February 28th, 2024

Authorities knew Maine shooter was a threat but felt confronting him was unsafe, video shows

By Patrick Whittle And Holly Ramer, The Associated Press on December 22, 2023.

FILE - A hazmat team works inside Schemengees Bar & Grille, Sunday, Oct. 29, 2023, in Lewiston, Maine. Police in Maine feared confronting Robert Card, an Army reservist in the weeks prior to the worst mass shooting in state history would “throw a stick of dynamite on a pool of gas,” according to footage released by law enforcement, Dec. 22. (AP Photo/Matt York, File)

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) – Police who declined to confront an Army reservist in the weeks before he killed 18 people in the state’s deadliest mass shooting feared that doing so would “throw a stick of dynamite on a pool of gas,” according to video released Friday by law enforcement.

The video, which was released to the Portland Press Herald and then sent to The Associated Press, documents a Sept. 16 call between Sagadoc County Sheriff’s Sgt. Aaron Skolfield and Army Reserve Capt. Jeremy Reamer. Skolfield was following up with Reamer about the potential threat posed by Robert Card, a 40-year-old Army reservist who carried out the Oct. 25 attacks at a bowling alley and a restaurant. He was found dead two days later of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Military officials alerted police in September that Card had been hospitalized in July after exhibiting erratic behavior while training, that he still had access to weapons and that he had threatened to “shoot up” an Army reserve center in Saco, a city in southern Maine. The sheriff’s department responded by briefly staking out the Saco facility and going to Card’s home in Bowdoin for what Reamer described as a “welfare check.”

“The only thing I would ask is if you could just document it,” Reamer said. “Just say, ‘He was there, he was uncooperative. But we confirmed that he was alive and breathing.’ And then we can go from there. That’s, from my end here, all we’re really looking for.”

Skolfield mentioned Maine’s yellow flag law, which can be used to remove guns from potentially dangerous people, after Reamer said Card had refused medical treatment after his hospitalization.

“So that, obviously, is a hurdle we have to deal with. But at the same time, we don’t want to throw a stick of dynamite on a pool of gas, either – make things worse,” he said.

Reamer echoed the idea that officers could get hurt if they went further to make sure Card wasn’t a threat: “I’m a cop myself. … Obviously, I don’t want you guys to get hurt or do anything that would put you guys in a compromising position,” he said.

Auburn City Councilor Leroy Walker, Sr., whose son Joseph Walker was killed in the shootings, expressed frustration with police after seeing the video. Joseph Walker was the manager of Schemengees Bar & Grill, where part of the attack took place.

“I would like to know, what we train these people to do. Is it just to deliver mail? Or stop innocent people that may be driving 11 miles (per hour) over the speed limit?” Walker said in a text message, noting that watching the video made him “sick.”

A second video, which is also blurred, shows an officer at the home of Card’s father trying to check whether Card’s brother Ryan had Card’s guns.

“I understand that Ryan has his weapons, and I just want to make sure that’s the case. Are you familiar with that at all?” the officer asked.

But Card’s father said he hadn’t spoken with Ryan in the last few days.

The officer said he would try again later.

“I just wanted to make sure Robert doesn’t do anything foolish at all,” he said.

Under Maine’s yellow flag law, a warning to police can trigger a process whereby an officer visits an individual and makes a judgment call on whether that person should be placed in temporary protective custody, initiating assessments that with a judge’s approval can lead to a 14-day weapons restriction. A full court hearing could lead to an extension of restrictions for up to a year. Since the Lewiston shooting, questions have been raised about why the law wasn’t used to remove Card’s guns.

In the newly released videos, Reamer said the Card family had taken responsibility for removing the weapons, and Skolfield said he would reach out to a brother of Card’s and ensure that any weapons had been removed.

Skolfield referred to the Cards as “a big family in this area.” He indicated that he didn’t want to publicize that police were visiting the home and kept the information off the police radio.

A report released last week by Sheriff Joel Merry made clear that local law enforcement knew months before the attack that Card’s mental health was deteriorating. Police were aware of reports that he was paranoid, hearing voices, experiencing psychotic episodes and possibly dealing with schizophrenia.

Merry and Lewiston city officials declined to comment on the release of the videos. But a former New York Police Department detective sergeant who reviewed them for The Associated Press said the events preceding the shooting illustrate the difficulty in applying Maine’s yellow flag law. Lax laws about removing weapons from dangerous people is a problem in numerous states, said Felipe Rodriquez, an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

“The laws are just too convoluted and they are working against each other. That’s the biggest problem we have,” Rodriquez said.

Dan Flannery, the director of the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education at Case Western Reserve University, cautioned that only so much about a police investigation can be gleaned from a few minutes of video.

“There is always context, there is the issue of what is the training and protocol within the division,” Flannery said. “Violent behavior is unfortunately one of the most difficult things to predict.”

Gov. Janet Mills appointed an independent commission led by a former state chief justice to review all aspects of the tragedy. And Maine’s congressional delegation said Friday that there will be an independent Army inspector general’s investigation to review the Army’s actions, alongside an ongoing administrative Army investigation.

The actions of authorities ahead of and during mass shootings has come under increasing scrutiny. Last year, the Air Force was ordered to pay more than $230 million in damages to survivors and victims’ families for failing to flag a conviction that might have kept the gunman in a 2017 church shooting in Texas from legally buying the weapon he used in the attack. More than two dozen people, including eight children, were killed in that attack.

After a gunman fatally shot 19 children and two teachers at a school in Uvalde, Texas, last year, state lawmakers issued a scathing report faulting law enforcement at every level with failing “to prioritize saving innocent lives over their own safety.” Nearly 400 officers rushed to the school during the attack, but they waited more than an hour to confront and kill the gunman. Several officers lost their jobs over the halting and haphazard response, and a state prosecutor is still considering whether to bring criminal charges. ___

Ramer reported from Concord, New Hampshire. Associated Press writers Lindsay Whitehurst in Washington, Nick Perry in Meredith, New Hampshire, and Jake Bleiberg in Dallas contributed to this report.

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