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Police agencies to review Grindstone shooting, East Millinocket chief says

Nick Sambides Jr. | BDN
Nick Sambides Jr. | BDN
Police told neighbors that Robert Bellfleur, 78, was shot by police as he stood in the doorway of his Frazier Road home in Grindstone late Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013.
By Nick Sambides Jr., BDN Staff

EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine — Police Chief Cameron McDunnah plans to conduct a state-required administrative review of a shooting by one of his officers that claimed the life of a Grindstone man in August, he said Thursday.

Attorney General Janet Mills announced late last month that East Millinocket Police Officer Seth Burnes had legally justifiable reason to believe that his and other lives were endangered when he killed an armed and drunken Robert Bellfleur outside Bellfleur’s Frazier Road home in Grindstone on Aug. 17. Her ruling that Burnes acted in self-defense exonerated him of any criminal wrongdoing.

Independent panels like the one McDunnah plans to convene within the next several weeks typically examine police shootings and police responses to such incidents for any administrative errors and ways in which training or procedures can be improved to better protect the public or increase efficiency, he said.

“I’m in the process of setting it up right now. It’s the first I have ever done,” McDunnah said. “Officer Burnes did not violate any of our policies or procedures.”

Under Maine law, the office of the attorney general is charged with investigating police shootings to determine whether the use of deadly force is warranted. Police agencies are required by law to conduct a review and to make the report of the review public, AG’s office spokesman Tim Feeley has said.

McDunnah said the incident review team he is putting together will consist of a commissioned state police officer, a municipal police chief and a civilian with no prior law enforcement experience.

The Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office is also conducting an internal affairs investigation of the shooting, per standard procedure, McDunnah said. He referred comment to Deputy Sheriff Troy Morton.

When reached at a law enforcement conference in Portland on Thursday, Morton described the review as routine and said he could discuss it further when he returned to work next week.

Penobscot County Sheriff’s Deputy Patricia McLaughlin was the officer who actually received the call about the incident. Burnes and another officer accompanied her to Bellfleur’s home at her request, as backup, McDunnah said Thursday.

Burnes shot Bellfleur, 78, 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.

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, Mills has said.

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 has said.

Bellfleur 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., Feeley said when Mills announced her ruling on Dec. 20.

However, the state medical examiner’s office staff concluded that Bellfleur was likely dead within a few minutes of being shot, Feeley has said.

A full-time officer, Burnes returned to work on Dec. 1 and has worked steadily since, McDunnah said.

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