'To comfort all her friends': Vigil for slain teenager attracts large Portland crowd

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PORTLAND — More than 150 people gathered Monday evening in front of a Cumberland Avenue apartment building to remember the life of an 18-year-old girl who was killed there one week earlier.

The vigil in memory of Zoe Sarnacki attracted friends, family members and strangers. Lois Reckitt, the director of Family Crisis Services, said advocates to stop domestic violence began holding vigils for victims 30 years ago as a way to remember the humanity of the person killed.

“This is I believe the largest vigil there has ever been in Portland,” Reckitt said.

People stood on the sidewalk and in the street in front of 463 Cumberland Ave. Some held candles and flowers, many cried. According to Portland police, Sarnacki was killed in a third-floor apartment before the apartment was set afire. The state medical examiner’s office has determined Sarnacki died of homicidal violence with neck injuries. The cause of death was released this week, after the office confirmed Sarnacki’s identity through a DNA test.

Police arrested Chad Gurney, 27, who lived in the apartment, and charged him with murder and arson. The arrest was made early in the morning of May 26, just hours after firefighters who extinguished the fire found Sarnacki’s body.

Jill Barkley organized the vigil for Sarnacki, who lived in South Portland and had attended Deering High School. She said she did not know Sarnacki, but lives in the Parkside neighborhood and works for the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence.

“It’s important to come back to the space and begin to create healing in our neighborhood,” Barkley said.

Several people spoke at the vigil, including Sarnacki’s sister, Courtney Sarnacki, who said she did not know how to put her thoughts into words.

“I’m here today to represent her death,” Sarnacki said.

John Sarnacki, father of Zoe and Courtney, also attended the vigil. He wept openly and thanked people individually for being there. Although he did not speak to the crowd, Sarnacki handed out copies of a poem that was a version of Edwin Arnold’s “After Death in Arabia.” The poem was altered so that it referred to the death of a woman instead of a man, and to God instead of Allah.

The first line read, “She who died, in Maine, sends this to comfort all her friends.”

Gurney remains in Cumberland County Jail. He is being held without bail and has been ordered to undergo a psychological evaluation. 

This story was updated June 4.

Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or kbucklin@theforecaster.net


p-vigil1-060309.jpgPeople comfort each other and place candles and flowers Monday on the steps at 463 Cumberland Ave. in Portland, where Zoe Sarnacki was killed on Memorial Day. The vigil attracted more than 150 people.

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p-vigil2-060309.jpgJohn Sarnacki, Zoe Sarnacki’s father, and Zoe’s sister Courtney comfort each other at Monday’s vigil.