May 31, 2013

Bill Nemitz: A handgun sold, a red flag missed

Cabela's refused a mentally erratic man one day, then sold him a weapon the next. The ammo used to kill his mother was free.

By Bill Nemitz

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Try Cabela's, where even the mentally ill can score a free box of ammo.

On the evening of May 1, a noticeably distraught Andrew Leighton walked into the outdoors superstore in Scarborough looking to buy a handgun. He passed the mandatory criminal background check – he had no felony convictions or involuntary commitments for psychiatric treatment -- but he was so agitated and erratic that the staff wisely declined to make the sale.

The next day, Leighton returned for another try.

What a difference a day made: He quickly became the not-so-happy owner of a .40-caliber Baby Eagle pistol. And to keep him coming back, Cabela's threw in a free supply of hollow-point bullets.

The day after that is now carved into Maine criminal history: Leighton, lost in a mental health crisis that had been worsening for days, used his Baby Eagle and one of those free bullets to fatally shoot his 68-year-old mother, Shirley Leighton, in the back of the head.

Cabela's broke no laws – unless you count those of common sense.

Store officials won't talk about the sale – lest it undermine the gun industry's new mantra that mental illness is not its problem.

But this much is clear: As Andrew Leighton, 46, gets a psychiatric evaluation to determine his fitness to stand trial, Cabela's has some explaining to do about arming him in the first place.

"I really don't know how to react to this," said Thomas Leighton, husband of the victim and father of the defendant, upon learning Thursday that his wife was killed with a complimentary bullet from one of the nation's largest gun dealers. "I don't know what to say."

You're reading about all of this a month after the fact for one simple reason: Since Andrew Leighton shot his mother in her kitchen in Falmouth as she reached for the phone to have him involuntarily committed, at least a handful of Cabela's local employees apparently have had trouble sleeping at night.

Twice in recent weeks, people identifying themselves as Cabela's workers have contacted the Portland Press Herald to say there's more to this story than the simple revelation in a state police affidavit that the gun came from the store in Scarborough.

Requesting anonymity for fear of losing their jobs, they recalled how Leighton was in no shape to buy a gun when he first showed up, and how the store's staff, rather than looking the other way, stepped up and did the right thing.

"They denied him a handgun sale because of the way he was acting while looking at guns and talking to the associates," wrote one employee in an email. 

And when Leighton returned the next day?

"For some reason they let him buy the gun," the employee wrote. "And they also gave him the ammo free for telling him no the night before."

Another employee, in a telephone conversation with Press Herald reporter David Hench, said "it was very well known on the gun counter, this guy was not quite right."

"We're all told to keep an eye out for things like this," the second employee said. "It's just the ball got dropped in a bad way."

In an interview Thursday from Augusta, Deputy Attorney General William Stokes said state police detectives have questioned the Cabela's employees, and the story they've told the Press Herald "is consistent with what we have."

Meaning Cabela's turned Leighton down on May 1 and, less than 24 hours later, sold him the murder weapon along with a free box of ammunition?

"That is an accurate statement," replied Stokes, declining to comment further because the investigation continues.

(Continued on page 2)

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