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At least 23 law enforcement officers were aware of threats but couldn’t stop Maine mass shooter

A Scripps News analysis confirmed that all of the nearly two dozen Maine police officers who had knowledge of Card’s behavior had received training on the state's "yellow flag" laws.
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Posted at 5:41 PM, Jun 05, 2024

Jennifer Zanca can’t quite reconstruct her memories of the moment she was nearly killed last October.

It happened while she and a group of friends were grabbing dinner at Schemengees Bar and Grille in Lewiston, Maine, when a gunman walked in and opened fire.

She remembers hearing the “rapid fire of bullets” that sounded “like a machine gun.” She remembers a “vacant” look on the shooter’s face. And she hasn’t forgotten the pain of the “horrible explosion” from a bullet tearing through her arm.

But what she can’t remember is where she was when the bullet hit her.

“I just want to know how that happened,” she said. “I [wanted] to go back in and ... piece this together, what my brain wants to know for some reason.”

Zanca and her friends recently visited the closed restaurant. She took photos with her phone, taking note of all of the patches in the walls that cover bullet holes. She knows she tried to take cover behind a wall but doesn’t know if she actually made it there before the gunman fired in her direction.

“I’m thinking I might have been on the other side of the wall. Maybe it went through the wall and then hit my arm,” she told Scripps News, while pointing at the photos on her phone. “I’m not really sure.”

Zanca was among 31 people shot that night – 18 of them were killed – when Army reservist Robert Card II targeted Schemengees and a nearby bowling alley, Just-In-Time Recreation, on Oct. 25.

In addition to trying to recover her memories, Zanca is working through a lengthy process of physical healing. She still cannot fully lift her injured arm.

As she continues to recover physically and emotionally, she wonders why no one was able to stop the shooter before he carried out his attack. Law enforcement received numerous warnings about Card’s instability in the months leading up to the incidents.

“It just didn’t have to happen. This whole tragedy,” she told Scripps News.

“There were so many people that knew he was going to do a mass shooting,” Zanca said. “That’s one of the hardest things for me to grapple with, is that ... it happened even knowing all the pieces of his mental instability.”

Officers had information but ‘yellow flag’ was not used

A Scripps News investigation found at least 23 Maine police officers had some level of knowledge about Card’s threats and mental decline in the weeks and months leading up to the October rampage.

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Some knew Card through their military service, and others never met him personally. Some officers learned Card had made “rants about having to shoot someone,” and others were informed that he had threatened to commit a shooting at a military facility in Saco, Maine, prior to the deadly shooting in Lewiston.

However, no officer from any agency successfully implemented or requested that the state’s "yellow flag law” be used to remove Card’s firearms from his possession before he killed 18 people.

The Maine law, which took effect in 2020, paves the way for police officers to have someone’s guns removed after that person has been taken into protective custody, evaluated by a mental health professional, and determined to present a likelihood of foreseeable harm

A Scripps News analysis confirmed that all of the nearly two dozen officers who had knowledge of Card’s behavior had received training on the law.

That includes Sgt. Aaron Skolfield, a Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Deputy who worked in the jurisdiction where Card lived.

What the Maine commission investigating the shooting found

In an interim report released in March, the Independent Commission to Investigate the Facts of the Tragedy in Lewiston placed blame on Skolfield and his agency, saying the yellow flag law should have been utilized.

The commission plans to deliver a full report later this summer.

“Robert Card Jr. is solely responsible for his own conduct, and he may have committed a mass shooting even if the guns he possessed in September 2023 were removed from his house. Nevertheless, there were several opportunities that, if taken, may have changed the course of events,” the expert panel said.

“The Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office ... had sufficient probable cause to take Robert Card Jr. Into protective custody under Maine’s Yellow Flag law and to remove his firearms and that the SCSO had probable cause to believe that Mr. Card posed a likelihood of serious harm,” the report continued.

They also admonished Sgt. Skolfield, the deputy who tried and failed to connect with Card one month ahead of the shooting.

