Independent, Non-commissioned Examination of the Cunniff Report (in re the Sagadahoc S.O.’s response to Robert Card’s Sept. 2023 Terrorizing by Threat of Mass Shooting).
Posted by Ed Folsom, December 20, 2023 (edited February 2, 2024 to correct the reference to Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Dept. Sgt. Aaron Skolfield, initially improperly named as deputy “Brett Skolfield”).
Under date of December 8, 2023, Attorney Michael Cunniff issued a report titled “An Independent, Third-Party Review of the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office’s Response to Concerns About the Mental Health of Robert Card.” The report was commissioned by the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office. It surfaced in the press on December 14, 2023. This is the first time that details of reports made to the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office by Robert Card’s ex-wife and son in May of 2023, and by members of the Army Reserve in September of 2023, have been laid out comprehensively along with details of the police response.
Cunniff emphasizes that he “used a lens that was focused on the circumstances as they were known to personnel of the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office (“SCSO”) at the time that relevant events were occurring, without using the benefit of hindsight.” Cunniff states the report’s bottom line as follows: “After an objective analysis, the reviewer concluded that the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office’s responses to concerns about Mr. Card’s mental health in May and September 2023 were reasonable under the totality of the circumstances.”
This framing of the issue – Were the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office’s responses to concerns about Mr. Card’s mental health in May and September of 2023 reasonable under the totality of the circumstances? – fairly discloses that Cunniff’s review focuses on the Sheriff’s Department’s response within a framework that emphasizes Card’s mental health as opposed to Card’s September 2023 criminality. It just might be that the police focus on Card’s mental health, to the exclusion of his evident criminality, was the biggest part of the problem.
Granted, the police who responded to the May and September reports about Card’s behavior did not have the benefit of hindsight that those who are now reviewing events enjoy. But Card was in fact a mass murderer. He killed 18 people and wounded 13 others. Yet even the people who were closest to him when he expressed delusions that others around him were calling him a pedophile, people who were privy to or were made aware of Card’s threats to shoot up the Army Reserve training facility in Saco, apparently had no idea he was capable of mass murder. In fact, if we had asked everyone who knew Robert Card whether they knew anyone capable of randomly mass murdering a bunch of people, there’s a fair likelihood none of them would have said, “Yes, Robert Card”… except for one person. A guy identified in Cunniff’s report as Staff Sergeant Hodgson might have told us he thought Card was on the cusp of it.
According to Cunniff’s report, it was Sergeant Hodgson who, on September 14, 2023, reported that Card threatened to shoot-up the Saco Army Reserve facility. It was Hodgson who reported that he feared Card was going to “snap and do a mass shooting.” Hindsight informs us that Card was, in fact, going to do a mass shooting. Hindsight also informs us that Robert Card, in September of 2023, is what a guy looks like who is about to do a mass-shooting, even though hindsight also demonstrates that nearly everyone who learned of his threats was in denial about it. Only monsters do things like that. We don’t have such monsters in our lives, or so we tend to believe. But when it comes to the people in Robert Card’s orbit, hindsight demonstrates they were wrong about that. Now we all have a better idea of what a mass-shooting monster might look like.
No, we can’t rightly attribute the benefit of hindsight to the Sagadahoc County Deputies who responded to the report of Card’s threats in September of 2023. But going forward, we would be remiss not to heed the lesson that hindsight teaches.
For my purposes, there is no reason to get into the details of the May 2023 report that Card’s ex-wife and son made to the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office. They were concerned that Card was delusional and that he believed he heard people calling him a pedophile. They were also concerned that he had a lot of firearms. As outlined in Cunniff’s report, the responding deputy sheriff seems to have done what he could to address the situation, informally, by trying to get people close to Card to take possession of his firearms and monitor his mental health.
