SKOWHEGAN — When a massive manhunt was underway in April for John D. Williams, the man suspected of killing Somerset County sheriff’s Cpl. Eugene Cole in Norridgewock, Jeff Johnson, executive director of the Children’s Center in Skowhegan, wanted to get a gun to protect the children.

And in February, when Skowhegan-area schools were on “lockout” after an image of an assault rifle was posted on social media accompanied by a threat saying, “You will be the first to die,” Johnson wanted to get a gun to protect the children.

On both occasions, Johnson, who lives in Norridgewock, ordered the Skowhegan center locked down.

Then he got a gun.

“It all started here for me with this Williams thing and Corporal Cole,” Johnson said last week before a hearing on his appeal of an earlier decision denying his bid for a waiver of state law to allow him to arm himself at the four Children’s Centers in central Maine.

INITIAL REQUEST DENIED

In his waiver request to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, Johnson wrote that many of the 100 children in his care are nonverbal and cannot understand instructions, and some cannot walk.

Somerset County Sheriff’s Department Cpl. Eugene Cole was slain in April, setting off a manhunt.

“Their special needs make it extremely difficult to have ‘lockdown’ or ‘lockout’ protocols that will be efficient or effective,” Johnson wrote. “Our children, in general, cannot understand or move quickly.”

He wrote that the centers are funded largely through MaineCare and fundraising, and they can’t afford an armed resource officer, similar to those in public schools, or an armed security officer.

Johnson had sought a waiver to state law, which stipulates that weapons, firearms and ammunition are prohibited in child-care facilities.

DHHS’ Division of Environmental Health denied the waiver in March “due to the high risk of compromising children’s safety.”

Johnson’s appeal was heard Thursday in Augusta with Tammy Steuber, the hearing examiner; Dr. Bruce Bates, director of Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention; and Richard Thackeray, the attorney who presided over the hearing. Bates was the sole witness for DHHS.

Bates declined to comment on the case Friday, referring questions to Emily Spencer, the DHHS manager of media relations.

Executive Director Jeff Johnson ordered the Children’s Center in Skowhegan locked down in February and April. Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

Spencer did not respond Friday to an email seeking comment on the hearing.

The Children’s Center, an early-intervention and preschool education program, began providing family support services in Skowhegan in 2011. Based on feedback from the community, the center expanded in 2013 to include an autism program, a behavior support program, and special education services as well as the continuation of targeted case management and caregiver education series.

Johnson said he was certified July 31 for firearms handling, using the same standards developed at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy. His range officer was Franklin County Sheriff Scott Nichols.

Johnson now owns an H&K 9 mm pistol that he purchased after the Cole incident.

“If a bad guy with a gun comes into one of our sites, I want to have my firearm and the training that I need in order to stop an attack from happening,” Johnson said.

Johnson, a self-described moderate Democrat, is challenging incumbent Sen. Brad Farrin, a Republican from Norridgewock, for the District 3 seat in the Maine Senate. He said he knows that his gun appeal could jeopardize his chances in the November election, but his goal is to make sure the children in his charge are safe.

“I’m not making a statement about the Second Amendment,” he said. “I’m not making a political statement. I only want to focus on the unique needs of the Children’s Center. I am just asking for a waiver to a rule as it relates to the Children’s Center.”

Daniel Burgess, president of the Children’s Center board of directors and chief information officer at MaineGeneral Health, said in an email Friday that directors discussed the issue of “enhancing security to our facilities,” adding that Johnson made it clear that the only option under current law was to hire security personnel and that having an armed member of the staff was not allowed.

“The board agreed to have Jeff appeal the current regulation to see if this afforded us an additional option,” Burgess said. “We did not discuss how any board member felt regarding allowing a staff member to be armed, and that only if the option was made available would the board take up this question.”

SUPPORT FROM SHERIFF

Johnson said the Children’s Center is not a public school or a private school, but is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization. It is a licensed child-care facility that provides treatment and support to children with disabilities.

Johnson now leaves his handgun at home, being unauthorized to take it to the Children’s Center property.

He said he paid to have a 30-page threat assessment done and has the written support of Somerset County Sheriff Dale Lancaster, dated Aug. 3, and Kennebec County Sheriff Ken Mason, dated Aug. 1.

Johnson said statistics show that having a trained, armed security guard on premises stops the attack from happening or reduces the number of casualties.

“I would be the executive director slash armed security presence,” he said, acknowledging that he is only one person and the Children’s Center has locations in Augusta, Gardiner, Farmington and Skowhegan. He said having the public aware that there is an armed security presence at the locations – no one would know which one – would produce the perception of a harder target.

The centers are day programs, not residential facilities.

Johnson said the next step following Thursday’s two-hour hearing is a decision on the merits of his threat assessment, which says the sites are “soft targets,” by Thackeray, the attorney and administrative hearing officer. The completed assessment is due in Thackeray’s hands by Thursday.

Thackeray could not be reached for comment on the case Friday.

From there, the DHHS has until Aug. 23 to respond to the threat assessment, Johnson said. He said he has to provide a closing argument in writing, as does DHHS, by Sept. 4.

The decision, to be made by DHHS Commissioner Ricker Hamilton, is due 30 days from then.

Hamilton announced his retirement on Friday, however. His last day on the job will be Aug. 31.