November 14, 2015 marked the Fiftieth Anniversary of the beating death of Peter Francis a Passamaquoddy elder and World War II Veteran. Peter’s family and the Passamaquoddy tribe believe he died at the hands of five white men from Billerica Massachusetts. James Ellinwood 26 years old, William Robbins 30 Years old (He died in 2009), Hugh ONeil 25 years old, Romelo Capobianco 23 years old and Daniel Frobrese 23 years old, all former football players from High School.
They walked into the home of 72 year old former Governor George Francis where Peter Francis his 58 year old brother was visiting from Connecticut and where girls ages 11,13,15 and 17 were studying for classes the next day. These men were not shy in letting George and Peter know what they wanted. They asked for women and assaulted Christy Altvater’s 8 year old son, Kirk by slapping him four times across the face.
Peter Francis was killed and his brother in law Christy Altvater was brutally beaten protecting the women from being raped by these men. Murder warrants were never served and only one of the men, James Ellinwood was charged with a low count of Manslaughter. No charges were ever brought against them for the brutal attack on Christy Altvater or his son Kirk. Ellinwood was tried for manslaughter three weeks later and found innocent by an all white jury to the cheers and applause of the Machias Maine Courtroom.
The Francis family was devastated. Collin Woodard a journalist for the Portland Press Herald wrote a 29 Chapter article “Unsettled” published in the Portland Press Herald that tells the story of this incident in detail. Rita Altvater, Chritsy’s wife recalled that during a court recess one of the white men walked by her and Lila Hinton, Peter’s daughter and said “A good Indian is a dead Indian” Lila burst into tears.
Christy Altvater never recovered from this traumatic event and in 1971 he hung himself in his basement. Kirk Altvater, Christy’s eight year old son who testified in court on his 9th birthday suffered from panic attacks and tremors for the rest of his life. Kirk Altvater committed suicide in 1979. He was 21.
On Saturday November 14, 2015 a ceremony was held at Pleasant Point Passamaquoddy Tribal Community to remember this horrific incident. The great grandson of Peter Francis, Michael Corey Hinton, who is now an attorney for Akin, Gump in Washington DC attended with his family. He said knowing the horrific story of what happened to his great grandfather made him determined to become a lawyer to seek justice for his family.
He spoke with strength and determination to bring that justice to the family and to the Pleasant Point Community who have suffered from the trauma of this incident for generations.
ON FEBRUARY 12, 2015 USET passed resolution No. 2015:23 REQUESTING A FEDERAL-TRIBAL-STATE INQUIRY INTO THE CIRCUMSTANCES SURROUNDING THE KILLING OF PETER FRANCIS AND THE ESTABLISHMENT OF A JOINT FEDERAL-TRIBAL-STATE TASK FORCE TO EXAMINE THE UNSLOVED AND UNPROSECUTED KILLINGS OF WABANAKI PEOPLE IN THE STATE OF MAINE
It is the hope of USET that this Joint Investigative Task Force will become a model for the rest of Indian Country who suffers from unprosecuted cases and from a lack of faith in the criminal justice system and to never lose hope. At this ceremony fifty years later the chair of the USET Justice Committee Robert Bryant Chief of Police for the Penobscot Nation stood and spoke to the family and the community announcing the official formation of the Investigative Joint Task Force. The murder of Peter Francis has not been forgotten nor have the injustices perpetrated on the Community by an unfair and unresponsive legal and judicial system. The truth will come to light and justice will be served.
Donna Loring is an author, playwright, and Penobscot Tribal Elder.