AUGUSTA — The Mercer man who was both the shooter and driver in a drive-by shooting last year that injured a 7-year-old girl was sentenced Wednesday to serve eight years in prison.

Gavin T. Loabe

An emotional Gavin Tyler Loabe, 19, apologized to the parents of Emahleeah Frost, who was having an after school snack in her bedroom on Summer Street in Waterville on Feb. 28, 2020, when she was struck by one of five bullets Loabe fired into her family’s home. A bullet lodged between two vertebra in her back, where it remains, and she spent nearly a week Maine Medical Center in Portland.

“Today I’m here to take responsibility for one of the most cowardly acts a person can commit. In jail I have spent every minute regretting my action,” Loabe, wearing a green jail uniform, said Wednesday during his sentencing at the Capital Judicial Center. “I’m sorry to Emahleeah and her family, and also sorry to my family who has to do this time with me. They deserve so much better. I can’t imagine the embarrassment I’ve caused them.”

He finished by speaking directly to Frost’s parents, her mother, Davina Petchonka, and father, Charles Frost Jr., saying, through tears, “I’m sorry for hurting your little girl. From the bottom of my heart I am.”

Prior to Loabe speaking, an emotional Charles Frost Jr. said that the shooting had twisted their lives upside down. Their other daughter narrowly missed also being struck by a bullet in the bedroom she shared with Emahleeah.

Emahleeah Frost, 7, is recovering after being injured Feb. 28 2020 in a drive-by shooting at her family’s apartment at 42 Summer St. in Waterville. Photo courtesy of Davina Petchonka

“You’ve robbed them of their innocence and created this downward spiral that is going out of control,” he said. “Emahleeah has pain in her back, in her chest, in her legs.”

He said he’d planned to say more, but that he couldn’t continue speaking in the courtroom.

Prosecutor Chris Coleman, an assistant district attorney, described the downward spiral the shooting caused for Emahleeah and her family, including being made homeless. He said the girls were understandably afraid to return to the apartment where the shooting took place, so the family moved to a Waterville hotel near the interstate, “which is not the Hilton.” It frequently draws police responses and the girls’ only option for an outside play area is a parking lot.

Coleman also said the family lost its SNAP benefits due to receiving $14,100 — which was spent on clothing, food and other items the family needed — from a GoFundMe account set up to help them. The prosecutor noted that Emahleeah still has the bullet in her, because removing it from between her vertebrae would be too risky, and it likely will remain for the rest of her life. He said she has also suffered emotional scars, which also may linger.

“Going forward, Emahleeah is going to carry more than a bullet fragment, she’s also going to carry the weight of being shot in her own bedroom, through her entire life,” Coleman said, in arguing that Loabe be sentenced to serve 10 years in prison.

Coleman said Emahleeah didn’t attend Wednesday’s hearing out of concern it could harm her psychological well-being.

Loabe’s attorney, Lisa Whittier, said she didn’t think anybody could be sorrier than he was, that he has taken full responsibility for what he did and its impact, and noted he never had any intention of shooting Emahleeah and he had no criminal history whatsoever. She stressed that at the time of the crime, Loabe was 18 years old and immature. Whittier said he was driven by a desire to impress his peers, made profoundly bad choices, and had been spending time with a bad crowd of people who had criminal records and who influenced his thinking.

Whittier said she has seen him mature over the last 10 months in jail as he’s reflected on what he did. She added he is in the process of trying to earn his GED diploma. She argued he should serve four years in prison.

“Gavin is very remorseful for what happened, he has accepted responsibility, he pleaded to this charge, he fully understands that his conduct was wrong,” Whittier said. “I think it’s clear that at the time of the offense, as reckless as it was, Gavin Loabe did not intend to hurt Emahleeah.”

Loabe, according to Coleman, shot up the 42 Summer St. apartment building because he mistakenly believed another man lived there. The man had supposedly texted Loabe’s girlfriend, flirting with her and angering Loabe, who saw the text and planned to harm him.

Loabe pleaded guilty in April to a felony count of elevated aggravated assault, punishable by up to 30 years in prison, though the defense and prosecution had agreed to a maximum sentence of 15 years.

Superior Court Justice William Stokes sentenced him Wednesday to 15 years in prison, but with all but eight of those years suspended, and four years of probation. That means Loabe is expected to serve eight years in prison, but if he violates the terms of his probation he could have to serve the entire 15-year sentence.

Stokes said if Loabe were older, he’d probably consider sentencing him to 20 years, but said his youth is significant and that adolescent brains are immature and not fully developed. He urged Loabe to reflect on what he did and the impact it had, even beyond his time in prison.

“This is going to be with you for the rest of your life, the same way that bullet is going to be inside Emahleeah,” Stokes said to Loabe. “She is going to have to live with it, and you’re going to have to live with this mark.

“I’m hoping you’ll spend not just the time you’ll spend in prison, but also when you get out, and you’re living your life and trying to raise a family, that you’re thinking of her and what you did to her and the impact it had on her life. She’s totally innocent,” he added. “There has got to be a moral acceptance by you that your conduct hurt somebody, Emahleeah, and her family. And that frankly it hurt the entire community.”

Probation conditions include that he have no contact with Emahleeah; not use, and be subject to testing for, marijuana and illegal drugs; that he not possess a firearm; and that he testify truthfully at any future court proceedings.

Loabe’s father, Richard, also testified in court Wednesday, expressing his sympathy to Emahleeah and her family and describing his son as outgoing, friendly, and protective and loving of his 11-year-old stepsister.

“Emahleeah, you were in our prayers from the moment we heard the news of the tragic events that unfolded that night,” he said. “We wish you a very full recovery and a very happy and prosperous future.

“I can remember holding Gavin in my arms as a child, wishing those same things upon him. Happiness, prosperity and love,” Richard Loabe added. “I want it known that Gavin does have a kind and caring heart and in no way, shape or form would he intentionally hurt an innocent child.”

A second suspect, Jeremiah Gamblin, 21, of China, was arrested in September and also charged with elevated aggravated assault, and an additional charge of assault, in the case. He was charged as an accomplice to the crime, under “accomplice liability” law in Maine that allows for an accomplice in a crime to be charged with the same crime as the primary perpetrator.

Maeghan Maloney, district attorney for Kennebec and Somerset counties, said Gamblin is expected to have a trial in July.

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