Attorney files claim of wrongful death, says man shot by state police was unarmed

Crime scene tape flies in the wind at the Piscatiquis Valley Fairgrounds in November 2011. Michael Curtis was gunned down by police at this location after shooting and killling Udo Schneider only moments earlier.
Kevin Bennett | BDN
Crime scene tape flies in the wind at the Piscatiquis Valley Fairgrounds in November 2011. Michael Curtis was gunned down by police at this location after shooting and killling Udo Schneider only moments earlier.
By Alex Barber, BDN Staff
Posted July 12, 2012, at 1:05 p.m.

DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — The wife of Michael Curtis, the man who shot Udo Schneider to death and in turn was killed by a Maine State Trooper late last year, has filed a notice of claim for wrongful death against the Maine State Police.

Margaret Curtis, the widow, is seeking monetary damages in excess of $1 million.

The Maine State Police, Col. Robert Williams, Lt. Gary Wright and Trooper Jon Brown, the man who shot Curtis, 46, of Sangerville, are named in the claim.

Bangor attorney Hunter Tzovarras filed the notice of claim on behalf of the estate of Michael Curtis. Tzovarras said he thinks that Curtis was unarmed at the time he was shot, which differs from the attorney general’s report on the trooper’s use of deadly force which concluded that Curtis was still armed when he was shot.

“We have reason to believe that [Curtis] had thrown his gun out of the vehicle or thrown the gun onto the floor of the passenger’s side of the vehicle,” Tzovarras said Thursday.

A notice of claim is required under Maine law for anyone suing a governmental entity, according to Assistant Attorney General William Fisher. The notice, dated May 25, was filed with the Maine State Police.

“A notice of claim is basically a statement that says, in effect, you’ve wronged me this way and these are the people who did the wrongdoing,” said Fisher. The case is investigated for six months by the attorney who filed the claim, during a time where the case can be settled out of court. “Just the fact that a notice of claim has been served doesn’t necessarily mean there will be a lawsuit, he said.

“A notice of claim preserves your rights. That’s what the estate of Michael Curtis has done,” said Fisher.

Tzovarras said a lawsuit was “highly likely.”

The document claims wrongful death; assault; negligence; intentional infliction of emotional distress; negligent infliction of emotional distress; excessive force; unlawful use of deadly force; violations of the Fourth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution; and violations of Article One, Section Nine of the Maine Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

In one key area, the notice of claim contradicts the part of the attorney general’s report that cleared Brown in the fatal shooting — that Curtis was unarmed at the time he was shot.

“Trooper Brown shot and killed Mr. Curtis at a time when he was unarmed and did not present any threat to Trooper Brown or anyone else,” states the notice of claim. “Furthermore, Mr. Curtis was not fleeing or a risk to flee at the time he was [shot] and killed by Trooper Brown.”

In contrast, the attorney general’s report states that Curtis was still armed with his .40-caliber Glock semiautomatic pistol at the time Brown shot and killed him. Attorney General William Schneider concluded in the report that “it was reasonable for Trooper Brown to believe that deadly force was imminently threatened against [Piscataquis County] Sheriff [John] Goggin, if not others, and it was reasonable for Trooper Brown to believe that it was necessary for him to use deadly force to counter that imminent threat of deadly force.”

Tzovarras said Thursday, “Obviously we disagree with the attorney general’s conclusion that force was justified. We’ll start our own investigation [into the incident]. We were waiting to see how the attorney general’s investigation was going to come down.”

Col. Williams and Lt. Wright also are named in the claim because Brown was under their command.

“The policy and customs of the Maine State Police and Col. Williams and Lt. [Wright] directly led to Trooper Brown’s unlawful use of deadly force against Mr. Curtis. Trooper Brown was not properly trained or supervised in a manner to prevent the unlawful use of deadly force,” states the notice of claim.

The document claims that Michael Curtis suffered the following injuries: loss of life, pain and suffering, emotional distress, anxiety, mental anguish, pecuniary damages, loss of future earning, medical and funeral expenses.

It goes on to say that his wife Margaret suffered the following injuries: loss of consortium, society and companionship, loss of earning, emotional distress, anxiety, mental anguish, loss of enjoyment of life, pecuniary damages, medical and funeral expenses.

According to Tzovarras, Margaret Curtis, who represents her former husband’s estate, had 180 days to file the notice of claim after Nov. 30, 2011, based on Maine’s tort claim act. The time restriction wouldn’t have prevented her from suing under federal law, however.

On the morning of Nov. 29, 2011, Michael Curtis left his Sangerville home after having an argument with his wife Margaret.

Curtis, who was a Piscataquis County Sheriff’s Department dispatcher, drove to Hilltop Manor in Dover-Foxcroft, where he shot and killed Udo Schneider, 53, of Sangerville. Schneider is the ex-husband of Curtis’ wife, with whom he had two children.

Curtis then drove to the Piscataquis Valley Fairgrounds where police converged on him. Maine Drug Enforcement Agent David Wilson heard Curtis fire four shots while at the fairgrounds. According to the attorney general’s report of the incident, Wilson concluded that Curtis fired all four shots into the air.

Sheriff Goggin had established contact with Curtis and was walking across the field unbeknownst to Trooper Brown who yelled to Curtis to show his hands. When Curtis failed to do so, Brown fired three shots at Curtis with his rifle. The shots missed Curtis and struck his truck. Curtis fired another shot from his pistol into the air at that time, according to the attorney general’s report.

Brown talked with other officers at the scene and then repositioned himself along with current Dexter Police Chief Kevin Wintle in a wooded area north of Curtis’ location. Goggin had resumed walking toward Curtis and was about 150 feet from him when Brown shot Curtis with his rifle.

“At the time of the shot [that killed Curtis], Mr. Curtis was still armed and was looking in the direction of Sheriff Goggin,” states the attorney general’s report.

Curtis was taken to a local hospital where he died a short time later.

According to the attorney general’s report, Curtis’ pistol had seven live rounds in it at the time of his death. It was determined that he had reloaded his gun after killing Schneider. Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Margaret Greenwald also determined that Curtis had a blood-alcohol content of 0.216 percent.

Brown was placed on administrative leave following the shooting. He is set to return to active duty on Aug. 25.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/07/12/news/piscataquis/attorney-files-claim-of-wrongful-death-says-man-shot-by-state-police-was-unarmed/ printed on September 22, 2014