The signs were there: hearing voices, expressing paranoid thoughts and making threats so violent, extra patrols were sent to guard a military installation.
Documents and information shared by authorities and law enforcement sources show for months, those who knew the US Army reservist who would eventually go on a shooting rampage in northern Maine on October 25 reported his deteriorating mental state and serious concerns he would become violent.
The state is the only in the country with a so-called “yellow flag” law, which is a more relaxed version of the popular red flag laws used by nearly half of US states aiming to prevent dangerous individuals from accessing firearms, gun policy experts told CNN.
Experts say the law in Maine was specifically designed for people like Robert Card, the 40-year-old firearms expert who went on two shooting rampages at a bar and bowling alley in Lewiston. In the end, the gunman killed 18 people and wounded 13 others with an assault rifle at Just-in-Time Recreation and at Schemengees Bar & Grille.
But there’s no way of knowing whether the law would have worked, as authorities never attempted to utilize what gun policy experts say is the best tool at their disposal that may have disarmed him – a glaring issue experts say points to the weakness of the law when compared to legislation in other states. Instead, law enforcement relied on the gunman’s family to keep guns from him after they tried without success to talk to the reservist.
“This is a textbook case for the yellow flag law,” said Michael Rocque, chairperson of the sociology department and a criminologist who has studied gun laws and mass shootings at Bates College, which is based in Lewiston. “This is what it was intended for. Somebody who is having a mental health crisis, who has demonstrated themselves to be a threat.”
Authorities have said Maine gun laws do not prohibit a person from buying a gun based strictly on a mental health diagnosis or treatment. The state, with its robust hunting culture, doesn’t require background checks before making all gun purchases, nor does it require firearm owners to register their weapons. It also doesn’t require permits to carry concealed firearms in public.
But officers can utilize its yellow flag law to take a person in crisis into protective custody and undergo a medical evaluation. Then, a judge can decide whether to approve an order to temporarily remove the person’s access to firearms, the law states.
The law, passed in 2019, was a compromise between gun-rights and gun-control advocates to the red-flag laws in place in 21 US states and Washington, D.C., also known as an extreme risk protection order, Rocque said.
Red flag laws vary by state, but they largely allow anyone who knows a person who poses a threat to themselves or others to petition a court to temporarily remove their access to firearms.
What makes Maine’s law different is the additional hurdles in the process to remove a person’s weapons – starting with only law enforcement being able to invoke the yellow flag process, and it can only be triggered by officers physically taking a person into protective custody, according to Rocque.
The procedure also includes an extra step. The firearm restriction can’t be put in place without an agreement between a medical practitioner and police that the case warrants bringing a petition before a judge, the law states.
“I don’t see the benefit in engaging in a compromise policy in talking about taking action when people are clearly saying, clearly expressing to us that they’re going to do bad things,” said Shannon Frattaroli, professor of health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and member of its Center for Gun Violence Solutions.
“We know from the research that about 50% of mass shooters indicate before they commit their atrocities that they have plans to do just that,” Frattaroli continued. “In the absence of extreme risk protection order laws, we as a society are ill-equipped to respond, as the tragedy in Maine demonstrated once again in this country.”
The US Army asked local police to check on the reservist in September after a soldier became concerned he would “snap and commit a mass shooting,” according to an incident report released by the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office. It was one of several warnings relatives and those who knew him reported to officials since spring.
Sheriff Joel Merry told CNN on Saturday law enforcement officers weren’t able to make contact with Card during two visits. It meant they couldn’t invoke the state’s yellow flag law, as the law makes clear an officer must first take a person into protective custody, the sheriff said.
“This prevented us from initiating a ‘Yellow Flag Law,’” Sheriff Merry told CNN. “Extremely unfortunate, but we must adhere to the law.”
It’s impossible to know whether Maine’s law would have prevented the Lewiston tragedy, but “it certainly would have caused a disruption to it,” said Alex Piquero, professor of criminology at the University of Miami and former director of the US Bureau of Justice Statistics.
“Everything was here for people to act, but no one opened the toolbox,” Piquero said.
Piquero noted Card’s case was an opportunity for law enforcement to “err on the side of caution” to ensure he wasn’t a danger. The warning signs were like “a concert of blinking lights,” as various people reported Card needed help and shouldn’t be armed.
After a 48-hour manhunt following the shootings, Card was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head near a river some 10 miles from Lewiston.
