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A tragic finish for a one-time happy ending

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on Sat, 05/19/2012 - 14:12
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We first met him in this space on the day before Thanksgiving way back in 1998 -- a shy, smiling 9-year-old refugee from Maine's foster-care circuit whose wildest dreams had just come true: He had a new mom and dad. He had a new home, a new neighborhood, a new school. He had, for the first time in his anything-but-easy young life, an anything-is-possible future.

Yet there stood Gordon Collins-Faunce, now 23, blank-faced Friday in York County Superior Court, charged with murdering his own infant son.

And there in the gallery sat Irv Faunce, Gordon's adoptive father, lost in the rubble of this fairy tale-turned-horror story.

"I had to come," Irv said quietly. "I had no choice."

Nor, try as he might to come up with one, does he have an explanation.

Back when Irv first welcomed me into his home 14 years ago, the story of Gordon and his two sisters had "happy ending" written all over it.

Taken by the state from their biological parents back in 1992, they'd spent five years bouncing from one foster home to another -- their hopes for a normal, happy childhood growing slimmer with each passing birthday.

Irv and his wife, Jan Collins, lived in Kennebunkport at the time.

Married in 1995 -- he was 53, she was 41 -- they wanted a family but weren't able to have children.

So they decided to adopt; and rather than go through the time and expense of a private agency, they registered as "adoptive foster parents" with what was then the Maine Department of Human Services.

Enter Kathy, 10, Gordon, 9, and Sasha, 8.

They'd recently been entered on Maine's registry of foster children in need of permanent homes. And like so many abused and neglected kids who end up as wards of the state, these three came with considerable baggage.

"There were some pretty graphic tales," Irv quietly told me that day. "Pretty awful stuff."

Truth be told, Irv did a double take upon first seeing the brother and two sisters smiling back at him from the registry.

"What? Three?" he recalled thinking. "Wait a minute, do we know what we're getting into here?"

Jan, on the other hand, had no doubts -- she'd wanted more than one child all along because she thought "they'd be good company for each other."

Irv and Jan ultimately agreed to take the plunge, compiling a photo album of their life so the caseworkers could begin slowly introducing them to the children.

"This is our house ... we have been working on it all summer making it big enough for all of us," read one handwritten caption. "This is our wedding day. ... We love to go to Prince Edward Island!"

Months later, on the day I met them, the kids still clung to the scrapbook as if it were a life preserver.

"We used to argue each night about who got to sleep with the pictures," said Kathy, hugging the album to her chest.

Added a smiling Gordon, "I got to sleep with it first."

The first face-to-face meeting between the prospective parents and children, in September 1997, went well. So did the five weekend visits that followed.

Finally, after living together full time for almost a year, the whole clan gathered in October 1998 by the same pond, across the street from their house, where Irv and Jan had exchanged their wedding vows.

"This time, we made our vows to the children," Irv said, "as their parents."

From there, it was off to probate court, where a judge formalized the adoption while child-protective workers, some with tears in their eyes, looked on. The judge even let Kathy bang the gavel.

There would be aftershocks, of course, from all that had come before.

Kathy's hands involuntarily trembled when she spoke of "the abuse." Gordon, whenever he participated in play-acting games, always cast himself in the role of an orphan.

One night early on, Jan cuddled with the three kids on the couch to read them "Ann of Green Gables" -- the story of an orphan girl who becomes a foster child. By the time the story was over, Jan recalled, "all four of us were sitting on the couch, sobbing."

Still, life was good. The family traveled to places such as Washington, D.C., New York City and Canada. Holidays became synonymous with extended-family reunions. Jan even took Gordon on a trip down the Nile River in Egypt.

Over time, as the child therapists eventually told Irv and Jan that regular counseling was no longer necessary, the kids' dark past mercifully faded into the background.

The family eventually moved from Kennebunkport to the central Maine town of Wilton, where they operate a blueberry farm. (A health care consultant, Irv also has a long public-service résumé ranging from selectman in Wilton to member of the Maine Human Rights Commission, the Board of Environmental Protection and the State Board of Corrections.)

"From our point of view, it was a relatively normal 10-year period," Irv said. "They did typical kid things."

Gordon gravitated toward athletics -- competing on the wrestling and cross-country teams at Mt. Blue High School in nearby Farmington.

"He didn't get in fights. He didn't beat people up. He wasn't a bully. He wasn't physically aggressive," Irv said.

Then around the time Gordon turned 18, things changed. Without telling Irv and Jan, Gordon and Kathy reconnected with their biological mother, who lived in Cornish.

Suddenly, Irv said, Gordon wanted out.

"Part of it was, 'I'm 18. I can make my own decisions.' That kind of puffery," Irv recalled.

Gordon went to live with his birth mother and finished his senior year of high school at Sacopee Valley High School in Hiram. He then enlisted in the Army, but received a general discharge after going absent without leave while training for deployment overseas.

Returning to Maine, Gordon moved in with his girlfriend, Christina Henderson, in Farmington. Late last winter, just after Christina gave birth to twin boys Ethan and Lucas, the young parents, two infants and Christina's 3-year-old daughter from a previous relationship moved into a small home in Arundel owned by Gordon's biological father.

Through it all, Irv said, he and Jan heard occasional reports of "anger outbursts" by Gordon as he tried to carve out a life for himself. They saw little of their son but did their best to stay tethered to him by telephone.

"The relationship had its ups and downs," Irv said, "but over the last year, it was cordial."

Looking back, Irv said, he and his wife shared misgivings about Gordon's readiness to be a father. When he told them over the phone six weeks ago that he'd accidentally fractured little Ethan's arm while lifting the baby boy from his crib, Irv said, "we both were suspicious, obviously, and concerned."

Now Ethan is dead. Gordon, who told police he lifted the baby by the head last weekend and threw him forcefully onto a couch, stands accused of the depraved-indifference murder of his own child.

Ethan's twin brother, Lucas, is now in the protective custody of the state, just as his father once was.

Back in 1998, a week or two after my Thanksgiving column on the Collins-Faunce family appeared beneath the headline "Abandonment meets love, and a family is born," Irv and Jan sent me a thank-you note along with three just-taken school portraits of their newly adopted brood.

At the time, I had a bulletin board in my office on which I'd often hang such memorabilia. There, for 10 years, Gordon's and his sisters' smiling faces served as a daily reminder that from all the bad in this world, good things sometimes blossom.

Now, as I hold Gordon's old school photo next to his recent mug shot, I don't know what to think.

Nor does Irv, who cradled his dying grandson in his arms at Maine Medical Center last weekend and, a few days later, made the long, solitary drive down from Wilton to watch his grown son appear, once again, before a judge.

He and Jan will not second-guess themselves, Irv said; and even as they grieve the grandson they barely knew, they will not abandon the son they once thought they'd rescued.

But make sense of all this? How does one begin to do that?

"It's unbearable," Irv said, the pain etched on his face. "It's beyond description."


By Bill Nemitz