Julie Archie of Millinocket is one of many residents still looking for answers after the town's former police chief was fired, then unfired, and the police department disbanded. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Millinocket’s police chief and deputy chief got into an argument in front of the town’s high school on Feb. 3, 2020. The deputy chief, long-time Millinocket police employee Janet Theriault, did not return to work after the altercation. Two months later, she filed an 85-page complaint against her former boss Craig Worster.

A camera at the high school caught the argument on tape, although it does not contain audio, according to Millinocket town attorney Dean Beaupain. The video depicts two public officials having a public argument on public property, but Beaupain refused to release the video to the Bangor Daily News because it was used as evidence in a personnel investigation into Worster.

“Since no discipline was imposed, it is not a public record,” Beaupain wrote in response to a Freedom of Access Act request. Despite the lack of discipline, Millinocket reached a $150,000 settlement with Theriault in February 2021. She declined an interview, citing the terms of her settlement.

But questions about the former chief, his chief deputy and what happened to Millinocket’s now disbanded police department are far from settled in the eyes of many frustrated residents thanks to a combination of settlement agreements, personnel privacy laws and an ongoing threat of litigation that collectively prevents public disclosure.

The lack of resolution highlights tensions between the privacy rights of municipal employees and residents’ right to know about the actions of their public servants.

Worster was cleared of any wrongdoing by one town manager in September, fired by an interim town manager in December, and then reinstated by a town personnel appeals board in February. He won his appeal, but Worster had no job to return to since the Millinocket Town Council disbanded the police department shortly after his December firing. The town now pays less populated East Millinocket for policing services.

Despite resident activism, which included a rally, a GoFundMe campaign and a citizen petition backing Theriault and calling for Worster’s firing last summer, many Millinocket residents said they never received any explanation about what was in Theriault’s complaint, why it was dismissed, why Worster was initially fired and why his firing was reversed.

“Everything is behind closed doors,” said Julie Archie, a pharmacy technician and Millinocket resident. “Especially at the end when [Worster’s firing] got overturned, we never got a reason. … You can’t blame everything on personnel issues. We have the right as taxpayers to know what’s going on.”

While residents are hoping for answers, there are “more legal bills every day for the town,” said Jennifer Murray, a fraud analyst who lives in Millinocket and helped organize the petition drive last summer that called for the firing of Worster, town attorney Beaupain and former Town Manager John Davis. The town’s legal bills jumped from $31,233 in 2019 to $133,963 in fiscal year 2021.

Those costs could continue to mount. Davis, the former town manager, and Worster jointly filed court paperwork showing they intend to file a lawsuit against the town and others for, among other charges, defamation, fraud and intentional interference with a contractual obligation after the town council fired Davis in September. The two men are both represented by lawyer Ezra Willey of Bangor, who did not respond to a list of questions.

Current council chairman Steve Golieb said he was frustrated that he couldn’t publicly share more information about the town’s personnel turmoil.

“As much as I would want the public to understand things as they are playing out and have that information, we’re literally not allowed to share,” Golieb said, adding that public disclosure could create even more liability. “By following the law, we’re actually protecting the town and tax payers from an even greater burden.”

Towns follow different rules about how personnel issues are handled. For instance, some town boards are required to approve the firing of a police chief in a public vote. Millinocket’s town rules mandate that all personnel issues are overseen by the town manager, in part to ensure hiring, firing and disciplinary decisions are insulated from the politics of the town council. Thirty-seven Maine municipalities are similarly governed by a town council-town manager structure, according to the Maine Municipal Association. This system essentially makes one person — the city manager — responsible for hiring, firing and discipline.

Former Town Manager John Davis used that power to hire former chief Worster in April 2019 despite a history that many residents believe should have been disqualifying.

Worster resigned from the police department in Ridgefield, Connecticut, in 2015, just a day after an internal investigator interviewed him as part of a sexual harassment investigation that found he “created a hostile work environment” and made “sexually explicit comments” and “innuendo,” according to the investigative report. In December 2018, less than four months before he took over the Millinocket Police Department, Worster resigned from his job as a sergeant for the Wiscasset Police Department at nearly the same time local prosecutors questioned his credibility as a court witness, the BDN reported in March.

Millinocket residents rally in support of former Millinocket Police Department Deputy Chief Janet Theriault on June 15, 2020. Credit: Courtesy of Susan D'Alessandro

As town manager, Davis was also in charge of evaluating Theriault’s April 2020 complaint against her chief. He hired a private investigator to look into allegations in the complaint and ultimately determined that Worster had not committed any misconduct. Shortly after Davis dismissed the complaint, the town council voted 6-1 to terminate his contract in September 2020.

