But he’s also there in Julia Russell’s darkest memories. According to a lawsuit she filed two weeks ago in U.S. District Court in Portland, the trusted friend of her parents who had a knack for making her feel special was also a predator who, starting when she was 6 and continuing until she was 8, all but destroyed her life.
“Chenevert’s conduct included, among other things, ‘teaching’ Julia how to French kiss; exposing himself to Julia and coaxing her to touch his exposed genitalia; and performing oral sex on Julia,” the complaint states.
Sitting in the Monday afternoon quiet of Magnus on the Water, the restaurant she co-owns in Biddeford, Russell explained why, after almost 30 years, she’s going public with a long-held secret that scarred “every aspect of my life.”
“It’s affected every single one of my relationships,” she said, including “my relationship with myself.”
At the same time, it’s left her family – parents Gordon and Marsha, sister Jane – reeling with the still-raw guilt and anger that the friend they considered part of the family was in fact someone far different.
• • •
Gordon Russell first met Phil Chenevert back in the mid-1960s, when both were teenagers who summered with their families in the close-knit community of Biddeford Pool.
Their seasonal friendship deepened in the early 1970s, when Phil bought a year-round home in Biddeford Pool and Gordon moved there full time with his parents after they winterized the summer place.
When Gordon married Marsha in 1978, there was Phil, a groomsman, among the smiling faces in the wedding album.
Jane was born in 1983. Julia came along two years later. By now, the Russells lived in Saco, their door always open to Phil, who still lived 20 minutes away in Biddeford Pool and owned and operated Dr. Volvo, an auto dealership and service center on Route 1 in Arundel.
“He was a friend of our parents, but we thought of him as our friend,” Jane, whose last name is now Swenson, recalled in an interview last week. “He was fun – more fun than our parents. He wanted to spend time with us. He was willing to sit and chat about kid stuff – he cared about that stuff in a way that my parents didn’t have time for.”
Jane, like Julia, often spent time at Phil’s home. So did other kids from Biddeford Pool. But he never did anything untoward to her, she said, noting that she was the strong-willed “social butterfly,” the type of kid who would have had no difficulty speaking up – loudly – if anyone laid a hand on her.
Not so with Julia. A self-described “tomboy,” she was more introverted. She spent more time by herself. She didn’t make friends as easily as her big sister did.
And so it began. As the complaint states, “Defendant’s extreme and outrageous conduct included, but was not limited to, exposing himself to Julia; performing sexual acts on Julia; and coercing Julia to cover up his illegal and abhorrent behavior.”
“Multiple instances, multiple towns – it was our little secret,” Julia said, recalling the minibike Phil kept just for her at his home, the rides on his boat in Saco Bay, the trips to his office in Arundel premised on her love of cars …
“All of it was disgusting, but I think the thing that always made it most difficult for me is that he put the power in my hands in some sense. He’d say, ‘This can stop at any time. You just have to ask for it to stop.’”
Maybe it was Julia’s worry that if she made the abuse stop, all the fun visits and outings with Phil would end too. Or maybe it was her deep, childlike fear that if she blew the whistle, her parents would kill Phil and go to jail and her family would be forever destroyed. Or maybe it was because 6-year-olds are woefully unequipped to navigate the complexities of adult dysfunction.
Julia remembers once in fourth grade, after she did tell Phil to stop and he complied, her class watched a video warning them of child predators and telling them what to do if they were targeted.
She thought forlornly that day, “I wish I had seen this before because it’s too late for me. This already happened.”
Another opportunity lost: Back when the alleged abuse was still going on, someone in the community warned Julia’s mother to keep her kids away from Phil Chenevert, that he wasn’t to be trusted around young children.
In an interview, Marsha Russell said she immediately sat both girls down and asked them point-blank: “Is anyone touching you? Are you in a situation like that?”
No, they both said. And so Marsha, still unable to imagine their old friend Phil doing such a thing, wrote it off to the rumor mill and moved on.
Almost three decades later, Jane has no recollection of the conversation with her mother. Julia remembers it vividly, right down to the fact that her mom, try as she might to open the door to a difficult conversation, never mentioned Phil by name.
Life went on. And Phil, always the life of the party, kept coming by as if nothing had ever happened.
Julia wallowed through an unhappy adolescence, graduating from Waynflete in Portland and then earning a degree in biology from the University of Maryland. She tried out various careers – biological research, investment counselor, even training to become an emergency medical technician – but nothing stuck.
At the same time, she struggled with relationships. Intimacy did not come easily to her. But anger and depression did. Along with the frustration Julia felt with “the number of walls or barriers that I threw up to protect myself and protect the people that I thought I had to over the past 30 years.”
