ELLSWORTH, Maine — Charges against the Winter Harbor doctor accused of leaving a loaded handgun in a retail store bathroom have been dismissed, according to officials.
Benjamin Newman, a retired Navy captain and law enforcement veteran who also serves as the Washington County Jail doctor, was charged the day after Christmas in 2012 with reckless conduct after he allegedly left his 9mm Walther police pistol in the bathroom of the local L. L. Bean outlet.
William Entwisle, assistant district attorney in Hancock County, said Monday that the charge has been dismissed. He said the case was expected to go to trial this week, but a key witness is out of state and prosecutors have been unable to get her to return to Maine.
The witness is a woman who worked at L. L. Bean and was alerted to the gun’s presence in the bathroom by a customer, the prosecutor said. Without her testimony, the state would not have direct evidence to present at trial that a loaded gun was left in the bathroom, he said. They would have only a store manager who would say that another employee brought him a gun that turned out to be Dr. Newman’s. As is the case with any defendant, Dr. Newman would not have been required to testify at his own trial.
Entwisle said he sought to have the case continued because he felt the state could not make its case without the witness who retrieved the gun from the bathroom. Entwisle’s motion to continue the case was denied by Justice Ann Murray, however, so the prosecutor felt he had no choice but to dismiss the charges.
“She was an essential witness to our case,” he said.
Newman’s defense attorney, Donald Brown of Brewer, said Monday that the state continued the case several times before the judge denied their latest motion to do so. He said that Newman should not have been charged to begin with.
“I think it’s been blown way out of proportion and has dragged on way too long,” Brown said.
On Monday, there was some confusion among some of the law enforcement agencies involved over whether the charge formally had been dismissed and whether Newman could get the gun back.
Ellsworth Police Chief John DeLeo said that as of Monday morning, it had not been clear to him whether the charge had been dismissed. When told the motion to dismiss had been filed in court on Monday, he said that if that were the case, he disagreed with the decision, but his department would return the firearm to Newman.
DeLeo said that the gun was found in the bathroom with a bullet in the chamber and the safety off, which could have had disastrous consequences.
“We’ve charged other people in the past with leaving guns in bathrooms,” the police chief said.
DeLeo added that Donnie Smith, the sheriff of Washington County, contacted him by email on Monday, and he demanded Ellsworth police return the gun to the jail doctor. DeLeo said Smith threatened to charge the Ellsworth Police Department with theft if the gun was not returned to Newman by noon Tuesday.
Contacted by phone, Smith acknowledged he made the ultimatum. He said he also has ordered his department to have no contact with the Ellsworth Police Department until Newman gets the handgun back.
Smith was highly critical of the Ellsworth Police Department and of the district attorney’s office in how the case has been handled.
“I think it’s appalling this man had to go through this,” the Washington County sheriff said, adding that Newman is a hero for having served in conflicts in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan while in the Navy. “The whole thing was wrong.”
Smith said police officers have been known to carelessly discharge their weapons in incidents described as accidents and, as a result, have not been charged. Dr. Newman, who he said is still the Washington County Jail doctor, simply got distracted and left his firearm in a bathroom.
“No crime was committed,” Smith said.
He added that since the incident, Newman has been unable to obtain a concealed weapon permit because of the now-dismissed reckless conduct charge.
Entwisle declined to comment on the decision to charge and prosecute Newman.
Smith drew criticism after the incident after it was revealed that he had issued a special deputy license to Newman that indicated in writing that the jail doctor was allowed to carry a concealed firearm, even though Newman did not have an active separate concealed weapon permit and is not a certified law enforcement officer in Maine.
Smith said Monday that the wording on the special deputy permit was a clerical error, and Newman has a new special deputy license that does not authorize him to carry a concealed weapon.