Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry, left, and Sgt. Aaron Skolfield, far right, testify in January in front of the commission investigating the Lewiston mass shooting. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Aaron Skolfield decided about a year ago it was finally time to run for sheriff.

The 25-year veteran of the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office had been toying with the idea for a while. He felt it was time for new energy at the top and that he had the necessary experience and the temperament.

Sheriff Joel Merry wasn’t so sure about running for a fifth term. He still had dreams for the department, saw more work to be done. But in 15 years, he’d had a lot of late nights. Not the type to coast into retirement, Merry knew that as long as he was the boss, he would struggle to tear himself away to make it home in time for dinner.

Then came Lewiston.

Of all the agencies that have faced scrutiny since Robert Card killed 18 people there on Oct. 25, none has been as heavily criticized as his local sheriff’s department, which had been warned twice about Card’s declining mental health before he walked into Just-In-Time Recreation and started shooting.

The small department of 20 officers covers most of the county of 36,000 people, from Topsham north to Bowdoin and east toward Bath and down to the coastal areas of Phippsburg and Georgetown.


Merry and Skolfield – who tried twice in September to check on Card but never met him – have borne the brunt of the blame.

In an interim report released last month, the commission investigating the shooting called Skolfield’s decision not to use Maine’s yellow flag law to confiscate Card’s guns “an abdication of law enforcement’s responsibility.”

Online, the news that both men are running for sheriff in November (Merry as a Democrat, Skolfield as a Republican) has been met with animosity and derision. No one else is running, according to campaign filings.

“Neither man should be rewarded for failing to do their jobs,” Phippsburg resident Juanita Clark wrote in a letter to the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. “I hope and pray that someone steps forward to challenge them, because Sagadahoc County deserves better.”

Both Merry and Skolfield refused to answer specific questions about the department’s handling of Card in September. Merry said he wanted to allow the commission to complete its ongoing investigation. Skolfield said he was maintaining his silence on Merry’s orders. But each acknowledged that it has been difficult, after devoting their careers to public service, to be labeled as the men who failed to stop the deadliest shooting in Maine’s history.

Both recognize that Lewiston will loom over the race and that it might be easier to recede into the shadows. But they say that’s not an option.


“This is my agency. I own all of this,” said Merry, 65. “If I just walked away from that, what does that say about me? What does that say about my commitment to my agency? To my community?”


Skolfield, 52, said people have been encouraging him to run for sheriff for years. He said his honest communication style – he gives it to you straight, even if you’re not going to like what he has to say – has earned him the respect of his colleagues and his community.

That’s part of what attracted him to rural patrol in the first place. Unlike municipal police officers who might pair up while on duty, Sagadahoc deputies are largely on their own. Backup, if there is any, is likely at least 10 or 15 minutes away, forcing deputies to adapt quickly to the situation at hand.

“You’ve got to be able to think on your feet a little more,” Skolfield said in an interview last month. “You’ve got to be able to talk to people and talk to them well.”

Sgt. Aaron Skolfield is running to become Sagadahoc County Sheriff despite criticism that he should have done more to stop Lewiston shooter Robert Card last fall. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Skolfield was alone on patrol when he got the call that Card had assaulted a friend and threatened to shoot up their Army Reserve unit’s base in Saco last September, according to police reports the sheriff’s office released after the shooting. The friend believed Card was going to go through with it and reported the threats to his Army superiors. They weren’t convinced, but they were concerned enough to reach out to the sheriff’s office, which had already learned in May that Card was acting erratically and hearing voices that weren’t there.


Twice, Skolfield tried to check on Card at his Bowdoin house. Twice, he failed – once because Card wasn’t home, once because he refused to answer the door.

Skolfield decided to change course after talking the situation over with Jeremy Reamer, a New Hampshire police officer and Card’s commander in the Army. Rather than try to force a confrontation, which he feared could escalate the situation and put Card or himself in danger, he reached out to Card’s brother and tasked him with securing Card’s guns. Card’s brother agreed to call police back if he thought Card needed a medical evaluation, according to the deputy’s report.

