By Rachel Morin
The room in the Auburn Public Library was abuzz as folks gathered early to hear Elliott Epstein discuss his recently released book, “Lucifer’s Child,” which recounts the horrific murder of a little girl who was stuffed in an oven and burned to death.
Several people stood in clusters waiting for the author’s arrival, recalling where they were when they first learned of little Angela Palmer’s tragic death.
The first thing you notice about “Lucifer’s Child” is the dramatic cover photo of the mustard-colored tenement building at 317 Main St. in Auburn, where four-year-old Angela Palmer was stuffed into an oven and burned to death by her mother’s live-in boyfriend, John Lane. The photo alone summons the horror and unspeakable events leading up to the horrific crime.
Without even opening the book, the residents of the Lewiston-Auburn area were immediately shot back to October 27, 1984—the tragedy is forever embedded in their memory.
The building still stands today, though it is now repainted in a softer, pastel hue. But its rear wall still retains the harsh, dark-mustard-colored paint.
Elliott Epstein takes the reader through the shocking murder of the little girl. The unspeakable cruelty of how Angela died stunned the community and resonated worldwide. It placed Auburn, Maine on the map as the horrific scene where John Lane savagely beat the four-year-old girl, then stuffed her in an oven, wedging the door shut with a chair, and turned it on as high as it would go, burning her to a crisp as she screamed for help.
The deranged Lane said that Angela had turned into a devil, and he claimed he had to get rid of her. Angela’s mother, Cynthia Palmer, was sitting in the next room, drugged and incoherent, oblivious to what was happening to her little daughter.
After the tragedy, angry calls from an outraged public deluged the dispatcher’s office at the Androscoggin County Jail, the Auburn Police Department and the editors’ desks at the local newspapers. Calls came from across the nation and as far away as New Zealand. One caller claiming to be New York mob boss John Gotti declared he would deal with Lane: “My family will take care of him.”
Fearing for Lane’s safety, police kept him isolated in jail. Anger was even directed at those who were marginally associated with Lane and Palmer and later toward the defending attorneys. The trial was held in Bangor to avoid the potentially prejudicial effect of the extensive pre-trial publicity. Tight security was out in force.
Epstein was a young lawyer at the time, and he was deeply affected as he witnessed the trial proceedings. He knew at the time that he would one day write about it. Like so many others, he desperately wanted to know why such an atrocious tragedy could happen.
Many years passed, and this story continued to haunt him—as it has with many of the people involved: fire fighters, policemen, first responders, doctors, nurses, tenants in the building, neighbors, friends, relatives, child welfare workers, psychiatrists, guards at the jail and so many others who were involved in the many angles of the case. He wanted to tell the story from their perspective.
The book’s 20 chapters recall the event in graphic and vivid detail, as well as the Epstein’s painstaking research of John Lane and Cynthia Palmer’s childhood and interviews with the various people involved in the case. Actual testimony from the court trial is included, as are excerpts from letters. Also included are seven photos and three artist’s sketches.
Ironically, the book tells how John Lane started his life in an oven when, as an oxygen-deprived “blue baby” born at home, his mother kept him warm in an oven, an improvised incubator outfitted with hot water bottles, bricks and blankets. The oven door was left ajar and a shelf protruded from the oven to allow the infant enough air to breathe.
During his research, Epstein read extensively about child abuse, abused-women syndrome and why women stay with an abusive partner. He told his audience that the book isn’t a horror story, but a horrific story that he presented in a way so people could see it through various angles. He wanted to highlight the problems of child abuse and abused-women syndrome. His author’s notes reveal why he chose “Lucifer’s Child” for the title.
John Lane was imprisoned for life, and Cynthia Palmer was acquitted. She died in 2005.
Elliott Epstein, a first-time author, has been a trial lawyer for over 30 years. Before becoming an attorney, he worked as a journalist; since 2007, has written a monthly newspaper column, entitled “Rearview Mirror,” which analyzes current events in the context of history.
A graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Services, Epstein received a master’s degree in history from Imperial College of the University of London, and he earned his law degree from the University of Maine School of Law. He is active in several local organizations, including Museum L-A, which he founded in 1996, and now serves as board president.
Epstein and his wife, Ellen, live in Auburn, and they have two adult children. His law practice is with the firm of Pickus & Epstein in Portland and Auburn.