Kate Keene looked out over the standing-room-only congregation inside The Episcopal Church of St. Mary in Falmouth just over a week ago, the task before her nothing short of herculean.

“As I look out at all of you today, I can only imagine how confusing this must be for you to see me standing up here, ready to sing the praises of a man who took someone so very precious to me, my family and many of you,” she said. “It doesn’t get much more confusing than that.”

Nor does it get more tragic.

Keene was talking about her brother, Andy Leighton. Five years ago last May, mired in decades of severe mental illness, he shot and killed their mother, Shirley Leighton, at the family’s home in Falmouth Foreside.

Now, Andy is dead. And what’s left of his immediate family – younger sister Kate and their father, Thomas Leighton – want to know why.

“The prisoner’s death occurred approximately 8:34 a.m., October 1, 2018, at the Maine State Prison in Warren. Consistent with the Department policy and the Attorney General’s Office protocols, the State Police and the Medical Examiner were notified,” said the terse news release put out the same day by Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick.

What the release didn’t say is that Andy died in his cell after his fellow prisoners tried futilely for days to get him help. That in the hours before his death, he could barely breathe – his throat so swollen from an apparent infection that his rattling airway could be heard up and down his cellblock.

“It was like he had no neck. Instead of being indented, it was straight down. Bloated right up,” fellow prisoner Randy McGowan, Andy’s best friend, said in a telephone interview from the Maine State Prison on Friday evening. “It must have been terrifying to him because basically he was suffocating.”

Little wonder that Andy’s father and sister are now talking to their attorneys. They’re not looking for money, but rather the truth behind what happened and what can be done to keep it from happening again.

Sitting with his daughter in her Kennebunk dining room Friday morning, Tom Leighton looked every bit the man who, with his 77th birthday fast approaching, wishes the world would go away and leave him alone for a while.

“To be honest with you, I was thinking yesterday that maybe what I should do is just stop with Andy’s funeral and let the rest of it go,” he said. “Then I got thinking, ‘No, it’s not right. It should be brought to light.'”

‘LIKE NOTHING I’D EVER SEEN’

Tom was there the afternoon when Andy, then 46, shot his mother.

In some ways, it was a replay of the crises that for so many years had necessitated trips to the Maine Medical Center emergency room or, more often than not, admission to Spring Harbor Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Westbrook.

Only this time was different. This time, for the first time, Andy had a gun.

He’d purchased the .40-caliber Baby Eagle pistol at Cabela’s in Scarborough, where clerks actually turned him down on his first trip because he was behaving erratically.

Then, the next morning, they inexplicably sold him the weapon. Having never been convicted of a felony or involuntarily committed, he passed the background check with flying colors. The store even threw in a free supply of hollow-point bullets to compensate Andy for the earlier inconvenience.

The next day, May 3, 2013, Andy pulled the pistol on his father and demanded a ride to get some beer. Tom refused and, upon seeing the weapon, left the house, ignoring Andy’s claim that it was “just a BB gun.”

Moments later, Shirley arrived home and spoke with her husband in the driveway. She told Tom she’d go in and talk with Andy while Tom walked the dogs – after that, they agreed, they’d drive Andy once again to Spring Harbor.

But when Tom returned with the dogs a short time later, he found Andy sitting on the stoop. In that moment, even after all the years of struggle, all the diagnoses ranging from depression to bipolar disorder to extreme anxiety to schizophrenia, all the medications that sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t, Tom sensed that this was uncharted territory.

“There was a look on his face like nothing I’d ever seen before,” Tom said. “His eyes, I mean, there was just nothing there.”

Inside, Tom found Shirley on the floor, killed by a gunshot to the back of her head.

Andy followed Tom in, told his father, “I shot her,” and threatened to shoot Tom as well. They struggled over the weapon, both falling to the floor before Tom feigned a heart attack.

Only then, when a disoriented Andy got up to get his father’s heart medication, did Tom manage to run out of the house screaming for help. After a five-hour standoff, Andy surrendered to police.

Shirley’s funeral drew an overflow crowd to St. Mary’s – they stopped counting at 500. Kate gave the eulogy, never dreaming that she’d be back in five years to do the same for her brother.

And Andy, after pleading guilty to murder, entered the Maine State Prison on Jan. 6, 2015.

Tom and Kate drove to Warren to visit him that March, but the full-body searches and other disruptions that come with such visits triggered Andy’s anxieties to the point where all agreed to visit by phone until he felt more able.

“He’d call me weekly,” Tom said.

“And me a couple of times a month,” said Kate.

They would never again see Andy alive.

PRISON STAFF CALLED NEGLIGENT

Andy kept a low profile in prison, listening to classical music in his cell, taking his daily psychotropic medications and steering clear of trouble.

As Kate put it in her eulogy: “I am so proud and thankful to say that when Andy passed, apologies had been made, forgiveness had been granted, I love yous had been exchanged. Everything had been said that needed to be said. There were no regrets. He was free to go. When he left this world, he not only felt the love and support of his family and friends on the outside, but he felt the love and support of his friends on the inside. And that is a blessing.”

