Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry in his office in Bath on Tuesday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

BATH — Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry described a soul-searching happening within his department. He and many others wonder whether the team could have done anything differently to stop Robert Card before he walked into a bowling alley last week and killed seven people, then walked to a bar and killed eight more. Three others later died at the hospital.

On Monday, the sheriff’s office released documents detailing two different warnings the department received about Card’s apparently declining mental health and the risk he posed to the community.

“We should never be afraid to challenge ourselves. Can we do better? Was there anything we missed? I think there are questions that remain as a result of this tragic case,” Merry said, sitting in his office in Bath on Tuesday afternoon. “And we need to answer those questions.”

But as Merry said his team is already taking steps to evaluate how it handled the warnings about Card, he suggested wider systemic issues, including the department’s limited manpower and Maine’s weak yellow flag law, may have played a larger role in the failure to apprehend Card than did any individual’s mistake.

The sheriff acknowledged that it may seem striking that his office was twice warned about Card – once in May when his family grew concerned that his growing mental health problems and his access to guns could form a dangerous cocktail, and again in September when Card’s U.S. Army Reserves unit in Saco warned that he was suffering from psychotic episodes and had been spent two weeks at a psychiatric hospital.

But these types of warnings are far more common than the public realizes, Merry said, and rarely do they result in violence – though he said he could not cite a specific number of instances.


He said his team followed proper procedures in both instances.

After Card’s ex-wife and son reported their concerns about Card in May, a deputy spoke to members of Card’s Army unit.

“The idea of contacting Robert’s command in the (U.S. Army Reserve) came up and everyone agreed this may be the best avenue to get Robert some help,” the police report said.

The sergeant promised the deputy that Card would get him help.

The deputy moved on.

On September 15, Card’s unit told the department that he had spent two weeks in a psychiatric hospital in New York.


That was an involuntary commitment, a military spokesperson told the Boston Globe on Tuesday. Maine State Police have previously said that they had no information that Card was every forcibly committed to mental health treatment and that’s why he was never on any lists to prevent him from buying a gun.

A friend also reported that he threatened to shoot up his unit’s drill center in Saco.

A deputy checked Card’s home on Sept. 15 and upon finding his trailer empty, sent out an alert to other law enforcement agencies to look out for Card. It included a warning that Card was armed and dangerous.

The next day, the deputy returned to Card’s home with support from a Kennebec County deputy, according to the report released by Merry on Monday. The pair saw Card’s car and noted what might have been movement from inside the trailer, but Card did not come to the door. Rather than escalate the situation, the deputies left and reached out to both Card’s family and Reserve unit.

Both the family and the Army captain said that Card tended to get upset and excited before calming down – the captain recommended deputies avoid confronting Card so that he could “have time to himself for a bit,” the Sagadahoc report states.

Merry said Tuesday that relying on family members and organizations like the Army to play a role in calming mental health emergencies was common practice for departments that are already stretched thin.


Members of Card’s family promised they could take and secure Card’s personal guns, while a captain in the Reserves unit said Card’s service weapons had already been taken from him.

And Card’s family did take those steps. According to an affidavit released by state police on Tuesday, the family got him to agree to change the code on his gun safe, but Card later got a key to the safe and was able to access the weapons.

The sheriff said deputies asked both the family and the Reserves to keep them informed if anything changed with Card or if they got more threats.

Maine Shooting

People gather at a vigil for the victims of Wednesday’s mass shootings on Sunday, outside the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston. Matt Rourke/Associated Press

But without ever finding Card, the Sagadahoc department closed the case on Oct. 18, exactly one week before Card killed 18 people.

Merry said he does not know why the September matter into Card was closed. He says that can happen in a few ways, including if the communications center closes it or if the deputy who opened the case closes it.

At the time of the September visits, the sheriff’s office had one vacancy among its staff of 14, and one was so new that they were not in a position to do much besides shadow a senior deputy, Merry said.


While in an ideal world a senior officer would back up all important decisions about whether to follow up on a welfare check or trust that it’s been properly handled, Merry said in practice there are times when the decision is the responding deputy’s alone and the department sometimes struggles to follow up in the ways it should.

“We’re all busy. The phone continues to ring,” he said. “Sometimes we’re working on something that’s serious, and we can get called away for something that’s even more serious. That’s just the nature of it.”

He said the department is now working with a mental health liaison through Sweetser, a nonprofit mental health provider based in Saco. He said Card’s case would have been a perfect use for that partnership, but they didn’t have that resource at the time.

His big takeaway, Merry said, is that he’s unsure departments like his currently have the resources to ensure these cases are consistently being handled appropriately, even if all officers follow proper protocol.

He said weaknesses in the state’s yellow flag law made it impossible to implement when deputies made their September visits to Card’s home.

The law requires law enforcement officials to bring a subject in for a medical evaluation before weapons can be seized. But police can’t get a warrant to take someone into protective custody for a mental health illness, Merry said. Because deputies could not find Card, they could not get the evaluation they needed.

Stronger red flag laws allow families or law enforcement agencies to directly seek court orders to remove weapons from people deemed to be going through mental health episodes.

Merry said those laws are useful because they require law enforcement to jump through fewer hoops.

“I think that’s a good conversation to have,” he said, though he stopped short of directly endorsing such a law in Maine.

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