Sgt. Aaron Skolfield, center, of the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Department, defended his interactions with Robert Card at a hearing in January, saying he couldn’t have taken Card into custody for terrorizing because he didn’t have jurisdiction and no one wanted to press charges. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“By no means is our work complete.”

A week ago, after half a dozen public hearings, months of independent research and several closed-door meetings, the commission investigating the Lewiston mass shooting released its first report – a 30-page document filled with scathing criticism of the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office and the way it handled warnings about shooter Robert Card’s declining mental health a month before the massacre on Oct. 25. A letter accompanying the report underscored that more work was to come.

It was fitting that the commission’s first findings focused on Sagadahoc. The sheriff’s office was the first agency to learn that Card’s family was worried about his erratic behavior and his access to weapons. It was the first to share the totality of its records on Card with the public days after the shooting. And Sagadahoc officials, including Sheriff Joel Merry and Sgt. Aaron Skolfield, were the subjects of the commission’s first public hearing in Lewiston.

But even as the commission criticized what it called Sagadahoc’s “abdication of law enforcement’s duty” in failing to apprehend Card in September, the panel promised more is to come – more fact-finding, more public hearings and at least one more report that could detail failings that reach far beyond the actions of a single sheriff’s deputy and the leaders he reports to.

“Nothing we do can ever change what happened on that terrible day,” commission chair Dan Wathen wrote in a news release that accompanied last Friday’s report. “But knowing the facts can help provide the answers that the victims, their families, and the people of Maine need and deserve.”

Several law enforcement leaders from around the state told the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram last week that they were reluctant to speak on the record about the commission’s interim report or to weigh in on whether Sagadahoc deputies made mistakes in their dealings with Card. But several chiefs said that preventing Maine’s next mass shooting will require more than laying blame on a single department – it will take structural and legislative changes that reshape how police confront mental illness. They, like the attorneys representing the Lewiston victims, said they are looking to the next chapter of the commission’s work and to potential reforms currently being debated in Augusta.



The sheriff’s office has argued that Skolfield’s hands were tied when Card refused to answer his door for police after he threatened to shoot up his Saco Army Reserve base in September. Because Maine officers cannot get a warrant to take someone into protective custody without a crime being committed, Skolfield could not force the face-to-face interaction he needed to temporarily confiscate Card’s weapons under the state’s yellow flag law. After two tries, Skolfield gave up on confronting Card and recruited Card’s family members into a plan to keep him away from his many guns.

The commission unanimously found that excuse lacking. Skolfield should have done whatever it took to reach Card himself, even if that process was risky or time-consuming, according to the report. Maine’s yellow flag law may be burdensome, the document reads, but the surge in its use across the state since Lewiston proves it can be effective.

In the five months before the shooting, Maine police departments successfully enacted the law 26 times, according to the Attorney General’s office. In the five months since, the law has been used 140 times, including by many departments – like Sagadahoc – that had never previously used it.

But even though police are now using the statute to confiscate guns and other weapons several times a week in Maine, some officials still say flaws in the law make it burdensome to use and potentially ineffective.

In December, Cumberland sheriff’s deputies received a report that was eerily reminiscent of the first warnings about Card, according to Sheriff Kevin Joyce. A 31-year-old military vet who believed the government had planted a “bug” in his ear and that birds were talking to him was patrolling his property wearing a ballistic vest and armed with a rifle.


Joyce’s team didn’t want to take any chances – Lewiston had underscored the importance of “taking the extra step” when responding to potential threats to public safety, Joyce said. So deputies attempted to yellow flag the man. When he didn’t come to the door, they waited. And waited.

For three days, officers sat outside the man’s home. Some took the overtime opportunity willingly, while others had to be ordered to take extra shifts. Deputies couldn’t get the man to open the door. Neither could a crisis negotiator. Finally, after 72 hours and about $25,000 in operational costs, the department packed up and went home unsuccessful.

“We tried everything,” Joyce said. “I can tell you right now the yellow flag law as it’s written is useless if the individual doesn’t want to have contact with you.”


Joyce is among those pushing the Legislature to strengthen law enforcement’s ability to separate people in crisis from their weapons, such as by allowing a justice of the peace to sign off on a yellow flag request. Otherwise, he envisions more sleepless nights like those he endured between the failed stakeout and the day deputies took the man into protective custody a week later.

“We’re expected to fix it,” he said. “So we need the tools to fix it.”


