Sheriff's deputies defend response to warnings about the gunman before Lewiston shootings
Deputies with the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office testified Thursday about their they attempted to gauge the mental state of the man who would eventually commit Maine's worst mass shooting. But the officers told an investigating commission commission that they felt limited in how far they could go in that process.
Many of the details discussed during the commission's roughly six-hour meeting had previously come to light in documents and reports released since 18 people were killed in Lewiston last October.
But this was the first time the public has heard from the Sagadahoc County sheriff's deputies who received the reports about Robert Card's deteriorating mental state and had attempted to speak with him.
The deputies testified that the law and the constitution limited how they could respond. They also stressed that were relying on the assurances of Card's family and Army Reserve leaders that they would address the situation.
"If I had had more specific threats and I thought that human life was truly in danger, I would like to think that I would have approached the situation differently," Deputy Chad Carleton told members of the special commission investigating the events leading up to and immediately following the Oct. 25 shooting.
Carleton first became aware of Card's mental health last May — more than five months before the shooting — when he was asked to speak to Card's ex-wife and teenage son. The pair had concerns about Card's increasing paranoia and his access to guns, including roughly a dozen he had in his house. Carleton recounted how he spoke with them but was also warned by Card's brother, Ryan, that a police officer showing up on Card's doorstep would likely only further aggravate the situation.
Carleton told the shooting commission that he then worked out a plan with Card's family and reserve unit to obtain his weapons and get him into treatment.
"In my training, education and experience it's de-escalation. You're telling me that this person is going to be agitated by the presence of a uniformed deputy? Let's do it another way. How can we get this person to the hospital? How can we get them the help they need?" he said.
Carleton said he had no legal grounds to take Card into custody because, to his knowledge, Card had not broken any laws and did not appear to pose an imminent threat. And responding to a question about what other options he had, Carleton explained that unless he had reason to take Card into protective custody, he had no way to legally start the so-called "yellow flag" process to temporarily confiscate his guns.
"I could go and exacerbate the situation to the point where I force the issue, but again all of our experience and all of our training is de-escalation, looking for the most peaceful path forward to get the person the help that they need," Carleton said. "So there is no easy answer to that question."
Maine's yellow flag law has come under increased scrutiny — but also been used more frequently — since the October shooting. The law allows police to temporarily confiscate the firearms of someone who is deemed to pose a threat to themselves or others. Before that can happen, however, the person must be taken into protective custody and a medical professional as well as a judge must find the person poses a threat.
The law is less restrictive than the much more common red flag laws used around the country, which allow family members to directly petition a judge to order someone to give up their guns. Most red flag laws also do not require a medical evaluation.
Carleton had also communicated with leaders of Card's Army Reserve unit in Saco in May. So he said he was surprised to learn months later that, in July, officers from the Reserve unit had taken Card for a psychiatric evaluation during a training mission in New York.
Card had been accusing people of calling a pedophile behind his back, a theme that pops up throughout the concerns raised over months about his mental health.
"I thought something must have changed, something must have improved," Carleton said. "Otherwise, why would they have taken him on the training mission? That's what stood out to me."
The Army is conducting its own investigation into the events leading up to the mass shooting, while the Army's independent inspector general is also conducting a separate inquiry.
But Card's mental status had continued to deteriorate, with ultimately tragic consequences.
Card was a firearms trainer but the Army barred him from accessing guns after his hospitalization and declared him "non-deployable." But details of Card's hospitalization were never communicated to the Sagadahoc sheriff's office until September, when a fellow reservist told his supervisors that Card had become so erratic and aggressive that was worried his close friend was going to commit a mass shooting.
Sgt. Aaron Skolfield with the sheriff's office was tasked with conducting a welfare check on Card at the behest of the Army. Skolfield testified that he tried several times over two days to contact Card at his home in Bowdoinham.
On one occasion, Skolfield believed he was home but wasn't answering the door. He and an accompanying deputy backed off after trying several times. He then had multiple conversations with Card's family members, Army Reserve leaders and other police officers about the situation.
"I was trying to figure out how to skin this cat from a different direction," Skolfield told the commission. "I can't make him come out, I can't make him answer the door, I can't make him talk to me. But at the same time I can't go barging into his trailer because he has 4th Amendment issues against search-and-seizure. He hasn't committed a crime."
Commission member Toby Dilworth, a former assistant U.S. Attorney for Maine, pressed Skolfield repeatedly on why he didn't take the warnings from Card's fellow reservist of a potential mass shooting more seriously.
Skolfield responded that Reserve leaders had cast doubts about the reliability of those reports from Card's friend and fellow reservist, which he acknowledged affected his sense of urgency. Reserve leaders were also recommending that deputies back off to give Card some space. And at the same time, Skolfield said Card's brother assured him that the family would work to remove any guns from the home.
"It was a lot of weight to put on the family," he said. "But I was relying on the family to get through the front door, that I couldn't legally do."
That all happened less than six weeks before Card shot more than 30 people at two businesses with an assault-style rifle, killing 18. He was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot would two days later.
Next week, the commission expects to hear from family members of victims of the shooting. The Legislature is also expected to take up a request from Gov. Janet Mills and Attorney General Aaron Frey to provide the commission with subpoena power in order to obtain confidential records or compel testimony.