December 12, 2012

Pulling trigger sparks upheaval in life, emotions of Maine officer

The cop who shot a knife-wielding man in a wheelchair says the emotional scars last a long time.

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

For police Capt. Shawn O'Leary, memories of the fatal shooting remain vivid even after 15 years.

click image to enlarge

Officer Shawn O’Leary, now a captain with the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office, shot and killed a man in 1997 while serving with the Brunswick Police Department. On having to shoot someone, he says: “You don’t want it to happen. It is a pretty hard thing to go through.”

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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The slow-motion image of the slide on his pistol moving backward and forward as it chambered a round after each shot; the shell casings ejecting; the knife-wielding man's T-shirt lifting with each impact; the visual images somehow disconnected from the sound track of shouts, screaming and guns firing.

O'Leary, then an officer with the Brunswick Police Department, had shot and killed a man. It's an experience very few officers endure, and one that can have an intense emotional impact, sometimes even ending a career.

Many cops refuse to talk about it with people outside their profession or their family. But O'Leary, a law enforcement veteran who has risen through the ranks to become a top administrator in the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office, was willing to talk about his experience with a reporter.

O'Leary had left home as he always did on Nov. 6, 1997, with kisses for his wife, his toddler and his infant son, just 6 months old.

He knew his job could be dangerous. A domestic disturbance could turn violent. He might get a broken nose, or lose some teeth. Or worse.

"My motto before I ever started my shift was, 'I'll see you at the end of my shift.' And I prayed I did," he said.

That afternoon, Brunswick dispatch took a call about a domestic disturbance, a man who had been knocked from his wheelchair in a drunken fight.

When O'Leary and Sgt. Mark Phillips arrived, near the tail end of their day shift, they were confronted by Richard Weymouth, 55, in the small kitchen in his apartment. He was confined to a wheelchair after a shooting left one of his legs amputated and the other paralyzed.

Weymouth was back in his wheelchair when they approached, and as they got close, he pulled a butcher knife, with a foot-long pointed blade, from a sheath on his wheelchair.

Weymouth stabbed himself twice in the abdomen and Phillips sprayed him with pepper spray. Undeterred, Weymouth advanced across the small room, refusing commands to drop the knife.

When he was a few feet away, O'Leary shot him three times. He died just as rescue workers got him to the hospital.

O'Leary believed it was a necessary decision, that he had to shoot to protect himself and his partner. He was confident he was in the right, but that didn't diminish the emotional upheaval.

"You get into this line of work knowing it can happen, but you don't want it to happen. It is a pretty hard thing to go through," he said recently. At the time, the Lewiston native was a patrolman with eight years of experience. He is now a captain with the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office.

When O'Leary got home that night, his extended family had gathered, including a state trooper and a sheriff's deputy, to offer support.

Later that night, O'Leary's whole body started to shake uncontrollably, twitching that went on for about an hour. Worried, he called his lieutenant, who said the "adrenaline dump" was to be expected after what he'd been through.

In the days after the shooting, O'Leary felt the eyes of the world were on him. "You think everybody is looking at you: 'There's that guy that was involved in the shooting.'

"When I walked into the station to meet my attorney the next day for my interview with the Attorney General's Office, young officers turned and walked away."

It wasn't that they were judgmental, but they didn't know what to say. Like seeing a person who has lost a loved one, you don't want to say the wrong thing and hurt their feelings, O'Leary said.

(Continued on page 2)

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