Asked whether law enforcement is properly equipped to handle the high volume of mental health calls, police leaders gave a range of answers. Chief Keith Mercier of Machias said he’s proud of the way his team navigates mental health issues. But for a tiny department that usually just has one car patrolling at a time, tying up an officer for the six or seven hours it takes to complete a yellow flag process presents significant hurdles, he said.

Bath Police Chief Andrew Booth said that working in a small city allows his officers to build relationships with the people who tend to chronically show up as the subjects of mental health calls. But during busy weeks, he said it can still be difficult or impossible to make sure everything gets the follow-up attention it deserves.

“We’re all shorthanded and headed from call to call,” he said. “Sometimes we just don’t have the manpower.”

The commission’s report criticized Skolfield for not handing the Card case off to another officer when the deputy went on leave the day after his failed welfare check. Skolfield, who told the Press Herald on Friday that he was under orders not to discuss the Lewiston killings, told the commission in January that he considered the matter closed after Card’s family agreed to confiscate the weapons.

The Sanford Police Department, one of the earliest adopters and biggest champions of Maine’s yellow flag law, has greatly improved its ability to manage its large number of mental health calls by building a mental health unit that pairs police with mental health professionals, Chief Craig Andersen said. He said Maine departments should constantly look for ways to improve how they handle these calls, including by working more closely with embedded clinicians who are better equipped to help people suffering from mental illness.

But he said even excellent policing won’t be sufficient to eliminate the risk of a mass shooting similar to Lewiston, because that won’t address the root problem: A dramatically under-resourced and understaffed mental health system that often keeps people in crisis waiting months for care.


“The mental health resources in our community are not sufficient – and they’re certainly not sufficient in our state,” Andersen said. “We’re leaving folks out there hanging without the support that they need.”

Legislators in Augusta are considering a package of gun and mental health reforms proposed by Gov. Janet Mills last month. The legislation would require background checks for private gun sales, fund a statewide network of crisis-receiving centers and allow police to seek a mental health warrant to bring someone who may pose a threat into protective custody, among other changes. But it remains to be seen whether the Lewiston killings will inspire lawmakers to pass significant reform in a state that has long been protective of unrestricted access to guns.


Though the commission’s report largely focused on the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office, attorney Travis Brennan focused on what the document said about another agency: the U.S. Army.

Brennan, one member of a team of attorneys from four firms jointly representing 90 families affected by the shooting, has avoided answering questions about whom the group might target in a lawsuit. He said they won’t know where the case is headed until they learn more about what led to the Lewiston mass shooting through the commission’s work, a separate investigation the Army is conducting and public records requests.

While the sheriff’s department has been relatively transparent about its contacts with Card, the Army has been less forthcoming about the steps it took to help Card after he began acting erratically.


According to the report, doctors at the New York hospital where Card spent two weeks last summer specifically told Capt. Jeremy Reamer that the Army Reserve should make sure Card attended all of his follow-up appointments and that someone removed all guns and ammunition from his home. Reamer never passed this information on to Skolfield or anyone else with the sheriff’s office when they spoke in September, according to the report.

“Although it doesn’t focus so much on the conduct of the U.S. Army Reserve, (the report) does highlight how much information the U.S. Army Reserve had about the warning signs that the shooter was displaying,” Brennan said. “We look forward to getting the full report and understanding more fully what information the U.S. Army Reserve had at its disposal, what policies and procedures they had at the time and whether they appropriately followed those in light of the information they had.”

Though qualified immunity generally protects individual police officers like Skolfield and Merry from liability stemming from actions taken in the course of their work, larger institutions have been successfully sued following mass shootings.

Jamal Alsaffar, a Texas lawyer also working with the Lewiston victims, won a $230 million verdict for the victims of the 2017 Sutherland Springs mass shooting after a federal judge ruled that the Air Force and the Department of Defense had been negligent in failing to get the shooter onto the FBI’s list of people prohibited from possessing firearms.

The Lewiston victims have a diverse range of beliefs about what needs to change in order to prevent another mass shooting in Maine. But one point that unites them is the belief that Lewiston was preventable – a belief confirmed by the commission’s report, according to Brennan.

“For our clients, and those who were there on the night of the shootings or lost loved ones, their lives have been forever changed,” he said. “That grieving process is still ongoing. It’s still very, very fresh, and very painful. And I think it will be for quite some time.”

Related Headlines

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.