After 20 Years of Cat and Mouse, Coy Killer Phil Adams Volunteers One Confession Too Many

updated 03/18/1985 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/18/1985 01:00AM

The moment Tom Harvey tore open the envelope, he knew that a door had been unlocked to the past. Enclosed was a poem, an arch bit of doggerel whose meaning could not be mistaken.

"At the end of the day, as the red ball sinks,
I know a man who sits and thinks,
Of the happening a score years ago,
The clue to which is buried, where only he knows.
With this note, we tempt you to peek,
Searching in areas you first didn't seek,
Perchance an answer you may uncover
To two unsound corpses you did discover."

The poem was signed "The Mystery Guest," but Harvey wasn't meant to be fooled. All he had to do was glance at the postmark: Somers, Conn. Somers meant the Connecticut state prison, and the prison could mean only Phil Adams. The Mystery Guest was about to come home.

It had all begun 20 years earlier, on the day after Christmas 1964, in the little potato-farming town of Fort Fairfield, Maine. Cyrus Everett, a 14-year-old newspaper boy, had been collecting from his customers that cold, rainy evening, and by dinnertime he couldn't be found. Police suspected he might have run away, though the assumption may have been one of convenience. A boy was missing; no one knew where he was. There was no evidence that he had been harmed.

Still, police did know where Cyrus had been. The last place he had been seen collecting his money was an apartment house owned by Harold Adams, proprietor of a small trucking company. Living there was Adams' ne'er-do-well son, Philip, 22, a known child molester who had recently served time for forgery. The day after Everett's disappearance, Phil Adams reported that he had been jumped from behind in his father's garage by an intruder he couldn't identify—hence the scratches on his neck. Police doubted his story, and their reaction made Adams uneasy. On February 10, he signed himself into the state mental hospital at Bangor. "I decided I needed a rest," he said later. "After a week I got out, because as far as I was concerned they were all crazy in there." Meanwhile, his apartment in Fort Fairfield had been rented to a young cocktail waitress named Donna Mauch.

Twice divorced by the time she was 24 and mother of a 3-year-old daughter, Mauch had been involved with a number of men. For self-protection she sometimes carried a gun. A few days after she took over his old apartment, Phil Adams returned to Fort Fairfield and moved in with his grandmother in the same building. Six days later Donna Mauch was found beaten to death in her living room. Adams was a suspect, and Karen Sprague, the high school girl he was dating, got the strange impression that he liked the attention.

Then on Mother's Day 1965, more than four months after his disappearance, Cyrus Everett's body was discovered in a swampy field behind the garage where Adams claimed to have been attacked in December. Winters are long in Fort Fairfield, and the field had been covered with snow and ice through the spring. When the thaw came, Everett was found wedged under a huge log, his face mysteriously concealed beneath an overturned teapot. Equally mysterious were the statements of the county attorney, who first implied that the case was a homicide, then reversed himself and ruled the death accidental. Somehow, Fort Fairfield was asked to believe, Cyrus Everett had taken a shortcut through the field and had a 670-pound tree stump roll over on him. It was a verdict the town couldn't accept.

Once again Phil Adams was feeling the heat. A Fort Fairfield woman told police that several times during the winter she had seen a man in a red car stop by the swamp where Everett had been found and carefully check the scene with binoculars. It was a small town, where rumor was currency, and nearly everyone knew that one of Phil Adams' brothers had owned a red car. The scenario, as some townspeople imagined it, was that Adams had killed Everett, then left some bit of incriminating evidence in his own apartment—perhaps the boy's change purse, which had never been found. After leaving the hospital, they speculated, he had slipped back to the apartment to get rid of the evidence, had been surprised by Donna Mauch and then killed her.

The hypothesis was neat—though later discredited by police—but didn't satisfy the town's craving for intrigue. There were other rumors of a cover-up by powerful figures. The story spread that two wealthy landowners, one of them a former Republican Majority Leader in the Maine Senate, had struck and killed Cyrus Everett while driving home drunk, then murdered Donna Mauch either because she had been with them in the car when it happened or because she found out about it later and began blackmailing them. Both versions were pure fabrication, but they did provoke an official reaction. State and local authorities, prodded by the Maine Attorney General's office, simply tried to close the book on the Everett case, agreeing that the boy's death had been nothing more than bad luck.

Fort Fairfield still would have none of it. Angrily confronting the town council, 20 local residents demanded that the town hire a private investigator. Enter Otis LaBree, a retired state police detective who had once arrested Phil Adams as a juvenile for sexually assaulting an 8-year-old boy. His investigation prompted a new autopsy—the first had been inconclusive—which established, finally, that Everett had been killed by a blow to the head. Phil Adams was back on the hook; LaBree concluded in his report that Adams was the primary suspect. "But the state police detective who took over the investigation died," LaBree says today, "and they never really worked the case. They just plain goofed it up."

If so, they didn't stop goofing up there. The following April, under pressure to make an arrest, police charged a young officer from nearby Loring Air Force Base with the murder of Donna Mauch. The officer, now a colonel stationed in Europe, had a motive: He had been romantically involved with Mauch and had been angry and upset when she dumped him. But there was no persuasive evidence that he had been in Fort Fairfield on the night of the crime, and a jury acquitted him almost at once. By that time Phil Adams and his new wife had moved on to Wallingford, Conn.

