Austin McDevitt enters a courtroom at the Waldo Judicial Center in Belfast where he pleaded guilty to the March 2019 shooting death of Shane Sauer in Swanville. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

BELFAST, Maine — A Morrill man has pleaded guilty to shooting a romantic rival to death outside a Swanville camper in March 2019.

Austin McDevitt, 24, told Justice Robert Murray Wednesday morning at the Waldo Judicial Center in Belfast that he understood the charge and evidence against him in the murder of Shane Sauer, 26, of Belfast.

“Are you pleading guilty to this charge because you are, in fact, guilty of this charge?” Murray asked.

“Yes,” McDevitt said.

His defense attorney, Rick Morse of Rockland, and Assistant Attorney General Lisa Bogue hammered out a joint-sentencing recommendation for McDevitt to serve 29 years in prison and pay nearly $1,500 in restitution to the Maine Crime Victims’ Compensation Program.

McDevitt is expected to be sentenced for murder on Dec. 4.

If the case had gone to trial, the state would have relied on the testimony of Jean Howard, the woman who had been romantically involved with both men. Howard had been with Sauer for about three years and the couple lived together. They were going through a tough period at the time of the shooting, the prosecutor said.

Howard had renewed her friendship with McDevitt, an old high school boyfriend.

“Unfortunately, that relationship had rekindled into a sexual relationship,” Bogue said.

Howard had admitted to both men what was going on, and the situation caused a great deal of conflict, the prosecutor said.

“Austin was wanting to fight Shane,” she said.

On March 14, 2019, Howard and her mother went to Bangor for most of the day, during which time both McDevitt and Sauer were communicating with her. When she got home, Sauer was intoxicated, Bogue said, and told her to leave the house. She took her dog and headed to a home on Oak Hill Road, meeting up with McDevitt and some other people on the way. Howard drove with McDevitt, the prosecutor said, and knew that he had a 9 mm Sig Sauer handgun with him.

“Austin had left the gun in the car before going into the trailer,” Bogue said.

At 3 a.m., the couple went to sleep in a camper on the property away from the others.

Howard woke up suddenly, finding herself in the middle of a fight.

“She woke up to see Shane on top of Austin, choking him,” Bogue said.

Eventually, McDevitt left the camper, and Sauer and Howard were alone.

“When she was alone with Shane in the camper, he was crying and upset,” Bogue said.

They walked outside together, but were met by gunshots, according to the prosecutor, who said another witness in the trailer had seen McDevitt walking back to the camp wearing only his underwear.

“[The witness] heard gunshots and saw Jean running to the door screaming that Austin had shot Shane,” Bogue said.

The Maine medical examiner’s office found that Sauer, who was shot seven times, died from a gunshot wound to the head, the prosecutor said.

“We believe a fact-finder would have found the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” Bogue said.

Earlier this year, Murray ruled that statements McDevitt allegedly made to police after the shooting would be excluded from any trial.

McDevitt drove himself to the Belfast Police Department in the early morning of March 15, 2019, in order to turn himself in after shooting Sauer, according to a police affidavit filed in 2019. No one was at the station, so McDevitt called 911 and told the operator he had been involved in a fight in which he fatally shot someone. A Waldo County Sheriff’s Office deputy and two Maine State Police detectives met him at the station, then brought him to the sheriff’s office to record a video of their conversation.

McDevitt told police that Sauer had allegedly threatened to kill him, but that Sauer’s hands were empty and he was not approaching when he started to shoot. McDevitt pointed his gun at Sauer’s chest because “he knew not to shoot to wound,” according to the police affidavit filed after his arrest. He allegedly shot Sauer four times before he fell to the ground, then three more times when he was on the ground. He told police that he fired “every bullet he had at Sauer,” and that he was concerned about accidently hitting Howard while shooting at Sauer “because that would be an extra charge.”

Police questioned McDevitt for more than three hours, but most of what he told them would have been suppressed from the trial because after the judge ruled McDevitt had clearly asked twice to have a lawyer present during the questioning, but state police detectives failed to provide him one.

Last year, at a hearing to determine if McDevitt should be allowed bail, his defense attorney, painted a picture of a young man who was in “significant confusion, pain and fear” when he woke up to a severe beating at the hands of Sauer. McDevitt acted in self-defense when he shot and killed Sauer, the attorney argued.

But Assistant Attorney General Leane Zainea argued that Sauer’s death was an “execution-like murder.”

“If there were ever a suggestion of overkill — and I use that term not loosely here — it’s this case,” Zaniea said at the hearing.

Bogue said Wednesday that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which has posed challenges to courts across the country, was a consideration as the two sides negotiated a plea deal.

“You evaluate your case all the time,” she said. “Trials are very fragile under coronavirus. It presents new legal issues. When you’re looking at the risks in your case, obviously we would have considered those things.”