ELLSWORTH — The 1992 police-involved shooting of Kathy Hegarty, featured in the first part of the recent Deadly Force series (“Deadly Force: Police and the Mentally Ill,” Dec. 9-12), illustrates why wrongful death suits filed by the victim’s survivors rarely succeed.

If ever a case should have made it to trial, this was the one.

Then-Maine Attorney General Michael Carpenter said, “After reviewing all the evidence … and the officers’ own statements, I have concluded that the officers acted in disregard of accepted law enforcement practices and procedures.”

According to Carpenter, they developed “a plan off-site that considered only two options: to ‘trick’ Mrs. Hegarty into coming out of her cabin so she could be subdued, or, when it was determined to be ‘safe,’ to go in and bring her out”; they did not reassess “the situation on-site once they determined that there was no continuing threat to the public safety”; and they acted “precipitously … in that from the time (they) arrived at the cabin to the time Mrs. Hegarty was shot only 9 to 12 minutes had elapsed.”

The nine- to 12-minute time frame meant Kathy Hegarty was awake for three minutes before the officers burst through her cabin door without warning and without a warrant.

Carpenter could not criminally prosecute the officers because Hegarty was armed and facing them when they crashed through the door, but he called the “total operation … avoidable” and recommended the officers be fired.

The Maine Chiefs of Police Association blasted Carpenter for stating anything other than that the officers had committed no crime. One chief told him, “There are some times when … even though it would be a neat thing to say what’s on your mind, you have to learn to shut your mouth.”

A newspaper editorial criticized the police chiefs’ attack on Carpenter, advising readers: “Discount what they say, heavily. It appears to be the voice of the brotherhood speaking.”

The police departments conducted their investigations and cleared their men.

Before these investigations started, the Morning Sentinel ran a story containing explosive statements made by the camper who called the police to report Hegarty’s firing a gun above his and his fellow campers’ heads. He said the officers seemed “psyched for action” as they pulled out weapons and bulletproof vests.

He recalled telling them Hegarty was “just trying to scare” them, but one of the officers brushed him off.

The camper said, “It was like a game for them: ‘Let’s go in and take her out,’ and that’s what they did.” 

In the state police investigation, the “take her out” everyone had been talking about since the Sentinel article ran became, in the interviewer’s words, to “literally take her out, take her out to the county jail.”

A year later, there surfaced a statement one of the deputies made in his department’s investigation: “If I would have been there alone, I’d be sitting on the porch talking with her. … I didn’t have that opportunity.”

In March 1993, U.S. District Court Judge Morton Brody denied the officers’ request to dismiss Jack Hegarty’s wrongful death suit in his wife’s shooting. Brody wrote, “The officers could not reasonably have believed that their forcible intrusion into Hegarty’s home was justified.”

However, in 1995, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Brody’s ruling, and the case was dismissed. The circuit judges cherry-picked facts and statements, creating a narrative highly favorable to the officers.

For example, the court’s summary of Kathy Hegarty’s interaction with the campers implied the campers were behaving appropriately while Hegarty inexplicably became angry.

But the campers were not using an official campsite; were only 30 yards from the Hegarty cabin; had broken through a locked gate and traveled a road officially closed to the public, and refused to put out an illegal and dangerous campfire burning directly beneath a “Kindle No Fires” sign.

Moreover, Kathy Hegarty was a registered Maine Guide and an accomplished woodswoman.    For years, she and her husband ran sporting camps in Jackman, guiding and entertaining anglers and hunters. She was the expert local, but the campers from away ignored her and then argued with her.

The appeals court identified Hegarty’s “history of emotional instability” without mentioning that this characterization was in dispute and that one of the two incidents comprising the “history” involved her filing an excessive-force complaint against the trooper.

The trifecta of police departments, their attorneys and the justice system almost always prevents people like Jack Hegarty from having their day in court.

Mike Kazmierczak of Ellsworth is writing a book about the 1992 police-involved shooting of Katherine Hegarty.