Why did she marry him? Only Karen Sprague knew the answer. "I felt he'd been given a raw deal in life," she says. "He lost his mother when he was young. He'd just got out of prison, and nobody else cared about him. I thought he needed somebody." Of such fine feelings are dismal marriages born, and hers would be one of the darkest. Among other things, Phil was a wife-beater. "I came home to Maine several times," says Karen, "but I had no one to help me and no place to go. I'd always end up going back. I look back on it, and I don't like the person I was that allowed him to do those things."

Even more than violence, Phil liked to tease. His style was childlike, but a long way from innocent. He was a loyal subscriber to the weekly Fort Fairfield Review and took obvious pleasure in the efforts of Editor Kingdon Harvey to keep the memory of the murders alive. Adams loved to invite speculation that he was the killer. "He enjoyed that," says Karen, 37. "He'd say, 'Maybe I did it, maybe I didn't.' Or he'd say, 'I did this.' Then he would laugh and say, 'Oh no, it never happened.' I told him one time that if anything ever happened to me, he would be the first suspect, and he described to me how he would come home and kill me, and no one would ever know it. He didn't exactly say how."

But even the worst marriages must come to an end. Karen was fed up with the beatings and with her husband's mysterious habit of slipping out of the house late at night dressed in black and returning hours later with no explanation. In 1971 she gathered up her three children and all of her courage and went home to Fort Fairfield for good. After the divorce she married Jim Everett—no relation to Cyrus—a plainspoken farmer who later adopted the kids as his own. Adams' own remarriage ended in divorce in 1982, six years after he was convicted of assaulting a 10-year-old Wallingford boy and sentenced to 10-to-20 years in state prison. For Karen Everett and her family, Adams was out of sight, if not out of mind.

It was Jodie Everett's curiosity about her natural father that brought him suddenly back into their lives. She was 16, the older of Phil's two daughters, when he began writing to her in 1983. Karen was terrified, Jodie intrigued. "He has a way with words," she says, "and at the time I really didn't want to believe there was anything wrong with him, so I didn't." Her mother objected, but mutiny was in the air. To keep the peace, Jim Everett agreed to take Jodie to see Adams in prison. On the phone Phil promised, cryptically as always, to tell her something that might make her hate him. What he provided when she and Everett finally arrived was yet another demonstration of the peekaboo mode of self-revelation. He wouldn't say that he had killed Donna Mauch; then again, he wouldn't say that he hadn't. Otherwise he seemed almost charming, asking Jodie about herself, telling her about his childhood and the greeting-card business he had started in prison. At Jim Everett's request, Adams agreed not to contact her again until she was 18 and ready to be on her own. "I still felt I really didn't know him," says Jodie.

She was right. Seven months later he called her again, and this time his tone was demanding. He asked her to change her name back to his; she told him firmly she wouldn't. "All through the conversation if I said something he didn't like, he'd get very angry," she remembers. "He kept saying he was coming up for parole, and he kept asking me to tell him whether to stay in or get out because I was his life, and he had nothing else to live for. If I told him to get out, we'd go to Alaska and start a business. If I told him to stay in, he would call up the authorities and admit to both murders. Then they would have to execute him. He said if they wouldn't, he would have to kill himself, because he couldn't stand other people knowing what he'd done. I was supposed to write him a letter."

Shocked and frightened, Jodie told Jim Everett what Adams had said. Everett informed the police. Adams, meanwhile, apparently stung by his daughter's defection, began referring to her ominously as "my little Delilah" and set out to talk himself into a courtroom. First came the poem to Kingdon Harvey's son, Tom, who had taken over for his father as editor of the Fort Fairfield Review. Next was a stunning phone call to his own brother, Wayne. For once Phil wasn't playing his usual games, or if he was, he'd forgotten the rules. "There's something you've been waiting to hear for 20 years," he told his brother. Then he confessed to Donna Mauch's murder. He had gone to her apartment to look for money, he said, and found her asleep on the couch. When she awakened, he punched her in the head and covered her face with a towel so he wouldn't have to look at her. "She shouldn't have woke up," he told Wayne.

The teasing was over, but not for long. By the time a grand jury had returned an indictment, Phil Adams was back in the land of maddening ambiguity, suggesting that maybe his confession was just another gambit—a devious way of forcing a trial at which his name would be cleared once and for all. He claimed he had confessed for his children's sake; now he would tell what he knew.

In the end, though, Phil Adams told nothing. Sitting quietly through his seven-day trial for murder, he declined to testify in his own defense, hoping—assuming, perhaps—that the case against him was too weak to succeed. And he might have been right. There were no witnesses to the murder of Donna Mauch and no physical evidence that Phil was the killer. His confession to his brother was flawed: Donna had not been punched to death, she had been struck repeatedly on the head with a blunt instrument. But Phil Adams had said he had done it, and for once in his life his word was accepted. In January, after deliberating less than three hours, a jury of his peers found him guilty, and he was sentenced to life imprisonment. Among those he had haunted for so many years, Phil Adams would not be missed.

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