For nearly three decades, he was known only as the North Pond Hermit: a mysterious figure from the remote woods of Central Maine, whom campers sometimes spotted prowling the shore of a lake known as Great Pond. But in that time, authorities claim 47-year-old Christopher Knight may also have been responsible for more than 1,000 thefts of food, clothes and camping equipment to sustain his solitary existence at a makeshift forest encampment.
Knight was finally arrested last week after an exasperated game warden set up a motion sensor alarm system following a series of burglaries at Pine Tree Camp, a holiday destination for people with special needs, close to the small town of Rome. The suspect was caught leaving the camp's kitchen freezer at 1.15am last Thursday, having pilfering around $238 worth of supplies. “He used us like his local Walmart,” said Harvey Chesley, the camp's facilities manager, who, it turned out, had attended the same high school as Knight, some 20 miles away in Fairfield.
Unlike the hermits of legend, Knight was clean-shaven when he was apprehended, with close-cropped hair and contemporary clothing, which he later admitted was stolen. The only signs of his lengthy exile were some tattered dollar bills dating to the 1990s, and his aviator-style spectacles, which he had taken with him when he first left home for the wilderness aged 19, on 26 April, 1986.
As the North Pond Hermit, Knight is believed to have lived alone in the woods for 27 years. His only human contact in that time, he told police, was a brief exchange of pleasantries with a hiker whom he encountered on a trail in the mid-1990s. He traced his withdrawal from the outside world to the time of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, though he did not cite it as a motive. He claimed to have had a happy childhood, and his reasons for removing himself from society remain a mystery.
Knight's camp reportedly consisted of a tent covered by a tarpaulin, which was suspended between trees. Winter in Maine often brings temperatures of minus 10 degrees Celsius, but Knight never made campfires, saying he was fearful of being spotted from the air. Instead he cooked with propane gas, and kept warm at night using multiple sleeping bags. He disguised reflective surfaces such as metal bins with moss and dirt to keep from being discovered. “Anybody that's hunted in the woods has seen a pile of rubble but didn't think anything of it,” said Ron Churchill, owner of the nearby Bear Spring Camps, who found two of his plundered propane containers at Knight's camp.
Knight had made a rudimentary mast for his battery-run radio, which he told police he used to listen to right-wing talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, among others. He had also occupied himself, he said, by watching the same mushroom grow for the past four years. Without a mirror, he shaved by the reflection of a pond. He had tried to fish for food, but it proved too difficult, so he continued to steal. He is now being on $5,000 bail at Kennebec County Jail, on charges of burglary and theft.
Though many local residents were unaware of his existence, others said they had known for years that the North Pond Hermit was responsible for countless thefts, but that he never took money or valuables, and left little damage in his wake. Some summer cottage owners even left food out for him, rather than endure further break-ins.