Everyone Feared the Worst About Robert Card. No One Stopped Him.

November 6, 2023
Mourners attend a candlelight vigil in Lisbon Falls, Maine, for the victims of the mass shootings in nearby Lewiston.

Everyone who knew Robert Card was concerned about his behavior. His ex-wife and teenage son. His siblings, parents and friends. Fellow members of an Army Reserve unit in Saco, Maine.

They knew he was having psychotic episodes and hearing voices. They knew he had been making threats and that those threats were getting more specific. They knew he had several guns and knew how to use them.

Many spoke up.

Local police were alerted in May and again in September about his increasingly erratic behavior. In between those contacts, Card spent two weeks at a New York psychiatric facility at the urging of commanding officers.

The warning signs before Card shot and killed 18 people on Oct. 25 in Lewiston were glaring and abundant, and still, he was not stopped before he carried out the worst massacre in Maine’s history and then took his own life. The drip, drip, drip of information that has come out since suggests Card’s mental health deteriorated rapidly early this year and may have coincided with or been triggered by a bad breakup and his first hearing aids.

But significant gaps in the timeline remain — the biggest being from Sept. 17, when a Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s deputy tried unsuccessfully to visit Card at his Bowdoin home, to Oct. 25, when the shootings occurred.

Family members told police Card distanced himself from them in the month before the shootings and wasn’t responding to messages or visits to his home. They have so far declined to speak with Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram reporters or failed to return messages. If others encountered Card more recently, they haven’t come forward.

In the days since the tragedy, scrutiny has intensified over whether enough people took Card’s behavior and threats seriously and whether enough was done to intervene. Gov. Janet Mills acknowledged this Wednesday when she launched an independent commission that will look into the shootings and police response that followed, as well as the months before.

“It is important to recognize that, from what we know thus far, on multiple occasions over the last 10 months, concerns about Mr. Card’s mental health and his behavior were brought to the attention of his Army National Reserve unit, as well as law enforcement agencies here in Maine and in New York,” Mills said. “This raises crucial questions about actions taken and what more could have been done to prevent this tragedy from occurring.”

The commission’s findings will be made public, but that could take many months or more.

The following account of Card’s troubling descent into mental illness is built from court documents and other public records and interviews with those who knew Card or his family, some of whom spoke on the condition that they not be named publicly.

There are still many unknowns, but a harrowing question weighs heavy: Could one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history also have been the most preventable?

— — —

The earliest signs that Card’s mental health was worsening date back to the beginning of 2023.

His ex-wife and 18-year-old son raised concerns in May with the school resource officer at Mt. Ararat High School in Topsham, where Card’s son was a senior. That officer contacted the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office — responsible for Bowdoin, where Card lived his entire life — which sent Deputy Chad Carleton to investigate.

According to Carleton’s report, Card’s son had started worrying about his father’s behavior in January. They would be out in public places together, and the older Card insisted that people were talking about him and saying derogatory things, including that he was a pedophile.

The son told Deputy Carleton that he stopped visiting his father sometime in April and that his father was upset about that. Card’s ex-wife said she was worried about their son spending time with him and told the deputy that Card had recently picked up as many as 15 guns from his brother’s house.

Some other family members knew his mental health was declining but felt their efforts to help him were fruitless because he was in denial, Carleton wrote in his report.

Card’s ex-wife and son told the deputy they didn’t want Card to know that they had come forward “for fear that it would aggravate the situation.” Instead, they would keep their distance.

Carleton said he would reach out to Card’s commanding officer in the Army Reserve’s 3rd Battalion, 304th Infantry Regiment, which is headquartered in Saco and includes many Maine law enforcement officers among its 70 members. Card had been a member of the part-time unit for many years.

The ex-wife said she would contact Card’s sister-in-law, who is a nurse.

Carleton spoke with Card’s supervisor, Kelvin Mote, a corporal with the Ellsworth Police Department. Mote told him members of the unit already were concerned and said Card recently had been accusing other soldiers of calling him a sex offender. It’s not clear why Card was fixated on that notion, but Maine’s sex offender registry does list a different Robert Card. Immediately after police released Card’s name, some people assumed it was that Card, who is one year younger and lives in Waterville.

Mote told Carleton he would consult with the unit’s commander, Jeremy Reamer (a police officer in Nashua, New Hampshire), about getting Card help.

The sheriff’s deputy then spoke with Ryan Card, the shooter’s brother, who was not aware that Robert had come to his house to retrieve his guns. He told Carleton that his brother’s behavior seemed to shift shortly after he was fitted for hearing aids in February.