Then, on the afternoon of September 15, 2023, Sagadahoc County S.O. Sgt. Aaron Skolfield received a report from Ellsworth P.D. Detective Corey Bagley regarding Card. The Chief of the Ellsworth P.D. had assigned Bagley to contact the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office. One of Bagley’s fellow Ellsworth officers, Kelvin Mote, was a First Sergeant in the Army Reserve. Through his position in the Army Reserve, Mote knew fellow Army Reservist Robert Card and Army Reserve Staff Sergeant Hodgson (whose first name never appears in Cunniff’s report). As related to Skolfield by Bagley, Hodson had text-messaged Mote at around 2:30 a.m. on September 14, 2023, reporting a problem he just had with Robert Card. The following is Cunniff’s description of what Hodson told Mote, as conveyed by Ellsworth Detective Bagley to Skolfield:
“At 2:30 AM, Army Reserve Staff Sergeant Hodgson informed Army Reserve First Sergeant Kelvin Mote that he (Staff Sergeant Hodgson) and Mr. Card were returning from a trip to a casino when Mr. Card complained that he could hear people calling him a pedophile again. Staff Sergeant Hodgson reportedly told Mr. Card to ‘knock it off’ because he (Mr. Card) ‘was going to get into trouble talking about shooting up places and people,’ at which point Mr. Card reportedly punched Staff Sergeant Hodgson.
According to Staff Sergeant Hodgson’s report to First Sergeant Mote, Mr. Card told him that he had guns and that he was going to ‘shoot up’ the Army Reserve Center in Saco. Mr. Card also reportedly told Staff Sergeant Hodgson that First Sergeant Mote was the reason he (Mr. Card) couldn’t buy guns anymore because he (First Sergeant Mote) was involved with Mr. Card’s hospitalization in July.”
Cunniff’s report reflects that Mote passed along Hodgson’s information to others above him in the Army Reserve command structure, including Captain Jeremy Reamer. Reamer was apparently the officer in charge at the Saco Army Reserve training center. Reamer communicated with at least one other Army Reserve officer about the matter. As a result, the Army Reserve formulated the position that they wanted the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office to do a well-being check on Robert Card. Mote informed the chief of the Ellsworth P.D., where he was a police sergeant, and the chief assigned Detective Bagley to make the request.
As a result of this information, Skolfield unsuccessfully attempted to contact Robert Card at Card’s residence that afternoon, September 15, 2023. Also that afternoon, Ellsworth Detective Bagley forwarded to Skolfield a written summary of information that he had received from Mote. This summary included the information that Hodgson had related to Mote regarding his problems with Card on September 14. Mote’s summary provides deeper background on Robert Card and his mental health problems, including a description of events during an Army Reserve training exercise in New York earlier in the summer that led to Card spending 2 weeks under psychiatric evaluation there. What follows is the text of Mote’s written summary, addressed to Bagley and forwarded by Bagley to Skolfield:
I received the attached text this morning form SSG Hodgson in reference to Sergeant First Class Robert Card DOB 04-04-83. Card is one of my senior firearms instructors in Bravo Company 3/304 in Saco. Card has been hearing voices calling him a pedophile, saying he has a small dick, and other insults. This hearing voices started in the spring and has only gotten worse. On July 15 2023 while at West Point Card was hanging out with several other soldiers at the hotel they were staying at. They had gone to a convenience store to get some beer. In the parking lot Card accused three of them of calling him a pedophile and said he would take care of it. One of the soldiers who has been friends with Card for a long time was there. Card got in his face, shoved him, and told him to stop calling him a pedophile. They got their beer, calmed Card down a little, and made their way back to the hotel. Several times on the ride back Card said he would take care of it.
