Editor’s note: This OpEd was submittted by Ronald Allanach, Ed.D., Brian Gagan, Joseph Loughlin and Michael Sefton, Ph.D., who made up the investigating team that reported its findings and conclusions on Nov. 28 on the Lake family murders and suicide in Dexter in June. The column comes in response to the Jan. 17 OpEd by Arthur Jette, “A rush to judgment of Lake murders.”
What Mr. Jette is proposing, at grave risk to domestic violence victims, is that responsibility for surrendering Steven Lake’s weapons rested only with Steven Lake, and not with the Piscataquis County Sheriff’s Department. That is not the practice of skilled law enforcement officers and agencies and never was the practice of the four of us as former police officers between 1972 and 2010.
Mr. Jette seems to believe that protection from abuse orders, or PFAs, should leave the defendant to his own whims regarding surrender of his firearms.
The firearms that Mr. Lake had in his possession on June 13 were owned by him and were never sought, inventoried or secured by the sheriff’s department as mandated within the PFA. The sheriff’s office never executed the firearms capture requirement of the July 21 PFA or complied with MRSA Title 17-A, Chapter 101, Section 4006. Steven Lake retained possession of and access to his guns that he used on June 13 as a direct result of that error.
This PFA specifically stated: “Defendant is ordered to relinquish all firearms and dangerous weapons in the defendant’s possession to a law enforcement officer.” The term “possession” under law includes all forms and manifestations of “possession” including “constructive possession” whereby possession includes those situations where a person has no hands-on custody of an object at the time. As an example, if your jewelry is in a safe deposit box, you still have “possession” of it even though you may be asleep at home.
In this case, the sheriff’s department never sought 20 of Steven Lake’s weapons from any person, and they never researched or determined the firearms that Steven Lake owned and had access to whether hidden under a bed, buried in the back yard or stashed within a workplace.
The Maine State Police included this failure within their case report. Not only were the weapons never collected, but the required listing of the weapons from Steven Lake was never requested or received by the sheriff’s department from any person. During interviews with several of our sources, we were advised that two Maine State Police detectives had stated to several sources that this failure was “a big problem.”
Contemporary law enforcement practice is to take all steps necessary to track down and secure the firearms the court mandates be collected. This is usually done with a printout from the federal firearms database (not a state “registry”) that skilled officers use in determining whether all weapons have been secured. According to our sources, they never asked Amy Lake about them or spoke with the relative of Steven’s to whom Amy originally provided the firearms for the safety of herself and her children, Coty and Monica.
The sheriff’s department took no steps to collect or secure those firearms as mandated in the PFA, leaving Amy as the only person to protect herself from the firearms while the sheriff’s department was derelict in its duty.
The sheriff’s office was the only law enforcement agency responsible for securing all of Mr. Lake’s firearms, per statute. But It appears to us that Mr. Jette’s view is that nobody should be responsible for assuring defendant compliance with a PFA, and that should instill great fear in all victims of domestic violence in Maine.
If an officer witnesses a violent assault and does not intercede, it is dereliction of duty and creates civil liability even though no state statute specifically mandates that the officer intercede. What the same officer must do to collect firearms in the case of a PFA is also not statutorily mandated. In this case, it was the duty of the sheriff’s department to properly execute this PFA, and it did not do that, as now proven by the firearms used on June 13.
There is no specific law against police officers who do not stop drunk drivers, but it is malfeasance if they don’t do so when someone dies as a result. Therein lies a fascinating corollary to this case.
Because these four people were killed with weapons that were mandated to be captured and secured per the unambiguous terms of this PFA, we are shocked that Mr. Jette cannot understand that these homicides had a large chance of being prevented simply by the sheriff’s department executing the terms included within that PFA, as all skilled officers have been doing for decades.
Because of this failure and the deaths of these four people, substantial change and improvement must now occur on multiple dimensions. Sticking our heads in a snowbank on this subject will not accomplish that.
The authors are an investigating team that reported its findings and conclusions on November 28, 2011.