Relatives of Maine mass shooting victims testify through tears: Change is long overdue

Jan 31, 2024, 10:13 PM

FILE - A make-shift memorial lines Main Street, Friday, Nov. 3, 2023, Lewiston, Maine. An independe...

FILE - A make-shift memorial lines Main Street, Friday, Nov. 3, 2023, Lewiston, Maine. An independent commission investigating events leading up to the deadliest mass shooting in Maine history is ready to hear the heart-wrenching stories from some of the family members of victims on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Matt York, File)

(AP Photo/Matt York, File)

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Through tears, witnesses who lost family members in the deadliest shooting in Maine history described gunfire, blood, tourniquets and unfathomable loss — and implored an independent commission to do something to make sure it never happens again.

“I’ve been thrust into experiencing every ‘without Jason’ first in quick succession. Signing Christmas gift tags just ‘Mom’ after 25 years of signing them ‘Mom and Dad,'” said Kathleen Walker, whose husband, Jason, died rushing at the shooter. “The system failed, and we can’t allow this to happen again.”

The independent commission investigating events leading up to the deadliest mass shooting in Maine history heard heart-wrenching stories from some of the family members of victims on Thursday. Several family members publicly addressed the panel, putting a human face on their sorrow and suffering.

The shootings happened Oct. 25 when an Army reservist opened fire with an assault rifle at a bowling alley and at a bar that was hosting a cornhole tournament in Lewiston. Eighteen people were killed and 13 injured.

The speakers included survivors Walker and Stacy Cyr, who lost their partners; childhood friends Jason Walker and Michael Deslauriers, who charged at the gunman; Elizabeth Seal, who is caring for four children after the death of her husband, Joshua; and Megan Vozzella, whose husband, Steve, died two weeks shy of their one-year anniversary.

Seal, who is deaf, described how difficult it was for members of the state’s deaf community to get information about the shootings in their aftermath.

“There were barriers to captioning. Sometimes there was a lag in captioning. Sometimes there would be pop-ups that would hide the captioning,” she said via sign language, which was spoken by an interpreter at the hearing. “With Josh not being here, I feel that I need to take this on in his stead. We need to do something about this.”

The commission was established by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills and state Attorney General Aaron Frey to review events leading up to the tragedy to establish the facts that can inform policies and procedures to avoid future tragedies.

The gunman, Robert Card, 40, was experiencing a mental health breakdown before the shooting, and police were aware of his deteriorating mental health.

His son and ex-wife told police in May that Card was becoming paranoid and hearing voices, and a fellow reservist explicitly warned in September that he was going to commit a mass killing. In between, Card was hospitalized for two weeks for erratic behavior while his Maine-based Army Reserve unit was training in West Point, New York.

More than a month before the shootings, police went to Card’s home for a face-to-face assessment required under the state’s yellow flag law, which allows a judge to order the removal of guns from someone who is experiencing a psychiatric emergency. But Card refused to answer the door, and police said they couldn’t legally force the issue.

Tens of thousands of residents in Lewiston and neighboring communities were under a lockdown order after the shootings. Card’s body was found two days later. The medical examiner ruled that he died by suicide.

The governor isn’t waiting for the commission to wrap up its work to begin making policy changes to prevent such tragedies in the future.

This week she proposed allowing police to petition a judge to start the process of removing weapons from someone in a psychiatric crisis — skipping the face-to-face meeting — along with boosting background checks for private gun sales and bolstering mental crisis care.

The commission is chaired by Daniel Wathen, former chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. Other members include former U.S. Attorney Paula Silsby and Debra Baeder, the former chief forensic psychologist for the state.

Wathen said Thursday during the hearing that he agreed with Seal about the need for improved access to information for members of the deaf community.

“The word access has taken on new meaning both for me and the entire state of Maine,” Wathen said.

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Relatives of Maine mass shooting victims testify through tears: Change is long overdue