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For 27 years, a small community in the woods of Maine was burglarized more than 1,000 times before finding the culprit. Who was the culprit behind these crimes?
The answer is stranger than you'd think...
In the summer of 1986, a bright 20-year-old named Christopher Thomas Knight was driving his brand new Subaru Brat through his home state of Maine. He reached a remote patch of wilderness but kept driving.
Eventually, he parked the car as deep in the woods as a car could reach. He left his keys behind, and walked away — slowly getting swallowed up by the endless woods around him.
The Art Of The Exit by Yahoo Finance is a true crime podcast that goes inside the most notorious heists in history. Listen here, and subscribe for a new episode coming next week.
Knight ended up in the North Pond area of Maine — a community packed full of vacation homes, cabins, and a summer camp that fed many. He got lost and had no idea where he was in comparison to where he began. He ate roadkill to survive, and would take vegetables from strangers’ gardens when he’d pass by. It became clear what he had to do to survive.
He began stealing from the homes, one by one. He would study the residents in the area to see when they would come and go from their homes and find the perfect time to break in. He began to memorize every step from his campsite to each of his prime locations.
The years continued to fly by, and he kept stealing and surviving. The more this happened, the more people in the community were talking about it. He was welcomed, and he was feared. No one knew who or what was breaking into their cabins. Some residents even began leaving a pencil and paper out for him, asking to write what he needed from the store so they could just buy it and he wouldn’t need to break in anymore. He never responded.
He was never violent in his thefts and it seemed some people didn’t mind helping the ghost survive — while others struggled to keep their peace of mind.
To hear the full story, listen to The Art Of The Exit.
This episode featured select quotes from Michael Finkel's interviews with Knight, which had been featured in The Guardian, GQ, and most notably, his book on Christopher titled The Stranger In The Woods: The Extraordinary Story Of The Last True Hermit.
Full transcript of the episode below:
Alex Sugg: (00:03) For 27 years, a small community in the woods of Maine were burglarized over 1000 times before finding the culprit. Who was this ghost that slipped in and out of these homes, grabbing food, liquor, and propane all of these years, and why did it take almost three decades to find him? The answer is stranger than you'd think. This is the story of Christopher Thomas Knight, the North Pond Hermit.
AS: (00:44) From Yahoo Finance, this is The Art Of The Exit. I'm Alex Sugg. In the summer of 1986, a bright 20-year-old named Christopher Thomas Knight was driving his brand new Subaru BRAT. It was white and had a similar frame to an old El Camino. Ronald Reagan was the sitting president at the time. The Challenger space-race shuttle disaster and the Chernobyl nuclear explosion had just taken place. It was a pretty heavy year. Chris was a mechanical thinker and technical in his skillset. He had worked a job installing alarm systems in cars and homes. He was always a great student growing up and had top marks in his classes. But he never had many friends and never really seemed to fit in. It seems Chris liked to be on his own, shuffling pieces together to solve a bigger puzzle. Maybe he liked observing the world around him a little bit more than actively participating in it.
AS: (01:50) On his drive, he decides to not stop by his parents' house. He just keeps driving north through the state of Maine where he had been raised. Eventually, he reaches a remote patch of wilderness. He kept driving upward. He found side road after side road and even drove through a trail. He was running out of gasoline and wasn't turning around. There was no going back at this point. He kept driving. Eventually, he parks the car. And I've spent a lot of time wondering about this moment and what exactly was running through his head. What made this young man drive all this way with no plan, no clear purpose or reason and no way of knowing exactly what was going to happen next? He stepped out of the car, left his keys behind, and walked away, slowly getting swallowed up by the endless woods around him.
AS: (02:54) Chris wandered around the forest for days. He got lost and had no idea where he was in comparison to where he began. He ate roadkill to survive and would take vegetables from strangers' gardens when he'd pass by. He had a strong moral compass and hated the idea of stealing. But as the days passed, his resistance faded away as the hunger grew heavier on his mind and body. He ended up in the North Pond area of Maine, a community packed full of vacation homes, cabins, and a summer camp who fed many. His pride began to melt away. And slowly but surely it became crystal clear what he had to do to survive.
AS: (03:41) He began to steal from the homes one by one. He used his knowledge from his previous job in security installation to bypass any attempts residents had made to stop break-ins. He would study the residents in the area to see when they would come and go from their homes and find the perfect time to break in. He began to memorize every step from his campsite to each of his prime locations. In an interview with the writer, Michael Finkel, Christopher said, "Every time I was very conscious that I was doing wrong. I took no pleasure in it. None at all. My adrenaline was spiking, my heart was soaring. My blood pressure was high and I was always scared when stealing, always. I wanted it over as quick as possible." As time went on, he got increasingly skilled at breaking in. He never left a mess and only took what he absolutely needed to survive.