One of those friends was Randy McGowan, who was 15 years into his 28-year sentence for murder when Andy arrived.

In all his time behind bars, McGowan said, “I’ve never been close to an inmate like Andy. We just clicked – I wanted to help the guy.”

Thus, when Andy began complaining of pain from his ear to his jaw during the latter half of September, it was McGowan who brought him hot water and vitamin C to alleviate the discomfort.

And when things only got worse, it was McGowan, along with fellow prisoner Anthony Carro, who urged him to “go to medical” – the inmate clinic and infirmary operated under contract with the state by Nashville, Tennessee-based Correct Care Solutions.

But while Andy’s condition grew steadily worse, McGowan said, the health staff repeatedly sent him back to his cell. At one point, according to the inmates, a corrections officer told him to get a “sick-call slip,” well aware that it would be two or three days before Andy would actually get to see a doctor.

“He was literally making a noise that sounded like he was snoring – you know that sound?” McGowan said. “And it was in and out in his nose. And I said, ‘Geez, Andy, that doesn’t sound good.'”

At one point, McGowan asked Andy why he was breathing through his nose if it was so difficult.

“And he opened his mouth to breathe and it sounded like he had a straw in his mouth, blowing in and out of a straw,” McGowan said. “His throat was, I mean, if you look in a mirror and open your mouth at your throat, it’s like a couple inches diameter. His was like literally a quarter of an inch. His throat was closed right up.”

Finally, at 8 a.m. on the morning of Oct. 1, Andy went to the “pill window” to get his daily medications, where he told a nurse, “I can’t breathe.” Once again, according to McGowan and Carro, he was sent back to his cell.

That’s when Andy’s fellow inmates, by now frantic at his deteriorating condition, finally persuaded a corrections officer to call for a wheelchair to transport Andy to the infirmary.

By the time a wheelchair arrived at his cell at 8:34 a.m., Andy was already dead. McGowan could hear from his own cell a short distance away as a nurse tried to perform an emergency tracheotomy.

“She could not get the intubation tube down his throat,” McGowan said. “It was closed right up. … I was able to listen to everything until they counted down his blood pressure and said do not, you know, don’t attempt it anymore.”

He added, “It tore my heart out. … It must have been horrible for him to sit there and not be able to get help.”

‘A MEDICAL ISSUE’

Andy’s father got the call later that morning.

“I’ve got some bad news for you,” the corrections officer on the other end told him. “Your son died this morning.”

Tom, shocked, asked what happened.

“Well, we don’t know,” the officer replied. “It was a medical issue.”

Later that day, Tom spoke with Maine State Prison Warden Randall Liberty.

“He told me the very same thing – that it was a medical issue, that’s all he could tell me and we had to wait for the medical examiner’s report and we wouldn’t know until then,” Tom said.

Meanwhile, inmates McGowan and Carro reached out to the Leighton family via an intermediary on the outside and told them what had actually happened.

And last week, the family finally got a death certificate, stamped “working copy,” after it was forwarded to the funeral home by the medical examiner’s office.

The cause of death: “Acute inflammation at base of tongue and anterior neck structures with rhabdo-myocytolysis, sialadenitis, and sepsis.”

Rhabdo-myocytolysis, according to the National Institutes of Health, is “a rare but potentially fatal complication of status asthmaticusm (repeated asthma attacks)” caused by, among other things, infection and “excessive exertion of respiratory muscles.” Andy, according to his sister, had asthma.

Sialadenitis is an infection of the salivary glands.

Sepsis, according to the Mayo Clinic, is “a potentially life-threatening complication of an infection. … If sepsis progresses to septic shock, blood pressure drops dramatically, which may lead to death.”

In an interview Friday, Corrections Commissioner Fitzpatrick said Andy Leighton’s death is currently being investigated internally by his department and by the Maine State Police.

“Between the two entities, I would think if there’s something that wasn’t appropriate in terms of the medical response, we would address that immediately,” Fitzpatrick said.

And would those findings be released publicly?

“It sort of depends on what we find, quite honestly,” he said. “It depends on what the issue was.”

Fitzpatrick also said the department was “waiting on information from the medical examiner.”

Informed that the family already has a working copy of the medical examiner’s death certificate, a surprised Fitzpatrick replied that “it would be nice if (the medical examiner’s office) kept us in the loop.”

“Why don’t I make some calls and find out where we are in the investigation?” Fitzpatrick finally suggested.

As of Saturday evening, he had not called back.

FAMILY FIRMLY IN HIS CORNER

Back at his daughter’s home, Tom Leighton said he wanted last weekend’s memorial service “to set the tone that Andy wasn’t the monster people thought he was after what happened. I think we were able to bring the real Andy back for a few minutes and give him a nice send-off.”

Kate, who devoted most of her eulogy to Andy’s magnetic personality, his stellar record in the classroom and his good looks that made her childhood girlfriends swoon, nodded quietly in agreement.

She lost her mother, then her brother. All because … why?

“For some reason, we’ve been put in this position,” Kate said. “We don’t want to be here necessarily, but for me, I can’t sit with it. Some good has got to come out of all of this.”

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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