• • •
After 14 years away, Julia moved back to Saco a few years ago and set her sights, along with three partners, on opening the restaurant overlooking the Saco River in downtown Biddeford.
She also started seeing a therapist, slowly confronting the tempest that had hovered over her like a cloud throughout most of her life.
Then, just as the restaurant opened in 2020, the pandemic hit. Julia, like so many others, turned inward during those long days of social isolation. She began to realize that the only way out from under that cloud was to shine the spotlight, once and for all, on her trauma.
She told her mother on Memorial Day after a cookout at her mother’s home in Saco. She told her sister two days later. And then, a day or two after that, she told her father at his home in Biddeford Pool – her parents divorced in 2000.
In separate interviews, all three offered their reaction to news they never saw coming.
“Grief,” said Marsha. “Total grief. It’s just not anything you ever expect your child to ever say to you. You never want to hear those words come out of their mouth.”
She later added, “I failed her.”
“Devastated,” said Gordon. “I keep wondering what sign we missed on a week-to-week, month-to-month basis. I should have seen something that I never did.”
“My immediate reaction was shock,” said sister Jane. “And then, ‘Well that makes sense.’”
Looking back, Jane said, it all falls into place now: Julia’s withdrawn and sometimes “cranky” behavior through all those years of adolescence and young adulthood. Her difficulty getting close to people. Her questionable relationship choices.
“I don’t know if I’m angry at myself for not putting the pieces together,” Jane said. “But I do feel guilty for not looking at the bigger picture.”
Chenevert, who never married, left Maine about 10 years ago and now owns a modest single-story ranch in St. Augustine, Florida. Voicemail and social media messages to him went unanswered last week, as did a call to Gene Libby, his Kennebunk attorney.
The last contact the family had with Chenevert was in 2019, when he rented a cottage at Biddeford Pool and, as was customary over the years, made plans to have dinner with the Russells.
But then Julia, worried about her young niece who’s the spitting image of Julia when she was 6, sent Chenevert a blistering text message: Stay away from my niece – or else.
Chenevert never responded. But he quickly begged off from the dinner plans, telling Gordon that he’d lost a large sum of money in a bad investment and was embarrassed that he couldn’t pick up the dinner tab.
“I wonder now whether he was backing off for fear of being exposed,” Gordon said. “Was this financial reversal legitimate, or does he still have much of the money he saved for his retirement? I have no clue.”
Possible financial setbacks notwithstanding, Chenevert has managed to travel to the Philippines.
In November of 2019, he posted on his Facebook page a photo of himself hugging a young woman. He referred to her as “my new gf,” later adding, “Pretty girls in the Philippines, she looks like Eileen, the peanut.”
• • •
Julia submitted her lawsuit to the federal court on July 9. Around the same time, she says, she filed a criminal complaint against Chenevert with the Biddeford Police Department.
Biddeford Deputy Chief JoAnne Fisk declined to discuss the case or even confirm that there is an investigation.
Under Maine law, a charge of gross sexual assault against a victim under age 16 who was abused after 1985 is not subject to a statute of limitations. Thus, it appears that a criminal case, given sufficient evidence, could still proceed.
As for the civil case, also unhindered by a statute of limitations, it’s not about money. Portland attorney Taylor Asen said last week that he agreed to represent Julia on a contingency basis, meaning he gets nothing unless she wins. Meanwhile, Julia is paying upfront for a private investigator and other expenses.
“I wouldn’t have taken this on if I didn’t find her to be as compelling as she was,” Asen said. “And also, I realized that she was not doing this for herself. She’s doing this because she thinks it’s important for the community and she owes it to other potential victims.”
Julia wholeheartedly agrees.
“Yes, I’m doing it for myself,’ she said. “But the reality is my deep conviction that I’m doing it for other people.”
In the meantime, outside the judicial system, a family tries to at least begin the healing process.
The good news is that they’re all talking to one another, however agonizing that may be. The better news is that as far as her mother, father and sister are concerned, their guilt and heartache are secondary to whatever Julia needs whenever she needs it.
“My priority is Julia’s mental health and well-being,” her sister said. “And then after that it’s whatever she wants.”
Marsha and Gordon expressed the same sentiment. Still, as Julia’s parents, they have a tougher hill to climb: Were they too trusting of the close friend who liked to have their little girl sit in his lap? Did their enjoyment of his presence obscure something more sinister? Should they have sensed then what suddenly seems entirely plausible to them now?
Memorial Day weekend, after the guests had all departed, Julia sat down with her mother and slowly began laying out the horrors that have raged inside her memory all these years.
At first, she didn’t name the man at the center of her never-ending nightmare. She didn’t have to.
The moment she said she was molested as a child, her mother said, “Phil.”