Less than a year after Richard LaHaye became the Searsport police chief, he was confronted by the kind of situation that many officers would describe as a nightmare.
A local man brandished a gun at one of his officers during a routine traffic stop, and then vanished into the woods. The gunman evaded a police dragnet and a weeklong manhunt, only to surface at the Stockton Springs Elementary School on Oct. 31, 2008, when he held a fifth-grade classroom hostage at gunpoint.
The frightening incident, which ended peacefully, showed the community that LaHaye, who died this week at the age of 65, was a calm, capable leader who could be relied on when the chips were down.
“Anytime you’re in such a turmoil, it’s not easy,” Searsport Town Manager James Gillway said Friday, adding that LaHaye and his department were among the first to respond to the hostage situation at the school and organized the evacuation of the other students. “It was his first blush with crisis, and he handled it extremely well.”
LaHaye, who also served as president of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association for 2018-19, continued to be a strong leader in the community until he retired as chief this summer, the manager said.
According to a social media post from the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, LaHaye had fought cancer.
“He pretty quickly became a pillar of the community,” Gillway said. “Someone to help hold the town up and together. He was relied on pretty heavily by a lot of us, especially to solve problems and find common-sense solutions. Being a small town police chief is not an easy job. He fit the role really well.”
LaHaye, who lived with his wife, Pam, on their alpaca farm in Morrill, began his law enforcement career in 1976 as a Marine Patrol officer with the Department of Marine Resources. He continued with the department until 1996, retiring at 42 to start his own coffee business.
In retirement, he coached varsity basketball and softball at Belfast Area High School and basketball and golf at Medomak Valley High School in Waldoboro, where he also worked as the in-school suspension coordinator, a job that got him back into law enforcement, and ultimately served as the first school resource officer there.
Even as police chief, LaHaye continued to enjoy going into the schools, according to Searsport Selectman Dick Desmarais.
“At the school, he gave high fives to everybody. They all knew him,” the selectman said. “He had a connection with the kids, and he really did a good job.”
Even though LaHaye had a long career in law enforcement, he never became disenchanted with his profession or lost his drive to help people.
“He cared about people,” said Ed Tolan, the executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association. “You can get very cynical in this job. Dick always seemed to care about people and put people first, before other things. He was kind. He was caring. He was a good friend … he did a good job for us, and he will be missed.”
LaHaye also had a softer side, and on one memorable occasion asked to call a BDN reporter back after one of his baby alpacas was born. He did call back, happy to share news from the farm as well as the information requested.
“He loved that,” Gillway said about the farm. “That was a good passion of his. He embraced everything that way.”