A killer’s appeal and questions of fairness

by Jen Lynds

I can’t remember how long it was after her son murdered three people in Amity in June 2010 that Maria Ormsby, the mother of the killer, called me.
It was definitely after Thayne Ormby’s July arraignment and after I had written several stories detailing his background. Ormsby was arrested 10 days after the murders after Robert Strout, the man who helped him cover up the slayings of Jeff Ryan, 55, Jason Dehahn, 30, and Jesse Ryan, 10, drove him to New Hampshire. He confessed to State Police detectives after his DNA was found at the crime scene and after Strout also admitted his role.
Little was known about Ormsby’s mother, Maria, at the time, and we did not learn anything more until the trial.
She called me, sobbing, in 2010 after I wrote an article featuring comments from John Frary of Farmington. In 2008, Ormsby was one of three live-in campaign aides working to help Frary, a Republican, carry out his ultimately unsuccessful bid to unseat U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud during the election that year.
“He told me that the first time he had ever slept in sheets was at my home,” Frary said.
He also said that Ormsby had primarily lived with his mother and did not speak well of his family.
Maria Ormsby was vacillating between anger and hysteria when she called. She kept saying that she wasn’t a “bad mother.” She accused me of thinking Thayne was guilty.
“Of course I think he’s guilty,” I told her. “He confessed to the crime. They have his DNA at the crime scene. He admitted he did it.”
She hung up. I heard from her a few weeks later, and she was still upset. She had discovered that I knew that her son had been taken from her care when he was in middle school. I did not write about it at the time because I did not know how old he was or where he went after he left her home. It turned out that he was taken away at age 12 and his uncle, Steven Ormsby, took him in and really cared for him.
She would not speak on the record, but she thought that I hated her son and wasn’t being fair to him.
“I don’t know your son,” I finally said. “But what I do know is that when he was a boy around the same age as Jesse Ryan, he needed help and someone gave him a second chance. It was something that Jesse Ryan never got to experience, nor did the other two innocent people in that home that night.”
She hung up again. It was the last time we spoke.
This past weekend, I wrote an article about Ormsby’s attorneys filing an appeal. It has been sent to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court for review.
Instantly, those who read the article online drafted angry comments, wondering why an appeal was warranted. He’d confessed. Before the start of the murder trial, Ormsby pleaded not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity to the charges. Because of his insanity plea, he was tried in two phases. In both phases, he was found guilty. When the victim’s family members sobbed and wondered tearfully why Ormsby killed their loved ones, he just sat and stared, totally aloof. He was given an opportunity to speak at his sentencing. He refused.
One could never say that his attorneys, James Dunleavy and Sarah LeClaire of Presque Isle, didn’t try hard. They put on a stunning defense case, one that Deputy Attorney General Bill Stokes, who prosecuted the case, credited them publicly for.
But there was the confession, the mountain of evidence, and his total lack of remorse. The jury had no doubt that Ormsby was the man who stabbed Jeff Ryan to death in a woodshed after Jeff took him there to offer him free materials for a construction project. And they were convinced that he went into the trailer and stabbed Jason Dehahn in front of Jesse Ryan, then chased down the frightened 10-year-old boy and stabbed him to death in his hiding place before trailing a wounded Dehahn out to the yard, stabbing him some more and throwing his body in a ditch.
I was Jesse Ryan’s age when I first read “Justice,” an article written by producer/journalist/novelist Dominick Dunne for Vanity Fair. In 1982, his daughter, the beautiful, talented 22-year-old actress Dominique Dunne, was strangled to death by her abusive boyfriend, John Sweeney, in Los Angeles. She had been in several television shows but was best known for her role as Dana Freeling, one of the daughters in the 1982 movie “Poltergeist.”
Her relationship with Sweeney was abusive and she ended it. The two argued when she refused to reconcile and Sweeney strangled her outside in the darkness. She remained on life support for four days, even though she was brain dead. Doctors told the family that they knew there would be a trial, and they did not want the defense to claim that they had removed her from the life-support system too soon.
During her trial, the coroner testified that her death by strangulation took between four and six minutes. In court, the prosecutor held up a watch and asked the courtroom to remain silent for four minutes to illustrate how long Dunne had suffered that night.
“For four minutes the courtroom sat in hushed silence,” wrote Dominick Dunne. “It was horrifying. I had never allowed myself to think how long she had struggled in his hands, thrashing for life.”
I’ve never forgotten that, or the crippling fear and terror that anyone who is murdered must feel. When someone frightens you for just a second, you are skittish even longer. It is almost too painful to think of how much terror Ormsby’s victims, especially Jesse Ryan, had been before their deaths. It is hard, even in a cruel world, not to shed tears at such a level of cruelty towards people so defenseless.
In our legal system, there are times when crime victims escape the proper level of justice. In Dunne’s case, her killer spent just two and a half years in prison, changed his name and moved to the Pacific Northwest.
Ormsby was sentenced to three life terms in prison plus a consecutive 15 year sentence for arson for burning Jeff Ryan’s truck to destroy evidence.
But once again, Thayne Ormsby is getting a second chance.
Even with what many consider the best legal system in the world, it is hard to call that fair.