Robert Card displayed a set of classic warning signs: He was hearing voices. He told people he was planning violence. And his behavior changed noticeably in the months leading up to the mass shooting he carried out last week.
His family, his military superiors and the local police knew about all this. However, no one stopped him.
The killing of 18 people with an assault rifle in Lewiston, Maine, shows how gaps in the mental health system, weak laws and a reluctance to threaten individual liberties can derail even concerted attempts to to thwart violence in a country awash in weapons.
“So often I think we talk about how to get people on the radar,” said Jillian Peterson, executive director of the Violence Project, which studies perpetrators of mass shootings. “And in this case, he was on the radar of many different systems, and they still couldn’t get him to intervene.”
Police records, including accounts from family members and colleagues in his Army reserve unit – one of whom sent an anguished text message to his supervisor six weeks before the shooting – show that Mr. Card’s friends and relatives were increasingly alarmed. his mental state.
But even though they communicated with each other and with law enforcement, even though he was confronted and hospitalized and a sheriff’s deputy came knocking on his door, nothing went far enough.
J. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist and consultant to the FBI on mass shooting prevention, said Mr. Card had received “makeshift treatment” for an extremely serious condition.
“When you have multiple jurisdictions, where there is a siled effect, you increase the risk of failure,” he said.
After the shooting, Mr. Card’s siblings told police that their brother had had a relationship with a woman he met at a cornhole competition at Schemengees Bar & Grille — the bar he then attacked — and became delusional in February after a “bad breakup,” according to affidavits released Tuesday by Maine State Police.
Mr. Card’s sister, Nicole Herling, said he was prescribed medication but stopped taking it, according to the police affidavit.
He wrongly believed that several businesses in the area, including the two he attacked, were broadcasting online that he was a pedophile, she said.
Ryan Card told a police officer he tried to help his brother but “couldn’t be reasoned with,” according to the affidavit.
The first public report of family members raising concerns with law enforcement came in May, when Mr. Card’s teenage son and ex-wife said he had become paranoid and angry and that he had recovered 10 to 15 firearms from his brother’s house.
Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Deputy Chad Carleton began an ad hoc response process, exchanging information with Mr. Card’s Army Reserve command, which said it knew of his problems but not their severity, and with his brother, who had seen Robert drinking heavily and making “angry rants about having to shoot someone.”
Despite these threats, Deputy Carleton asked Ryan Card to contact him in the future if he believed his brother posed a danger to himself or others, implying that the department would then take action.
Dr. Peterson and other experts on mass shootings say this is a common misstep. Between 60 and 90 percent of perpetrators “disclose” their plans to other people in advance. But either people don’t take them seriously enough, or they let the person who made the threat convince them that the threat isn’t genuine.
“He literally said, ‘I’m a danger to others.’ I want to go and film this place. So that should be enough to make the situation worse,” Dr. Peterson said.
Instead, Mr. Card’s siblings visited him. He opened the door with a gun in his hand, but agreed to seek medical attention because of paranoia and voices, according to Deputy Carleton’s report.
Neither Mr. Card’s relatives nor Deputy Carleton responded to requests for interviews; Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry said in a statement that he believed his agency “acted appropriately and followed procedures” but that he would evaluate its policies to look for improvements.
Gov. Janet Mills of Maine announced Wednesday that she would create an independent commission to investigate “the facts of what happened on that tragic night, the months leading up to it, and the police response.” “.
The Army Reserve Plan in May was “to sit down with Robert in the near future and see if they could get him to talk about what was going on,” according to the congressman’s report. Asked for comment, a spokesman said the military was continuing its investigation into Mr. Card’s service record.
It’s unclear how either plan played out. But it was clear that Mr. Card’s son and ex-wife had become afraid of him. They did not want him to know that they had gone to authorities and sought to keep their involvement confidential.
Experts said stigma against “snitching” or fear of retaliation could make people hesitant to notify authorities, or to return a second or third time when someone needs help.
Dr Meloy said the family members had legitimate fears: “They need to alert the police; On the other hand, alerting the police – and then a paranoid individual who finds out – can cause a backlash.
