March 12, 2013

Press Herald denied script of 911 calls in Biddeford shootings

Justice Roland Cole says the release might affect the double-murder case against suspect James Pak.

By Scott Dolan sdolan@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — A Superior Court judge has denied an appeal by the Portland Press Herald seeking to overturn the state's decision to withhold transcripts from 911 calls related to a fatal shooting in Biddeford late last year.

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In this file photo, James Pak appears in York County Superior Court in Alfred on Monday, Dec. 31, 2012 to face charges of fatally shooting Derrick Thompson, 19, and Alivia Welch, 18, who were his tenants. A Superior Court judge has denied an appeal by the Portland Press Herald seeking to overturn the state's decision to withhold transcripts from 911 calls related to the fatal shootings.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

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In this file photo, a makeshift memorial stands across from 17 Sokokis Road in Biddeford, where Derrick Thompson and Alivia Welch were shot dead.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below

Biddeford police received three 911 calls from 17 Sokokis Road on Dec. 29. One came before the shooting deaths of Derrick Thompson, 19, and his girlfriend, Alivia Welch, 18, and two came afterward.

In his ruling Friday denying release of the transcripts, Justice Roland Cole said there is a "reasonable possibility" that public disclosure of those calls would interfere with the criminal case against the man who is charged with murder, 75-year-old James Pak.

"The 911 calls contain a breadth of detailed information concerning Mr. Pak's conduct and his interactions with the victims on Dec, 29, 2012," Cole said in his ruling.

"It is impossible to conceive of all of the different ways in which these details could hypothetically influence the input of potential witnesses, because witnesses have varying incentives and no one can predict how the availability of details might cause a person to bolster or alter his or her story."

In its appeal, the Press Herald challenged what it considered a blanket policy of the state Attorney General's Office to withhold transcripts of 911 calls from open criminal investigations.

Sigmund Schutz, the newspaper's attorney, said the ruling could have broader implications, by allowing the state to declare otherwise public information confidential in any criminal investigation.

"I think a concern here is the Legislature said transcripts of 911 calls are public record with the ID of the caller and the people receiving services redacted," Schutz said.

Pak has pleaded not guilty in York County Superior Court to five charges, including two counts of murder.

Police say he shot and killed Thompson and Welch after a dispute over parking.

Pak also is charged with shooting Thompson's mother, Susan Johnson, 44, who survived.

Johnson and her son rented an apartment connected to Pak's home, and Welch often stayed there.

Press Herald staff writer David Hench filed a Freedom of Access Act request in early January for a transcript of the 911 call that Thompson made at 6:07 p.m. on Dec. 29, before the shootings.

Police responded to the call and determined that the dispute was a civil matter after talking with Johnson and Thompson, and then with Pak.

In an affidavit, police indicated that Thompson claimed Pak said he would shoot them and made a hand motion.

Thompson, however, told police that he didn't think Pak would hurt them.

The officers left the home about 6:51 p.m. Within three minutes, Johnson called 911, saying she had been shot twice.

Pak's wife, Armit Pak, also called 911, about 10 minutes after the shooting.

William Stokes, head of the Attorney General's Office's criminal division, said he would not characterize the state's opposition to release of 911 transcripts as a "blanket policy."

He said he believes they can be released after a criminal case is resolved.

"I'm not so sure it's blanket. I'm only talking strictly about homicide investigations," Stokes said.

The newspaper is considering an appeal of the judge's decision, said Executive Editor Cliff Schechtman.

"We are evaluating the ruling," he said Monday.

Thirty-nine states have no restrictions on the release of 911 calls or the information in them, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Five states, including Maine, impose some restrictions.

Six states keep 911 recordings confidential.

 

Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at:

sdolan@pressherald.com

 

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Additional Photos

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Derrick Thompson, left, and Alivia Welch

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