When pressed about what he meant by that Card didn’t respond. Present during this was Oxford County Sheriff Christopher Wainwright and Androscoggin County Deputy Matthew Noyes, both are in my unit as well. Once they got back to the motel, Card locked himself in his room and would not answer the door when they tried to make contact. I was informed about this incident early the next morning. I met them at the motel along with a couple other soldiers and we were able to get the key to the room and make contact. Card said he wanted people to stop talking about him. I told him no one was talking about him and everyone here was his friend. Card told me to leave him alone and tried to slam the door in my face. One of the soldiers stopped the door from closing with this foot. I decided, after talking with my commander, that Card needed to be evaluated. We took him to the base hospital where he was seen by a psychologist there and determined to need further treatment. Card was taken to Four Winds Psychiatric Hospital in Katonah NY for treatment and evaluation. During the four hours I was with Card he never spoke, just stared through me without blinking. He spent 14 days at Four Winds then was released. To my knowledge he has not sought any more treatment since being released.
Night before last, at approximately 0230, another soldier that is friends with Card called to tell me that Card had assaulted him. They were driving home from the casino when Card started talking about people calling him a pedophile again. When Hodgson told him to knock it off because he was going to get into trouble talking about shooting up places and people, Card punched him. Hodgson was able to get out of the car and make his own way home. According to Hodgson, Card said he has guns and is going to shoot up the drill center at Saco and other places. He also said he was going to get “them”. Since the commander and I are the ones who had him committed we are the “them”. He also said I was the reason he can’t buy guns anymore because of the commitment. Hodgson is concerned that Card is going to snap and commit a mass shooting. (see the text message attached)
Captain Reamer, 3/304th commander, asked that I have Sagadahoc County conduct a well-being check on Card at his residence, 941 Meadow Road in Bowdoin Maine, to gauge his mental health and determine if he is a threat to himself and/or others. I relayed this to Deputy Chief Troy Bires and he advised to have a detective make the request to the SCSO to conduct the well-being check. I have attached the text message and current photograph of Robert Card to this email. The Saco PD has been given a heads up about this and the battalion commander has been briefed as to the threat to the unit in Saco. I would rather err on the side of caution with regards to Card since he is a capable marksman and, if he should set his mind to carry out the threats made to Hodgson, he would be able to do it.” [Bold emphasis added]
As for the text that Mote references as “attached,” Cunniff’s report includes the following:
You up I have something to report. Change the passcode to the unit gate and be armed if sfc card does arrive. Please. I believe he’s messed up in the head. And threaten the unit other and other places. I love to death but i do not know how to help him and he refuses to get help or to continue help. I’m afraid he’s going to fuccck up his life from hearing things he thinks he heard. When i dropped him off he was concerned his weapons were still in the car. I beleive they were at the unit. And no one searched his vehicle on federal property. And yes he still has all of his weapons. I’m not there I’m at my own place.
I believe he’s going to snap and do a mass shooting.” [Bold emphasis added].
As I blogged about previously (here and here), Card’s threat to shoot up the Army Reserve drill center in Saco constitutes the crime of terrorizing under Maine law. It was a threat to commit a crime of violence dangerous to human life, and the natural and probable consequence of the threat was to place the person to whom it was communicated (Hodgson) in reasonable fear that the crime would be committed. But nobody from the Sagadahoc County S.O. ever spoke to the person to whom Card communicated the threat. Instead, Skolfield spoke only to Mote and Reamer about what Card said to Hodgson.
September 14, 2023, the day Card made the threats to Hodgson, was a Thursday. Skolfield received the report from the Ellsworth P.D. the next day, Friday, September 15. There was a training exercise scheduled to begin at the Saco Army Reserve facility on Saturday morning, September 16. Card, Mote, Reamer and Hodgson were slated to participate in it. That morning, around 8:45 a.m., Sgt. Skoflield returned to Robert Card’s residence, with backup from a Kennebec County deputy, and attempted to make contact with Card. Although Skolfield believed he could hear Card moving around inside, Card did not answer the door. Skolfield reached out to Ellsworth P.D. to report on his attempts to check on Card. As a result of those efforts, Skolfield ended up speaking to both Mote and Reamer by phone sometime after 10:30 a.m.
