John D. Williams sits in the court room on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019. Credit: Troy R. Bennett

PORTLAND, Maine — The man who murdered Cpl. Eugene Cole and led hundreds of police officers on a four-day manhunt through Somerset County last year was sentenced to life in prison Thursday in a courtroom packed with the fallen officer’s family and colleagues.

John D. Williams, 31, of Madison is the second person in 30 years sentenced for the killing of an on-duty law enforcement officer in Maine. He was convicted of murder in June following a five-day jury trial. The jury found that Williams shot Cole execution-style in the neck on April 25, 2018, in Norridgewock as the Somerset County deputy tried to arrest him on a drug charge.

Credit: Courtesy of Aroostook County Sheriff's Office

Williams then stole Cole’s police truck and went on the run, starting the manhunt that ended April 28, 2019, when police found him hiding in a small cabin in the Fairfield woods near the Norridgewock town line.

In sentencing Williams, Superior Court Justice Robert Mullen called his crime one the most heinous ways in which murder can be committed.

“The fact that Williams told law enforcement officers that he ‘eliminated’ Cpl. Cole haunts me,” Mullen said. “This sort of crime [the shooting of an on-duty police officer] simply doesn’t happen here in Maine and thank God for that.”

Credit: Troy R. Bennett

The judge said he found no mitigating factors that would reduce Williams’ sentence except for his current support from his mother and aunt. Factors Mullen said he considered the tremendous impact of Cole’s death on his family, the sheriff’s office and the community in determining the length of the sentence.

Williams admitted after his capture that he shot and killed Cole, 61, of Norridgewock. He apologized for his actions Thursday and told the judge it was never his intent to kill the deputy. He also said that he prays for forgiveness every night.

“I come before you to apologize for the pain I’ve caused the family, the community and the whole state,” he said. “What happened was not born out of malice or hatred but born out of panic. Taking another life is the heaviest burden a person can carry and I carry it every day.”

Williams did not urge the judge to impose a specific sentence.

Credit: Troy R. Bennett

The man sentenced Thursday bore little resemblance to the one officers escorted out of the woods in handcuffs and wearing only a yellow rain jacket around his waist. Williams weighed just 107 pounds when captured and sported long, curly hair and a full beard. While awaiting trial at the Cumberland County Jail, he gained nearly 60 pounds, shaved his beard and kept his hair cropped close to his head.

The judge used the sentencing to warn people about the physical, emotional and legal cost of prolonged drug use. Mullen held up two pictures of Williams, one that appeared to be taken before he began using crack cocaine and heroin and the other taken after Williams’ arrest. Both had evidence stickers on them indicating that they were used at the trial.

The people who used drugs over a long period of time, as Williams did, could end up as he did — losing his freedom for life, Mullen said.

Four people told the judge Thursday how Cole’s murder and the subsequent manhunt had devastated the corporal’s family, his department and the community. All asked that Williams spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Cole’s widow, Sheryl Cole, along with his father, daughter and boss urged Mullen to sentence Williams to life in prison.

“I am not a victim. My family and I are survivors,” Sheryl Cole said. “Thanks to the support of the community we are surviving. Sometimes I think it was me who died and my hell is living in a world without him. I have to be here for our kids but I feel useless. The hurt is constant. Sometimes, I’m not sure if I can go on. Sometimes, I’m not sure I want to.”

Credit: Troy R. Bennett

She urged the media not to cover Williams again, despite his attorneys’ statements that the conviction will be appealed.

“Please allow Cpl. Eugene Cole, my husband, to finally rest in peace,” she told Mullen.

Somerset County Sheriff Dale Lancaster called the murder of Cole “a cowardly, selfish and senseless act that forever changed many lives. He stole from us a husband, father, grandfather and a colleague.…He was exactly the type of officer that society requires these days.”

He also said that the manhunt for Williams “paralyzed the community with fear but did not break its spirit.”

Williams’ mother, Marjorie Wilbur of Oakland, and aunt, Deb Williams of Norridgewock, described Williams’ difficult childhood that led to his drug use. Both women said the defendant is a kind and caring person who was transformed by his substance use disorder. Williams’ aunt said that he “has a good heart and made a horrible, horrible mistake.

“He wishes he could turn back time to give Cpl. Cole back to his family,” she said. “I know in my heart that John did not intend to kill Cpl. Cole.”

Both women begged the judge not to send Williams to prison for life.

On the day of Cole’s death, Williams had been scheduled to appear in federal court in Massachusetts to face gun charges. His fiancee was in the Somerset County Jail on drug charges unable to post bail after Cole had arrested her.

Williams stole drugs from his Connecticut supplier to sell in Maine to raise his fiancee’s bail, according to trial testimony. He feared retribution from an enforcer when he killed Cole.

Credit: Troy R. Bennett

Because Maine does not have the death penalty, Williams faced between 25 years and life in prison for slaying Cole. Under a 1990 state Supreme Court decision, Williams’ offense — murdering an on-duty law enforcement officer — qualified him for a life sentence.

Deputy Attorney General Lisa Marchese and Assistant Attorney General Leane Zainea, who prosecuted the case, urged Mullen to impose a life sentence.

Defense attorneys Verne Paradie and Patrick Nickerson argued Thursday — as they argued at the trial — that Williams’ heavy use of crack cocaine and heroin, severe lack of sleep and his fear of returning to jail impaired his decision-making abilities that night. He did not intentionally kill Cole, they said. Williams’ conviction and sentence will be appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, Nickerson said after the sentencing.

Due to his life sentence, Williams never will be eligible for release.

Credit: Troy R. Bennett

The last person sentenced for killing an on-duty police officer was Nicolo Leone. A jury found him guilty of manslaughter in the shooting death of Lewiston Police Officer David R. Payne on July 23, 1988. Leone also was found guilty of two counts of attempted murder because he shot at officers who arrived to assist Payne.

At the time, the maximum penalty for those crimes was 20 years in prison. The judge sentenced Leone to a total of 60 years by imposing the maximum sentence on each count and ordering Leone to serve them consecutively rather than at the same time. Leone died of cancer in 1999 while incarcerated, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, a website that tracks officers who have died in the line of duty.