Maine police hero gets his due, 57 years after he died

Posted May 19, 2017, at 1 a.m.
Last modified May 19, 2017, at 10:23 a.m.

BATH, Maine — Bath police Sgt. Merle Niles was 50 years old the night of July 15, 1960, when he was called to Pleasant Avenue in Bath after a Florida man had threatened to shoot his wife and her boyfriend.

Niles, who had earned the Bronze Star in World War II before joining the Bath force in 1951, walked into the house with the woman and had just managed to push her out of the way when the husband, George Conrad, opened fire.

Conrad shot Niles in the chest, but despite his wounds Niles exchanged more gunfire with Conrad before eventually shouting to the man: “Come out, you’ve already got me. Come out before I get you.” Conrad then surrendered to police.

According to the Bath Daily Times, doctors at Bath Memorial Hospital were unsure whether to operate because the .22-caliber slug, which hit a rib before disintegrating and damaging a lung, would likely be less harmful left in place than if they removed it.

After nearly a month in the hospital and a few more recuperating, Niles returned to work. But about nine months later, he died of an apparent heart attack.

About six years ago, Bath police Sgt. Dan Couture heard bits of this story, but no one on the force seemed to have details, Couture said Wednesday.

Basic Google searches turned up a posthumous public service award from True Detective Magazine — a copy of which the department bought on eBay — but that wasn’t enough for Couture.

“I thought, this is a problem, because if this was a line-of-duty death, there should be some recognition — at the very least locally — in the department or at the Maine Memorial or the National Law Enforcement Officer Memorial.”

So during slow nights at the station, Couture would take his radio to the basement of Bath City Hall and dig through decades of old Bath Daily Times, trying to piece together the story of Niles’ death.

“I can’t even remember if I had a starting point,” he said. “I knew it wasn’t in the ’80s, and it wouldn’t be in the ’70s because [Officer] Mike Lever, who still works for us, didn’t know anything about it. So it was just a matter of sitting down and going through every Bath Times, one by one.”

Once Couture found reports of the shooting, he kept reading, “and then I knew he’d died as a result of the shooting.”

After about a year of research, Couture spent time talking with Niles’ daughter, Beverly, who lived in Florida, and with retired Brunswick officers who responded the day of the shooting. He met with cardiologists and other doctors, obtained what medical records and death certificates he could.

He also met with former assistant county attorney Don Spear, who prepared the case against Conrad and, according to Couture, said he regretted not insisting on an autopsy after Niles died.

Finally, in February 2016, Couture presented a five-page synopsis of his research to the Maine Chiefs of Police Memorial Committee, which is responsible for the Maine Law Enforcement Officers Memorial.

“After conducting a thorough investigation over the course of the last five years, I have concluded that Sgt. Niles never fully recovered from injuries sustained from the shooting and that those injuries were a contributing factor in his heart attack, which resulted in his death,” Couture wrote.

In support of Couture’s letter, Brian MacMaster, chief of investigations at the office of the attorney general, wrote in a Feb. 10, 2016, memo to the Maine Chiefs of Police Association that two homicide prosecutors with whom he consulted were “more than confident that they would prevail in a felony murder prosecution against” Conrad. Dr. Mark Flomenbaum, the state’s chief medical examiner, “told me that he would have classified the manner of Sgt. Niles’ death as a homicide,” MacMaster added.

In May 2016, Niles’ name was inscribed on the Maine Law Enforcement Officer Memorial in Augusta.

Couture said The National Law Enforcement Officer Memorial committee denied his request to recognize Niles — likely, he added, because Niles died 10 months after the shooting.

At 1 p.m. Saturday, with two of Niles’ granddaughters and various other family members in attendance, the department will unveil a memorial bench bearing Niles’ name in Waterfront Park, and dedicate the bench to his memory.

Bath police Chief Michael Field said Thursday that he was proud of Couture’s tenacity in tracking the Niles’ story.

“Dan’s efforts in recognizing Sgt. Niles as a line of duty death and [getting] his name on the Maine Law Enforcement Memorial was well beyond any simple effort,” Field said. “He worked endless hours tracking people, documents, newspapers and interviews to complete the accounts of what happened in 1960. We are all so proud of him!”

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