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“Lucifer’s Child:” Epstein’s book recounts horrific murder of little girl

By Rachel Morin

TCT Columnist

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.

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28 Responses to ““Lucifer’s Child:” Epstein’s book recounts horrific murder of little girl”

  • Nic:

    Both of my parents were born and raised in Auburn, Maine and I still have family living there and visited for many years. I always knew the tale behind this building and it always left me with an eerie feeling every time I passed by it. I was always amazed that building was still standing (And it was still back in 2005 when I last visited, but not sure if it still is today.)

    This is a good article and sheds some light on answers to questions I never thought to ask until recently.

    • Sheldon:

      The building…is, still there. (Always amazed me, it was never taken down after that. How anyone can live in the building Amazes me more.)

      • Brooklynn:

        I know someone who lives there currently, and Angela’s spirit is still there as the little girl she was at the time. She communicates with my friend thru the ghostbox.

    • Josh:

      Wow I just rented an apartment here today. I guess I should have done some research first.

    • Yes the building still stands today as of 11-15-13 my ex wife moved into this building when we separated she did not know the history behind this building when she moved in when i showed a friend where she lived they told me so i reserched it and to know for sure before i told her i walked behind the building and the mustard yellow paint is still there on the back the rest of the building has had viynle siding when relized it was the building i went to tell her (prior to this she had said she was un-easy in the apartment she would hear thing feel things she could not exsplain ) when i told her about history about the building she made plans to move i read more and feel this building should be torn down the fact is people who move in this building should be informed about what has happened in it she lived in apartment 3 if standing on street it was 2nd floor right side i was told this was the apartment it happened not sure about that but horrible thing and horrible people landlord should have to inform possible tenants of history Thank you for your time Matthew karuzis

  • Sabrina Pepin:

    I own the book “Lucifer’s Child”. It makes me sick to my stomach to read, but it is part of my history. I grew up in Lewiston/Auburn Maine. I am 25 years old, born 2 years after Angela’s death and my whole life I’ve known of Angela’s story. As of two years ago, my sons father moved into the building where this tradegy took place. Each and every time I went there, I had this gut wrenching feeling. The carpets, wallpaper and scent in the hallway is musty and original. They just recently re-sided the building this year, other than that – it bring you right back to that day. Yesterday was Angela’s 27th death anniversary. I pray for her still. I pray for all children who are living under any sort of circumstances which cause them pain and/or grief. Almost 30 years later, us locals still see that building, and cannot fathom the horror that Angela endured. God bless.

  • Crystal:

    I was intrigued by the headline of this when I saw it posted on Facebook. I’m interested in real crime stories. As soon as I saw the line “mustard colored” I knew this was my old apartment. I lived in this building when I was two years old. The winter of 1987. I caught fire to my fathers mattress with a lighter, causing $20,000 dollars in damages. My aunt has the newspaper article still. Everyone survived-my father got myself and my one year old sister out. She had smoke inhalation resulting in pneumonia.

  • Jim Hart:

    I used to live in that apartment for a short time back in 1976, and my brother lived their around the time of the murder. It has 6 tenements; 3 on each side stacked. It was built in the 50s and sits adjacent to the Androscoggin River (at the time, a very poluted river due to the paper mills upstream). Living there, I never felt like it was “homey”. It has a very transitory feel to it. When I found out what happened, my brother said that he smelled the remnant of ‘cooked flesh’, smelled like “boiled hotdogs”. I wonder if Lane was doing acid when this happened.

  • Alicia richardson:

    Angela is my cousin, I was with her most of my first few years, then one day she was just gone. We were very close cousins and friends!!!!!! I miss her everyday and look at her picture on my living room wall and tears fall as I wonder if we would still be close. I love you Angie!!!!!!

  • my son lives in the building now i dont know what side or floor that happened at but there is still a bad musty smell when u go up the stairs to his apartment i try not to think about it so much cause the mother and boyfriend were so sick and there was no one there for the children no one thats a shame

  • Thank you for your entry, you will have to rethink it better!

  • stewrat:

    I was living in Lewiston at the time with my wife and 3 young children. I felt the twin cities were getting out of hand with crime and this incident drove me to make the decision to move back to Canada. I’m not saying that this can’t happen here also but this was the main decision to move back here.

  • I just moved into this aparment on the third floor. I was wondering if any one know what apartment this happened in? My friend at the ymca wouldn’t even tell me what happened in this building. I googled it right away and was shocked. I was wondering why it was so cheap for such a big place! Now i know why. I heard it happened on the second floor? I am still in shock over this and very saddened since i have a young daughter myself.

  • EUGENIA:

    Just got the book. He John Lane is a jeaaus freak!!! Angela was a beautiful little girl. He needs the same. It qas a horrible way to die!!!

  • taysha:

    …sadly this was my childhood . i only made it out by a thread ….i feel more for this girl than can ever be said . its incredibly disturbing how people like this are always popping up ….that building also looks like a few houses i have stayed in …reading about this story is incredibly surreal and hits ….almost TOO close for comfort …. along the lines of case 39 ….foster care AND real home were nightmares …the only salvation is growing up before your time …i wish she grew up . i wish she was given the CHANCE to at least

    lol another funny coincidence is my birthday is 2 years after the day the final performance was played XD .

  • memory:

    I remember that. i was 6 lived in lewiston at the time and ironically my fathers name is also john lane.,

  • alicia price:

    I read the book and everytime I drive by the apartment building on main St in auburn it Makes me sick. The building should be torn down. As a mother I cat believe how anyone can do such a thing. My heart goes out to the people involved and the little girl who lost her live due to sick parenting.

  • I genuinely enjoy reading through on this site, it holds superb articles . “Violence commands both literature and life, and violence is always crude and distorted.” by Ellen Glasgow.

  • Brenda Castellano:

    Need to say this.. I have worked with the surviving child for years and i found this Book to be helpful as a provider to unlock the keys to my clients struggles yet very traumatic for the survivor … It would have been easier on everyone if they had notice and not just seen the book for sale on a shelf..

  • Jackie M. Curtis:

    I really remembered this case so well. I worked just down the street at a convenince store and my sister lived in that building. She was one of 77 witnesses to testfy at trial which was held one year later due to death threats to John Lane. That case changed our lives forever. We were not the same after that. Every year when Oct. 27 comes around I do remembered that little girl. There was so much media coverage. I live in Conn. and people that I spoke to (few) remember this case. It is just too bad that Cynthia Palmer was never convicted for this.

  • rosaleeee:

    I have in my hands a newspaper clipping of this story, published, I think, in the Des Moines Register 10/28/1984.

    The story is five short paragraphs long. The clipping is very old & falling apart. I just now taped it up to preserve it.

    After I read this story I spent the entire weekend holed up in my apartment in Iowa City crying. I so identified with that little girl, only I did not know why for a very long time. It took me well over a decade after to begin to recover the memories of my own abuse as a very small child.

    I went to the internet to google the names of the two “parents” to find out what happened afterward, and found this and other stories.

    I cried so hard that weekend because I could identify with that poor child crying “let me out! let me out!”

    Most people will feel sad and angry about such a story, but they don’t spend an entire weekend crying about it. It was because this reaction of mine was so over the top that gradually I began to explore my past, on my own, without therapy (so no one dare say my memories were “planted” by a therapist!)

  • Kelsie Brown:

    Sara was put in the system. Never to be heard from again.

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