Sheriff Had Cause to Take Maine Gunman Into Custody Before Shootings

A commission investigating the mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine, concluded on Friday that local law enforcement officers should have taken the gunman into custody and seized his weapons before he killed 18 people on Oct. 25.

The decision to instead give the shooter’s family responsibility for removing his weapons was “an abdication of law enforcement’s responsibility,” the commission wrote in its 30-page interim report, intended to provide early findings to legislators who are weighing several proposals for changes to the state’s laws, spurred by the events.

The local sheriff’s department had “sufficient probable cause” to take the gunman, Robert R. Card II, into custody and remove his weapons because of a “likelihood of serious harm,” the commission said in its report.

The seven-member Independent Commission to Investigate the Facts of the Tragedy in Lewiston has held seven public meetings since last November, collecting testimony from Mr. Card’s Army Reserve supervisors, local and state police officers, as well as survivors and family members of the victims. The panel has pressed witnesses for details of their actions in the months leading up to the shooting, when the gunman displayed increasingly erratic and paranoid behavior, convinced that people he did not know were calling him a pedophile.

Concerned Army Reserve colleagues and supervisors intervened during the summer before the shooting, sending Mr. Card for a mental health evaluation at a hospital in New York. But subsequent attempts to check on his mental health, and take away his weapons, were unsuccessful, raising questions about the adequacy of law-enforcement communications and follow-up, and of the state’s “yellow flag” law, which allows for the removal of weapons from people deemed to be a risk.

“Robert Card Jr. is solely responsible for his own conduct, and he may have committed a mass shooting even if the guns he possessed in September 2023 were removed from his house,” the report found. “Nevertheless, there were several opportunities that, if taken, may have changed the course of events.”

Officials from the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Department told the commission that a deputy, Sgt. Aaron Skolfield, attempted to conduct a welfare check on Mr. Card at his home in September, after his release from the psychiatric hospital, but he was not at home or did not answer the door. Sgt. Skolfield told the commission that as a result, he could not have established probable cause to seek a yellow flag order, because he had not “laid eyes on” Mr. Card.

But the commission determined that the sergeant should have known that he could establish probable cause using the “collective knowledge” of all the officers who had been involved in the investigation, including an Army Reserve supervisor who had received a text message from one of Mr. Card’s friends saying that he feared the troubled Army Reservist would “snap and do a mass shooting.”

“A plan to intervene and take Mr. Card into protective custody should have been undertaken,” the commission wrote.

Alternatively, the commissioners said, law enforcement officers had “more than sufficient information” to pursue criminal assault charges against Mr. Card after the erratic behavior and threats reported by his friends and colleagues in the weeks and months before the shooting, and that officers could have sought an arrest warrant to take him into custody.

The commission further faulted the sheriff’s department for failing to assign another deputy to follow up on the concerns after Sgt. Skolfield went on leave on Sept. 18.

Officials from the sheriff’s department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the report.

The county’s own review of the department’s actions, conducted last year by a Maine attorney, found that officers did not have grounds to take Mr. Card into custody.

The commission stopped short of recommending specific changes to the “yellow flag” law, noting that the process it sets up can be “cumbersome” but also that the law had been used successfully in other cases it reviewed.

“An officer needs to have knowledge of the process, use all the resources the officer has to gather the necessary information, and have the dedication and persistence to follow through with the investigation and the process,” commission members wrote.

Authorities said that Mr. Card, 40, shot and killed 18 people and wounded 13 others at two popular recreation venues, a bowling alley and a bar where members of a local cornhole league had gathered. After a two-day manhunt, he was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

The victims included a 14-year-old boy and his father, a 76-year-old youth bowling coach and his wife, and four well-known members of Maine’s small, tight-knit Deaf community.

Survivors of the massacre offered tearful testimony before the commission about living with panic attacks and survivor’s guilt, and struggling to explain the shooting to their children.

In the wake of the violence, legislators have considered changes to Maine’s gun laws, which have long been shaped by the state’s strong traditions of gun ownership and hunting. Bills currently under consideration would require background checks for some private gun sales and add a 72-hour waiting period on firearms purchases.

Another proposal would update the state’s “yellow flag” law to add a new legal option for law enforcement officers, allowing them to take dangerous people into custody after obtaining a protective custody warrant signed by a judge.

Unlike “red flag” laws in some states that allow families to petition a judge directly to take weapons away from people who are deemed a danger to others or themselves, Maine’s “yellow flag” law involves a longer, more complex process. Three entities — the police, a mental health clinician and a judge — must agree that an individual is a danger before firearms can be taken away.

Under the current law, the commission said, local authorities could have used evidence collected from multiple law enforcement and civilian sources to make a case that Mr. Card was a threat.

The commission plans to hold additional hearings before issuing its final report. It has not yet heard testimony about trauma to Mr. Card’s brain that was documented by scientists in a recent autopsy report, similar to that seen in the brains of veterans exposed to repeated weapons blasts. The evidence of brain damage has raised questions about whether Mr. Card’s experience as a grenade instructor affected his mental health.

Mr. Card, who had been a grenade instructor in the Army Reserve and was exposed for years to thousands of skull-shaking blasts on the training range, showed signs of significant damage to the white matter that forms the wiring deep in the brain, according to the report from Boston University’s C.T.E. Center, a laboratory that has documented chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., in athletes.

A family member of one of the victims said he was grateful for the work the commission had done already.

But Leroy Walker, 75, who lost his son Joseph Walker, 57, in the shooting, said the report’s findings came as little surprise to him.

“They found what I thought they would find,” he said. “I’m glad they’ve taken the time to do it, because as I understand it, it’s the same thing all of us have felt in our hearts here in the city.”

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