friday, as she sat on a bench on Rotary Park dedicated to Mary, located just yards from where she was last seen alive.

Merrill-Walls had been at the party that night and remembers Mary, a popular majorette, dancing with a set of sparklers.

“She was just a sweet person,” Merrill Walls said. “She didn’t dislike anybody. She was always just smiles and giggles. It was giggles all the time. She was just wonderful.”

Merrill-Walls is convinced a local person was responsible, not some random person who happened to be driving by. The field where Mary’s body was found, although known as Gracie Evens Airfield, was seldom used and not easy to access.

“It has to be someone from around here, because only the townies know where that field is,” she said.

Now, 37 years later, Merrill-Walls is doing what she can to help finally bring Mary’s killer to justice. She has organized a craft fair, dubbed the Mary Merry Holiday Fair, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 5, in the Kennebunk Town Hall auditorium. All proceeds from the fair will go to help fund “The Girl on the Bridge,” a documentary film about Mary’s death, now in production.

The film is directed by Rik O’Neal of Gorham. A reporter and editor who logged 31 years at the Portland Press Herald, O’Neal was working freelance when, in 2013, he decided to tell Mary’s story on a local newspaper. At the time, there was a renewed sense of interest in Mary’s story, fueled in part by the 35th anniversary of her death, and the formation of an advocacy group, Justice for Mary, which launched a Facebook campaign to find her killer.

“It started out as a 450-word story and quickly grew to more than 3,000,” O’Neal said.

“The thing that drew me to the story were all these stories about this wonderful child who was so non-judgemental – she loved everyone, she was cared about by everyone, she was comfortable in any social situation – that she left such an impression on her friends and the people in this town that they haven’t forgotten her, even after all this time.

“That intrigued me as a storyteller and it occurred to me we might want to make a documentary about it,” O’Neal said.

“Well, I think he just fell in love with her,” Merrill-Walls offered. “Even though he never knew her, he fell right in love with her the same as all of us did who grew up with her.”

Shooting for the documentary began in September 2013, the day Mary’s bench was dedicated. So far, a trailer has been completed – it can be viewed online at www.themarytannerstory.com – but the finished product is still a work in progress, two years later. The film has a budget of $125,000. To date, O’Neal has poured $14,000 of his own money into the project.

“That’s where I come in,” said Merrill Walls. “I don’t know how much we can raise, but it all helps. I believe this movie can put Mary’s sprit to rest. It can help us all find closure at last.”

Merrill-Walls says she believes that with enough publicity, some new detail will emerge, some new corroborating testimony made, that will crack the case.

But money has not been the only obstacle in getting Mary’s story committed to film. There’s also been a relative dearth of people willing to talk about her death.

“Up to this point, some of the key witnesses have been unwilling to come forward and speak to be on camera. One of them won’t even speak to me off the record,” O’Neal says. “What people know about that time they’re holding very closely.”

Asked why that might be, O’Neal offers a theory, one based on his instincts as a journalist.

“I think people know who did it,” he says. “I think there are people who have information in this town, who could point the finger at the killer. Why they won’t do that, I can’t say.”

Still, O’Neal says his movie is not designed to find Mary’s killer.

“This is really about telling her story,” he said. “It’s about who she was, and who she might have become had she lived her life.”

Merrill-Walls says she’s hopeful that the Maine State Police’s new cold case squad will take up Mary’s case, but the unit has been slow to get up and running. Authorized and funded with $491,662 annually by the state legislature, a supervisor was just appointed this past week, while a search for staff is expected to be complete by December. Meanwhile, state Sen. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, who sponsored the bill that created the squad, called for a legislative hearing into the months-long delay its official launch.

But what cold case unit might be able to do, once up and running at full song, is unknown. Merrill-Walls says she’s heard that over the years, the evidence in Mary’s case file has been scattered, some of it lost.

However, O’Neal claims sources that tell him the state police still have DNA on file, material that can now be genetically tested in ways not available in 1978. Even so, the hope the crime can be solved by investigators seems far-fetched, he says.

“I think the state police dropped the ball on this,” O’Neal said. “I think this case was eminently solvable at the time, but now, I think it’s going to take someone coming forward with a confession.”

That confessor could be one of seven people, according to the suspect list O’Neal claims to have been told about. But Merrill-Walls, who’s been studying the case for a lot longer, dating from canvassing the airstrip site in the days after the slaying, says her list of probable killers has just two names on it.

It’s time, she said, to finally find Justice for Mary. And her unborn child.

“Really, it’s not just about Mary,” Merrill Walls says. “Remember, there were two lives lost. That’s just not acceptable to us. It’s time to get this solved. It’s time.”

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