RUMFORD — John Moore was watching “Hogan’s Heroes” on television Tuesday afternoon when he heard yelling in the backyard.
He opened the door to his deck and saw his friend Jessica Byrn-Francisco standing there, facing a police officer about 10 feet away. She had something in her hand, but he couldn’t see what it was. The officer had his gun drawn, pointed at her.
“The officer told Jessie: ‘Put the knife down,’ ” Moore said. Then an officer ordered Moore to shut his door.
“The next minute I heard two or three pops in the backyard,” he said. He peeked outside to see his friend lying on her side about 20 feet from the deck, close to where the officer with the gun had been standing.
“I saw Jessie laying in the snow, crying,” Moore said.
Then the yard was filled with officers, and he was again ordered to close his door and stay inside.
Bryn-Francisco, 25, has a troubled history and has struggled with mental health issues, but friends said Wednesday that they are still shocked that she would get in a violent confrontation with police.
Police say Rumford Sgt. Tracey Higley fired his weapon twice as Byrn-Francisco charged at him with a knife.
Her friends say she has bullet wounds in her upper right chest and her abdomen, but that she was alert and scheduled to have a breathing tube removed Wednesday. She was listed in serious condition at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston.
Higley is on paid leave while the Attorney General’s Office investigates the shooting, which it does whenever an officer uses deadly force.
Byrn-Francisco’s friends said they had never known her to be violent and couldn’t believe she had almost been killed in a confrontation with police.
But Byrn-Francisco fits into a troubling statistic. From 2000 to December 2012, police in Maine had fired their guns at 71 people, striking 57 of them. Thirty-three of those people died. A review of the 57 shootings by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram found that at least 24, or 42 percent, involved people with mental health problems. Seven of the shootings were alcohol-related. Two involved drugs.
Of the 33 people killed, at least 19, or 58 percent, had mental health problems.
Bryn-Francisco has had minor brushes with the law – possession of alcohol by a minor, theft and car burglary – but those dated back to when she was a teenager. Records in Rumford District Court show nothing since 2008.
SUBJECT OF A PROTECTION ORDER
But records do shed light on some of the challenges Byrn-Francisco has faced. In one, an officer describes her as sometimes suicidal. Other court papers say she has cut herself, and has scars on her arms.
The court records said she didn’t work and was receiving disability checks as a result of a mental health diagnosis, which it did not specify.
A protection order also showed that in 2007, Byrn-Fancisco was accused of threatening a former therapist, who said Byrn-Francisco had assaulted two other clients, one while she was holding a knife.
But friends say the woman they knew in recent years wasn’t like that.
“I know Jessie wouldn’t do that,” said her friend Ariana Johnson, who lives across the hall at 77 Maine St., a road that climbs a hill from Route 2 and the Androscoggin River through a neighborhood of three-decker apartment buildings.
Johnson has known Byrn-Francisco for about a year, and said they get along well. They have each other to dinner and enjoy spending time together, she said, but Byrn-Francisco does suffer from anxiety, particularly around crowds.
“She’s very high strung. She has very high anxiety,” Johnson said. When Johnson’s large family comes over for a get-together, Byrn-Francisco ducks back into her own apartment, she said.
“In situations of conflict she runs,” Johnson said. “She’s never yelled. Never gets upset, never shown any violent tendencies. That’s not who she is.”
Byrn-Francisco believed police were harassing her, Johnson said. Sometimes, police would drive past and ask who she was hanging around with and if she was staying out of trouble, Johnson said.
Johnson hadn’t seen Byrn-Francisco for a few days.
“She didn’t seem like anything was wrong” Johnson said. “I would have done something.”
Moore said Byrn-Francisco was quiet, but could become agitated if people got into her space.
He saw her in the laundry room at about 2 p.m. Tuesday and she seemed fine. They spoke little, just about the laundry, he said.
SEEMED TO BE DOING WELL
Laura Krech said she is as close to Byrn-Francisco as anyone despite a contentious start to their relationship. Several years ago, Krech had sought protection from harassment orders against Byrn-Francisco, who was following her and staring at her, Krech said. Byrn-Francisco responded with her own protection from abuse request after the two scuffled.
The orders were dismissed and in time, the two-reconciled and became close, Krech said.
Krech said her friend had recently been doing well, going to counseling and taking courses toward her high school equivalency diploma.
“She’s had some problems way in the past, for the most part; this year she’d done real good,” Krech said.
“For her to go after a cop with knife, it’s shocking,” she said, “(But) a lot of people around here probably aren’t shocked.”
Krech said she was with Byrn-Francisco almost every day, but not on Tuesday.
Byrn-Francisco was looking forward to resuming a mental-health medication which had worked well for her in the past. Byrn-Francisco had weighed 250 pounds at one point, but had recently lost weight, Krech said.
But Byrn-Francisco has had trouble escaping her reputation.
Krech said people would often remind Byrn-Francisco of her history, even people she knows through Beacon House, a social club and support group.
“Because of her past they’re constantly putting her down, just when she’s trying to do better,” Krech said.
Byrn-Francisco had seemed depressed for a few days, Krech said. Maybe it was because Krech was moving out of state, or because her grandmother was facing surgery for a medical condition, Krech said.
On Monday night, Byrn-Francisco came to Krech’s apartment to shoot pool and brought over some leftover chicken Alfredo she had made. When she left, she brought some of Krech’s blankets to wash in her laundry room.
Krech said she is troubled by the police decision to shoot.
“Any time she had any confrontation (with police), she stopped. She cooperated,” Krech said.
Moore said that the officer who shot his friend was equipped with a Taser.
Police Chief Stacy Carter said all officers in Rumford have Tasers. He said he would not comment on the specifics of the case while the attorney general’s investigation is underway, including why Higley had his gun drawn instead of his Taser.
David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: