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Report details Dexter family murder-suicide, calls for new way of handling of domestic violence cases

Amy Bagley Lake with children Monica, 12, and Cody, 13, in an undated photo.
Photo from Amy Bagley Lake's facebook page
Amy Bagley Lake with children Monica, 12, and Cody, 13, in an undated photo.
Posted Nov. 28, 2011, at 12:54 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 28, 2011, at 6:15 p.m.

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Steven Lake
Piscataquis County Jail
Steven Lake

DEXTER, Maine — Amy, Coty, Monica and Steven Lake might be alive today if law enforcement and the court system had handled things differently, according to a report written by four former Maine police officers.

Steven Lake should have been in a jail cell on June 13, the day he killed his estranged wife and their 13-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter, the report argues. He was awaiting a July 5 court date, when he was to face charges for threatening his family with a handgun on June 14, 2010.

Instead, he had been bailed out twice within a year at a cost of just $4,000 total, an amount that was far too small to keep him in jail or away from his family, according to the report.

In the year that Amy Lake’s protection from abuse order was active against Steven, he violated that order at least five times but spent fewer than two days in jail for those violations, the report found. He also stalked her on Facebook, it said.

The fifth time he defied the protection order, he killed his family and then himself at the house at 173 Shore Road in Dexter where Amy and her children were living.

Steven Lake shouldn’t have had access to the weapon he used to kill Amy, Monica and Coty, according to the report. It said law enforcement should have inventoried Steven’s arsenal of about 20 guns and made sure he couldn’t get his hands on them, as required under state statute.

They “fumbled” that duty, the authors said.

Piscataquis County District Attorney R. Christopher Almy on Monday expressed skepticism about the report before its official release. He noted that police officers and courts have to follow existing laws, and that even changing laws, as the report recommends, won’t necessarily stop such murders in the future.

The report

On Monday, the former officers released their report, “Psychological Autopsy of June 13, 2011 Dexter, Maine Domestic Violence Homicides and Suicides.”

The report stems from a pro bono study the authors conducted to identify “red flag” indicators of domestic violence homicide and suggest ways to reduce the likelihood of similar killings in the future.

The authors and researchers of the study are Ronald Allanach, a psychotherapist based in British Columbia and a former Westbrook police chief; Brian Gagan, a Westbrook native who now lives in Arizona and has worked as a patrol officer in Westbrook and Scarborough; Michael Sefton, a police officer in New Braintree, Mass., who also spent time on the Westbrook police force; and Joseph Loughlin, who retired last year from his position as assistant police chief in Portland. They now work as therapists, counselors and consultants for law enforcement agencies.

The authors said they each have had extensive experience dealing with domestic violence cases.

Of the 31 Maine homicides in 2008, 20 were related to domestic violence. In 2009, there were 25 homicides, 10 of which involved killings by family or household members, according to the study.

In an effort to prevent future homicides of this type, the researchers undertook the report, which outlines the warning signs of domestic violence, problems they saw in how the state deals with offenders and solutions that might stem the violence.

The researchers interviewed 69 people with information about the Lakes, including family members, friends, law enforcement and experts in the psychology behind domestic violence. Many of these 69 individuals were interviewed several times, according to the authors.

“All deceased parties in this case and in all similar cases lost their lives needlessly,” the report states, “with the murderer proving nothing, gaining nothing and rectifying nothing.”

Almy said he would consider findings made by the Maine Commission on Domestic and Sexual Abuse’s Domestic Abuse Homicide Review Panel before giving weight to a study conducted by four former police officers.

“We need to defer to the people who have been doing this for decades and know Maine law inside and out,” Almy said.

Lisa Marchese, chairwoman of the Domestic Abuse Homicide Review Panel, said the panel is working on its own report, which is not case-specific and is based on the review of between 10 and 15 cases, including the Lake case.

Marchese said that report should be released early next year.

“Any recommendations that Mr. Gagan and his group make in their report will be considered by the Homicide Review Panel,” she said Monday morning.

The breaking point

Sometime in the morning hours of June 13, after writing 13 suicide notes containing messages ranging from “Love you more than anything” to “See you in hell … I’ll be waiting,” Steven Lake went to the Dexter home where Monica, Coty and Amy were living.

The report states that Steven probably entered the home through an unlocked door before sunrise at 5:30 a.m.

He brought a flashlight, a Remington model 11-87 12-gauge semi-automatic shotgun with a five-round capacity, a Ruger .22-caliber revolver with six rounds, a knife, and several containers of fuel. The report indicates he likely had to make several trips from his vehicle into the home.

Dexter police Sgt. Kevin Wintle responded to dispatch calls asking to check on the home because neither Amy, a teacher, nor her children had arrived at school at their usual time that morning.

Wintle arrived at the home around 8 a.m. and found Steven’s Jeep Rubicon with the vanity plate “JoyToy1” in the driveway parked next to Amy’s Chevy Aveo.

Seconds later, he heard six or seven shots fired from inside the house and called for backup.