AS: (04:35) According to what Knight told Finkel, his targeted area was spreading as well. He would even occasionally grab a canoe from an unoccupied cabin or home, and he'd use it to paddle up the pond for a theft, and return it with a few extra leaves left on top, as to not appear like it had been used. He would almost always shave before a theft, so if he were to be seen, he wouldn't appear suspicious, but just as another resident taking a walk through the woods. He endured every harsh Maine winter where at times, the temperature would reach negative 20 degrees. The years continue to fly by and he kept stealing and surviving.
AS: (05:11) As you can imagine, the more this happened, the more people in the community were talking about it. He was welcomed and he was feared. No one knew who or what was breaking into their cabins. Some residents even began leaving a pencil and paper out for him, asking to write what he needed from the store so they could just buy it and he wouldn't need to break in anymore. He never responded. He was never violent in his thefts and it seemed some people didn't mind helping this ghost to survive, while others struggled to keep their peace of mind. The legend of the North Pond Hermit was growing but the authorities were no closer to finding the culprit. Something had to change.
AS: (05:58) There was a local summer camp that Chris would frequent when he needed resources but the amount of things Chris took was enough to get the camp manager's attention. They brought the issue to game warden Terry Hughes, a local to the area who was well-known and well-liked in the community. He had been hearing for years about the thefts but finally took this opportunity to jump on the job. After months of searching failed security systems and even a photograph of Christopher in the act of the crime, he was still no closer to finding this mysterious thief. So Terry took matters into his own hands. He installed a silent motion detector security system with the alert going directly to his home. When the alarm sounds, Hughes jumps out of bed. This is his chance.
AS: (06:44) He grabs his utility belt and runs out the door and floors it to the camp. Because of the silent alarm, the thief had no idea anyone was coming. Hughes arrives at the camp. He sees the perpetrator in action. Christopher walks out of the freezer and the game warden knows, this might be the only shot at capturing this man. He waits in the shadows until he has a perfect position. Christopher walks out, Terry wrestles him to the ground and handcuffs him on the floor. He caught his ghost.
AS: (07:18) After the break, we'll hear from the person who put Christopher behind bars and where he is today.
Meaghan Maloney: (07:25) I was the prosecutor who handled his case.
Alex Sugg:( 07:29) I spoke with district attorney, Meaghan Maloney. She handled the sentencing for Chris' case.
MM: (07:34) So, I received a phone call in the middle of the night. I was sound asleep and it was trooper Diane Vance on the other end of the line saying, "You're not going to believe who's sitting in my police cruiser right now." For 27 years, people had been reporting burglaries in the North Pond area. And they'd not been able to solve a single one of them and they'd gone to great lengths to try to figure out who was committing these burglaries. So, it had reached folklore level where people imagining it: ‘Could it be a ghost?’ I mean, there were all sorts of different stories about what was actually happening. Especially after game warden, Terry Hughes, set up a camera system and got a picture of the individual committing the burglaries. Then he took that picture to everyone in the area. And no one knew who it was. So that just increased the drama around it. That here we had a face-on perfect shot and still didn't know who was doing this. That just doesn't happen.
AS: (08:53) Can you tell me what was the feeling in the community when they caught him? It seemed so polarizing. Because it almost seemed like there was this dynamic of, "Wow, this is almost a vigilante incredible thing" on one side. But then, there's also this other side of the people who are like, "This guy's a criminal who's just been stealing from us for years and years." Can you explain that dynamic of the community?
MM: (09:21) So, I began that process of making the decision by meeting with the victims. I had people who were angry that he was in jail at the time they were talking to me. They didn't understand why because they felt like he just took their food and they were happy to share it. And then there were other people who really explained in a very heartfelt way how the most important thing he took from them was their peace of mind.
AS: (09:53) When you were talking about the two dynamics or the two extremes maybe of that meeting, some people just didn't mind explaining how-
MM: (10:02) Yeah, there were people who actually discussed with me that they figured out that he really liked peanut butter. And when they went to the store, they would just buy a couple extra big jars of peanut butter and leave them by an unlatched window so he could easily get them.
AS: (10:20) And they were just doing this thinking, "Oh, we have a friendly neighbor who just comes on in."
MM: (10:26) Yeah. I mean, they didn't know what it was but they just recognized what it was he was taking. And so they just thought, "Let's just make this easier."
