Maine homicide victim is honored for her love of the profession and animals.
Judith Sulik, RDH
Dawn Leighton was an energetic and enthusiastic woman who had two passions in life: dental hygiene and animals (in particular, Dalmatian dogs). She was introduced to the dental hygiene profession when she worked as a dental assistant in high school. According to her brother, John Leighton, her interest in the dental field never waned. He joked that she was "in charge of everyone in the family`s teeth." When she wasn`t engaging with patients full-time in Dr. Robert Nelson`s practice in Falmouth, Maine, where she had worked for two years, or part-time at Dr. Frederick Molander`s office in Portland, Maine, where she had labored for 10 years, all of her attention and energy was directed toward animals.
John said her love of all animals was legendary. But most of her affection was lavished on her champion Dalmatians, Murphy and Abby. Both are award-winning show dogs. Abby`s honors include Best in Canada, as well as the winner of the U.S./Canada Obedience Award. Dawn also bred Dalmatians.
Dawn was a volunteer for the State Society for the Protection of Animals, and she volunteered to walk dogs at the Maine Humane Center. She also worked at Blue Seal Feeds where she occasionally volunteered to wash and dip dogs. Once, a German Shepherd bit her on the hand while she was washing it. She got a shot, and then continued to work for the remainder of the day, never even considering quitting. She was also involved in training dogs in tracking. Upon Abby`s retirement from being a show competitor, Dawn trained her to become a nursing home companion.
Dawn didn`t have any children. But, as is the case for many animal lovers, her dogs were her kids. John remembers how angry she would become anytime she saw a dog locked in a car. He also fondly recalls how she would have a birthday party for each of them, complete with party hats. An avid photographer who liked taking pictures of scenery, she saved most of her film for photos of dogs.
Dawn is described in the past tense because her life ended early in the morning on May 1, 1998, when she was murdered in the home she had bought six months earlier in Buxton, Maine.
According to state police records, Dawn was attacked around midnight on April 30 by the adopted son of her parents` neighbor. Dawn lived with her parents while she saved money to buy her own house. The accused, Rob Reichert, was described in newspapers as a troubled loner. He was visiting with his father next door to the Leightons, and, eventually, the two met. Dawn listened sympathetically to his problems. Apparently, his romantic feelings ultimately grew more intense; Dawn didn`t feel the same way. One day he followed her to her new home and he presented her with a dozen roses. John says that she was very gentle when she said, "I`d like to be your friend, but you need help." Until the night of her murder, Dawn had not had any additional contact with him, but John suspects Reichert had continued to stalk her.
During the investigation and trial, the police and prosecutors suggested a scenario where Reichert entered Dawn`s home and attacked her with a leatherman`s knife while she was asleep on the couch, stabbing her nine times. She tried to get away and made it to the bathroom where she pleaded with him to call for help.
John, who is a captain for the rescue section for the Westbrook Fire Department, has heard the 911 tape recording of the alleged murderer`s call: his question to Dawn asking for her surname and her reply. What makes Dawn`s story even more horrific is that she apparently bled to death while waiting 47 minutes for help to arrive.
Reichert fled the scene, traveling to Portland about 20 minutes away, where he again phoned in an emergency call. But, for reasons that are still being investigated, the emergency team couldn`t figure out where Dawn lived. John expressed frustration with Buxton`s non-enhanced emergency system, which led to so much lost time and, ultimately, Dawn`s death. The alleged killer was caught when he crashed into a tree after a high-speed chase in Portland.
Reichert first entered a not guilty plea and then changed it to not guilty by reason of insanity. On January 24, Reichert pleaded guilty to the murder in a deal with the state`s attorney general`s office that would limit his sentencing to no more than 45 years.
Buxton is a rural community of about 12,000 people. Maine is perceived as a "safe" state and, indeed, by many standards it is. Twenty-six people were murdered in the state in 1998. While 26 sounds like a low number when discussing statistics, even one murder is too high when the victim is someone you know and love.
Dawn touched many lives in her 34-year life, and her death set off a series of reactions. Dr. Molander wrote a tribute to Dawn and sent a copy to all of his patients. He wrote, "Her beaming smile and expressive sense of humor could make even the most apprehensive patient feel comfortably at ease. Her calm and casual demeanor combined with her clinical skill and talent made Dawn the consummate dental hygienist." He noted how her advice extended beyond dentistry to advising patients on "anything having to do with the care of animals." The State Society for the Protection of Animals set up a memorial fund. John said more than 100 individuals - many of them had never met her - contributed to the fund.
Dawn graduated in 1983 with an associate`s degree in dental hygiene from the University of New England`s Westbrook College campus in Portland, Maine, and she remained involved with the school by participating in alumni events. At the time of her death, she was making plans to attend her 15th reunion. When word spread about her murder, the college community, led by former classmates Holly MacLeod and Patty Skerritt Larsen, decided to channel their outrage and sadness in a way that would honor Dawn`s many achievements and her memory. A memorial fund in her name will provide scholarships for other students, according to Robin Okolo Lampron, her friend and classmate. The Leightons have also set up endowment fund to replace dental hygiene equipment at the school.
On December 11, 1999, a memorial plaque was unveiled at the Westbrook College campus. More than 100 people packed a tiny foyer in the Grace Coleman Dental Hygiene building to remember Dawn. The plaque features a photo of Dawn in a red sweater. The inscription reads: "In memory for her dedication to the dental hygiene field and for her warmth and humanity, may she always be blessed." Many spoke about Dawn`s impish traits and love of life and of people. Photos showing her splayed out in the snow on her skis, cleaning and examining teeth, and making goofy faces. They brought Dawn back to life for a brief time while making everyone ask once again, "Why?"
The University of New England welcomes donations to the Dental Hygiene Endowment Fund in memory of Dawn Leighton. Information about the fund is available by calling Westbrook College Alumni Office at (207) 797-8196.
After several delays, Reichert`s trial began on January 24. He changed his plea to guilty as the jury walked into the courtroom to be selected. John Leighton said that, under Maine law, Victim Impact Statements can be submitted from anyone who would like to share any comments regarding victims on sentencing day. At press deadline, sentencing was expected to begin in April or early May. Leighton can be contacted by e-mail at [email protected].
Judith Sulik, RDH, is a frequent contributor to RDH who is based in Bridgeport, Conn. She also is the author of An Adventure for Your Palate II: Coastal Connecticut Waterfront Dining with Chefs` Recipes. For more information about the book, contact her at Finely Finished Press, 60 Acton Road, Bridgeport, CT 06606.