Skolfield first spoke to Mote. According to Cunniff’s report:
“Among other things, First Sergeant [Mote] informed him that the Army command staff was in the process of encouraging Mr. Card to retire from the military on the condition that he obtain mental health treatment. Referring to Staff Sergeant Hodgson’s email message about his concerns about Mr. Card, First Sergeant [Mote] also indicated to Sergeant Skolfield that he believed that Staff Sergeant Hodgson’s message was ‘over the top’ or that Staff Sergeant Hodgson was being an ‘alarmist,’ or something along those lines.”
Note that in Mote’s written summary of events he never mentioned that he thought Hodson was being over-the-top or alarmist. And note that Mote stated in his written summary that, “if he [Card] should set his mind to carry out the threats made to Hodgson, he would be able to do it.” There is nothing in that indicating that Mote did not believe Hodson’s claim that Card made the threat to Hodson in the first place. And yet nothing in Cunniff’s report indicates that Skolfield asked Mote why he was changing his tune so drastically from one day to the next.
After speaking to Mote, Skolfield spoke to Reamer. In addition to being an Army Reserve Captain, Reamer is also a police officer in New Hampshire. In their conversation, Reamer told Skolfield that he had spoken to Card the day before, Friday, September 15. He said Card told him that Card had to work all weekend and didn’t intend to show up for the drill on Saturday morning, the 16th. Reamer told Card that was alright. Reamer reported to Skolfield that Card seemed angry at the people responsible for his psychiatric examination in New York, but Reamer said Card didn’t threaten to shoot up the training center during their conversation. Regarding Card’s threat to shoot up the Saco facility, as reported by Hodgson, Cunniff’s report describes Reamer saying the following:
“Referring to Staff Sergeant Hodgson and the Army Reserve’s effort to assess the concerns about Mr. Card’s wellbeing, Captain Reamer said that he (Staff Sergeant Hodgson) had been unable to give any information about any specific threat that Mr. Card may have made, adding that the ‘validity of the text message’ sent by Staff Sergeant Hodgson was questionable.
However, Captain Reamer indicated, there was enough information about Mr. Card to cause some concern, including Mr. Card’s history (e.g., his hospitalization during the summer), which was why, explained [sic] the Army Reserve was requesting that law enforcement authorities conduct a well-being check.
Captain Reamer indicated that the Army Reserve was obligated to treat a message like the one Staff Sergeant Hodgson sent to First Sergeant Mote very seriously. However, he added that in the present circumstances the message must also be taken ‘with a grain of salt,’ again indicating that Army Reserve personnel questioned the reliability of the information that Staff Sergeant Hodgson provided.
Referring to Staff Sergeant Hodgson, Captain Reamer repeated to Skolfield that the Army Reserve ‘considered the source’ when evaluating the information provided in the text message. Accordingly, he indicated, the Army Reserve was only requesting a wellbeing check to assess Mr. Card’s status to ensure that he was good and alive, as well as some documentation about the wellbeing check.”
Reamer reiterated that the Army Reserve only wanted a well-being check and he emphasized that they did not want to cause a confrontation that might make the situation escalate, a confrontation in which Sheriff’s deputies or Card himself might get hurt. Ultimately, Skolfield decided not to push a confrontation with Card. Instead, he contacted Card’s family to try to address Card’s mental health issues, which was pretty much the end of it.
Cunniff summarizes the thrust of what Reamer told Skolfield in their September 16, 2023 discussion as follows:
“Thus, Captain Reamer informed Sergeant Skolfield that the Army Reserve’s assessment of the current concerns about Mr. Card’s mental health indicated that he (Mr. Card) did not pose a risk of imminent danger to any individual, and that the Army Reserve therefore requested only a wellbeing check that would determine whether Mr. Card was at home and alive.”
Later in the report, when opining on the reasonableness of Skolfield’s response, Cunniff reiterates:
“Importantly, Captain Reamer indicated to Sergeant Skolfield that Mr. Card had never threatened any specific person or said anything about targeting a specific location.”
