Sometime around midnight April 5, Daniel Doherty parked his car “erratically” at the side of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge in Lewiston, took his keys and cell phone, left his wallet, and disappeared.
Despite searches by Lewiston and Auburn police, the Maine Warden Service and three separate private canvases including a search plane, the 46-year-old father and former Morse High School football captain has not been seen since.
In the three weeks since he disappeared, his family has anguished over what may have happened to him. Police — whose efforts have not impressed those closest to him — have told family members to fear the worst.
Family members say Doherty was despondent over a contentious divorce that sparked lingering financial woes and vicious child custody issues with his ex-wife. Most of his associates agree he was experiencing what his mother called “emotional issues.”
The last person to hear from him was Michelle Cox, a co-worker and friend, who said she spoke with him by cell phone at 11:15 p.m. April 5.
“We had a long call that ended at 11:24 with me asking him where he was,” Cox said. “And I felt like he was saying goodbye.”
Cox said Doherty finished the conversation saying, “I’ve been poisoned.”
Whether that meant chemically poisoned or tainted by a divorce proceeding that he felt had jeopardized his relationship with his daughter wasn’t clear to Cox. The phone went dead. That was the last time anyone spoke to him.
Doherty’s vehicle — a blue 1998 Mercury Mountaineer SUV — was parked half outside a breakdown lane on a bridge that spans Lewiston and Auburn, its emergency lights flashing.
Lewiston police Lt. Michael McGonagle said some personal belongings were found in the vehicle, including his wallet, according to his brother, Billy Doherty, of Woolwich.
Auburn and Lewiston police, the Androscoggin County Sheriff ’s Office and game wardens began searching. Within days, tracking dogs along the Androscoggin River found his jacket very near shore.
That led police to tell the family they were all but certain they would be searching for a body.
“They consider that he definitely did do this,” Billy Doherty said. “That he went into the water.”
His mother, Marilyn Merry, of Bath, isn’t so sure — or at least clings to what she says are plenty of signs her son may have merely been experiencing vehicle problems or needed to take a walk that night.
Does she believe her son is still alive?
“Every day that goes by gets a little harder,” she said.
Because his wallet and other items were found in the vehicle, “If he was really trying to vanish, he would have taken something with him,” Billy Doherty said.
Merry and her son fault Auburn police for saying they would investigate the vehicle but instead impounded it — then charged the family $350 plus $35 per day to retrieve it from a commercial garage.
“If a motorist was out of gas or in need of roadside help, why impound the vehicle?” Billy Doherty asked. “That doesn’t sound like an investigation.”
He, his mother and Cox all agree: The police have not been investigating Doherty’s case as a disappearance.
They haven’t investigated it at all, Cox alleges: They’ve already treated it as a suicide.
“I asked why they hadn’t issued an all-points bulletin like any other missing person,” she said, and was told they “consider it a suicide, so he’s not missing.”
Cox, 50, of South Paris, said today police had not updated her in more than a week, and called their conduct “hostile” and “uncooperative.”
“I’m disappointed in them,” she said.
Cox said she organized three private searches, and said she enlisted Down East Emergency Medical Institute, a nonprofit search-and-rescue outfit based in Orono, to do an aerial search.
But there’s still no sign of Daniel Doherty, who grew up in Bath and, according to his brother, was a captain of the Morse High School football team in the 1980s.
Doherty also owns and manages a Lewiston apartment building. And he is employed; he had just finished a shift at Great Falls Marketing, where he worked with Cox, before he disappeared.
But his brother said he’s struggled to overcome the aftermath of his divorce.
His mother called it “emotional problems,” but Billy Doherty — who spent time with Dan, and whose kids played together as friends and cousins — told of deeper effects, saying his brother has been “known to be very depressed.”
Doherty said his brother hadn’t seen his 14-year-old daughter — at the center of a bitter custody dispute — in more than a year.
“He had just lost hope,” Doherty said. “He (thought he) would never have a personal relationship with his daughter again.”
Although he had spent some time with his brother in Woolwich — months ago, with Dan’s daughter, who had a “great” relationship with Billy’s daughter — those meetings had become less frequent.
“He was isolating himself,” Doherty said. “He had just lost hope.”
He said his brother “never indicated hurting himself,” and two days before he disappeared called “and said he felt as though he needed help.”
Cox concurs: “He felt that his life was ruined with his daughter,” she said. “He told me many times he was broken.”
Billy Doherty refered his brother to St. Mary’s Medical Center, whose officials, according to Doherty, said they could see him in a few weeks.
Citing state law, St. Mary’s officials could not confirm or deny contact. But it’s clear to his brother Doherty never obtained a consultation.
Cox said Dan Doherty got a letter April 5 from his attorney that “overwhelmed him.”
Cox believes there was a plan entailed in the letter that would guide new visitation rights with his daughter. “Almost like starting over,” Cox said, “so it overwhelmed him.” It would be a “long road to get visits back,” she said.
“I think the letter is in his truck,” she said. “I did not see it at his home.”
In recent days, police have been telling the family that dam workers and construction workers downstream on the Androscoggin would be looking out for any evidence of Doherty.
Billy Doherty said a warden told him that, with warming water temperatures, he should prepare for a body to surface within the next seven to 10 days.
That was a week ago.
“I’m not convinced he jumped in the river,” Cox said. “The police seem to not worry that he’s alive and in need to be found. I think every day that passes is a day we might find him alive.”
“What if he’s at St. Mary’s or some hospital? Maybe he’s lost and disoriented. Maybe someone was helping him with his car.”
In the meantime, families in the Mid-coast have been surrounding the Dohertys.
“Mom’s got a wonderful network,” Billy Doherty said. “I’m trying to stay strong for her and her for me.”
Daniel Doherty is 6 feet, 160 pounds with light brown hair and green eyes. Anyone with information about his location should contact Lewiston police Detective Wayne Clifford at 513-3001, ext. 3320.
Clifford declined comment on the case, referring calls to McGonagle.
“It’s possible he could have staged all this and took off,” McGonagle said this morning. But, “If he was going to stage this, he would have had to have planned it for a couple of months.”
“We’ve interviewed several of his friends and family, people who know him. They haven’t seen him (since April 5). There’s been no phone calls, no financial activity.
“We’ve checked the dams, scraped the grates. Wardens have been doing fly-bys as time permits. There have been boat searches, and we’ve walked the river banks. The family has, as well.
“All indications point to, he did go into the river,” McGonagle said.
Still, his mother holds out hope.
“We’re hoping someone saw something that night, around 11:15 (p.m. April 5) until about 12:45 (a.m. April 6),” Merry said. “If he was parked off the road with his flashers on, someone must have seen something. Maybe he was picked up. It’s a fairly busy place at midnight on a Friday.”
As for Cox: “The family and myself want to make sure that the message is, we’re not 100 percent sure that he is in the river. That has been the PD’s only focus.
“He could’ve entered the water and got out. He maybe just took a walk. We just don’t know, as the police have only stuck within the river scenario.”