Sheriff defends agency after failed attempts to remove guns from eventual mass shooter

Deputies say they missed an opportunity to remove Robert Card's firearms before a 2023 mass shooting.
Posted at 4:41 PM, Jun 05, 2024

For months after a mass shooter killed 18 people in Lewiston, Maine, this past October, a group of sheriff’s deputies, whose headquarters were located nearly 30 miles away from the massacre, struggled with the aftermath.

The deputies worked in Sagadahoc County where the killer, Robert Card II, lived, and a panel of experts investigating the shooting would later say their agency missed an opportunity to remove his firearms before the horrific attack.

“Our agency received a lot of criticism early on, before a lot of the factual information was even discovered or put out there, and so that was tough,” said Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry. “Guys were definitely discouraged by that.”

Merry, who leads the agency with just 20 deputies, said the devastating news struck his heart, and he considered his agency’s role in the events, but he stands by the actions of his deputies in their dealings with Card.

“In this particular case, it was a very tragic outcome,” said Merry. “Your instincts want to say, ‘Well ... could we have done something more? Should we have done something more?’ I think that’s a normal instinct, but at the moment, at the time, you don’t have the advantage of that foresight.”

Merry said the past several months have been challenging, but he believes in being “upfront” and “forward facing” while focusing on what his agency can learn from the tragedy.

“How can we better ourselves as an agency or even as a state to deal with situations like this to prevent them from ever happening again?” he said. “It’s sad in so many different ways, and that’s not lost on me. And I think of that often. And we hope to be better when we come out of this.”

The sheriff’s office involvement

In September, one month before the shooting, Sgt. Aaron Skolfield, a Sagadahoc County sheriff’s deputy, received information that Card, a member of the Army Reserve, had threatened a mass shooting at a military facility in Saco and had access to firearms.

Skolfield made a trek to Bowdoin, a rural area in the northwest corner of Sagadahoc County, to conduct a welfare check on Card. When he knocked on Card’s door twice over two days, he never answered.

Weeks later, Card committed the deadliest shooting in Maine’s history.

A critical, interim report issued by the state’s Independent Commission to Investigate the Facts of the Tragedy in Lewiston unanimously found – among other faults — that the sheriff’s office “had sufficient probable cause to take Robert Card Jr. Into protective custody under Maine’s yellow flag law” and that the agency “failed to follow up to ensure that the firearms had been removed from Mr. Card’s custody and safely secured.”

Merry said he respects the commission’s duties, but he does not completely agree with their findings.

“I will always say that based on the information that the deputies had at the time, their actions that they took at the time, I believe was reasonable,” he said.

Although Sgt. Skolfield was unable to contact Card, Merry said Skolfield put in several hours of work contacting Card’s family members and his military colleagues to gather more information about his condition and to discuss how to limit his access to guns.

“This wasn’t just a simple ‘knock-and-talk’ to see if the individual was home ... and then that was that,” said Merry. “There was actually an effort to reach out to people, to contact the folks where the information [about Card’s threats] had come from. This call wasn’t resolved in a matter of 15 minutes or a half-hour. There were several hours of work. There [were] numerous phone calls, conversations with family members,” he said.

While some may say more should have been done, Merry said, “there was an effort made to follow up in this particular case.” He said his deputy did this despite facing the challenge of working in a rural part of the jurisdiction.

“Oftentimes, they’re going from one call to the next, and with miles in between, and they don’t always have the time to do a thorough follow-up,” he said.

Although Skolfield had been told that Card had access to weapons and had made threats to commit a mass shooting, Merry said he wished his deputy had more information about Card’s psychiatric history.

No one relayed to his agency, he said, that Card had been released from a psychiatric facility the previous month with specific recommendations that he be kept away from firearms.

“I’m certain we would have taken a different approach,” Merry said.

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Conflicting ‘independent’ reviews of the incident

According to records obtained by Scripps News, Sagadahoc County paid $27,880 to hire a consultant, Michael Cunniff, to conduct an analysis of SCSO’s actions.