“Sgt. Skolfield made only limited attempts to accomplish a ‘face-to-face’ meeting with Mr. Card,” the report said.

The deputy who failed to connect with Card defends himself

Skolfield said his heart sank when he learned the identity of the Lewiston mass shooter.

“The mere thought that it could be Robert Card made me sick to my stomach,” he said. “Knowing that there was a connection, that something different could have been done ... That's why I felt miserable about it.”

In his first national television interview since the commission released its critical report, Skolfield told Scripps News he thinks about the missed opportunity to remove Card’s firearms every day – sometimes, all day.

“Obviously, I feel for the families of Lewiston, and I feel awful about that,” he said. “It has taken a toll on me. I question a lot of things now. I look at things through a hyper-vigilant light that I wouldn’t have necessarily looked at them through before.”

Skolfield, however, continues to staunchly defend his actions leading up to the shooting and vehemently disputes the Commission’s finding that he could have taken Card into custody, initiating the yellow flag process.

“You can’t start the yellow flag process until you’ve got a hand on them. They have to be taken into protective custody, and that’s one of the frustrating parts that the Commission doesn’t seem to lay out in their interim report,” he said.

In May, an attorney working on Skolfield’s behalf, Jessica Maher, responded to the panel’s review with her own 20-page letter, calling the findings outlined in the interim report as “simply wrong.”

“The commission ignored or failed to understand extremely important specific facts, provided in the evidence that was before them, when it concluded that Sgt. Aaron Skolfield had probable cause to initiate the yellow flag process in September 2023,” she wrote. “There is no mechanism whatsoever in place that allows law enforcement to begin the yellow flag process unless a subject is taken into protective custody first.”

Skolfield told Scripps News he made two attempts – two days in a row — to contact Card prior to the October shooting. During his first try, Card was not at home.

“My intention that day was to go to Robert Card’s house and do an assessment of him,” Skolfield said. “In an ideal situation, I would have been able to make that contact with him.”

Because he could not speak to Card, Skolfield said he requested that a special advisory message called a File 6 be sent out to other police officers to warn them that Card was “armed and dangerous” and that they should be cautious of their own safety.

“Robert Card, suffering from psychotic episodes and hearing voices ... Made threats to shoot up the ... armory in Saco,” the bulletin said.

Skolfield said he believed Card was home when he visited the home a second time, but he would not answer the door.

“We can hear movement in [Card’s] trailer. We can see curtains moving, but we can’t get him to come to the door. I tried talking to him through the door, ‘We just need to talk.’ I tried to get him to come out as best I can, [but] I get nowhere on it,” said Skolfield of his second attempt to reach Card.

Skolfield said he did not want to aggravate the situation and wrote in his police report that he was in a “disadvantageous position,” so he backed away from the door when Card did not respond.

“There is that concern of agitating someone even more who is in mental decline,” he told Scripps News.

In hindsight, Skolfield said, he wishes he had pursued the yellow flag law, but he felt he could not follow through with it because he was unable to take Card into custody.

“He is inside his home. I don’t have a warrant to get through his front door. I can’t enter his house without breaking the law,” Skolfield said, citing the fourth amendment.

Skolfield said he made several phone calls after backing away from the door to gather more information from people who knew Card and to warn those who might interact with Card in the future. He said he also contacted Card’s family to discuss the importance of removing Card’s firearms from his possession.

In one of the phone calls, Skolfield spoke with Army Reserve Capt. Jeremy Reamer, Card’s superior in the military.

Skolfield said he felt Reamer minimized the seriousness of the situation during their conversation.

“It was made clear to me that they didn’t believe [Card] was going to do it,” Skolfield said.

Reamer declined an interview with Scripps News, but in his recorded phone call with Skolfield that day, he could be heard saying, “I did speak with [Card] yesterday ... He sounded angry, definitely angry at people, but made no specific threats like, ‘I’m going to come there and shoot,’ ... nothing like that.”

“We just kind of wanted to check well-being, if you can just kind of tell he’s there and alive and just kind of document it,” Reamer said to Skolfield in the recorded call. “I don’t want you guys to push into something and escalate it.”