But according to Mote’s written summary of his conversation with Hodgson, Hodgson said that Card in fact had provided a specific location that he intended to shoot up – the Saco Army Reserve training facility. Unless Cunniff did not include the entirety of Hodgson’s text to Mote, there is no mention in it about shooting up the Saco training center. Nor is there mention about Card being angry at Mote because Mote was responsible for his psychiatric stay in New York, causing him not to be allowed to buy guns. But Mote mentioned both these aspects of Card’s discussion with Hodson in his September 15 written summary of events, which indicates that Mote must have followed up Hodgson’s text message by speaking to Hodgson before he wrote his summary of events. And yet, Mote wrote that summary without hedging at all about believing Hodgson’s story about Card’s threats, or about his own concerns about whether Card was capable of doing what he threatened to do. Was it Mote’s subsequent discussions with Reamer that caused him to change his tune? Cunniff’s report certainly leaves the impression that Reamer wanted to keep the Robert Card problem in-house at the Army Reserve. But the virus escaped.
Based on what Skolfield knew at the time — without the benefit of hindsight – Cunniff concludes that Skolfield acted reasonably. Skolfield did not have grounds to seek Card’s involuntary commitment, to take him into protective custody, or to seek the seizure of his firearms under Maine’s “yellow flag law.” The circumstances did not lend themselves to attempts to have Card voluntarily commit himself for treatment. Therefore, Cunniff concludes: “After an objective analysis, the reviewer concluded that the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office’s responses to concerns about Mr. Card’s mental health in May and September 2023 were reasonable under the totality of the circumstances.”
But what if the focus is shifted slightly; away from the well-being of Robert Card and onto the credible report to law enforcement that Robert Card, who had exhibited paranoia, was hearing voices, and was heavily armed, had assaulted a fellow Army Reservist and threatened to shoot up the Saco Army Reserve training center? Given the potential dangerousness of that threat, if we could find a crime to charge Card with, one that would allow us to arrest him and impose a bail condition not to possess firearms, wouldn’t we want to do that?
Understanding that this kind of threat constitutes terrorizing, and with a view to establishing probable cause for an arrest warrant, wouldn’t we want to speak directly to the person who received the threat, to determine its exact nature and to assess for ourselves the recipient’s credibility? Why, instead, would we choose to rely on second or third-hand versions from people who have personal friendship motivations to downplay the threat and undermine the credibility of the person who received it? Yet nobody at the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office ever spoke to Staff Sgt. Hodgson in person. Nothing in Cunniff’s report indicates they even tried to. In fact, Hodgson is the only person mentioned in Cunniff’s report whose first name remains a mystery, as if law enforcement never bothered to ascertain it. Why? Maybe because the focus of the police response was Robert Card’s well-being, successfully made so by Card’s friends who also happened to be police officers — maybe because Card’s criminality was not the focus.
That’s all understandable. We don’t tend to believe that people we know and like are capable of mass murder. It’s also human nature to help, not harm, our friends in distress. As for Sgt. Skolfield, he was in a terrible position, with no desire to unnecessarily risk being shot dead by a holed-up wack job or to end up shooting to death someone in a mental health crisis. It must have provided considerable assurance to hear from responsible fellow police officers who knew Card well (Reamer, Mote) that rumors of Card’s dangerousness originated in the exaggerations of a man of questionable credibility (Hodgson). Especially so given Reamer’s assurances that he had discussed the situation with his Battalion Commander and his Sergeant Major, one of whom worked for the Maine State Police and the other for the federal government, and that all the Army Reserve wanted was to have Skolfield document that Card was alive and at home. But hindsight tells us that Card really was dangerous, and that as (first name unknown) Staff Sgt. Hodgson feared, Card was going to do a mass shooting. Hodgson wasn’t exaggerating after all. And, man, weren’t there a lot of law enforcement officers aware that Card committed terrorizing by threat of mass murder?
