Sheriff had cause to take Maine shooter into custody, commission finds

The month before an Army reservist killed 18 people in Lewiston, Maine, law enforcement officers had enough information to take him into custody and remove his firearms but failed to do so, an independent commission investigating the tragedy found.

Law enforcement missed several opportunities in the weeks before Robert Card, 40, carried out the attack “that, if taken, may have changed the course of events,” the commission wrote in an interim report released Friday. The Oct. 25 massacre was the United States’ deadliest mass killing of 2023.

By September, the sheriff’s office in Sagadahoc County had probable cause to believe Card “posed a likelihood of serious harm” and should have taken him into custody under Maine’s “yellow-flag” law, the commission found. Officers also had enough information to pursue criminal assault charges against him.

Instead, a sergeant responding to a report about Card — including that Card had threatened to carry out a shooting — failed to fully investigate, the commission found, and the sheriff’s office failed to assign the case to someone else after the sergeant went on vacation.

The Army Reserve also failed to pass on to police recommendations from Card’s doctors that he be separated from any weapons, the report said.

The Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office and the Army did not immediately respond to requests for comment Saturday.

A final report from the commission, which is chaired by a former chief justice of the state supreme court and was convened by the governor, is expected this year. The interim report offers the commission’s first detailed assessment of — and assigns blame to — the systems that failed to prevent an armed man with mental health problems from carrying out a deadly attack.

Last week, a separate report from a Boston University research center that analyzed Card’s brain after his death found that Card had traumatic brain injury that probably played a role in his behavioral changes. The injury was consistent with exposure to weapons blasts, something Card was exposed to as an instructor at an Army grenade training range.

‘Incredibly traumatic’

Card opened fire at a bowling alley in Lewiston on Oct. 25, killing eight people, then drove to a bar and killed 10 more people. Thirteen people were wounded by gunshots, and 14 additional people were injured in the chaos.

Card fled, sparking a two-day manhunt involving hundreds of officers in the rural, heavily wooded county. Lewiston and surrounding areas went under lockdown. Card was found dead in a trailer at a recycling company on Oct. 27; police said he died by suicide.

The report laid out concerns and warning signs about Card, many of which have been previously reported, that accumulated in the months before his attack. His family members had sought help for him, reporting a decline in his mental health to law enforcement, and his behavior had alarmed members of his Army reserve unit.

Ben Gideon, one of the attorneys representing about 90 victims of the attack — including family members of those who were killed, people who were injured and witnesses — said many were happy with the commission’s assessment holding the sheriff’s department accountable. He said he hoped, however, that the final report would identify other factors that contributed to Card’s ability to carry out the shooting and would recommend reforms.

“We look forward to the full report with the more broad-based assessment of all that went into what happened,” he told The Washington Post.

Under Maine’s yellow-flag law, firearms can be temporarily removed from someone who is deemed to be a threat, but the law has more requirements than similar red-flag laws in other states, including medical evaluation. Gideon said that he hoped the commission would recommend legislative reforms, and that the state’s law is cumbersome and insufficient.

“It obviously was not effective here. In hindsight, you can say [the sheriff] could have used it, but the reality is they didn’t, and it didn’t work in this situation,” Gideon said.

The tragedy shook Maine deeply, becoming one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history and shocking a region that normally stays out of national headlines. In the five months since, families who lost loved ones and people who survived the attacks have grieved.

“Everybody is dealing with the trauma and the grief in a very personal … way,” Gideon said of the dozens of victims he represents. “It’s pretty hard to generalize how people are dealing with this. It’s incredibly traumatic for everybody.”

The failures laid out in the commission’s report were centered around the response by law enforcement and the Army Reserve to warnings from Card’s family members, fellow Army reservists and mental health doctors, along with a threat he allegedly made to carry out a shooting at a drill his unit performed in September.

Over the course of the spring and summer, Card moved firearms into his house and told people he was hearing voices and believed others were talking about him. His teenage son and son’s mother first reported his behavior in May, seeking help. Card’s erratic behavior at a training in July prompted his company commander to order a mental health evaluation, after which Card spent two weeks in a hospital.

He was discharged Aug. 3, and a little over a month later, a fellow Army reservist made an urgent warning to his superiors, saying that Card had weapons and that he feared Card would commit a shooting. Army Reserve and police officers were so concerned about the threat that local police stationed themselves around the September drill site in case Card showed up, and one of his superiors wrote a statement detailing Card’s behavior, hoping police would use it to start the process of removing Card’s firearms under the state’s yellow-flag law.

A police sergeant who responded to reports about Card, Aaron Skolfield, failed to track down Card in person, didn’t contact someone who had been assaulted by Card and didn’t consult with other law enforcement agencies or prosecutors, the report said.

After a warning in September that Card might carry out a shooting, Skolfield told Card’s brother to determine whether Card needed psychiatric help and considered the matter resolved, the commission found — rather than pursuing the removal of Card’s weapons under Maine’s yellow-flag law, which the commission said he had sufficient evidence to do.

The commission also found that the sheriff’s office abdicated its responsibility by making the “decision to turn over the responsibility for removing Mr. Card’s firearms to Mr. Card’s family” rather than pursuing the yellow-flag order.

The Army Reserve also failed to relay recommendations from a hospital where Card received mental health treatment to police or ask police to charge Card for his shooting threats. The Army Reserve “treated Card as a high risk of violence against the unit’s members, but appeared to minimize the threat he posed” after he did not come to the Sept. 16 drill, the commission found.

Skolfield did not respond to a request for comment made through a family member Saturday morning. A report published by the sheriff’s office in December, carried out by a third-party reviewer, that concluded that Skolfield did not have grounds to take Card into custody and that the sheriff’s office’s response was reasonable.

Commission chair Daniel E. Wathen said in a statement that the group would hold additional public meetings before issuing its final report.

“Nothing we do can ever change what happened on that terrible day, but knowing the facts can help provide the answers that the victims, their families, and the people of Maine need and deserve,” he said in a statement.

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