Beyond 'yellow flag' law, Maine commission highlights another missed opportunity before shootings

The interim report from the commission investigating Maine's deadliest mass shooting focused mostly on whether authorities should have taken shooter Robert Card into custody and seized his guns under the state's so-called yellow flag law

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — The commission probing Maine’s deadliest mass shooting concluded law enforcement had ample grounds to pursue assault charges against Robert Card for punching a fellow Army reservist in the face six weeks before he killed 18 people in Lewiston.

While legal experts and the man he punched concur on that, they say even if charges had been pursued they might not have prevented the shootings.

An independent commission launched by Gov. Janet Mills has been reviewing events leading up to the Oct. 25 shootings at a bowling alley and bar and the response afterward. Much of its recently released interim report focused on the state's "yellow flag" law, which allows a judge to temporarily remove somebody's guns during a psychiatric health crisis.

Criticism particularly focused on Sgt. Aaron Skolfield of the Sagadahoc County sheriff's office. The panel concluded that office had probable cause under that law to take Card into custody and seize his guns, and that its decision to leave the latter up to his family was an abdication of responsibility.

The sheriff’s office did not immediately respon to a request for comment Monday.

However, the report ends with a brief mention of another possible missed opportunity: Card's best friend, Sean Hodgson, reported he was assaulted when Card started “flipping out” as they returned from a night of gambling, pounding the steering wheel and nearly crashing multiple times. After ignoring his pleas to pull over, Card punched him in the face, Hodgson said.

“I believe he’s going to snap and do a mass shooting,” Hodgson wrote in reporting the incident to his U.S. Army Reserve supervisors on Sept. 15.

Hodgson’s commanding officer, 1st Sgt. Kelvin Mote, described the incident in a memo sent to Skolfield later that day. But the commission noted Skolfield never followed up with Hodgson after another Army official told him to take his account “with a grain of salt.”

That was a mistake, according to the commission, which said law enforcement had “more than sufficient information” to pursue assault charges. Had they done so, Card could have been arrested and a prosecutor could have requested bail conditions that prohibited the possession of firearms, the commission wrote.

“The Commission finds that there is a misperception among some law enforcement officers, including Sgt. Skolfield, that they need to have a victim ‘press charges’ to bring a case to the prosecutor’s office,” the commission wrote. “This is simply wrong. It is the prosecutor ... who brings the charges, but a prosecutor can only act when those charged with investigating crimes, i.e., law enforcement officers, follow through with their investigations.”

Card, who was found dead by suicide after a two-day search after the shooting, was well-known to law enforcement. Additionally, his family and fellow service members had raised flags about his behavior, deteriorating mental health and potential for violence earlier.

In a phone interview last week, Hodgson said he agreed there would have been grounds to charge Card with assault. But he doesn’t know whether it would have prevented the attack.

“Even though I agree with their assessment, at the same time, I didn’t want to see him in trouble. I wanted him to get some sort of help,” he said.

Arresting Card would’ve separated him from the longtime friend he most often turned to for support, he said. But it also could have led to the removal of his guns.

“If they would have pressed charges, they would have cut him off for me,” he said. “But if they did contact me, I could have let them know, and they could have investigated.”

Jim Burke, professor emeritus at the University of Maine School of Law, said it is clear that law enforcement and perhaps military officials didn’t do everything they could have done, including pursuing criminal charges, but the more difficult question is what would have happened if they had done so.

“Could it have made a difference?” he said. “In theory, it could have. In practice, it might have. There is no way I can tell you that it you it would have.”

Burke, who spent 30 years practicing law in Lewiston, said officers can’t arrest someone for simple assault without a warrant unless they witness the crime.

“If the deputy sheriff had taken the story to a court and asked for an arrest warrant, I doubt that they would have gotten the arrest warrant just because a fellow Army buddy said, so-and-so did …. to me,” he said.

And while a victim’s cooperation is not necessary, given the backlog of criminal cases in the Maine judicial system, “They don’t have the luxury of spending an amount of time on a simple assault where nobody’s complaining,” Burke said.

“ In retrospect, it was an incredible – and I’m using the phrase intentionally - red flag. But at the time, they didn’t see it,” he said. “Is that a mistake? Yes. Should they have done differently? Yes.”

Orlando Delogu, also a professor emeritus at the law school, said authorities definitely should have investigated Card for assaulting Hodgson. He also agreed with the commission’s criticism of authorities for not contacting Hodgson to find out where Card worked after Card refused to answer the door at home. But as the commission noted, the sheriff’s office wasn’t privy to all the information the Army had about Card. That’s a big problem, Delogu said.

“The military unit, the state police, the local sheriff’s office and the local police, in Maine, they have a long tradition of not cooperating with one another,” he said.

Credit: AP

Credit: AP