AS: (10:34) I've talked to you a little bit about the community but I'm curious too about Christopher as a person. I think one of the most interesting parts of the story, it's so opposite maybe of what he always intended for his life is that he hid from society for almost 30 years. And then all of a sudden, he's the most famous person in that community. That he's been so secluded from-
MM: (11:00) Yeah, no, I spent quite a bit of time with him because his defense attorney asked me to meet with him when he was in jail. So, most defense attorneys don't invite me to meet with their clients. This was an unusual request but it was an unusual case and it was a very smart request, as it turned out. The human element of Christopher Knight is something that comes through the minute you meet him. He's an unusual person and he knew that that would impact me. And he was correct. Christopher had a huge impact on me when I met with him. He was so completely honest and forthcoming about everything. He didn't try to hold back. He didn't try to hide. When I asked him what he thought the appropriate outcome was, he actually looked at me and said, "I trust you. I know you'll do what's right." It's just not what you would imagine an individual to be who had committed the number of burglaries that he had committed.
MM: (12:09) So, it was an impactful meeting. He expressed clearly how he felt about things without holding back. So he would say he felt ashamed. He felt embarrassed. Those were the words that he used. He said he wasn't raised to behave this way and he just didn't know what else to do because of his... It was like there was this wall around him that was preventing him from interacting with people and he didn't know how to break through it.
AS: (12:48) I read somewhere that he said he felt guilty each and every time he stole from a cabin to survive. He said that. And from the beginning, it seems very clear that he always had this moral compass buried deep inside of him. But he, out of necessity, had to consciously act against it all the time in order to survive. And that's shown clear, you said that you noticed that in him or he owned that side of the story.
MM: (13:18) He did, right from the beginning. I have been so surprised by the inner strength that he has that kept him going all of these years. Even though there was this wall that prevented him from interacting with people, once that wall came down, that strength kept him going. And he realized, I now have to do this. I have to talk to people. I have to apologize for what I've done. And that he had the ability to do that after not interacting with people for 27 years, I found remarkable. So, it's now been a year since he's had to check in with anyone. It's been over a year since he's had to check in with anyone. And I really don't believe, knock on wood, but I don't believe that he'll ever commit another crime.
AS: (14:27) I keep trying to put myself in his shoes and imagine exactly what it would be like to go from being completely invisible and isolated to famous. It must feel like being asleep and having cold water thrown on your face. You're being forced into such a strange, uncomfortable environment. You can't do anything to stop it. I get overwhelmed stepping on the crowded subway most mornings. I can't imagine how Chris must feel, stepping back into human interaction after almost 30 years. I asked Meaghan if she ever feels concerned for his mental state now that he's been integrated back into the community.
MM: (15:09) My biggest concern for Christopher is when he gets depressed, he thinks about taking his own life. And that would be my biggest worry. At his worst moments, he thinks about taking off all of his clothes, walking into the woods, and allowing himself to meet the lady of the night. So in a Maine winter, if you did that, you would die.
AS: (15:33) Right?
MM: (15:33) So, that's my biggest concern. But I do know his probation officer very well. And she said that he, again, never a single violation, and far more important, by the time he was finishing up his time on probation with her, he seemed really happy. He had a girlfriend, he was working, and he seemed like life was going well. So, that's how I like to think of him, is things continuing to go well for him.
AS: (16:25) You may have been wondering where his family was this whole time. As a missing 20-year-old, you'd think the parents' search would be a bigger part of this story. Well, after a little digging, I found out that they never reported it to the police. But they did hire a private investigator to search for him. They didn't know if he survived all those years but would always say things like, "Maybe he's gone off to Colorado. Maybe he's gone to New York City."
AS: (16:53) Little did they know, their son had spent the last 27 years only a 40-minute drive away. Nowadays, Christopher has a job working with his hands that he actually enjoys. He's an avid reader. He's still quiet but has integrated into the community slowly. He was also given a possible diagnosis of having Asperger's, which is a form of autism, often associated with having a high intelligence and difficulties in social and nonverbal interactions. This could at least partly explain his comfort in being on his own. I can't help but wonder if he misses the isolation. 27 years of life doesn't just go away overnight. The woods are part of him. I have to believe that inner world he built has to come knocking from time to time. Only time will tell where and what he will do next.
AS: (18:05) The Art Of The Exit is produced by Yahoo Finance at our studios in New York City. This episode was written, edited, and produced by me, Alex Sugg. Thank you to district attorney Meaghan Maloney for your time and walking us through all the details of Christopher's story. Select quotes from this story come from Michael Finkel's interviews with Knight, which had been featured in The Guardian, GQ, and most notably, his book on Christopher titled The Stranger In The Woods: The Extraordinary Story Of The Last True Hermit. If you want to dig deeper into this story, I'd highly encourage you to read his book. You can find the link in our article on Yahoo Finance or wherever books are sold. If you enjoyed this episode, please head over to Apple Podcasts and leave us a five-star rating and review there and share the story with your friends. We'll be back soon with another new episode. So until then, thank you for listening to the art of the exit.
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