In July, Mr. Card came to the attention of authorities again, while attending annual training at Camp Smith, New York, with his Army reserve unit. There, according to police records, Mr. Card accused three soldiers of calling him a pedophile, shoved one of them and locked himself in his room.
Mr. Card was taken to a medical treatment center at the United States Military Academy at West Point, then to a civilian psychiatric hospital in New York, called Four Winds, where he stayed for 14 days.
But the system for treating people who are reluctant to get help on their own is focused on acute problems, not the long term. Involuntary stays require an imminent threat of harm and typically last from 72 hours to two weeks.
After Mr. Card was released from the hospital, the military ordered that he not have access to military weapons or participate in live-fire activities, and declared him “non-deployable.” Reserve medical personnel made several attempts to contact Mr. Card over the following months, according to an Army statement.
The military’s decisions only affected what happened while Mr. Card was in service. But reservists like him are rarely on duty, so commanders limit themselves to alerting civilian authorities they may not know about, said Michael Aschinger, a retired Army reserve sergeant major.
This left local police with two legal options. They used neither.
First, involuntary psychiatric commitment should have made Mr. Card’s possession of firearms illegal under federal law. Neither the military nor the hospital would say whether his stay at Four Winds was forced, but several clues suggest that was the case, including the fact that just two days after returning home he wrote about a weapons purchase form that he had been interned. . (The form does not specify this, but the federal law on which this question is based does not apply to voluntary commitment.)
Any involuntary commitment should have been reported to a national database which would have prevented Mr. Card from passing the background check required to purchase firearms from a licensed dealer. Authorities said Mr. Card’s name was not in the database and that he purchased guns legally after his hospital stay.
Regardless, Mr. Card could have evaded a background check by purchasing a firearm from a private dealer. And although the law prohibits people with convictions from owning firearms, there is no automatic mechanism to remove guns they already own.
The local sheriff’s office was informed of Mr. Card’s hospitalization after another shocking incident in September, but apparently did not take advantage of this opportunity to confiscate his weapons.
At this point, the warning signs could not have been clearer.
During a car ride in mid-September, Mr. Card punched a fellow soldier and threatened to “shoot up” Army Reserve installations in Saco, Maine, and other locations. The soldier sent a text message to a senior officer at 2 a.m., according to a copy of the messages obtained by The New York Times, warning him to change the access code to the unit’s door at their base and to be armed in case Mr. Card approaches.
“I think he’s out of his mind,” wrote the soldier, identified as Staff Sergeant Hodgson, adding that he loved Mr. Card “to death,” but “I don’t know how he help and he refuses to get help or to continue helping.
“I think he’s going to break down and carry out a mass shooting,” he wrote.
A copy of the text message was included in a letter that Kelvin Mote, reserve first sergeant and corporal with the Ellsworth Police Department in Maine, sent to the sheriff’s office in mid-September, detailing the incidents that occurred during annual training, hospitalization. and car ride.
Lawmakers also could have sought to use Maine’s “yellow flag” law, which allows police to take away a person’s firearms for up to a year if that person presents “a likely foreseeable harm”. The law took effect in 2020 and has been used 81 times, but never by the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office, according to state records.
All state law enforcement officers receive training on how to use the law, which requires them to take the individual into protective custody, arrange for a medical evaluation and present the results to a judge.
The law is more onerous than other states’ “warning” laws, which do not require people to be detained and evaluated.
When the sheriff’s office received the Army’s report in mid-September, Sgt. Aaron Skolfield went to do a welfare check but didn’t find Mr. Card.
Instead, Sergeant Skolfield worked with Ryan Card, who said he and his father found a way to secure Mr. Card’s guns.
But that never happened. Ryan said his brother allowed him to change the code to his safe for “a period of time” a few months ago, according to a police affidavit. But Robert Card, it is specified, “still had access to his firearms before the shooting”.
John Ismay And Dave Phillips reports contributed. Kirsten Noyes contributed to the research.