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BANGOR, Maine — A psychological autopsy, typically done in high-profile cases such as the Columbine massacre and the Virginia Tech murders, is being conducted on the domestic violence homicides of a Dexter family in an effort to prevent similar tragedies.
A team of professionals who have extensive experience with domestic violence are voluntarily examining the events leading up to the June 13 murders of Amy Lake, 38, and her two children Coty, 13, and Monica, 12, who were shot and killed by Steven Lake, 37, the children’s father and Amy’s estranged husband. Lake committed suicide soon after the murders.
The psychological autopsy — a method used to investigate deaths, discover the state of mind of the victims and the perpetrator and reconstruct events leading up to the deaths — is the first conducted by the team and is believed to be the first ever conducted in Maine. The results of the study will lead to a series of recommendations to be released to the Maine Attorney General’s Office and its Domestic Abuse Homicide Review Panel in mid-October.
The team, all former Portland-area law enforcement officers who have known each other for 36 years, felt they needed to do the psychological autopsy after reading about the Lake family deaths, the group’s leader, Brian Gagan of Scottsdale, Ariz., said recently during an interview at the Bangor Daily News. He said the men talked the week after the murders about the need to find a new approach to combat domestic violence homicide and felt they could help.
“Our greatest collective skills are investigative thoroughness, open-mindedness, putting sources at ease, having no axes to grind, and in no way seeking fault,” he said.
Deputy Attorney General William Stokes said he welcomes the additional investigative study.
“Anybody who has something to offer in preventing domestic violence, we’re more than happy to hear from them,” he said recently, noting that the Domestic Abuse Homicide Review Panel essentially conducts the same type of review, although it’s not called a psychological autopsy. “We sort of mirror what they’re doing,” he said.
The Attorney General’s Office has certain statutory restrictions on the release of information, so the office shared no information on the Lake case with Gagan’s team. Because everything discussed by the Domestic Abuse Homicide Review Panel at its meetings is confidential, Stokes expected that Gagan’s team will make its presentation in October just before the committee meeting.
“It’s not like the state has been sitting on its hands for 30 years,” Stokes said. A “tremendous amount of progress’’ has been made over the years to address domestic violence homicides, but even that progress hasn’t eliminated it, he said, noting several deaths that already have occurred this year in Maine. So, Stokes said, he appreciates the private team’s “efforts, compassion and willingness to look at this.”
Linda Bagley of Harmony, Amy Lake’s mother, said Monday she thought the psychological autopsy would be helpful in preventing other domestic violence homicides. “[The four men] have studied it in depth,” she said.
“The only thing that keeps me going is to know that hopefully something will come of this to save somebody else,” Bagley’s husband, Ralph, said Tuesday.
The Dexter case “absolutely screamed” for a psychological autopsy, team member Michael Sefton, a Massachusetts police officer, said in a recent interview. “To have a life timeline be interrupted in such a violent and hideous way, one can’t not participate. We must act. By not doing so we are committing an act of inhumanity.”
The team has spent countless hours reviewing police and medical files, court documents and personal papers of the Lake family, even visiting the graves of the family members, Gagan said. He and Sefton are joined on the team by Ronald Allanach of Vancouver, British Columbia, a retired Westbrook police chief; and Joseph Loughlin of Portland, retired deputy chief of the Portland Police Department.
When the psychological autopsy is finished, the men will have conducted about 50 interviews with members of both families, friends of the couple, attorneys, judges and police who had contact with the victims and the perpetrator before their deaths, Gagan said.
In addition to research on bail and bail conditions, the team is doing a comparative analysis with other domestic violence-related homicides to back up its findings. A 50- to 80-page report with recommendations on how the state can help reduce domestic violence deaths will be issued once all the information is complete and final interviews are conducted.
Whether the psychological autopsy will be helpful is unknown, according to Piscataquis County District Attorney R. Christopher Almy. He confirmed Friday that he had been contacted by Gagan’s team and he had replied to its email.
“I don’t know much about these folks; their work may be helpful or it may not be. It’s hard to say until I see the finished product,” he said.
The team chose the Lake case for a psychological autopsy in part because it involved deaths in a small town where families grew up together, the murders of children and a teacher who had touched the lives of hundreds of children, according to Sefton. “As the details become clearer and the sequence of events become known, the monstrosity of it rises to the top and you see just how tormented things became,” he said.
Also noticeable to the team as it tracked domestic violence homicides throughout the country was the escalation of domestic violence homicides in Maine, especially in northern Maine, according to Gagan.
Nine of 18 homicides in the state so far in 2011 have been domestic violence-related, Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety, said last week.
Sefton said some people in authority believe psychological autopsies are not all that useful because everyone connected to the case is dead, but he believes there are many lessons to be learned from the Lake case.
Problems began showing up in the couple’s relationship as early as 2009, according to Gagan, who did not elaborate. On June 14, 2010, Steven Lake had held a loaded gun at his side at the family’s Wellington home and talked about killing himself, Amy and the children. She filed for and was granted a protection from abuse order against him the next month. The order was in effect until Oct. 26 of this year.
Fearing for her life, Amy Lake filed for a divorce, which was pending at the time of her death, and moved her children to Dexter to avoid contact with her estranged husband, who was staying in Wellington. She told Dexter police of her fears and asked that they keep an eye on her and her children.
Gagan said he was told during the interviews with police that Amy Lake did everything perfectly to avoid her estranged husband. She had no land-line telephone and changed homes frequently, at one point moving as far away as Bangor and commuting to Dexter, where her children attended school and she was employed as a teacher.
The fact that the young mother did everything possible, yet was killed along with her children, told the team that the system had failed in at least some ways, according to Gagan.
“None of us believe that there are things missing in the domestic violence continuum of care,” Sefton said. Womancare, an agency located in Dover-Foxcroft, did everything it could to protect the family. He also said the police who went to the murder scene were “heroic.”
What is needed, the men say, is more education of mothers about their rights and the rights of their children; the formulation of safety plans, which must be practiced; more effective confinement of abusers who don’t obey the law; the sharing of information among police, state agencies and store owners who sell guns; sufficient bail conditions; and a requirement that anyone who hears or sees domestic violence be a mandated reporter.
“I think it does take a village — it takes a community to protect and to provide the security that’s needed,” Sefton said.
The team also learned that the surrender of arms in Maine on a protection from abuse order is a requirement without teeth.
“If there is a proclivity of taking somebody out or a lack of fear of the consequences of taking somebody out, the most dangerous people will not surrender all of their firearms,” Gagan said.
And there is the matter of the protection from abuse order itself. It is not uncommon for false protection from abuse orders to be sought as a manipulation in divorce court, according to Gagan. In addition, there is nothing statutorily in Maine that precludes a plaintiff, whether male or female, from reaching back out to the defendant, neither of which was the case with Amy Lake.
“Abuse of power in this is the dynamic,” Sefton said. “It’s not a shared relationship. It’s a hierarchy with the abuser at the top of that hierarchy.”