Christopher Knight, who disappeared aged 19, lived by stealing food and supplies from woodland camps in Maine, say police
The woodland camp where Christopher Knight is believed to have lived for up to 27 years. Photograph: Reuters/Maine police
A man who lived as a hermit for decades in a makeshift camp in the woods and may be responsible for more than 1,000 burglaries for food and other supplies has been caught by a determined game warden who was fed up with the thefts.
Christopher Knight, 47, was arrested when he tripped a surveillance sensor while allegedly stealing food from a camp for people with special needs in a small town in the far north-eastern state of Maine.
Authorities on Tuesday found the campsite where they believe Knight, known as the North Pond Hermit in local lore, lived for up to 27 years. Knight's living quarters included a tent covered by tarps suspended between trees, a bed, propane cooking stoves and a battery-run radio, which he used to keep up with the news and listen to talk radio and a rock station, authorities said.
Some residents say they have been aware of the hermit for years, often in connection with break-ins. During questioning after his arrest Knight said that the last verbal contact he had with another person was during the 1990s, state trooper Diane Vance said. "He passed somebody on a trail and just exchanged a common greeting of hello and that was the only conversation or human contact he's had since he went into the woods in 1986."
Christopher Knight, 47, known as the North Pond Hermit, after his arrest. Photograph: Reuters/Maine police
He was so well known to some summer cottage owners that they left food out for him so he wouldn't break in during the colder months. But others were hardly aware of the hermit living within their midst without detection since 1986. "I was born in 1987. He was there before I was," Rome resident Melissa Witham said outside her home.
Paul Anderson, a town councillor, acknowledged local talk about a man living alone in the woods. "I've lived in the town for 32 years and I've never, ever met the guy," Anderson said.
Since vanishing from his Maine home for no apparent reason and setting up camp when he was about 19, Knight sustained himself on food stolen from dozens of cottages, but his favourite target was the Pine Tree Camp, where game warden Sergeant Terry Hughes, who had been trying to nab Knight for years, set up a surveillance alarm, authorities said.
Knight was caught on Tuesday as he left the camp's kitchen freezer with a backpack full of food, they said. "He used us like his local Wal-mart," said Harvey Chesley, the camp's facilities manager.
Ron Churchill, owner of Bear Spring Camps in Rome, said employees maintaining his camp's lakeside cabins had seen the man thought to be the hermit in the past. Churchill said his business has lost propane containers to thefts, the latest of which were discovered on Wednesday.
Despite Maine's harsh winters, during which temperatures sometimes struggle to get above -12.2C (10F) for a week at a time, Knight stayed at his encampment and avoided making campfires so he wouldn't be detected, and he used the propane only for cooking, Hughes said. To stay warm he would bundle himself in multiple sleeping bags, authorities said.
When caught Knight was clean-shaven and still using his aviator-style spectacles from the 1980s.
"When we went to the site where he has been living, it only took a few minutes looking around and making observations such as ropes that were embedded in the trees that had grown around them that he used to hold his tarps up, shoes that were under rocks that had been there for years, there was enough indication to me … that he had been there for a lot of years," said Hughes.
Christopher Knight, the North Pond Hermit, in a surveillance video during one of the break-ins he allegedly staged to sustain himself. Photograph: Reuters/Maine police
The trooper said that the case of the North Pond hermit sometimes seemed a "myth" that might go unsolved and bringing it to a conclusion is "amazing".
"I think it's still sinking in," Vance said. "I don't think I will ever be involved in such an incident or case it this magnitude."
Knight had been charged only with the Pine Tree Camp burglary, in which $238 worth of goods were taken, and was being held at the jail on $5,000 bail for burglary and theft. It was not clear whether he had a lawyer.
Knight had attended a high school in Fairfield, about 20 miles (32km) away. Why he decided to disappear in the woods remained a question on Wednesday. Attempts to reach relatives were unsuccessful.