October 13, 2013

Reports show Fairfield police chief as man in crisis

John Emery blames stress, alcohol and medication for his actions that shocked those who knew him.

By Doug Harlow dharlow@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

Fairfield Police Chief John Emery left his home on Christmas Eve armed with his service-issued .357 Glock, semi-automatic pistol and 17 rounds of ammunition.

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John Emery, a former Fairfield police chief who pleaded guilty to operating under the influence, says that his erratic behavior happened “right out of the blue.”

David Leaming/Morning Sentinel

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Family members told authorities he planned to kill himself – or die in a shootout with police.

Hours later, a dozen police officers and deputies were involved in a tense standoff with the agitated Fairfield chief, who was found in his pickup truck, stuck in a ditch on a dirt road.

It ended with Emery – who had 27 years on the police force, 12 of them as chief – struggling with police officers who shocked him with a stun gun, tackled him and wrestled a loaded gun from his pocket.

Those are a few of the details contained in police reports that have been released nine months after the incident in response to Freedom of Access Act requests by the Morning Sentinel. Police previously refused to disclose what happened and have denied prior public records requests by the newspaper.

The police reports, which were not filed in court in connection with the criminal case against Emery, describe the frantic events of Dec. 24. Statements by Skowhegan officers Ryan Dinsmore and Joshua King, Sgt. Keith Bigger and Detective Kelly Hooper, as well as Detective Lt. Carl Gottardi of the Somerset County Sheriff’s Department portray Emery as a man in crisis, his behavior shocking officers who knew him personally.

Two days after the standoff, he requested and was granted administrative leave from the police department. He resigned March 1. Emery pleaded guilty last month to a charge of operating under the influence stemming from the incident.

“I read the police reports and cried,” Emery said during a recent interview.

In a telephone interview, Emery, 48, who voluntarily surrendered his law enforcement certificate in May, said he has no memory of anything from the days leading up to Christmas Eve and no memory of the incident itself.

“I can’t tell you what I did for two and a half days, don’t know who I talked to, don’t know what I did – I don’t remember any of it,” Emery said. “I don’t know what happened that night. I only know that now because I read the police reports.”

Emery said a combination of medication, stress and alcohol were to blame for his behavior. It happened “right out of the blue,” he said. Emery would not discuss what medication he was taking.

“It just kills me – 27 years of my life in public service – it hurts, but it is what it is,” he said. “In a way I’m a little bit bitter because I couldn’t get anyone to listen to me.”

CALLS TO CRISIS & COUNSELING

Emery had argued with family members a few days before, on Dec. 21, which appears to have upset him, and he had seemed to withdraw from friends in the months prior to the incident, family members told police. He was prescribed medication for pain from back surgery, possibly suffered from depression and had been drinking that day, police reports said.

On Dec. 24, there were calls to Crisis & Counseling and finally to police, who found Emery, apparently intoxicated, 21/2 hours after the first call. The police chief’s truck was stuck in a ditch off Notch Road in Skowhegan, miles from his home.

In a situation like that, good cover on the road for police can be the difference between someone getting shot, said Chuck Drago, a former police chief and retired senior law enforcement adviser for the governor of Florida, now a professional consultant and expert witness in police cases.

Gottardi wrote in his report that police took cover and had their guns trained on Emery in case he reached for his weapon.

“There was some risk involved, of course, but when one considers the totality of circumstances, the police made the right decision,” Drago said after reviewing portions of the police reports at the request of the Morning Sentinel. “The operation was not reckless, they took all the necessary precautions to ensure the safety of all involved.”

Emery said if police had done follow-up interviews with him and his family, and agreed to release details, he could have been spared the speculation that surrounded what happened that night.

“There could have been more information released earlier,” he said. “The police, as far as I’m concerned, didn’t do their job. It makes it sound like I’m some mental psycho case and that’s not the case at all. Is that what they think was normal behavior for me? No one took the time to say, ‘What the hell? That is not John. What is this?’ No one took the time.

