Restoring the identity of a murder victim

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Who wants to be remembered by his or her driver’s license photo, as a solitary face with a blank background?

Far worse than that, who wants to be widely remembered as a murder victim whose identity was stolen and whose death went undetected for a year?

No one, obviously. But this largely has been the fate of Rick Bellittieri because of the way his brutal killing escaped notice for so long and, after it finally came to light, because of much of the media coverage that followed.

Bellittieri’s relatively solitary lifestyle, which helped enable his killer to take over his identity and finances, has made it difficult for his identity to be publicly restored. News stories about his death and the ensuing trial have focused mostly on the crime and his killer, not so much on him.

When someone dies, it is usually close friends and family members who remind us that the deceased was more than just a victim or a statistic – a human with successes and failures who should be remembered as such and not just for the way his or her life came to an end.

But Bellittieri had no family in the area, and those that did know him were accustomed to not seeing him for long periods of time. There was no obvious person with intimate knowledge of his life who could step forward to tell the world about who he was.

He did have friends, people who knew and cared about him. One of them, Pauline Buie, defended his memory Friday on the Hancock County Courthouse steps after his killer was convicted of his murder.

“Rick was a very smart man. He had two degrees,” Buie said. “He went back to school for his CPA [degree]. He was just an intelligent guy.”

A few relatives of Bellittieri attended the trial the past two weeks from out of state and expressed gratitude for the successful efforts to bring his murder to justice.

His nephew, Jason Happe of Cornelius, North Carolina, said Friday outside the courthouse that Bellittieri traveled frequently to do work for accounting firms, which helped obscure his disappearance in 2012. His uncle loved the scenery of “mountains and ocean right up against each other” on Mount Desert Island, Happe added, which is why he moved from New York to coastal Maine in the 1970s.

“He was an outdoor enthusiast. He loved hiking and camping, and what a place to come to do that with [Acadia] National Park right here,” Happe said.

However, one of the things that has struck me the most about Bellittieri is not something that has been said. It is the photo that appears at the top of this post, which was published with his obituary in the weekly Ellsworth American newspaper.

The only photo of Bellittieri I had seen prior to this one, which I first saw a few hours after the murder trial ended on Friday, was the driver’s license photo distributed by state police.

In the obituary photo, Bellittieri stands in a field, wearing a large backpack while a mountainous valley stretches behind him to a snow-capped peak in the distance. He has his hands on his hips and a weary smile on his face, apparently stopped for just a moment while hiking somewhere out West.

As fleeting as the moment may be, the image helps to illustrate who Bellittieri was in a way that no police report or trial testimony ever could. It helps to remind us that we are defined not by how we die, but by how we live.

To read the Ellsworth American obituary, click here.

Bill Trotter

About Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors. He writes about fisheries, marine-related topics, eastern coastal Maine communities and more for the BDN. He lives in Ellsworth. Follow him on Twitter at @billtrotter.