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Lewiston mass shooting commission to request subpoena powers

Daniel Wathen and Paula Silsby, of an independent commission studying the mass shootings last month in Lewiston, Maine, hold the commission's first meeting, Monday, Nov. 20, 2023, in Augusta, Maine. (AP Photo/Patrick Whittle)
Patrick Whittle
Daniel Wathen and Paula Silsby, of an independent commission studying the mass shootings last month in Lewiston, Maine, hold the commission's first meeting, Monday, Nov. 20, 2023, in Augusta, Maine. (AP Photo/Patrick Whittle)

Members of a new commission formed to investigate the Lewiston mass shooting will seek subpoena power to obtain military records and other documents that might not otherwise be available to them.

The group's leader is also pledging transparency as the panel begins a months-long probe into the worst mass shooting in Maine history.

In a letter sent to commission members earlier this month, Gov. Janet Mills and Attorney General Aaron Frey said Maine people deserve "the full and unvarnished facts of what happened on October 25th, the months that led up to it and the law enforcement response to it." Nearly a month after the shooting that left 18 people dead, many questions remain about why Robert Card still had access to guns despite serious warning signs about his mental health. Maine State Police, the U.S. Army and local police agencies have all launched internal investigations.

But commission members voted unanimously on Monday to ask the Legislature for subpoena powers — a request that was immediately endorsed by both Mills and Frey.

“As we pledged when we established the Independent Commission, we will do all we can to ensure the Commission has the resources and powers it needs to discharge its fact-finding responsibilities fully and properly," Mills and Frey said in a joint statement. "To that end, we support the Independent Commission’s request, and our offices will immediately begin consulting with the Independent Commission and legislative leadership to prepare legislation granting the Commission the power of subpoena, with the goal of having that legislation prepared for the Legislature’s consideration at the beginning of the next session.”

Member George "Toby" Dilworth, who is a former assistant U.S. attorney for Maine, said he hopes that most people will cooperate with the commission's requests. But there may be situations where people or agencies are unwilling or unable to share information.

"We are going to be seeking military records and psychiatric records and medical records," Dilworth said. "And all of those may not be producible to us without this subpoena power. So I think it is extremely important. And it's too bad that we can't get that authority until January. That will probably slow us down a bit."

Card was a member of a U.S. Army Reserve unit based out of Saco, where he has been described as a "firearms instructor." He spent two weeks at a psychiatric hospital in New York in July after leaders of his unit brought him to a military hospital because of his erratic and aggressive behavior. Neither the Army nor New York State Police, who were called to assist during the incident, have disclosed what information, if any, was transmitted back to Maine about Card.

Members of Card's family had also expressed concerns with police in Maine about his increasing paranoia and access to guns months before the Oct. 25 shooting. After a fellow reservist told unit leaders in September that he believed Card was "going to snap and do a mass shooting," a Sagadahoc County Sheriff's Office deputy tried unsuccessfully twice to speak with Card at his Bowdoin home.

Maine has a "yellow flag" law that allows police to seek to force someone to temporarily relinquish their guns if a medical professional and a judge agree that they pose a threat to themselves or others. The Sagadahoc Sheriff's Office never attempted to use the law, however, and instead received assurances from Card's family and Army Reserve leaders that they would try to remove his guns and get him into treatment. Six weeks later, Card used a high-powered assault-style rifle to kill 18 and wound 13 others at two Lewiston businesses.

Use of Maine's "yellow flag" law has surged since the Lewiston shooting. But critics contend that Maine's law is weaker than the "red flag" laws used in more than 20 other states because it only allows police to begin the process and requires a medical examination.

The seven-member commission held its first, largely organizational meeting at the State House on Monday.

Chairman Daniel Wathen, who is a former chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, laid out an timeline for issuing a final report within six months. The next meeting is tentatively scheduled for Dec.14.

"Now six months is a very ambitious goal but highly desirable for obvious reasons," Wathen said. "And we will strive to meet it but not at the expense of failing to establish the truth about what occurred."

The executive order from Mills creating the commission states that the group should conduct its work in public "to the extent practical." But the same order also explicitly exempts it from Maine's public meetings and records law, which is allowed for so-called advisory boards and committees. 

The commission spent its first hour behind closed doors selecting the staff members who will conduct the investigations. But Wathen said the panel intends to abide by the executive order's stated goal of a public process.

"At this early stage, neither I nor anyone can foresee the legal claims for confidentiality or silence that we or our staff may encounter," Wathen said. "Nor can we foresee whether everyone we approach will willingly cooperate in coming before a public forum. Our goal is maximum transparency in this important matter."

The commission hired two investigators and an executive director to conduct much of the groundwork of the investigation.

Anne Jordan, a former prosecutor and commissioner of the Maine Department of Public Safety during the Baldacci administration, was named as the commission's executive director.

Brian MacMaster, who recently retired as the investigations chief with the Maine Attorney General's Office, is one of two investigators hired by the commission. The second investigator is Jim Osterrieder, who spent years as the head of the FBI's Maine office and oversaw the investigation into Maine connections to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.