Wintle backed up his cruiser and pulled an assault rifle out of his trunk in case the shooter tried to exit the home. After he grabbed the rifle, he heard two more shotgun blasts come from the house.

Law enforcement officers from Dexter, Newport, the Maine Warden Service, Maine State Police, Piscataquis County Sheriff’s Department and the Maine State Police Tactical Response Team responded to the scene.

Calls to cellphones inside the home and orders shouted over megaphones went unanswered.

When the Maine State Police Tactical Response Team entered the home around 2 p.m., they found Amy lying face up on the living room couch. Coty was face down between the couch and television. Monica was sitting on the floor, leaning against the couch opposite her mother.

Steven was in a recliner on the other side of the room.

All had been killed by 12-gauge buckshot from Steven’s shotgun.

It was just 10 days before Amy and Steven’s divorce would have become official, and just 22 days before Steven was scheduled to appear in court for allegedly brandishing a handgun and threatening his family on June 14, 2010.

Warning signs

According to the authors of the psychological autopsy, there were plenty of indications that Amy and Steven’s broken relationship might end violently.

Steven and Amy met as children, dated while Amy was in college, married in Skowhegan in 1995 and then had Monica and Coty.

Interview subjects told researchers that Steven became depressed when he found out Monica was going to be a girl and made statements that he wanted to give her away prior to her birth.

Some said Steven “got a rise” out of tripping Monica while she was learning to walk and flicking her face until she became upset, according to the report.

But many of those interviewed described both Amy and Steven as good parents whose nearly 16-year marriage began to fall apart around 2009.

Steven became controlling, aggressive and accused Amy of cheating while carrying on three relationships of his own outside the marriage, according to sources cited in the report.

Amy, a teacher, had several male friends who worked at area schools, and Steven saw innocent, work-related text messages between Amy and male friends as proof of infidelity.

As his jealousy grew, so did his anger.

Amy began considering divorce, and according to an interviewee, Steven told Coty in the summer of 2009 he could get a “29-cent divorce,” referring to the price of a bullet.

Tension boiled over on June 14, 2010, at 9 Brighton Road in Wellington when Steven allegedly brandished a gun in front of his family, threatening Amy and the man he accused her of having a relationship with.

Police arrested Steven the next day, but his father bailed him out for $2,000 cash, according to the report.

Soon after, Amy filed for a protection from abuse order.

She had the family’s mail sent to a post office box and she and her children moved at least seven times in the last year of their lives to avoid Steven.

“Amy had in fact told several people at earlier times that, ‘I sleep with a cellphone under my pillow in case Steven shows up,’” the report said.

Steven was cut out of family functions, including his son’s eighth-grade graduation, which has been cited as a catalyst in the killings.

Steven often vented his frustrations in status updates on Facebook.

Friends fanned the flames by voicing support when he posted comments such as “missing the kids” and “someday soon we will be together again,” according to the report.

“Many told him that he needed to ‘fight for his children’ while not acknowledging that his fighting against his wife and children on June 14, 2010, was the sole reason for his separation from them,” the report states. “He blamed the District Attorney and Amy for keeping the children from him, evidence of his distorted thought pattern and self-centered belief system.”

Steven used Facebook to “creep” — or stalk — Amy, according to the report. Amy and Steven weren’t Facebook “friends,” meaning Steven couldn’t see what Amy posted while signed into his account. However, it appears Steven was kept up-to-date either by accessing the account of someone who was friends with Amy or getting verbal updates from a mutual friend, according to the report.

Seeing pictures and information about what his family was doing without him may have aggravated him further.

In retrospect, the safest thing for Amy and her children would have been to avoid social networking altogether, the authors said.

“Separation must be total until the risk is no longer present,” the report states.

Failures in the system

Steven Lake had an affinity for firearms. He owned more than 20 guns, according to the report.

State law required that Steven turn over his weapons to law enforcement or some “other individual” within 24 hours because he couldn’t possess firearms while under the protection from abuse order.

After the June 14, 2010, threats, Amy’s parents were uncomfortable with the number of weapons in the home, so they wrapped “20-some” weapons in a blanket and gave them to Steven’s relatives, according to the researchers’ report.

Police never took an inventory of the guns, and the court had no paperwork to indicate that Steven had submitted a list of guns or to show to whom he had surrendered the guns, according to the authors, who had access to the official state police report on the murder-suicide.

Either Steven snuck into his relatives’ home to take the two guns he used to murder his wife and children or the weapons were stored separately from the rest of his firearms collection, according to the researchers.

“The risk of [domestic violence homicide] is 5 to 10 times greater when guns are accessible,” the psychological autopsy states.

Police “fumbled” by failing to keep track of Steven’s guns after Amy filed the protection from abuse order, according to the authors, giving Steven the chance to access the guns he used to kill his family and himself. It’s unlikely that he would have committed the murders if he didn’t have firearms, the authors argue.

Piscataquis County Sheriff’s Lt. Robert Young said Amy Lake notified his department of all the weapons she knew about after she filed the protection from abuse order, and those weapons were placed with a relative of Steven’s.

