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Commission: Sheriff had cause to take Lewiston gunman into custody 6 weeks before shootings

Members of the Sagadahoc County Sheriff's Department, seated at table at right, are questioned, Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024, in Augusta, Maine, during a hearing of the independent commission investigating the law enforcement response to the mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine.(AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
Members of the Sagadahoc County Sheriff's Department, seated at table at right, are questioned, Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024, in Augusta, Maine, during a hearing of the independent commission investigating the law enforcement response to the mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine.

The independent commission investigating last October's mass shooting in Lewiston released an interim report on Friday critical of how police handled concerns about the shooter's deteriorating mental state.

The report, which was released after 5 p.m. Friday, said the Sagadahoc County Sheriff's Office had sufficient cause to take Robert Card into protective custody six weeks before the shooting. Rather than use Maine's "yellow flag" law to attempt to confiscate Card's guns, the report stated, the sheriff's deputies relied on assurances from Card's family members that they would try to remove his firearms.

Card killed 18 people with a high-powered assault rifle and injured more than a dozen at two businesses in Lewiston on Oct. 25 during the worst mass shooting in Maine history.

"(The) decision to turn over the responsibility for removing Mr. Card’s firearms to Mr. Card’s family was an abdication of law enforcement’s responsibility," reads the report. "This decision shifted what is and was a law enforcement responsibility onto civilians who have neither the legal authority to begin the Yellow Flag process nor any legal authority to seize weapons. Even after delegating that responsibility to Mr. Card’s family, the (Sagadahoc County Sheriff's Office) failed to follow up to ensure that the firearms had been removed from Mr. Card’s custody and safely secured."

The scathing report from the seven-member commission was released at a time when state lawmakers are considering changes to the four-year-old yellow flag law that created an additional legal process for police to remove guns from dangerous individuals. Gov. Janet Mills has proposed tweaking the law to lower the perceived threshold for when police to take someone into "protective custody" so they can begin the yellow flag process.

Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry could not immediately be reached for comment on Friday night. A spokesman for Mills said the governor thanked the commission and will "carefully review" the interim report.

'He is going to snap'

Members of Card's family as well as fellow Army reservists had been concerned for months about his increasing paranoia, his aggressive behavior and his access to guns. Card had accused friends, family and total strangers of calling him a pedophile behind his back for months. But the situation took a more serious turn in July when he was hospitalized at a New York psychiatric facility for two weeks while his unit was helping to train West Point cadets in firearms and explosives. A sergeant first class with the Reserves, Card was described as a highly skilled marksman.

He was eventually released and returned to Maine but apparently never received comprehensive mental health treatment. Army leaders also never communicated their concerns about Card to local law enforcement or followed up on a recommendation from the psychiatric hospital that they attempt to remove his guns from his home, according to the commission.

In September, a friend and fellow reservist told his commanding officers that he was concerned Card might attack the Reserve facility in Saco.

"And yes he still has all his weapons . . . I believe he is going to snap and do a mass shooting," Sgt. Sean Hodgson wrote to one of his commanding officers in a late-night text, according to transcripts released by law enforcement and the commission.

Sagadahoc County sheriff's deputies testified earlier this year to the commission that they then visited Card's home to attempt a "welfare check" at the request of Army leaders. During one visit, Sgt. Aaron Skolfield believed Card was home but not answering the door. Having been warned that Card had access to weapons, the deputies backed off and Skolfield said he watched the home from a distance as he attempted to contact Card's relatives and Reserve leaders.

Skolfield testified that he didn't believe he had legal grounds to take Card into custody because he had not been able to conduct a face-to-face assessment of him and he had not committed any crimes.

"I was trying to figure out how to skin this cat from a different direction," Skolfield told the commission in January. "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."

Instead, Skolfield said he was assured by Card's brother that he would work to remove his access to guns. Reserve leaders also said they would try to get Card into treatment.

But in its interim report, the commission singled out Skolfield repeatedly and faulted him — as well as other law enforcement — for not attempting to invoke the yellow flag law on Card. Under the law, police can take a person into protective custody and have them evaluated by a medical professional. If both the evaluator and a judge agree the person poses a threat, police can then order them to temporarily relinquish any weapons.

The commission wrote that while the yellow flag process can be "cumbersome . . . the process can and has been successfully used." The report also states that law enforcement "had more than sufficient information to pursue criminal assault charges against Mr. Card" because he had reportedly punched his fellow reservist.

"Finally, the commission finds that there is a misperception among some law enforcement officers, including Sgt. Skolfield, that they need to have a victim 'press charges' to bring a case to the prosecutor's office," reads the report. "This is simply wrong. It is the prosecutor, acting on behalf of the citizens of Maine, who brings the charges but a prosecutor can only act when those charged with investigating crimes, i.e., law enforcement officers, follow through with their investigations."

Army also criticized

While the report focuses largely on the Sagadahoc County Sheriff's Office — a small agency located in rural, coastal Maine — the commissioners were also critical of the Army's handling of Card.

"The Army Reserve did not encourage law enforcement to charge Card for threatening to 'shoot up' the facility," reads the report. "They failed to divulge Four Wind's (psychiatric hospital) recommendations and concerns. They treated Card as a high risk of violence against the unit's members but appeared to minimize the threat he posed once they were satisfied that Card was not coming to the unit on September 16, 2023" for training.

The commission has also devoted several meetings to examining how law enforcement — and particularly Maine State Police — handled the manhunt for Card. He was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound two days after the shooting in a trailer at the recycling facility where he formerly worked.

Findings on those aspects of the commission's investigation are expected to be included in a more comprehensive report likely later this year.

"By no means is our work complete," commission chairman Daniel Wathen, a former chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, said in a statement. "This interim report is meant to provide policymakers and law enforcement with key information we have learned as they contemplate their response to these shootings. At the same time, we hope this will provide the people of Maine with information they deserve about the events leading up to October 25, 2023.”