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 bnemitz@pressherald.com
Columnist

Having trouble getting your hands on a gun?

click image to enlarge

Related headlines

AIRING IT OUT

Tune in to NewsRadio 560 WGAN at 8:08 a.m. today to hear columnist Bill Nemitz talk about this column and other issues.

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.

Robert LeBrasseur, Leighton's attorney, said he, too, has heard from Cabela's employees through back channels in recent weeks. In fact, he said, he may call one or two of them to testify if it comes to that.

"A lot of people are reaching out on this case," said LeBrasseur. "The fact that Cabela's turned him away because of his mental state only supports, in our opinion, our theory that he wasn't in his right mind at the time this offense was committed."

And what say the folks at Cabela's about their tragic about-face?

Several voicemail messages to company spokesman Joe Arterburn and his assistant drew, as usual, no response.

And while a visit to the store's gun department Thursday afternoon revealed no fewer than 13 sales associates crammed in behind the weapons counter, a manager politely referred any and all questions to the ever-elusive Arterburn.

That leaves Thomas Leighton, still mourning his wife's death and his son's disease, trying to fathom how Cabela's could see the obvious one day and then look right past it the next.

Andrew, he said, had been deteriorating mentally for about four weeks before the shooting.

"But that's nothing new," he said. "We had gone through this several times over the past few years, especially in the springtime, and he usually would be hospitalized. They'd tinker with his medication and two days later they'd send him home. This time it got completely out of control."

Meaning?

"He was in such bad shape mentally that whole week that I can't imagine why (Cabela's) would do something on Thursday that they wouldn't do on Wednesday, when his condition (on Thursday) was probably even worse," Leighton said.

A do-over for a mentally ill man desperate to buy a gun?

Only Cabela's can explain that one.

And they're too busy handing out free bullets.

 

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@pressherald.com

 

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors




Further Discussion

Here at PressHerald.com we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)