By the time he was fired, Davis had already signed off on a $90,000 settlement in July 2020 with former Millinocket officer Paul Gamble, who accused Worster of harassment and trying to end his career by feeding incorrect information to the district attorney.

Former Millinocket police officer Roy Bickford said he and other officers talked to Davis about issues in the department, including Worster “pitting officers against one another,” but nothing was done.

The department’s issues seemed to take a toll on morale and staffing, which ultimately led to the Millinocket town council voting to disband the department.

Finding and hiring officers had long been a challenge for the Millinocket Police Department, and is increasingly a problem for rural departments across Maine. But by the end of 2020, the department had just two officers, only one of whom worked regularly, according to the agreement the Millinocket Town Council made with East Millinocket to provide policing services. The department employed seven full-time and five part-time officers the previous December, according to records from the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, which oversees law enforcement training and certification.

Worster’s termination and questions about the future of the department led some of the remaining officers to look for jobs elsewhere, according to resignation letters obtained through a public records request.

Mike Winslow felt the department was heading “in a good direction” when he took over the department as interim chief after Worster’s firing, he wrote in his Dec. 16, 2020, resignation letter. But that optimism quickly disappeared when interim Town Manager Annette Padilla told him the town was looking at merging with East Millinocket and that he would have to apply to that department to keep his job, he wrote.

“Through the turmoil between the Chief and Deputy Chief, myself and the other Officers have acted with professionalism, integrity, and compassion for the Town of Millinocket,” Winslow wrote. “To be left in the situation we’re in leaves me with no confidence in the direction of the Police Department.” Winslow, who is now an officer with the Lincoln Police Department, declined to comment.

‘They didn’t show’

The East Millinocket Police Department has provided policing services for Millinocket since the town closed its police department in December 2020. An East Millinocket police car turns on to Aroostook Avenue in Millinocket on Friday, March 26. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The town council was also frustrated by an inability to get information about the personnel issues in the police department, said Councilor Charlie Pray, a former president of the Maine Senate.

“We were prohibited by our own charter from knowing some of the details of the conflict between employees and management and department heads,” said Pray. In response, Pray successfully proposed the town form a committee to review the charter earlier this year.

Millinocket’s newly formed charter review committee, which consists of three councilors and three volunteers, first met in March and is in the early stages of its review. But Pray believes that the council should have a way to review certain complaints from town employees and how those complaints are handled.

“We got a lot of townspeople that were frustrated that the council wasn’t doing anything or couldn’t do anything,” Pray said.

Unlike Millinocket, neighboring East Millinocket’s board of selectmen system of governance does not consolidate authority over personnel issues into a town manager’s hands. Instead, the board of selectmen votes to hire or fire a police chief, said Mike Michaud, chairman of the East Millinocket board of selectmen and a former Maine congressman.

Despite its smaller size, East Millinocket has conducted more criminal arrests than the former Millinocket Police Department since it took over policing in Millinocket at the beginning of the year, a development which officials in both towns applauded.

“We’re very pleased overall with how things are going,” Michaud said. “If we’re going to survive in the Katahdin region, we have to have more collaboration going on.”

In just three months on duty in Millinocket, the East Millinocket Police Department made 39 criminal arrests, according to statistics presented by Millinocket council chair Golieb at an April 22 town council meeting.

By contrast, over its last 12 months, the Millinocket Police Department performed 50 criminal arrests, Golieb said, noting that Millinocket police counted traffic tickets and summonses as criminal arrests in its statistics, which East Millinocket does not do.

Some Millinocket residents criticized the performance of the Millinocket police under Worster.

Archie, the pharmacy technician, was critical of Worster after she said he told her and a group of concerned parents at a Feb. 24, 2020, meeting at Katahdin Area Education Center that solving Millinocket’s drug problem was “above his pay grade.” She wrote down the comment in notes she took at the meeting, which she shared with the BDN.

At a town council meeting the following summer she told town leaders the police were not enforcing the law.

“Sadly, MANY of the parents of Millinocket feel that we CANNOT go to the police for anything!” she wrote in a letter she read at the meeting.

But Archie praised the East Millinocket police.

“I can’t say anything negative about it at all,” Archie said. “They are doing a fabulous job.”

Still, some residents worry that the town will be forced to settle with Worster, and the truth about his time as police chief will never come out.

“I don’t think our town will ever have closure,” Murray said. “It’s cheaper to settle than it is to get justice.”

This story was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism. Have information to share? Email mainefocus@bangordailynews.com.