December 12, 2012

Tormented by sexual abuse, man appears to commit ‘suicide by cop’

A longtime advocate for those molested at a Falmouth school for the deaf leaves police no choice but to shoot.

By David Hench
Staff Writer

The pain and anger for James Levier started young and haunted him for much of his life. Some say it was there right up until he pointed a rifle at police in the parking lot of a Scarborough supermarket and was shot to death.

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Family members say James Levier had been scarred by abuse he suffered as a child at the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf in Falmouth. Throughout his life he remained intent on finding some measure of justice for himself and others who were abused.

Family photo

The 60-year-old had been furious about the extensive abuse that he and other children had endured at the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf in Falmouth decades earlier - pain made worse because public officials dismissed calls for compensation.

On March 16, 2001, Levier pulled up to a Scarborough shopping plaza in his white minivan. On the sides, he had scrawled statements suggesting he planned to die for his beliefs about treatment of the hearing-impaired. He brandished a deer rifle and began marching. Then, he pointed the gun at police and was shot dead.

The Maine Attorney General's Office, which investigates all police shootings, concluded that the four officers who shot Levier acted reasonably, given the circumstances, and the shooting was justified.

Levier was the fourth of seven children, growing up during World War II in Lynn, Mass. He was a happy young boy, an older sister told the Maine Sunday Telegram in a 2001 interview.

In 1946, when he was 6 years old, he and a playmate living across the street became sick, possibly with scarlet fever. The neighbor's child died. Levier survived a dangerous fever and emerged from a coma, but gradually lost his hearing.

When his parents realized he was deaf and that they could no longer communicate with him, they sent him to a school in Vermont to learn sign language and get an education.

The family moved to Maine to find work, and Levier was sent to the Baxter School for the Deaf, a state-run boarding school on Mackworth Island.

There, Levier was sexually abused by a male house parent, someone who would display a gun as a way of scaring his victim into silence. There also were beatings, he told his sister after finally leaving the school for good when he was 17.

The school had taught him how to communicate, but it also had left him angry, distrustful and emotionally scarred.

Still, Levier married and had a family, raising two daughters. He avoided smoking, drinking and drugs and came to love hiking in the woods. He painted, carved and once designed an alarm clock that illuminated a light for the benefit of deaf people.

Eventually, he even volunteered as an art teacher at the Baxter School.

He had a cheerful, wholesome side, but he had demons too.
Levier twice went to the Augusta Mental Health Institute, in 1962 for a month and in 1988 for two weeks. He tried to kill himself several times.

He remained intent on finding some measure of justice for those who suffered at Baxter.

A 1982 investigation by the Maine Attorney General's Office corroborated abuse allegations at the school, but because of the statute of limitations, the state could not prosecute.

Levier had run afoul of police on at least one occasion. He was arrested on a charge of assault, and when he asked for an interpreter, police said he didn't need one.

The charges were dropped, and Levier followed up with a lawsuit against Scarborough police. He claimed they were obligated to provide someone who could communicate with him.

Meanwhile, a legislative committee began holding hearings on the abuse at Baxter. Levier was the first to testify, and he gave others courage to come forward. He also told how the abuse had left him violent and suicidal.

In the spring of 2001, events for Levier were in a downward spiral.

His lawsuit against Scarborough police was rejected.

The legislative momentum on Baxter stalled. On March 7, a spokesman for then-Gov. Angus King testified that there was no money budgeted to pay victims and questioned the appropriateness of an official apology. Levier felt rebuffed again, and he was desperate.

The day he died, Levier spent an hour marching like a sentry in front of the Shop 'n Save Plaza at Oak Hill. A later investigation concluded that Levier understood commands to drop his gun and had indicated he wanted police to shoot him.

Police did arrange for an interpreter but would not let her get close enough to communicate with Levier through signing because of the danger posed by Levier.

Levier ultimately made the sign of the cross, took a shooter's stance, cocked the hammer of his rifle and sighted down the barrel toward a group of officers.

A state police sharpshooter fired into Levier's shoulder to disable him. Three Scarborough officers heard the shot, saw Levier's shoulder recoil and thought he was firing. They fired, shooting him four times.

He was declared dead at Maine Medical Center a short while later.

Within days, Gov. King issued an apology to the state's deaf community for the abuse that had occurred at Baxter years before. The Legislature also began approving compensation for victims, ultimately appropriating more than $17 million.


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