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
Staff Writer

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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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Others tried to be supportive.

"Some people said, 'You did a great job.' I'd rather you say, 'You did what you had to.' They may be really, really bad people, but somebody in their life still loves them," O'Leary said.

He braced for criticism and legal action.

Weymouth had been in a wheelchair armed with a knife.

O'Leary's training told him that a man with a knife was a lethal threat within 20 feet - able to cover the distance in a couple of seconds. The training also told him that a man in a wheelchair could be just as deadly.

His experience told him Weymouth had been a violent criminal for a long time.

He was in a wheelchair because he had been shot 30 years earlier by a man he attacked while wielding sticks in each hand.

Still, many in the public would believe O'Leary could have shot to wound the man, or run away far enough that the man would not pose a threat to him.

O'Leary would say later in court that he didn't have time to check where his partner and rescue workers were positioned, to be sure he didn't shoot one of them in an effort to wound the man. He also described how he and his partner were hemmed in by walls and by Weymouth's friends.

O'Leary felt justified, but he didn't feel good about it.

He was a Catholic with a reverence for life who chose a career in public safety to help people.

"You really don't get into this job to take somebody's life. But we don't get in this job for somebody to take our life," he said.

O'Leary went to confession and prayed.

"For the first few weeks I was in a fog," O'Leary said. "You start thinking about 'Did I really see what I saw?' You start questioning things."

He lay in bed, replaying the incident hundreds of times until his memory started playing tricks on him. The attorney general's report that found he was justified in shooting Weymouth was completed a month later. He was cleared by a psychologist to return to duty. The town of Brunswick settled the court case brought by Weymouth's sister for an undisclosed sum.

At home, the extended family who had formed ranks around him in support went back to their lives.

Back on the beat, the first call of his evening shift was for a man with a knife who was calling for police to come shoot him. Colleagues told O'Leary to skip the call, but he went, and it ended without incident.

He was aware each time he drove past the High Street address where Weymouth had been shot on his patrols.

Sometimes, he would be rousting a group of men who were drinking and one would shout: "Why don't you go shoot somebody in a wheelchair?"

Soon after the 1997 shooting, he and the department were sued. The case went to trial in 2001.

O'Leary said each stage was like picking a scab, that the daily routine would cover the memories, only to have them resurface with each legal step.

"It takes really long for that wound to disappear," he said.

The town of Brunswick settled the court case brought by Weymouth’s sister, Donna Connors, for an undisclosed sum. She said then that she brought the suit to restore some dignity to her brother’s life.

Connors said last week that she does not know anything about O’Leary other than he shot her brother. She also saw in news reports that he was later promoted.

“I’m still bitter. He could only move his arms,” she said of her older brother. “I think a lot of times (police) don’t have to shoot them. Don’t they have stun guns?”

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