Reamer told Skolfield by phone that Card had been uncooperative during a similar previous incident by refusing to come out of his room, but “nothing ended up happening.”

“If there’s something else that you guys see out there that you’re more concerned about then you can kind of act on it,” Reamer said.

Skolfield said Reamer did not disclose important information about Card’s release from a psychiatric facility in August, including that the hospital recommended that Card be kept away from any access to firearms.

Reamer did, however, tell Skolfield that he believed Card’s weapons had been moved from his home.

“I was told his weapons have been moved out into a family member’s place. Whether he has access to those at the family member’s, I don’t know,” said Reamer.

Skolfield told Scripps News that if he could go back in time, he would pursue the yellow flag law. But he believes he acted appropriately with the information he had.

“I reacted like a normal and rational police officer at that point in time,” Skolfield said. “Hindsight is a wonderful thing if you could’ve had it in the moment.”

Why other officers did not pursue the yellow flag law

At least one police officer who knew about Card’s threats but did not serve in the same city where Card lived and worked said he did not pursue having Card’s weapons removed under the yellow flag law because he did not think he had the jurisdiction to do so.

“We did not have any authority to do a yellow flag law,” said Kelvin Mote, an Ellsworth Police Officer who was Card’s superior in the Army Reserves.

Card lived in Bowdoin, in Sagadahoc County, and Mote served as a police officer in Ellsworth, approximately two hours away. Their Army Reserve training took place in Saco.

During his testimony in front of members of the Independent Commission to Investigate the Facts of the Tragedy in Lewiston, Mote told a panel of experts that he believed Card’s threats were “credible” and that there was enough probable cause to implement the yellow flag law, but he said he did not specifically request that any law enforcement officer in the community where Card lived or worked pursue the law.

Mote, instead, prepared a written statement, detailing Card’s specific threats, and shared it with his superior at the Ellsworth Police Department who then passed it to the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office, the agency in the community where Card lived, with a request for a deputy to check Card’s well-being.

Skolfield was the deputy who received the memo and attempted to conduct that welfare check.

Ed Yurek, a master sergeant in Card’s military unit and a police lieutenant in Brunswick, Maine, said he also knew of Card’s threats, but he did not think he would follow through a shooting.

“I did not even consider a yellow flag law,” Yurek testified.

Yurek did take steps to alert the Saco Police Department about the reported threats to the armory there, but he did not request that any agency utilize the law.

About one month later, Card carried out his attack.

Seeking clarity on the yellow flag law

Scripps News wanted to know if it is possible for a Maine police officer to take someone into protective custody outside of his or her regular police jurisdiction in order to pursue the yellow flag law.

Scripps News posed the question multiple times to Mike Sauschuck, the commissioner of Maine’s Department of Public Safety.

In an email, Sauschuck confirmed that he requested a legal analysis of the state law from the Maine State Police staff attorney, Paul Cavanaugh.

Cavanaugh confirmed he prepared an eight-page memo for Sauschuck.

However, Sauschuck refused to share the document with Scripps News.

“The legal analysis that Mr. Cavanaugh conducted for me was intended for my use only under our existing client/attorney relationship and was never intended to be released to the media,” he said in an email.

Neither Sauschuck nor Cavanaugh would confirm, on the record, whether Maine officers could work outside their jurisdictions in a yellow flag situation.

However, Kevin Kelley, a spokesperson for the commission investigating the shooting, told Scripps News, “If an officer is not in his or her own jurisdiction, it is not possible to take someone into protective custody — but the officer could make arrangements for protective custody to occur by an officer with jurisdiction.”

Kelley said Maine’s yellow flag law, which does have a “bit of nuance,” is one of the issues being discussed by the commission.

Legislators update yellow flag law after mass shooting

The state of Maine enhanced its yellow flag law following this incident. It now allows police officers to obtain a protective custody warrant to take a person into custody if they are unable to otherwise take someone into custody for a mental health assessment, according to Gov. Janet Mills’ website.