Former sheriff appears in court

Posted Sept. 28, 2009, at 7:57 p.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — Former Sheriff Joseph Tibbetts, 63, of Columbia appeared in Washington County Superior Court on Monday, his first appearance on charges of criminal threatening with a dangerous weapon and threatening display of a weapon.

The criminal threatening charge carries a potential penalty of up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

The charges are the result of an alleged altercation between Tibbetts and an Addison couple in the blueberry barrens in Columbia in August.

Tibbetts is accused of chasing down the couple’s vehicle, which also contained their two children, and holding them at gunpoint while he threatened to shoot them.

Tibbetts’ attorney, Norman Toffolon, told the court Monday that Tibbetts was acting as a security guard for Cecil Gray, who owned the blueberry land and had $100,000 worth of equipment on the property.

“This incident took place in the dark, in the middle of nowhere,” Toffolon told Justice Kevin Cuddy. Toffolon said that Tibbetts drew a weapon but said that once Tibbetts determined the family was not a threat, he placed his handgun in the waistband of his pants.

Toffolon said Tibbetts has no criminal record and has a legitimate permit to carry the handgun he had that night.

Toffolon said both of the adults in the victims’ car, Melina Church and Kevin Merritt, had loaded guns under the seats of the car “for ready access.”

Toffolon said the couple’s story that they were searching for a bear in the barrens didn’t hold water because bear do not feed on the berries, but rather come to the barrens in the spring to feed on bee honey.

Church and Merritt told the Bangor Daily News in August that they had gone to the barrens seeking coyotes but that someone in a passing car told them there was a bear in the area.

Toffolon also said that at the time of the incident, Gray’s wife was the investigating officer for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office which was looking into Church’s alleged inappropriate actions as a county corrections guard. Church ultimately was fired from that position.

Toffolon went on at length about Tibbetts’ decorated military service in Vietnam, his career in law enforcement which included many years as a Maine state trooper, his two terms as Washington County sheriff and his term in the state Legislature.

Assistant District Attorney Catherine Lindberg took issue with the extent of Toffolon’s remarks, as did Justice Cuddy.

“This isn’t the place to try this case,” Lindberg said.

“I agree,” Cuddy said to Toffolon. “Your comments go well beyond what we are doing here. Not to detract from Mr. Tibbetts’ personal history but I am familiar with the allegations in this case. The allegations are serious.”

Toffolon asked that one of the bail conditions, which prohibited Tibbetts from carrying a firearm, be lifted to allow him to go deer hunting with his son and grandson this fall.

The justice tabled the discussion to allow Toffolon and Lindberg to agree on a solution. The court then approved an amendment to the bail that allows Tibbetts to carry a long rifle during hunting season, when appropriate.

The defense and prosecution then were given 21 days to file motions in the case, and it will be placed on the next court docket, likely early this winter.

Tibbetts, who supported himself with a cane throughout the day, declined to comment on the case. He is free on $5,000 unsecured bail.

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