December 14, 2013

Police shooting brings tragic end to a troubled life

Relatives suspect that John Knudsen of Hollis intentionally provoked police into killing him.

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Family members say John Knudsen of Hollis was meticulous, intelligent, extremely capable and generous despite his modest means.

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John Knudsen, who was shot and killed by police in Hollis on Thursday, is seen in a family photograph.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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But he struggled with addiction to alcohol, they said, and it contributed to his death Thursday, when he was shot by police at his home on Little Falls Road.

Police say Knudsen, 61, was shot when he fired a handgun at police after a standoff that lasted more than three hours. An autopsy Friday showed that he died of a single gunshot wound to the upper abdomen.

His sister Kathleen Knudsen-Kneeland of Windham suspects the pain of his addiction got so bad that he intentionally provoked police.

“He knew he was a bad alcoholic and he knew he was going to die from it and he was scared to death,” she said Friday.

Knudsen-Kneeland said her brother bought a gun about 15 years ago, when his house was broken into and vandalized.

“I knew he had the gun up there ... that was an issue because he was a heavy drinker and he had a tendency to pull the gun out when he was drinking,” she said.

On Thursday morning, Knudsen’s wife of four months, Linda Knudsen, was at home when he pulled out the handgun.

“He told his wife he wanted to quit drinking,” Knudsen-Kneeland said. “She told him, ‘John, I will support you in every way ... we’ll do it together,” but he had to put the gun away or she would call police.

He refused, and when Linda Knudsen called police, she was told to go to the end of the driveway and wait for an officer.

As she did, Knudsen fired a shot.

‘THE BEST HUMAN BEING EVER’

It was a tragic end for a skilled and fun-loving man who endured heartache but found happiness recently in a new relationship.

“Besides the alcoholism, he was a talented, smart, educated man,” Knudsen-Kneeland said. “He built cabinets on the side and he could build an engine from top to bottom. ... I remember him always working on something.”

Another sister, Theresa Kimmey, said that when her brother was 9, he disassembled his bicycle and then put it back together. Later in life, he did the same thing to radios and other electronics. He once sat her on a couch between two speakers and proudly cranked up Santana on the stereo he had made.

And he was meticulous and neat, one of the only mechanics she knew who never had grime under his fingernails. “You wouldn’t even know he worked on vehicles in the garage, it was so clean,” Kimmey said. “Johnny was a jack of all trades, master of many.”

In past years, he raced a Mustang at Beech Ridge Speedway in Scarborough.

He and his sisters traded practical jokes, and he was eager to help friends in a pinch.

“When he was sober, he was the best human being ever,” said another sister, Patricia Bruni of Gray. “He would do anything for you.”

FIRST WIFE’S death hit hard

Knudsen had a job assembling communication towers but injured his neck and was collecting Social Security, his sisters said.

Each summer, he lived out of a camper on Islesboro, serving as caretaker and handyman for an elderly woman who rented out cottages. He let people stay in his house in Hollis so it wouldn’t be vacant. Some people who live nearby thought the property had changed hands several times.

In 2000, his daughter Tonya Knudsen was found dead on a fishing boat moored on the Portland waterfront. Police called her death suspicious but no one was ever charged.

In 2010, his first wife died. They had married when they were just 17 and her death hit him hard. “It was devastating for him,” Knudsen-Kneeland said. “He lost a lot of weight.”

That’s why family members were pleased to see him settle down with Linda Knudsen. They got married on Islesboro in August.

“Their wedding day, they just had eyes for each other,” Kimmey said. “They were thrilled to pieces.”

They met about a year ago in front of Cabela’s in Scarborough and he fell in love with her, Knudsen told his family.

“He saw that head of hair and said, ‘I just had to meet her,’ ” Bruni said.

They appeared happy, posting notes of affection on Facebook.

On Friday night, Linda Knudsen sent a Facebook message to the Portland Press Herald, saying, “Anyone that John came across in his life will tell you the same thing over and over again. He loved people and they loved him. He was a very intelligent man and proved to all his friends that he could fix it. Mechanical, constructional, electronically he could fix anything and make it better. He had the biggest heart and loving soul that I had ever met in my lifetime.”

DEMONS FOLLOWED HIM

But Knudsen’s demons were never far away.

He tried to quit drinking after his first wife died. His family did an intervention last summer, and he agreed to enter a rehabilitation program, said Knudsen-Kneeland. As much as he wanted to quit drinking, he left the program.

And his drinking was painful for those who loved him.

“He was a terrible, mean drunk,” Knudsen-Kneeland said. “He would get up in the morning and start drinking. That wasn’t unusual for him.” He would drink Black Velvet Canadian whiskey by the half-gallon, she said.

“I’m sure he drank to erase the memories,” Bruni said. “They always come back. It’s only temporary.”

Two weeks before his wedding, Knudsen was helping a relative clear trees from a lot when a log fell on his leg, breaking it. His healing was slow, and he was confined to a wheelchair.

Amanda Hitchcock, Knudsen’s niece, said “He said he was sick of watching (Linda) do everything. He said, ‘I can’t even get in the car and buy you flowers.’ ”

It was especially hard for someone who had always been so capable, able to do anything he set his mind to. His wife had to bathe him and help him go to the bathroom.

“He was very depressed over his situation,” Hitchcock said. “He felt like ‘I can’t be a man. I lost my pride.’ ”

FATAL EXCHANGE

Police were called to 33 Little Falls Road, a manufactured home set back from the road, about 10:30 a.m. Thursday. “He had been up drinking the night before,” Hitchcock said.

Members of the Maine State Police tactical team surrounded his house as negotiators tried to get him to give himself up.

After extended negotiations, Knudsen went to his front door, said something to police, then fired a handgun at state troopers, police said.

Hitchcock, like others, thinks he was trying to provoke police.

Trooper Tyler Stevenson, a nine-year veteran of the department, returned fire and fatally shot Knudsen around 2:15 p.m.

Stevenson has been put on administrative leave with pay – a standard procedure – while the shooting is investigated by the Attorney General’s Office.

Knudsen-Kneeland questioned why police couldn’t have shot him in an arm or a leg.

But police, who are deemed justified in shooting someone only if that person is threatening others with deadly force, are trained to eliminate the threat by shooting at the center of a person’s torso. A shot at an extremity could easily miss, costing someone else their life, police say.

Knudsen-Kneeland also believes that she and her sisters may have been able to get through to him as police surrounded the house.

“We don’t understand why they did not try to contact his sisters. He was our brother. We could have talked to him,” she said. “ I believe we could have got through to him. ... He loved us dearly and we loved him. Even with all the problems, we still loved him.”

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com

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