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.

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?”

At the time, Brunswick officers did not carry Tasers.

A couple of years after the shooting, O’Leary had to respond to the same High Street apartment for a theft complaint.

“That was really creepy. Everything came back,” he said. “I could just smell what was happening. It just brought me right back.”

In December 2007, O’Leary again found himself poised to use deadly force. A man had been chasing his wife with a butcher knife, and when police arrived, he turned on the four officers.

Three of them had their guns out, including O’Leary, who had a rifle. One had a Taser.

“I knew where my backdrop was. I had mentally drawn a line in the sand, like we all do, where we’re going to pull the trigger,” O’Leary said. “I had started to combat-breathe so I could accurately shoot my rifle. I remember saying to myself, 'Here we go again.’”

A fraction of a second before the man crossed the imaginary line, at which point O’Leary was going to fire, he heard the distinctive pop of the Taser and watched the man crumple.

“The next day the headline was 'Taser saves man,’ which was definitely the truth,” he said.

O’Leary now heads up Cumberland County’s training and support services division, and his experience gives him credibility.

The training he oversees includes regular sessions at a firing range, where officers demonstrate enough accuracy with a gun to meet state standards for law enforcement certification, able to protect themselves or someone else by shooting a suspect.

O’Leary recalled that a few days after the Weymouth shooting, he received a phone call from a Bangor officer who had fatally shot someone earlier in the year.

“He said, 'These are the things to expect, and you are not crazy,’” O’Leary remembered.

Now O’Leary is one of those officers who makes such a call, one of the few in Maine who understand what can happen after the trigger is pulled.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: dhench@pressherald.com

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