“It had to be someone other than me [who would conduct the review,]" Merry said. “I said right from the beginning of this whole incident, you know, we did what we did, and we own it, and we’re not going to hide anything ... We’re going to be as transparent as possible, and that’s why I would like somebody else to represent that for us.”

Merry said he made the decision to do the review before he knew a state commission would be tackling the same issue. “This wasn’t done in response to the state doing an independent review, absolutely not.”

Less than two months after the shooting, Cunniff delivered a 78-page analysis finding that the sheriff’s office responses were “reasonable under the totality of the circumstances.”

“I acted totally independently when performing the review,” Cunniff told Scripps News.

“I believe what he wrote in his report was factual and true at the time,” said Merry, who stands by the report today.

State commission said additional incident report wasn’t consulted

However, the state commission investigating the incident found additional faults made by Merry’s agency.

The panel of experts said that an additional incident report pertaining to Card’s mental instability was available to Skolfield within his own agency’s records, but he never examined those when he was conducting a welfare check on Card.

The commission said that Skolfield “failed to consult the agency’s records concerning a previous complaint.”

That previous complaint happened in May, four months before Skolfield’s attempt to conduct a welfare check on Card.

At the time, Card’s son, Colby Card, and his mother, Cara Lamb, reported Card’s strange behavior to Deputy Chad Carleton, who learned Card had also allegedly “made angry rants about having to shoot someone.”

Carleton documented the behavior in his report, but Skolfield never looked at it.

“I did not look at Deputy Carleton’s report at that particular time. I was working with what I had in the moment right then and there,” he said.

Skolfield told Scripps News he is not sure he would have done anything differently if he had seen the report.

“The deputies did what they thought was right based on the information that they had at the time,” Merry said.

The commission continues its inquiry into the involvement of other key agencies in the events preceding and following the mass shooting, including the Army Reserve and the Maine State Police.

A full report is expected later this summer.

Mental health liaison and yellow flag use across the state

Merry said his deputies are working more closely now with a mental health liaison in crisis situations, and he has plans to eventually embed a full-time professional with his staff.

The agency has also reexamined how it pursues the yellow flag law, which took effect in 2020.

“Now, we take no chances,” Merry said.

Under the law, a person must surrender their firearms to law enforcement after they have been taken into protective custody, evaluated by a mental health professional and determined to be likely to cause foreseeable harm.

Prior to the mass shooting, the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office had never successfully obtained a yellow flag order.

However, when the law was first enacted, some medical professionals were reluctant to conduct mental health evaluations as part of the yellow flag process.

In 2022, the state signed a contract with a large mental health provider, Spurwink Services Inc., paving the way for evaluations to happen more easily, some via telehealth rather than in person.

A Scripps News analysis found the agency has obtained 14 orders since October 2023. Some of those recent orders involved threats of suicide or a mass shooting.

According to records provided by the Office of the Maine Attorney General, one order involved a man who referenced the October mass shooting while appearing to wave a handgun along a public road.

Another involved a man who fired a weapon at his neighbor’s house while he was high on drugs and hallucinating.

Merry said his agency had to repurpose an office to make room for more guns that recently have been confiscated.

Statewide, there were 120 orders issued under the yellow flag law in 2023, with more than half issued after the October mass shooting.

This year, there have been 153 orders through the end of May.

Moving forward

Since the shooting, the “pretty tight group” of deputies who work in the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office have been self-reflecting.

Merry said some feel that the agency has been made a scapegoat for a variety of failures that occurred leading up to the deadly incident.

“But I don’t feel the general public feels that way – our local community. I think they see us as being an agency that cares about them and is responsive to the needs of this community,” Merry said.

He said his deputies have been resilient and dedicated to their daily duties during this difficult time.

“The phone continues to ring every day. 911 calls come in every day, and we have to respond, and we have to do the best job that we can to protect our community and keep it safe, and they’re doing that,” Merry said.

“I’ve lived in Maine my entire life, and there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for this state. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for this community, and so, I’m very proud of the people that we’ve hired to work here and the job that they do because I think they do a good job day in and day out,” he said.