Suspect’s family flagged troubling signs 6 months before rampage
Documents shared with CNN last week by the Sheriff’s Office show Card’s family had called the department as far back as six months ago, on May 3, voicing concerns over his well-being and access to firearms.
Card’s 18-year-old son told a deputy that starting around January, his father was “starting to claim that people were saying things about him, while out in public,” according to documents shared by the sheriff’s office.
His ex-wife also told the deputy Card had “picked up 10-15 handguns/rifles” at his brother’s house, the document says.
The ex-wife and son said their plan was to stay away from Card, according to the documents.
After speaking with the family, the deputy spoke with representatives of the 3rd Battalion 304 Training Group and connected them with Card’s family, “who assured our office that they would ensure that Card received medical attention,” the sheriff’s office said in a statement.
Army comrades reported Card was hearing voices
The Sagadahoc sheriff’s office report details how the Army reservist started hearing insulting voices in his head in the spring and they had gotten worse.
On July 15, Card accused three fellow soldiers, including a close friend, of “calling him a pedophile” and said, “he would take care of it,” according to information shared with CNN by a law enforcement source who quoted a letter supplied by the military.
The law enforcement source told CNN the soldiers said they calmed their comrade down and got back to the motel, where he locked himself in his room and would not respond.
The next day, another soldier got the key to his room. The soldier eventually took Card to a base hospital where a psychologist determined he needed further treatment. The incident led Card to a 14-day psychiatric stay, according to the letter provided by the sheriff’s office.
It’s unclear whether Card was voluntarily or involuntarily committed to the facility. Federal law prohibits people with mental illness from possessing firearms. Public Safety Commissioner Michael Sauschuck noted the department hadn’t received any information Card had been “forcibly committed for treatment,” the commissioner said Saturday.
“If that didn’t happen,” Sauschuck said, “then … the background check is not going to ping that this person is prohibited.”
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also said it wasn’t aware of any records that would have stopped Card from buying a firearm.
A gun shop did decline to sell Card a silencer months before the shooting after he responded “yes” to the question “Have you ever been adjudicated as a mental defective OR ever been committed to a mental institution?” on a form, the ATF told CNN in a statement.
Roque said the fact Card was denied the ability to buy a silencer after self-reporting his mental health history, but he was able to buy a weapon since the information wasn’t in the federal system, reveals a “very clear loophole in terms of the federal law.”
Suspect had more delusions, threatened attack at military facility after psychiatric stay, docs show
The documents released by the sheriff’s office detail another episode in September after Card was released from his psychiatric stay. A fellow soldier reported Card’s troubling mental state and specific threats he made to attack a military base.
The incident unfolded when Card was riding home from a casino with another reservist. Card repeated claims about people calling him names, eventually leading the Army to ask authorities to do a well-being check on Card, CNN reported, citing the sheriff’s documents.
“According to [the friend], [he] said he has guns and is going to shoot up the drill center at Saco and other places … [the friend] is concerned that [he] is going to snap and commit a mass shooting.”
The threat to the military facility in Saco led to extra patrols, Saco Police Chief Jack Clements told WMTW Maine, but Card never showed up.
Sagadahoc Sheriff Merry told The New York Times he sent an alert to all law enforcement agencies in Maine sometime in September after learning of the threat to the Saco base.
CNN had not been able to independently verify that account.
Card’s brother had managed to change the code on Card’s garage gun safe for some period of months before the shooting because he was concerned about his “behavior and his possession of several firearms,” Card’s brother told officers, according to a search warrant affidavit filed after the shooting, shared with CNN last week.
But Card still had a key to the gun safe and had access to his firearms before the shooting, the brother told authorities.
Police didn’t make contact with gunman on 2 wellness checks
In September, an Army Reserve unit in Sagadahoc reached out to the sheriff’s office to ask them to do a wellness check on Card. The emailed ask included details about Card’s prior mental health history, including the incident that prompted a psychiatric stay over the summer.
Texts included in the letter to the sheriff’s office illustrated the concerns over Card’s behavior, saying he was “messed up in the head” and “refuses to get help,” CNN reported.
The US Army told CNN the health and wellness check was requested by the shooter’s unit “out of an abundance of caution after the unit became concerned for his safety.”
A deputy went to Card’s home on September 15, and again September 16, but didn’t make contact with him, the sheriff’s office said.
The Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office sent an alert to other law enforcement agencies saying they were trying to locate Card. The alert included warnings that he was known to be armed and dangerous.
The sheriff’s office said such alerts are “common and are issued by law enforcement when they are trying to locate a person.”
When authorities couldn’t contact Card, they began making calls to those who knew him, a law enforcement source previously told CNN.
An Army unit commander told one officer he thought it best to let Card have time to himself, CNN reported.
On September 17, a Sagadahoc officer spoke with Card’s brother, who assured authorities he and his father would “work to ensure that [the man] does not have access to any firearms.” They have a way to secure his weapons, the source quoted from a welfare check report.
The responding police officer said his department would help to facilitate a mental health evaluation if needed.
Maine’s yellow-flag law has been invoked at least 80 times
Every law enforcement agency in Maine completed training on the state’s yellow flag law by the end of 2022, according to the Maine Department of Public Safety. The agency is also requiring agencies to provide voluntary training on the law this year and 2024, the department said.
It’s a type of restraining order, which does not have any criminal penalties associated with it unless a person violates the order, according to Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Under Maine’s yellow flag law, also dubbed “protection from substantial threats,” officers must have “probable cause” to believe someone is mentally ill and likely to cause “serious harm” to themselves or others, the law states.
Those signs can be a substantial risk of self-harm, a major risk of physical harm to others by recent homicidal or violent behavior or based on recent conduct, likely to place others in fear of serious physical harm.
After the secondary assessment by a medical practitioner, a judge can opt to approve an order that temporarily removes a person’s access to firearms, the law says.
“When you’re talking about an extreme situation in which people are expressing plans to be violent, there just isn’t room for that additional step,” said Frattaroli, noting the list of concerns reported by those who knew the gunman and his psychiatric stay.
Maine’s “yellow flag” process has been invoked at least 80 times since it was signed into law in July 2020, most cases involving people suffering from suicidal ideation, according to state records.
One entry in Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey’s log of when the law has been used detailed a 91-year-old man “with paranoid delusions of men he claims he can see sent electronically into his house to harm him,” the entry from March 2022 reads. Thirteen firearms were taken from the man’s home.
The fact law enforcement in Maine didn’t utilize the yellow flag law in Card’s case could point to its shortcomings, Rocque said.
“I’m assuming that (police) probably err on the side of respecting people’s rights, but this was kind of a textbook case for why this law was developed,” Rocque told CNN. “It really does show the deficiencies of the law. It’s just too cumbersome, it’s too drawn out. It doesn’t really work when you have an acute crisis like this.”
Maine to form independent commission to investigate case
The details chronicling concern about Card’s mental state before the rampage has added pressure on state and local officials to explain why more wasn’t done to intervene.
Maine Gov. Janet Mills announced Thursday a new commission was being formed to “determine the facts and circumstances” surrounding the law enforcement response to concerns about Card’s mental health and behavior.
The governor noted there were multiple occasions where his mental health and behavior “were brought to the attention of his Army National Reserve Unit, as well as law enforcement agencies here in Maine and in New York,” her statement read.
“This raises crucial questions about actions taken and what more could have been done to prevent this tragedy from occurring,” the governor said.
After the array of reports about Card were released, Sheriff Merry and his office said on Monday the department “acted appropriately and followed procedures for conducting an attempt to locate and wellness check.”
The sheriff said his department has plans to examine “policies and procedures for how we conduct wellness checks with the goal of making any improvements that are in the interest of public safety while balancing the rights of individuals.”
In a statement to CNN on Saturday, Merry said his office was prevented from launching the yellow-flag process due to not being able to locate and speak with Card.
Rocque, of Bates College, said law enforcement will have to provide answers about whether they were relying on Card’s family to make sure he didn’t have access to guns and underwent treatment.
If so, Rocque added, “That’s a really tricky decision to be made by police to say, ‘Can we allow the family to handle this or do we need to sort of take him into protective custody?’”
“They should not have relied on the family to take care of it,” Rocque continued. “With the yellow flag law being so cumbersome, was the process clear for them that this is exactly what they should be doing in this instance without any discretion allowed?”
“… Or is (the law) too harsh in their view and something they’re hesitant to utilize in a case like this? Those are questions we need answers to.”
CNN’s Shimon Prokupecz and Mark Morales contributed to this report.
For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com