Skolfield considered the matter closed and did not hand the case to another officer the next day when he went on vacation. No one else in the sheriff’s office had any contact with Card before the shooting six weeks later. Merry told the commission he was on medical leave during the failed welfare checks.

At a public hearing in January, Skolfield told the commission he thought he had done the right thing and had even gone above and beyond what many officers would have done by formulating a plan with Reamer and Card’s brother.

An outside review of the sheriff’s department’s handling of Card’s case, commissioned by Merry, also concluded that Skolfield was not at fault and had acted “diligently.”

The commission’s assessment saw it differently.


In its scathing interim report, the panel acknowledged that weaknesses in Maine’s yellow flag law made it difficult for Skolfield to confront Card but said he could and should have found a way to bring Card into custody, either by staking out his home and initiating a yellow flag process or by charging him with a crime and getting an arrest warrant.

Skolfield said he seriously considered dropping out of the race after the shooting. But as difficult as it has been to push through the criticism, he said, he’s been moved and encouraged by the support he’s received – especially from law enforcement colleagues around the state.

“All it would have taken was for a few people saying, ‘You need to cut bait and run.’ No one said that,” he said. “Those closest to me said, ‘Nope. It doesn’t change a thing. You’re still the right guy for the job.’”


The commentary about Lewiston, especially from the media, has sometimes frustrated Merry, who pointed to reporting about a surge in law enforcement’s use of the yellow flag law around the state immediately after the shooting. He sees this as evidence that Sagadahoc and other Maine departments are trying to improve – but he sometimes feels that people are more interested in assigning blame than in figuring out ways to fix the systemic problems that make it difficult for police to keep weapons out of the hands of dangerous individuals.

If the Lewiston shooting initially shook Skolfield’s confidence in running for sheriff, it steeled Merry’s resolve. He said he had always meant to leave the department in better shape than it had been when Sagadahoc voters first elected him sheriff in 2008. After winning three more terms in uncontested races, he says it has been “gut-wrenching” to lose the trust of some members of the community.


The only way forward, he said, is to show up every day and do the job well.

“I guess I feel that obligation that I have to make sure the public understands … we’re a good agency that cares about them and that is looking out for the best interest of all people,” he said. “This isn’t a retirement job for me. I am all in.”

Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry is running for a fifth term in office. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Both Merry and Skolfield are campaigning on promises to improve day-to-day operations in small ways they say will be significant.

Skolfield said he has supported Merry in the past and campaigned on his behalf in 2008, but he said the sheriff has grown disconnected from the experiences of his deputies after being off the streets for two decades. He said Merry already should have done more to increase staffing in the department so that at least three deputies could be on patrol at all times – instead of two or sometimes even one. And he said upgrades to the department’s creaky office space and dozens of outdated policies are long overdue.

“These things should have been done. He shouldn’t get another four years to get them done,” said Skolfield, who claims he has the “overwhelming support” of the department.

Merry said he could not be an effective leader if he did not have the support of the rank and file, but he believes he does. He countered Skolfield’s contention by saying that the connections he has built over many years with other law enforcement agencies and community partners – like the nonprofit mental health provider Sweetser – will be vital to the department’s ability to combat growing drug and mental health crises.


He said he can’t be blamed for the department’s limited staff. He’s never turned down an offer for more help, he said, and he continues to ask for new positions from the county commissioners who hold Sagadahoc’s purse strings.

Merry acknowledged that several departmental policies are past due to be updated, and he said that work is a key step in his longtime goal of getting the department accredited by the Maine Chiefs of Police Association. That distinction would certify that the department aligns with modern industry standards.

But he said it’s been hard to stay on top of this and other long-term goals because of all the time and energy he and others in the department have spent dissecting the Card case in recent months.

Both men say running against someone they work with every day can be awkward, especially as members of the department have been leaning on one another so much for support ever since the mass shooting.

Ultimately, of course, the voters will decide. Both candidates are hoping those voters will see them as men who have worked for decades to try to protect their community – not as the ones who failed.

“If you’re going to make a political run, you don’t have a choice,” Skolfield said. “You can’t hide from it.”

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