CHESTER, Maine — A woman whose long-time companion was killed by police in Chester last year has filed a federal lawsuit alleging that law enforcement personnel used excessive force when they ended a more than six-hour standoff with the knife-wielding Woodville man by shooting him multiple times.
Thirty-five year-old Shad Gerken suffered from several illnesses, including schizophrenia, bipolar and post-traumatic stress disorders, when he was killed on Sept. 27, 2014, according to the 10-page lawsuit filed at U.S. District Court in Bangor on Nov. 13. Police were aware of his condition and should not have “acted with reckless and callous indifference” to Gerken’s constitutional rights in handling the incident, the complaint states.
“We contend that the manner in which they confronted him was not a proper means to confront someone who is mentally ill. Instead of acting calmly and attempting to defuse the situation, they went after him,” attorney Brett D. Baber of Bangor said Thursday of the lawsuit, which he filed on behalf of Melissa A. Adle, the legal representative of Gerken’s estate. Adle is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages as well as attorney’s fees and court costs.
Family members from Ohio questioned police tactics the day after Gerken’s death, saying that officers could have taken other steps in dealing with Gerken, whom they said had no criminal record.
The lawsuit, which alleges law enforcement personnel violated the federal Americans with Disabilities and Rehabilitation acts in dealing with Gerken, names Penobscot County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Michael Knights, Lincoln Police Officer Brandi Alton, Maine Game Warden Sgt. Ron Dunham and state police tactical team members Sgt. Nicholas Grass, Sgt. Donald Shead and Det. Greg Mitchell as defendants. The Maine Department of Public Safety and the Maine Warden Service are also named.
The Maine Attorney General’s Office investigation identified Grass, Shead and Mitchell as the shooters and cleared them of any wrongdoing in an investigation summary released on June 11.
“It was reasonable for each officer to believe it necessary to use deadly force to protect himself and others from deadly force. The attorney general’s conclusions are based on an extensive forensic investigation, on interviews with numerous individuals, and on a thorough review of all evidence made available from any source,” according to the attorney general’s office’s statement.
The shots were fired after the failure of several attempts to disarm or subdue Gerken with nonlethal force. Those included four Taser shots, three foam baton strikes, several pressurized water bursts from a fire hose and many more doses of pepper spray, officials said.
Hours of talks with Maine State Police Crisis Negotiation Team members also failed. Negotiators consulted a psychologist who said Gerken’s mental health history included diagnoses or medications for bipolar, post-traumatic stress and attention deficit hyperactivity disorders, plus depression and alcohol abuse, officials said.
Police were first drawn to the area at about 10:10 a.m. on June 27 by reports of Gerken waving a knife at passers-by and threatening to kill an 8-year-old child on Woodville Road when she walked to the end of her grandparents’ driveway to retrieve their mail. A motorist later reported seeing Gerken walking the road speaking of a “war eagle” and of “death in the air” and drinking swamp water from a one-gallon jug.
The lawsuit and the AG’s report differ in describing the circumstances in which Gerken was shot. The lawsuit states that Gerken attempted to flee when the officers opened fire.
The report states that Gerken lunged at Shead and Mitchell “aggressively with the knife raised over his head pointing downward.” Shead responded by firing several times at Gerken, who was about 15 feet from the officers and advancing. The officers fired again when Gerken started to get up, still armed with the knife, the report states.
The officers and agencies named in the lawsuit have not responded to the complaint. A judge will be assigned to the case and hearing dates set once that happens, Baber said.
Adle had been with Gerken for more than five years. They had three children together, Baber said.