ADDISON, Maine — Her fingers gripping the edge of the kitchen table, Melina Church, 34, on Tuesday recounted one of the most frightening incidents of her life.
Church, her partner, Kevin Merritt, 46, and her two sons, ages 12 and 4, said they were held at gunpoint at the end of a cul-de-sac in the blueberry barrens of Columbia a week ago.
Joseph Tibbetts, 61, of Columbia was arrested Monday and charged with criminal threatening with a dangerous weapon, Class C, and threatening display of a weapon, Class D. The Class C charge has a potential penalty of up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
The former county sheriff’s arrest on a warrant issued by Superior Court Justice Kevin Cuddy after an investigation by the Washington County Sheriff’s Office came four days after the incident took place on Thursday, Aug. 13.
Church and Merritt said the incident terrified them and has had lasting effects on their children.
“Every time a car comes in the driveway, my 4-year-old asks, ‘Is this the bad man with the gun? Is he going to shoot Mommy?’” Church said.
Attempts made by telephone Wednesday to contact Tibbetts were unsuccessful. A woman who answered Tibbetts’ phone in Columbia said Tibbetts would not comment on the incident.
Church and Merritt said the events unfolded last Thursday evening when, after a family supper, the couple and their children went driving through the barrens near Township 19 to look for coyotes.
“We are hunters,” Church said. “We often ride to look for coyotes. This time, however, where we usually go was blocked off because blueberry rakers were working.”
Merritt said he had worked security in the barrens for a number of years so he was familiar with the area and took a different route to an area called Second Radar. Although much of the barrens is private property, the roads through them are frequently driven by local residents.
Merritt said there were no weapons in the car as the family scouted for coyotes.
As dusk settled in about 8:30 p.m., they met a woman driving in the opposite direction who told them about seeing a bear minutes earlier. Delighted, the family continued on to look for the bear.
Merritt said that soon afterward a vehicle came up fast behind them with its high beams glowing.
“Suddenly, it was within inches of my rear bumper,” he said. “We turned off the road onto a side road, a dirt road across from some cranberry bogs, to let it go by, but it kept following us,” Merritt said.
The vehicle was so close in the growing darkness that the couple could not identify what type of vehicle it was.
“We were absolutely intimidated,” Church said. “There was terror in our car.”
“We tried to slow down and pull to the side to let him go by, but he wouldn’t,” Merritt said. “We took another turn, but the road was blocked by a cable so we were forced to go straight. He continued to ride our bumper and keep his high beams on. He never flashed them or indicated he wanted to get by. We had no idea what was going on. We were pretty frightened.”
Church urged Merritt to stop and see what the driver wanted.
But, Merritt said, “I felt it would be worse if we stopped. I didn’t know who or how many were behind us. I didn’t know what they wanted. The last thing I wanted was some kind of confrontation.”
“I was pretty scared about then,” said Conrad Peabody Jr., 12. He was riding in the back seat and repeatedly looked behind them.
Suddenly the family found themselves in a cul-de-sac and were forced to stop.
“We were trapped now,” Peabody said.
The truck behind them pulled forward up to the side of the family’s car, pinning both driver’s side doors shut.
Merritt said the driver jumped out of the truck and yelled, “Put your [expletive] hands in the air now or I’ll blow your brains out.”
The man had his two hands crossed at the wrists and up in front of him, a flashlight in one and a handgun in the other. Because of the flashlight in their eyes, the couple said, they could not see the man’s face.
Merritt said the family raised their hands and he told the man, “‘This is all wrong.’ I said that the gun wasn’t needed, that we weren’t harming anyone and to please put the gun away before there is an accident.”
Church said the man continued to shine the light into the car and could see clearly that children were inside.
Church reported that the man said, “It’s not going to be an accident if this gun goes off.”
Merritt and Church continued to ask the man what he wanted and what his name was. They said the man told them he had thousands of dollars invested in his land and that he believed they were berry thieves.
“There wasn’t a single blueberry in our car,” Church said. “We were just a family out for a ride.”
Church and Merritt said they had no idea whether they were on his property or not. It could not be determined Wednesday whether they were in fact on Tibbetts’ land.
Eventually, Church asked the man again what his name was and she reported he said, “I’m Joe Tibbetts and I’ve got 30 years of law enforcement experience in Washington County.”
“I know you, Joe,” Church replied. She said she was a corrections officer at the Washington County Jail and Tibbetts had been her boss for six or seven years when he was the county sheriff.
The couple said Tibbetts then lowered his gun behind his knee area and made comments as if he had no weapon. Church said Tibbetts continued to threaten the family, however, until he abruptly told them to leave and never return.
“Time seemed to slow down during the entire incident,” Church said. “Only about 15 minutes had gone by from when we started being followed.”
The couple left the road and Tibbetts continued to follow them, they said. Church said she repeatedly tried to call 911 for help but kept losing a signal. They eventually reached an area with cell service and contacted 911.
Washington County Deputy Sgt. Randy Perry and Maine State Trooper Miles Carpenter responded and began an investigation.
The day after the confrontation, Church, fearing retribution, obtained a protection from harassment order for herself and her children.
“We’re afraid of retaliation,” said Merritt, who is an Addison firefighter and self-employed carpenter. “There are people who support Tibbetts and may be hearing a different version of what happened out there from him.”
Church said that when she attempted to obtain the protection from harassment order at Washington County Superior Court, Justice John Romei determined he had a conflict of interest due to his personal friendship with Tibbetts, who is a former Washington County sheriff, state trooper and state representative with deep roots in the county.
The court then faxed the paperwork to Ellsworth where it was signed and returned to Machias.
Church said she is disappointed that it was four days before Tibbetts was arrested.
“If that had been either Melina or I that had stuck a gun in someone’s face and held them hostage, we would have been immediately dragged to jail,” Merritt said. “Besides, this delay gave him time to hide the weapon.”
Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith explained that the Washington-Hancock District Attorney’s Office originally intended to turn the case over to the state Attorney General’s Office because of Tibbetts’ past professional relationship with the District Attorney’s Office, but instead presented the case to Justice Cuddy on Monday at Washington County Superior Court, and Cuddy then issued the warrant for Tibbetts’ arrest.
Because the case has not come to court yet, details about any alleged weapon being recovered are not being released by police. The full police report also is not available until the case is disposed of.
The incident terrified the family, and as they gathered Tuesday around their kitchen table, they said they are living in fear.
“Right now we are very much on guard,” Church said.
“We are not leaving the house unless we have to,” Merritt said.
Tibbetts was arrested Monday afternoon, taken to the Washington County Jail and released on $5,000 unsecured cash bail. His first court appearance is scheduled for Sept. 28.