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Law enforcement should have seized man's guns weeks before he killed 18 in Maine, report finds

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Law enforcement should have seized a man's guns and put him in protective custody weeks before he committed Maine's deadliest mass shooting, a report found Friday.

An independent commission has been reviewing the events that led up to Army reservist Robert Card killing 18 people at a bowling alley and a bar in Lewiston on Oct. 25, as well as the subsequent response.

The commission criticized Sgt. Aaron Skolfield, who responded to a report five weeks before the shooting that Card was suffering from some sort of mental health crisis after he'd previously assaulted a friend and threatened to shoot up the Saco Armory.

The commission found Skolfield, of the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office, should have realized he had probable cause to start a so-called “yellow flag” process, which allows a judge to temporarily remove somebody’s guns during a psychiatric health crisis.

Leroy Walker, whose son Joseph was killed in the shootings, said the commission’s finding that the yellow flag law could have been implemented but wasn't reflected what victims’ families have known all along.

“The commission said it straight out — that they could have done it, should have done it,” said Walker, an Auburn City Council member. “What something like this really does is it brings up everything … It just breaks the heart all over again.”

Maine State Police and the sheriff's office did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment.

Commission Chair Daniel Wathen said their work wasn’t finished and that the interim report was intended to provide policymakers and law enforcement with key information they had learned.

“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,” Wathen said in a statement.

Ben Gideon, an attorney representing the victims, said he felt the report focused heavily on the actions of the sheriff’s office while ignoring the broader issue of access to guns by potentially dangerous people in the state. Elizabeth Seal, whose husband Joshua was killed in the shootings, said she felt the focus of the report was “narrow.”

“I’m in agreement with the committee’s findings as far as they go, and I do think it’s a legitimate point that the Sagadahoc Sheriff’s Office could have done more to intervene," Gideon said. "I was a little disappointed that the committee didn’t take a wider view of the issues that start as far back as May."

He also said he hoped the report would make the shooter’s health records available to victims and the public, which it did not.

Led by a former chief justice of Maine’s highest court, the commission also included a former U.S. attorney and the former chief forensic psychologist for the state. It was assembled by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills and Attorney General Aaron Frey.

It has held seven sessions starting in November, hearing from law enforcement, survivors and victims’ family members and members of the U.S. Army Reserve as it explored whether anything could have been done to prevent the tragedy and what changes should be made going forward.

The commission plans to schedule more meetings. Spokesperson Kevin Kelley said a final report was due in the summer.

Mills said the panel’s work is of “paramount importance for the people of Maine.” She said she would “carefully review” the report.

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

In May, relatives warned police that Card had grown paranoid, and they expressed concern about his access to guns. In July, Card was hospitalized in a psychiatric unit for two weeks after shoving a fellow reservist and locking himself in a motel room. In August, the Army barred him from handling weapons while on duty and declared him nondeployable. And in September, a fellow reservist texted an Army supervisor about his growing concerns about Card, saying, “I believe he’s going to snap and do a mass shooting.”

Law enforcement officials told commission members that Maine’s yellow flag law makes it difficult to remove guns from potentially dangerous people.

“I couldn’t get him to the door. I can’t make him open the door,” Skolfield said of his visit to Card’s home for a welfare check in September. “If I had kicked in the door, that would’ve been a violation of the law.”

In later testimony, those involved in the search for Card in the shooting’s aftermath acknowledged potential missed opportunities to find him and end the search that locked down the community and terrified residents. Some of the most emotional testimony came family members who tearfully described scenes of blood, chaos and panic followed by unfathomable loss.

Rachael Sloat, who was engaged to be married to shooting victim Peton Berwer Ross, told the committee that her heart breaks every time their 2-year-old daughter asks for her daddy.

“Where are you?” she said. “Every politician, every member of law enforcement, every registered voter in the country — I want you to hear those words. ‘Where are you?’ Because my fellow Americans, where are you? We failed my little girl.”

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LeBlanc reported from Boston and Perry reported from Meredith, New Hampshire.