So, what might we learn from hindsight, to better inform our foresight? Maybe one thing is that police need to have a categorical response at the ready for threats to commit mass murder; one that involves the arrest for terrorizing of the person making the threat. I say the response should be categorical because that would cut through the clutter, to 2 questions: (1) is there probable cause to believe that a person committed terrorizing(?) and (2) was it a threat to kill multiple people? If the answer to these questions is “yes,” there should be no need to fret over the well-being of the person who made the threat. The automatic response, by policy, must be to arrest the threat maker with or without an arrest warrant, as the circumstances dictate, and sort the rest out later.
As I mentioned previously, this is the approach taken for years now in domestic violence cases. Arrest is a categorical requirement. The category is “domestic” offenses. If there’s probable cause to believe a “domestic” violence crime has occurred, someone is getting arrested. To demonstrate the difference between the way things are handled in those cases and the way Card’s case was handled, let’s walk through a hypothetical, replacing Hodgson and Card with a married couple.
Joe and Jane are married members of the Army Reserve, currently living separately. Jane lives in Cumberland County and Joe lives in Sagadahoc County. Joe has been showing signs of deteriorating mental health. He hears voices of people calling him a pedophile. One night, while Joe and Jane are together, Joe tells Jane he is going to shoot a bunch of people. Specifically, he threatens to do a mass shooting at their Army Reserve training Center, in Saco. Jane tells Joe to knock it off because he’s going to get into a lot of trouble if he keeps talking like that. She thinks Joe is disturbed enough to do it. Joe punches Jane and tells her to shut up. Jane is so concerned that she texts Bob, a commanding officer from the Army Reserve, who is also a police officer in Ellsworth, to pass along Joe’s threats and her concerns. Jane does not contact police (as police) because she doesn’t want police involvement with her mentally ill, estranged husband.
Through a circuitous communication route, an Ellsworth Detective informs Deputy Brown, Sagadahoc S.O., of Jane’s report. Ellsworth officer Bob writes a summary of the circumstances. He includes the text from Jane and emails both to Sagadahoc Deputy Brown. Brown goes to Joe’s house, but can’t get Joe to come to the door. Brown makes no effort to speak to Jane, but while at the scene he speaks by phone to officer Bob and to Captain Cook of the Saco Army Reserve, both of whom tell Brown that they don’t put much stock in anything Jane has to say; that they recently spoke to Joe and he didn’t threaten them; that they know Joe has been hearing voices but they are not afraid of him; and that their only concern all along was to have Brown do a well-being check on Joe and make sure he’s alright. With that, the episode ends. A month or so later, Joe goes on a shooting spree in Lewiston, shooting 31 people and killing 18 of them. In the aftermath of the mass murder, the above-described communications regarding Joe’s threat and his assault of Jane become public.
How do you suppose things would go for Sagadahoc Deputy Brown, Ellsworth officer Bob, and Army Reserve Captain Cook in those circumstances? I don’t suppose things would go well at all. But then again, given the categorical treatment required for domestic crimes, I don’t suppose Deputy Brown would simply have accepted officer Bob’s and Captain Cook’s assessment of Jane’s credibility. Instead, I suspect he would have attempted to contact Jane, to find out where the domestic violence assault and the terrorizing occurred, and to follow through to ensure Joe got arrested for the domestic violence assault if not also for the terrorizing. This is the advantage of a categorical policy. Why should a non-domestic violence threat to commit mass murder that constitutes terrorizing be treated less seriously?
I know it’s crazy old-school reactionary of me, but I tend to think we should examine how to effectively enforce our existing web of laws before we run off insisting on new laws to address problems already addressed by existing, but less than smashingly well-enforced ones. Now, let’s fix Maine’s terrorizing statute, to address the Supreme Court’s Counterman v. Colorado ruling, before that problem comes back to bite us…hard.