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Bad blood detailed in Maine ‘lobster wars’ trial

Even under the rough-and-tumble rules of the sea that Maine lobstermen live by, staring down the barrel of a .12-gauge shotgun is extreme.
Image: Clayton Philbrook
Lobsterman Nick Philbrook holds a large lobster caught off Matinicus Island, Maine last year. Islanders are fighting to keep non-residents from fishing in waters near their island in order to preserve their livelihoods.Robert F. Bukaty / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Even under the rough-and-tumble rules of the sea that Maine lobstermen live by, staring down the barrel of a .12-gauge shotgun is extreme.

But that's where fishermen and half brothers Christopher Young and Weston Ames found themselves last summer on Steamboat Wharf on Matinicus Island. They were attempting to confront another lobsterman they suspected of cutting their fishing lines, costing them tens of thousands of dollars worth of gear.

As Ames moved toward Janan Miller, who leveled the shotgun at him, her 68-year-old father, Vance Bunker, drew a .22-caliber handgun. What Ames and Young didn't know was that an AK-47 Soviet-style assault rifle with 270 rounds of ammunition, and a .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol, lay on the seat of Bunker's pickup parked nearby.

Details of last summer's so-called "lobster wars" have been spilling forth this week in testimony in a coastal courtroom, where Bunker is being tried on charges of shooting Young. His daughter, 45, is being tried at the same time on a reckless conduct charge for her role in the shooting. The trial is expected to end Thursday.

Fueled by a feud
The shooting was fueled by a feud over whether Janan Miller's husband, Alan Miller, should be able to fish his traps in the lobster-rich waters off Matinicus. Testimony has revealed details — fishing lines being cut, a pepper-spray attack, a grappling match aboard a boat — of a system of frontier justice that permeates Maine's lobster industry.

Bunker, fearful for his daughter's life and seething over an earlier confrontation with Young, fired his pistol that July 20 morning. The bullet, Ames testified, whizzed so close to his head he could feel its whoosh.

"You missed, you dumb bastard," Ames cried out, another lobsterman testified.

Bunker then fired a second shot, striking Young in the neck. He fell to the ground, blood spilling onto the wharf stacked high with lobster traps. Young testified this week he's no longer able to work as a fisherman since the shooting left him with limited use of his left arm and hand.

The shooting was the culmination of an ongoing dispute among a group of lobstermen on Matinicus, an island 20 miles out to sea that is home to about 50 residents, nearly all of them connected to the lobster trade.

As long as there's been a lobstering industry, fishermen in Maine have feuded as they follow unofficial and legally unenforceable rules of the ocean that dictate who can fish where. Lobstermen on Matinicus are fiercely protective of their waters and don't want fishermen from elsewhere — Miller was from a small harbor on the mainland— encroaching on them.

FILE - This Monday, July 20, 2009 file photo released by Maine's Knox County Sheriff's Office shows Edwin Vance Bunker who is charged with elevated aggravated assault for allegedly shooting fellow lobsterman Chris Young on Maine's Matinicus Island. Bunker's trial is expected to conclude this week. (AP Photo/Knox County Sheriff Office, File)Knox County Sheriff's Office / Knox County Sheriff

The line on those rules was crossed several times — when one lobsterman jumped onto another's boat and then threatened his life — the day of the shooting. But pulling a gun is almost unthinkable, Ames said.

"She's yelling she's going to shoot us," Ames testified. "I grabbed the barrel, she pulled it back and pointed it at my face."

‘Blood was coming out’
Moments later, his half-brother was shot. "I rolled him over and grabbed him by the neck, where blood was coming out," Ames testified.

Young and Ames suspected Bunker and Miller had cut their fishing gear. But Miller and Bunker had suspicions of their own, thinking Young and Ames had been cutting the lines to Miller's traps.

After discovering that morning that his fishing lines had been cut, Young did the unheard-of — he pulled his boat alongside Bunker's boat out in Matinicus Harbor and jumped aboard.

He and Bunker grappled, staggering around and cursing each other when Young threatened to kill Bunker, according to testimony from Bunker's 44-year-old sternman, Thomas Bernardi.

That's when Bunker sprayed a can of pepper spray into Young's eyes.

"Vance was there, shaking that can, trying to get every last drop out of it," Bernardi said.

Temporarily blinded
Temporarily blinded, Young made his way back to his boat and left. Bunker called police.

Later that morning, Miller brought his lobster boat to the wharf. As Miller pulled his boat up, the cursing began.

"We called him a trap-cutting blankety-blank a few times," Ames testified.

That's when Janan Miller stepped out from behind some lobster traps with a shotgun. Vance Bunker appeared on the other side of stacked traps with his .22-caliber pistol.

‘I didn't know what the hell to do’
Inside Bunker's truck was an AK-47 and a .45-caliber revolver owned by Bernardi.

Bunker has said he armed himself before going down to the wharf because he had been threatened repeatedly. He said he fired the shots because he thought Ames was wrestling the shotgun from his daughter and that her life was in jeopardy.

"Once he grabbed the gun, I didn't know what the hell to do," Bunker is heard telling a sheriff's deputy shortly after the shooting, in an audio recording played in court.

More than 30 people — mostly friends and family members — have watched the testimony unfold in the Knox County Superior Court. Outside the courtroom, a dozen of them declined to comment on the trial. Tensions are high, they said, and anything they say would only be inflammatory.

Bunker, who lives in the mainland town of Owls Head, faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted of the most serious charges against him, two counts of elevated aggravated assault. Free on $125,000 bail since the shooting, he is forbidden from going to the island unless he is escorted by police.