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Dixmont Man's Case Raises Questions About Use Of Force When Responding To A Mental Health Crisis

Patty Wight
Maine Public
Just a few months ago, this 24-by-24 concrete slab supported a two-story house filled with antiques from a general store, once owned by Grendell's grandfather.

On Friday, Mike Grendell of Dixmont will appear before a judge to ask for a suspended sentence in an unusual case.

It was about three months ago when Grendell experienced a mental health breakdown, and his friends called police for help. Twenty hours later, Grendell's house would be leveled by a robot bomb, he would be shot three times, and he would face criminal charges. The case raises questions about police use of force when responding to a mental health crisis.

On a recent rainy day, Lee Bell stood on the two-acre property where his best friend Mike Grendell's house once stood.

"As you an see there's just a slab here,” Bell said.

Just a few months ago, this 24-by-24 concrete slab supported a two-story house filled with antiques from a general store, once owned by Grendell's grandfather. All that's left now is debris: shards of glass in the garden that Grendell meticulously tended, a sheet of drywall in the woods nearby, bits of insulation that cling to a shrub.

Credit Patty Wight / Maine Public
Maine Public
Lee Bell (l) and Jacob Irish, standing on the slab that was Grendel’s house. Bell is holding a photo of an antique slot machine destroyed in the explosion.

As Bell surveys the damage, he thought back to when he called the police to help his friend.

"You know, there’s a part that blames myself when I saw the devastation of this whole explosion,” said Bell. "I mean, could it have ended any other way? I just really, truthfully can’t believe it happened."

Bell and Grendell have been friends for decades. They live just a minute or two's drive away from each other. Bell is the kind of friend who would run a plate of dinner up to Grendell from time to time. And Grendell was like a second father to Bell's kids.

Bell's son, Jacob Irish, calls Grendell the “Gentle Giant.”

"You know, very calm, cool demeanor,” he said. “Always soft-spoken and just treated everybody with respect."

But last spring, Bell said his friend's behavior started to change. Grendell stopped going to his job in maintenance at a nearby mobile home community. He painted his mailbox several times over, even in the rain. He stopped returning phone calls.

Things took a dramatic turn on the evening of June 27. When Bell came home, he found Grendell in the driveway. A UPS driver had dropped off a package, and Bell says Grendell became agitated.

"He's kind of looking at me, but yet he's still looking right by me,” said Bell. “‘He kept mentioning is that package for me? Is that package for me?’"

Grendell displayed a gun and a small hatchet, which Bell said was out of character. To avoid trouble, he handed Grendell the package and went inside. About 20 minutes later, he drove to his friend's house to check on him, but he says Grendell chased him in his truck, shooting at him with a handgun. Bell made it safely back to his house, and he decided not to the call the police, for fear that Grendell could be harmed. But the next morning, Irish says he and his father decided to call in law enforcement.

"When they got here, we explained to them for a long time the severity of the mental breakdown that he’s having,” said Irish.

Officers arrived on the scene just before 2:00 p.m. and, using the PA system, told Grendell to come out of the house with his hands up.

Credit Patty Wight / Maine Public
Maine Public
This pile of debris is all that's left of Grendell's home after it was blown up.

Grendell's attorney, David Bate, said his client emerged from the house, “and Mr Grendell comes out in his underwear with his hands up and asks if they’re the real police."

The police identify themselves as state troopers, and Grendell walks inside and closes the door.

For the next 20 hours, police tried unsuccessfully to draw him out of the house: they give instructions over the PA system, play a message from Jacob Irish, and activate sirens and an air horn. To show Grendell that they are real police, they turn on the blue lights of an armored vehicle. Around 5:00 a.m. authorities decide to breach a window. That, says Bate, is when things started to escalate.

"So you have a man who didn't believe they were the real police outside,” said Bate. “And they drive this black armored vehicle, somewhat sinister looking in my opinion, down to the side of his house. And then they take — there's a pole sticking off of this bearcat machine — and they smash in his window. That's the poking of the bear that started Mr Grendell firing at police."

Police reports say that Grendell fired back immediately, and that he continued to shoot sporadically over the next few hours. Because they could not pinpoint his exact location in the house, police decide to take down a wall, using an explosive strapped to a robot.

“As that robot started down the driveway, predictably, Mr. Grendell thought it was coming from the fake police, and he shot at and disabled it,” said Bate. “I think that action saved Mr. Gendell's life."

Police were still able to detonate the explosive, which blew out the first floor of Grendell's house, sending the roof down onto the slab. According to police reports, Grendell crawled out from the rubble and retrieved a rifle. Police ordered him to drop it. It's unclear whether Grendell’s hearing was affected by the explosion, but he didn't drop the rifle. Police shot him three times — twice in the shoulder, once through his jaw. He was taken by LifeFlight to Maine Medical Center.

Bate says the police grossly overreacted.

“I'm just astonished they could use this much destructive power against a citizen,” Bate said. “And I’m just astonished that the citizen survived. It’s a miracle."

Grendell is now at Riverview Psychiatric Center, waiting for a bail hearing. He faces one count of criminal threatening with a dangerous weapon and one count of reckless conduct with a dangerous weapon, for shots allegedly fired at Lee Bell.

The Maine State Police declined to comment on active cases, but Major Christopher Grotton says the goal is to resolve these kinds of standoffs peacefully, and he says that many troopers are trained in mental health first aid.

"But we do find sometimes when we can't establish a dialogue with an individual, that really limits our ability to communicate,” said Grotton. “When you can't communicate with somebody, that clearly makes it very difficult to peacefully resolve that.”

Jenna Mehnert of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Maine (NAMI) says that when responding to someone having a mental health crisis, it is important to exercise patience.

"And taking things slow,” said Mehnert. “Talking low, giving it time. And that's hard when there are competing demands, but that's what a person with mental illness needs."

Mehnert said law enforcement doesn't always have that luxury, but she sees the Dixmont incident as an learning opportunity for both law enforcement and the mental health system.

A neighborhood group raised $1500 for a dumpster to clean up the house

Back in Dixmont, Lee Bell walked among a crumpled front door, bent-in refrigerator and other remains of Grendell's house that are piled on the other side of the woods from the concrete slab. A neighborhood group raised $1500 for a dumpster to clean up the house, and Bell brought his excavator to take care of the remaining debris. He said he couldn't stand to drive by his friend's house and see the wreckage.

“I’m never going to get over this,” Bell said. “Not what he did to me, that didn't bother me a damn bit. How it played out in the end.”

Irish said he questions the actions of the police.

“Why did you have to resort to completely blowing up a guy’s entire house? Everything someone worked for their whole life? You just don’t think twice about taking that away from them,” said Irish.

The two are worried Grendell will lose even more if he's incarcerated. Bate said that at Friday's hearing, he will ask the judge for a suspended sentence and four years probation.

Originally published Oct. 11, 2018 at 5:58 p.m. ET.