GRINDSTONE, Maine — An East Millinocket police officer had legally justifiable reason to believe that his was among several lives endangered when he killed an armed and drunken man outside the man’s Frazier Road home in August, Attorney General Janet Mills announced Friday.
Mills ruled that Officer Seth Burnes acted within the law when he shot Robert Bellfleur once in the chest with a rifle from about 200 feet as Bellfleur stood illuminated in police cruiser headlights and a cruiser spotlight in the doorway of his home shortly after 9 p.m. Aug. 17.
“The officer acted in self-defense and in the defense of the other persons present,” Mills said in the statement.
Bellfleur had a 12-gauge shotgun pointed toward the officers in the “ready position,” had threatened them several times — at one point yelling “This isn’t going to be another Ruby Ridge! You are not going to shoot me in the back” — and had a blood-alcohol content level of 0.146, almost twice Maine’s legal limit of 0.08 for operating a vehicle.
The officers and neighbors with whom they were conferring also heard a single gunshot just before the armed confrontation, a statement investigators essentially verified when they found Bellfleur’s Winchester model 1200 shotgun had a spent shell casing in its chamber, Mills said.
Bellfleur, 78, died of blood loss caused after falling back inside his house, Mills said. He had been inside the house for as long as six hours. A state police tactical team riding in a protected vehicle arrived at the scene by 2 a.m. and reported to the attorney general’s office the discovery of Bellfleur’s body at 3 a.m., said Tim Feeley, a spokesman for Mills’ office.
However, the medical examiner’s office staff “reviewed its report regarding the death of Mr. Bellfleur and concluded that, given the severity of the wound and the general health and age of Mr. Bellfleur, it is likely that he was deceased within a few minutes of being shot,” Feeley said.
Feeley referred all questions other than whether the shooting was legally justified to East Millinocket Police Chief Cameron McDunnah. Under Maine law, the attorney general’s office’s sole responsibility in these circumstances is to determine whether the use of deadly force is warranted, he said.
“The Attorney General does not control any law enforcement agencies and the tactical operation [which surrounded the shooting] is outside of our focus,” Feeley said. “There is a requirement for the agency — in this case, the East Millinocket PD — to conduct the internal review set out in law and to make the report of the review public.”
McDunnah did not return a telephone message seeking comment.
At least a dozen state police, an East Millinocket Fire Department ambulance and other law enforcement officers blocked Frazier Road and another nearby dirt road for several hours that night, possibly as they searched the woods for Bellfleur.
Brian Badger, the neighbor who first alerted police by calling Penobscot County Sheriff’s Deputy Patricia McLaughlin at 8:39 p.m., told media the day after the shooting that the confrontation began when an apparently intoxicated Bellfleur stumbled up the front steps of the Badger vacation home at dusk and nonsensically ordered Badger and his wife to leave.
Bellfleur was known for being contentious. In April 2013, Bellfleur called dispatchers after having been issued harassment warnings to say that he would shoot officers who came to arrest him, Mills said.
McLaughlin, who had been helping Burnes and East Millinocket police Officer Brad Fitzgerald with a traffic stop, asked the officers to accompany her. When they arrived at about 9 p.m., McLaughlin saw the Badgers trying to persuade Bellfleur to leave. McLaughlin told him at least four times to leave or face arrest for criminal trespass before Bellfleur left, Mills said.
Then, Marlene Badger told the officers that she saw the lights go out in Bellfleur’s house. Several minutes later, everyone heard the gunshot. Burnes grabbed his carbine rifle from his vehicle, took position using his vehicle for cover, and focused on Bellfleur’s front porch.
Burnes said he fired after he saw Bellfleur step out of his residence onto the porch with the long gun held with both hands at almost shoulder height and pointed at the officers, Mills said.
There have been 96 shootings involving police officers in Maine investigated by the attorney general’s office since 1995, 46 of which were fatal. Excluding a few open investigations, all the shootings have been ruled justified, according to data provided by the attorney general’s office.