“It looks like there was something hidden and unfortunately that was out of my control.”

‘VERY CONFUSED AND ANGRY’

On Dec. 24 more than a dozen police officers responded to the report that Emery was missing, armed and suicidal. Hooper, who worked with Emery in Fairfield for 12 years before she joined the Skowhegan department, said in her report that she called Emery on his cellphone that night and he did not know who she was.

“John told me he was stuck and started laughing, asking me who I was and why I was calling him,” Hooper wrote. “John was very confused and angry at the time of this call. I could not reason with him and he told me that I had no idea what was wrong with him.”

Hooper wrote that she could not reason with the chief.

“John said, ‘When I see blue lights, I have 15 rounds and it will be all over, you can read about it in the paper tomorrow,’ ” she wrote.

By 5:30 p.m., Gottardi had found Emery’s truck stuck in a snowy ditch off Notch Road. Police set up a perimeter and closed the road.

Gottardi, with Paul, tried to talk to Emery by cellphone and by shouting.

“Emery appeared to be under the influence, as he slurred his words and was not talking normally,” Gottardi wrote. “Emery challenged the fact that I was Carl Gottardi, as he stated that I did not sound like Carl Gottardi.”

Gottardi said Emery appeared to have a bottle of beer in his hand.

At 6:03 p.m., police heard a single gun shot from the area of the truck.

Police later couldn’t find the shell casing and found no bullet marks in the truck, so it wasn’t clear where Emery was when he pulled the trigger, but the shot appeared to not have been directed at anything in particular.

“At this time, however, we now knew that Emery was armed and that it appeared that he may make good on his reported threats to use a firearm and bring this situation to the ‘next level,’ which now put our lives and the public’s in danger,” Gottardi wrote.

At about 6:40 p.m., Paul told Gottardi he’d just learned that Emery had called his wife and parents to say goodbye.

According to police accounts, Emery got out of the truck and began walking – one account said he was running – toward the police roadblock, slipping and falling down the icy road as he went.

“I transitioned from my rifle to the Taser as all units were armed and two were armed with long rifles,” King wrote in his report. “I saw that in his right pants pocket he was holding a gun. I notified everyone present there.”

Police did nothing to confront or challenge Emery and officers did not turn on the blue lights of their cruisers, according to Gottardi.

“We held our position so as to contain Emery in this rural location so if something involving deadly force was necessary the threat to us and the public would be minimized,” Gottardi wrote. “Further, if we had to encounter Emery, said encounter would be due to his direct actions to provoke the situation, not ours.”

Gottardi said he grabbed Emery’s right pocket and held onto the pistol, while deputies and police officers tried to pry Emery’s hand out of his pocket.

“I then gave the order for Emery to be Tazed so we could get quicker control of the pistol and him,” Gottardi wrote.

They stunned Emery, then took him to the ground and handcuffed him. Michael Emmons, Skowhegan’s police chief at the time, arrived on the scene around that time.

Emery was taken by police cruiser to Redington-Fairview General Hospital in Skowhegan to be evaluated.

Hospital staff conducted a blood test, the results of which showed a blood-alcohol level of 0.272 – more than three times the legal limit for intoxication – according to the hospital reports obtained by the Morning Sentinel.

The blood test was administered at 8:06 p.m., about two and a half hours after Gottardi first found Emery’s truck in the ditch.

Attorney Walter McKee of Augusta, who represented Emery on the drunken driving charge, said a hospital blood test is done differently than one that would be done for law enforcement at the Department of Health and Human Services laboratory.

McKee said a hospital blood test is a basic screening test and nothing more. Maine law and the state Department of Health and Human Services require a more precise test to bring to court in a criminal trial.

“A hospital blood test is simply not accurate enough to meet criminal case standards,” Mc- Kee said. “It gives a general idea only. It would be like using the thermometer outside the bank to prove the precise temperature on a given day at a given hour. It just doesn’t cut it.”

McKee said police could not perform a test because Emery had refused it and later was unconscious because of the medication.