“But how do you know what he has hidden?” Young told the Bangor Daily News on Monday morning. “Information is always more accurate when you look back at a situation.”

“In reality,” Young said. “If someone is determined to kill you with a gun, they’re going to get a gun.”

While the Piscataquis County Sheriff’s Office didn’t serve the protection from abuse order, Young said his department would have locked up weapons associated with the order if asked to do so by the victim.

Almy said officers didn’t have the authority under current law to search Steven or his property for weapons without a warrant.

Had Steven been in jail, as the report argues he should have been on June 13, it would have been impossible for him to get to his family.

While the researchers found that Steven violated the protection order at least five times between June 2010 and June 2011, they noted that he was taken into custody only once after his initial arrest.

Steven was arrested Nov. 11, 2010, after he approached Amy in a Harmony convenience store and later drove by her Wellington residence as Amy and several friends were moving the family to a new location.

Steven got out of jail shortly after on $2,000 cash bail, which the report characterized as “ridiculously low by any standard because through our research we have found a very recent $30,000 bail amount for a property crime burglary in Lincoln, Maine.”

The third violation, during which Steven’s car was seen in the driveway of the home Amy, Coty and Monica were staying in while the three were at school, went unreported.

On the fourth occasion, June 11, 2011, Steven concealed himself in the woods near 173 Shore Road and watched the children swim in the lake.

The fifth violation came two days later, when Steven entered the Shore Road home and killed his family.

The earlier violations should have kept Steven behind bars until his court date, the report argues.

Almy said bail restrictions and amounts are made at the judgment of bail commissioners and judges, but the addition of mandatory requirements could change that.

“One prosecutor told us during this research that, ‘The Maine bail code is not written to prevent murder,’” the report states. “Our research in this case shows that it now must be rewritten to do just that.”

Calls for change

During interviews, one individual identified only as a law enforcement commander told researchers, “We couldn’t do anything to stop this.”

“Any law enforcement professional who has ever uttered the words, ‘We couldn’t do anything to stop this,’ should reconsider his or her career choice,” said the report’s authors.

Along with laying out indicators and “red flags” that warn of potential domestic violence homicides, the report’s authors propose changes in policy, statute and practice that they say could prevent future violence like the Lake murder-suicide.

But just as a law that prohibits murder doesn’t stop murder, Almy said, a law that restricts the actions and increases the oversight of people under protection from abuse orders won’t prevent them from breaking that order.

“You cannot stop, with laws, defendants from violating these orders,” Almy said.

Told of some of the report’s recommendations, he said some would run into heavy opposition and questions of legality and constitutionality.

The report’s recommendations include:

• Law enforcement should be allowed to search individuals under a protection from abuse order, as well as search their property and vehicles at any time to determine if they are violating their bail by having a firearm.

• If caught with a weapon, the report suggests that the violator be charged with a Class C felony with no bail possibility. Having or trying to obtain a weapon in the 90-day period after the expiration of the protection from abuse order would be a Class D misdemeanor with a minimum $2,000 fine and 90-day jail sentence.

• If the defendant comes to the complainant’s workplace or home, the defendant would face a Class D misdemeanor charge with a minimum sentence of 90 days and a fine of at least $2,000.

• If the protection from abuse order defendant comes into contact with the complainant and it is not accidental or it is intended to passively menace the complainant, the defendant would be sent to jail to await trial.

• If a spouse is threatened with a weapon, any divorce proceedings should be expedited and finalized within 30 days of the threat.

• No bail would be offered to anyone arrested in a domestic violence case until a criminal history check that includes outstanding charges in addition to convictions is performed and reviewed by a bail commissioner or judge.

• The minimum domestic violence arrest bail would be $1,000 cash. That amount would double on the second arrest. A third arrest within six years would send the suspect to jail without bail until trial.

• In any case where there is evidence of criminal threatening, terrorizing, assault, stalking or reckless conduct under a protection from abuse order, the minimum bail would be $15,000.

• Bail should not be set in any situation where the domestic violence suspect is believed to be a flight risk or danger to the victim.

• The attorney general should provide gun dealers with access to law enforcement firearm prohibition data. State law should also allow GPS tracking of protection from abuse order defendants in any case where a veiled or direct threat or a weapon might be involved.

• A minimum of two officers would respond to domestic violence calls, or three officers if the call involves individuals involved in a protection from abuse order.

• Arresting officers must notify domestic violence complainants of the release of defendants from jail within three minutes of the defendant’s release.

In all, the report lists more than 50 recommendations.

“It is our hope that every or nearly every recommendation included within this report and justified by evidence in this case will be implemented in short order within the state of Maine despite the roadblocks that will be attempted by a dramatic minority of decision makers, leaders and professionals who do not accurately understand the importance of preventing domestic violence homicide,” the authors said.

To view the full psychological autopsy text, including a list of “red flags” and the report’s recommendations, visit http://bdn.to/lakereport.

CORRECTION:

An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that Amy Lake’s residence on Nov. 11, 2010, was in Dexter. She lived in Wellington at the time.

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