Maine sheriff had cause to seize shooter’s guns before mass killing, panel finds

By Thomson Reuters Mar 15, 2024 | 8:53 PM

By Steve Gorman

(Reuters) – Law enforcement authorities had probable cause to place U.S. Army reservist Robert Card into protective custody and seize his guns a month before he shot 18 people to death in Lewiston, Maine, an independent commission said in a report on Friday.

In a unanimous finding, the seven-member panel appointed by Maine’s governor and attorney general determined that the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office failed to take action under the state’s so-called Yellow Flag law that may have prevented the mass shooting.

Although Card, who took his own life after the killings, was found “solely responsible” for his conduct, authorities missed “several opportunities that, if taken, may have changed the course of events,” the commission said in the 29-page report.

There was no immediate response from the sheriff’s office to the report or to a Reuters request for comment.

The Oct. 25 shooting spree, unleashed by Card at a bar and a bowling alley, left 18 people dead and 13 wounded in the most lethal episode of gun violence in Maine’s history.

Card, assigned to an Army Reserve unit in the nearby city of Saco, was found dead two days later of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at a recycling plant where he once worked.

In the days that followed, it surfaced that his family had contacted the sheriff’s office five months earlier to report their concerns about his deteriorating mental health and that he had access to at least 10 guns.

A second report came through in September, a month before the shooting, when Card’s reserve unit emailed the sheriff’s office requesting a “wellness check” on him, according to a sheriff’s incident report made public after the shooting.

At least one soldier friendly with Card told unit superiors he feared Card was “was going to snap and commit a mass shooting,” the Army Reserve unit said in that email.

At that point, the commission concluded, the sheriff’s office “had probable cause” for believing Card “posed a likelihood of serious harm,” based on its awareness that he suffered from serious mental illness, had been hospitalized for that illness, had recently assaulted a friend, had threatened to “shoot up” the Saco Armory, and possessed numerous firearms.

The sheriff’s sergeant assigned to the matter, however, made minimal efforts to meet with Card and “failed to consult the agency’s records concerning a previous complaint” about him, the commission said.

When that sergeant went on leave in mid-September, no one was assigned to follow up or to initiate Yellow Flag proceedings, despite having “sufficient probable cause” to place Card into protective custody and confiscate his weapons, it said.

In effect, the sheriff’s office shifted the onus for removing Card’s firearms to his family, “an abdication of law enforcement’s responsibility,” the panel found.

In testimony before the commission in January, sheriff’s officials defended their response to warning signs about Card’s mental health, saying their options were limited given that Card had not committed any crime, local media reported at the time.

The Army previously disclosed that Reserve officers had committed Card to a mental health hospital in July of 2023 for two weeks after he displayed erratic, threatening behavior during a training trip.

The Army also said Card, a firearms instructor for his unit, was restricted in August from handling Army guns and was declared “non-deployable.”

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Tom Hogue)