The blood samples taken at the hospital were destroyed because at the time there had been no request to save them, Daniel Summers, deputy police chief at the time, said in his report.

McKee said the hospital blood test might not have stood up in court, but that Emery agreed to plead guilty to drunken driving to put the incident behind him.

Last month, Emery was ordered to pay a $500 fine, and $140 in court costs and surrender his driver’s license for 90 days. It was his first drunken-driving conviction.

CONSULTANT BACKS POLICE ACTIONS

District Attorney Maeghan Maloney said she turned the case over to the Office of Attorney General at the beginning, because of Emery’s role as a police chief in her jurisdiction.

“I’m conflicted out of this case, that means I’m not allowed to look at the file,” Maloney said. “It had to be the AG’s office to supervise it because it would not be fair for me to be involved if I know the defendant or if I know the victim.”

Deputy Attorney General William Stokes, who supervised the case for Maloney and assisted her office in the Freedom of Access Act request from the Morning Sentinel, said he would only discuss the OUI charge. He wouldn’t comment on why Emery didn’t face additional charges, such as reckless conduct with a firearm or causing an armed standoff with police.

McKee said there was a suggestion that there could be a charge related to the firearm, but as part of the agreement with prosecutors it was not pursued.

Given all the details of the case, the appropriate charge was operating under the influence, Stokes said.

“Was it a risky situation? Yes,” he said. “Could you prove other charges beyond a reasonable doubt? That’s another question altogether.”

Stokes said Gottardi, Paul and the other officers at the scene that night knew Emery and that may have had a role in how they dealt with him.

“They knew who he was. They knew his background,” Stokes said. “So I can understand where they might have a different perception of the situation because they knew him. I don’t think anyone is disputing that it could have escalated, but it didn’t.”

Stokes said Emery wasn’t treated any better or any worse in the prosecution of the case than anyone else would have been. He said as a first-time offender, Emery was treated fairly and the presiding judge agreed with the sentence.

Operating under the influence is a class D misdemeanor, with a maximum penalty of 364 days in jail and a $2,000 fine.

“He’s going to have a criminal record and I suspect he won’t be a police officer ever again,” Stokes said.

Stokes said the delay in serving the summons on Emery – it took five months – was in part because Maloney had just taken office in January. Maloney also had a new staff of assistant district attorneys, including Joelle Pratt, who handled the case. Eight of the 11 prosecutors under the previous district attorney left office before the November election.

Drago, the consultant, believes police acted reasonably and professionally.

If police had been on a road with no cover or protection that night and Emery approached with a gun in his pocket then there would have been less time to allow him to get closer and things might have ended differently.

“Depending on where the officers were and the kind of protection they had, they would have to make that call on how far they’re going to let him go,” said Drago, who read the case reports. “The closer he got, obviously, it got more dangerous and as soon as one of the officers left their place of safety to tackle him, this is the most dangerous time of all.”

Drago said that before police use force they must consider the seriousness of the crime that led to the situation, what kind of resistance the person is giving, whether the person is trying to flee and whether the person poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others.

Police also need to consider who the person is, Drago said.

“I don’t know if they would have done that with a stranger, but there is certainly nothing wrong with considering all the factors when you make these decisions that includes what you know about the person with the gun,” Drago said. “Is this person mentally ill? Has this person just robbed a bank and shot three people? Is this the police chief who’s never been violent before? Everything has to be taken into consideration and certainly the fact that you know this man for so many years, that’s an important part of it.”

His law enforcement career now over, Emery said he has set his sights on a career in woodworking. He said he recently bought equipment and a load of birch products to work on.

Emery said he wants to build a workshop and retail store next spring and also sell what he makes on the Internet.

“I think I’m going to be my own boss for a while,” Emery said. “I have been doing that with my brother-in-law for the past few months and have really enjoyed myself. No stress here.”

Doug Harlow can be contacted at 612-2367 or at: dharlow@centralmaine.com

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