There are some links between hearing loss and mental illness, but it’s not known if they apply to Card. It is also unusual for a 40-year-old to suddenly exhibit first-time paranoid behavior.

Carleton asked Ryan Card if he wanted a deputy to accompany him when he next spoke to his brother. But Card’s brother, like his ex-wife, feared police involvement would make things worse.

That same night, Ryan and a sister, Nicole, went to visit Robert at his trailer. He answered his door holding a gun but talked with his siblings at length and agreed to go see a doctor about the voices he was hearing.

Finally, Carleton called Mote again, who told him supervisors in the Army unit would “sit down with (Card) in the near future to see if they could get him to open up about what has been going on.”

Neither Mote nor Reamer responded to multiple messages last week asking them to discuss any actions they had taken.

— — —

Card’s behavior hadn’t improved by summer.

In July, he and several other Army reservists were in New York. The unit’s main mission is to provide education and training to future U.S. Army officers, including those enrolled at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Records indicate Card joined the Army in 2002, when he was in college, and served as a petroleum supply specialist. He has been identified as a senior firearms instructor, but an Army spokesman disputed that. His most recent rank was sergeant first class. He never saw combat.

On the evening of July 15, Card was hanging out at a hotel with other Reserve members. A group of them had gone to a nearby convenience store to get beer, and Card began accusing those with him of saying bad things about him and calling him a pedophile — the same thing his son had reported two months earlier.

Card even shoved a fellow reservist, described as a longtime friend. He eventually calmed down but kept saying that he was going to “take care of it.” Back at the hotel, Card locked himself in his room.

Among those with Card that night were Christopher Wainwright, the sheriff of Oxford County, and Matthew Noyes, a deputy with the Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Office. Neither responded to multiple messages last week asking to talk about their interactions with Card.

When Card’s supervisor, Mote, arrived the next morning, he got the key to Card’s room and attempted to talk to him, but Card tried to shut the door in his face. Mote then contacted Reamer, the unit commander, and they decided to take Card to the Army base hospital for an evaluation. It’s not clear if Card went willingly.

The psychologist who saw Card at the Army hospital determined he needed further treatment. Card was admitted to Four Winds Psychiatric Hospital in Katonah, New York, on July 16 and spent 14 days there, which means he would have been released in late July. An Army public affairs officer provided a timeline that indicated Card returned to Maine on Aug. 3.

“To my knowledge, he has not sought any more treatment since being released,” Mote wrote. Mental illness of that nature isn’t addressed or cured in two weeks.

It’s also not clear what treatment he received while hospitalized. According to its website, Four Winds Hospital provides inpatient and outpatient mental health treatment services for children, adolescents, and adults. Its CEO, Monica Broderick, did not respond to messages this week asking to discuss Card’s treatment. Family members later told police that Card had been taking a prescribed medication but had stopped sometime before the shootings. They didn’t name the medication.

The Boston Globe, citing a hospital official, reported last week that the hospital admittance was involuntary, which differs from what Maine Public Safety Commissioner Michael Sauschuck told reporters after the shootings. Sauschuck was asked about that because an involuntary commitment to a mental health facility likely would have triggered Maine’s “yellow flag” law that sets a process for temporary removal of a person’s firearms. Sauschuck said he wasn’t aware of any involuntary hospitalizations, and that Maine’s yellow flag law has been used 83 times since it went into effect in July 2020. The law was never used on Card.

After his hospital discharge, Card remained in the Reserve unit but was restricted from having a weapon, handling ammunition, or participating in live-fire activity.

But that was just inside the unit.

An Army spokesperson said unit commanders have authority over non-deployed personnel only during mandated training exercises, but also said medical officials made “multiple attempts to contact Card in the months following the events at (his) annual training.”

A former member of the Reserve unit who served with Card for about four years but had left before this summer, and who asked not to be named out of fear of being punished by the Army, said Card wasn’t someone who stood out.

“Card seemed like a very levelheaded guy,” he said. “From what I could see, he was a generally nice person.”

But the unit had other problems, the soldier said. He said the repetitive nature of the team’s mission, as well as a lack of turnover within the unit and its leadership staff, fostered a culture of complacency — and of frequent, heavy drinking after hours. He recalled one instance in 2018 when one soldier who had a history of mental health struggles got so drunk in the unit’s barracks that he fell out of the top bunk of his bed, sustained a brain injury, and had to be taken by helicopter to a nearby hospital. In other units, this type of incident would have resulted in a crackdown on irresponsible drinking, the soldier said. But little changed in the 304th.

Because the unit had so little responsibility, he said, it was easy for leadership to leave soldiers to their own devices — and struggles.

— — —

Card was thinking about weapons almost as soon as he got home.

On Aug. 5, he went to a gun shop in Auburn to pick up a suppressor, or silencer, he had ordered online. The shop owner, Rick LaChapelle, who is also a Lewiston city councilor, said before the sale went through Card was asked — like all customers — to fill out the questions on a federal form. One asked whether he had ever been committed to a psychiatric facility. Card answered yes, and store employees told him they couldn’t sell him the accessory.

LaChappelle said Card was polite but said he would come back after consulting a lawyer. He never did.

Matt O’Shaughnessy, public information officer at the Boston field office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, said that Form 4473 is the last step before buying a gun. Still, the application to buy a suppressor would have had to be filed at least six to eight months in advance. That would have been long before Card’s hospitalization.

Card had been working for Maine Recycling Corp. in Lisbon as a commercial driver but left the company in late spring, a spokesperson said. He had worked there for a year. Townspeople said he had other trucking jobs in recent years and also did work for his father, who is an electrician.

Most recently, he was driving a delivery truck for another company that has not been named in police documents.

A little more than a month after his hospitalization, Card and a friend from his Reserve unit were driving home from a casino in Maine in the early morning hours of Sept. 14. The casino wasn’t named in that document, but it was likely Oxford Casino, which is 45 minutes from Card’s house.

According to reports, Card and the friend, who was identified only as Hodgson, got into an argument because Card kept talking about people calling him a pedophile and making threats.

Hodgson told him to “knock it off” because he’d get in trouble talking about shooting up places, and Card responded by punching him in the face.

Hodgson exited the vehicle, which suggests Card was driving. Card then warned his friend that he had guns and was going to shoot up the Reserve center in Saco.

Hodgson was so concerned he texted Mote at 2 in the morning.

“You up, I have something to report,” the text read.

He then advised Mote to change the passcode at the gate (presumably at the Saco facility) and to “be armed” if Card showed up.

“I believe he’s messed up in the head,” Hodgson wrote to Mote. “I love (him) to death but I do not know how to help him and he refuses to get help or to continue help.”

His final text to Mote read: “I believe he’s going to snap and do a mass shooting.”

If Mote responded, those messages have not been released.

— — —

Mote was, however, in contact with Reamer, who instructed him to request a well-being check on Card at 941 Meadow Road, Card’s parents’ home, “to gauge his mental health and determine if he is a threat to himself and/or others.”

In an email to the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Department, Mote wrote that he “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.”

On Sept. 15, Sgt. Aaron Skolfield, of the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office, received the complaint about Card and went to look for him at his home.

In a police report, Skolfield wrote that no one was home and that Card’s vehicle was not in the driveway. He advised that the evening crew would check the house again, but he also issued what’s known as File 6, which is similar to a missing persons report. It meant that if officers located him, they should check his well-being but be careful.

It was not an authorization to detain Card, although the alert included a caution: “Known to be armed and dangerous.” It also included a summary of recent threats and said Card had been having psychotic episodes. The Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office would also have known about the May contact with Card’s ex-wife and son.

The next morning, Sept. 16, Skolfield returned to Card’s residence and this time saw his vehicle. He called for backup, and a deputy from the nearby Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office showed up 45 minutes later.

Together, the two officers tried to make contact with Card. Skolfield wrote in his report that they could hear Card moving around the trailer, but he wouldn’t come to the door.

“Due to being in a very disadvantageous position, we decided to back away,” he wrote.

Skolfield then started making calls and reached Reamer, who told the deputy that Card no longer had his military weapons. Reamer said they had also “made arrangements” with Card’s brother, Ryan, to retrieve any personal weapons.

When Skolfield told Reamer that Card wouldn’t come to the door, the unit commander said that was common. Reamer said Reserve officials were trying to get Card to retire and get treatment.

“He thought it best to let Card have time to himself for a bit,” Skolfield wrote.

The next day, Skolfield spoke to Ryan Card, who confirmed that family members had taken his brother’s personal weapons but said his brother might still be able to access them.

Skolfield told Ryan to “make his own judgment as to whether Robert needs an evaluation.”

Ryan followed up later with the deputy to say he and his father “have a way to secure his weapons.”

The morning of Sept. 16 appears to be the last time anyone in law enforcement tried to make contact with Card. But if they never made contact face to face, how could deputies have gauged his mental health and determined if he was a threat?

The File 6 was canceled on Oct. 18, one week before the shootings. File 6 alerts are typical — some departments issue dozens daily — and police could have put out a more urgent alert about Card. Just last week, police arrested an 18-year-old for posing on social media with guns outside a Walmart and threatening to commit “Lewiston part two.” He was arrested that day.

Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry has defended his agency’s response but also said an internal review would be launched to see if things could have been handled differently or if any policies need to change.

— — —

So what was happening between Sept. 17 and Oct. 25?

Family members told police that Card’s guns had been taken, but three guns were found after the shooting — one in Card’s vehicle, which he abandoned near a boat launch in Lisbon, and two next to his body.

It hasn’t been confirmed that any of those guns were used in the shooting or where or when they might have been purchased. At a news conference the day after Card was found dead, an agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said some of the guns were purchased several years ago and some more recently, and that all were bought legally.

CNN has reported, citing unnamed investigators, that Card bought a Ruger SFAR A-10-style rifle sometime in July, which matches the gun he was filmed carrying when he entered the bowling alley. The Press Herald has not confirmed that.

Last week, reporters contacted every licensed firearms store in the Lewiston-Auburn area, and each said it had checked its records of sales and Card was not a customer. Only one — Coastal Trading & Pawn in Auburn — declined to check records when contacted. When asked whether Card had bought a gun there, an employee only said no comment. Several gun shops in Bowdoin, where Card lived, did not answer the telephone.

Records of gun sales are not public information in Maine, and the state only allows firearm stores to turn over records of sales if requested by those in law enforcement and if a request is related to an active investigation. Gun buyers are, however, required to fill out firearm transactional records, which stores keep on file.

It’s not clear if the Army took any other steps to help Card after September, when he failed to show up to his Reserve commitments in that month or October, citing work conflicts. An Army spokesperson has said an internal investigation is underway.

Mental illness is a serious and widespread issue within the military. According to numerous studies, soldiers and veterans can have higher rates of depression, suicide, and substance use disorders. Supporting mental health within the Army Reserve poses specific challenges, including limited resources and the difficulty of keeping tabs on soldiers who usually spend only one weekend a month with their units before returning to their outside lives.

Army spokesperson Bryce Dubee said Reserve commanders have authority over their non-deployed troops only when they’re with their units, limiting their ability to force Card to accept help as his mental health deteriorated. He said the Reserve’s medical management “remained committed to providing care and support to him” after his hospitalization in July and tried “multiple” times to contact Card in the months after. Dubee did not specify whether Card ever accepted the Army’s offers of help.

But Card’s former colleague said the unit’s leaders should have made sure Card was getting the help he needed instead of just passing him to local police.

“We have put the time and effort into training that individual to do bad things. He was on the books for that unit,” he said. “It’s poor leadership is what it boils down to. It’s toxic leadership.”

Alan Brubach, who lives across the street from Card, said a few weeks back — he couldn’t recall exactly when — his wife had seen Card running with his dog and was surprised at how fit he looked.

On Oct. 19, less than a week before the shootings, Card was in Hudson, New Hampshire, making a delivery to a Country Kitchen Bakery Outlet.

According to a police report, employees said Card accused them of talking about him and that it seemed like he was hearing voices. Before he left, Card told them: “Maybe you will be the ones I snap on.”

That encounter wasn’t reported to police until Oct. 26, the day after the shootings, and only because employees saw images of Card on the news.

According to the report, an unnamed employee told a Hudson police officer that Card had been delivering to the bakery outlet for the last six months. During one of the employee’s first interactions with Card, he said, “I’m not gay or a pedophile, but just show me where the bread goes.” That would have been sometime in the spring.

The employee also told police he saw Card on Oct. 24, shortly before midnight. There was no information in the police report about that.

Less than 20 hours later, Card was walking into Just-in-Time Recreation with a rifle.

— — —

No reports indicate that Card ever displayed erratic behavior before January. He has only one prior criminal charge, for operating under the influence in 2007.

He is part of a big family that goes back many generations in Bowdoin. He spent three years at the University of Maine from 2001 to 2004 but never graduated, a university spokesperson said. He was married for a short time but has been divorced since 2007. He and his ex-wife had shared custody of their son.

Card had met his ex-girlfriend at a cornhole tournament at Schemengees Bar & Grille Restaurant in Lewiston, one of the two places where he shot people. The two also had frequented the other business, Just-In-Time Recreation, a bowling alley.

The ex-girlfriend has not been identified publicly.

Sometime on the night of the shooting, Card’s brother called Sgt. Ed Yurek at the Brunswick Police Department. The two served in the military together, according to the police affidavit. Ryan Card said he feared Robert might go to Harpswell to target either his ex-girlfriend or ex-wife. It wasn’t clear if that call was before the shootings or not. Yurek declined to comment when contacted by a reporter.

There hasn’t been any confirmation that Card was at either Schemengees or Just-In-Time in the weeks leading up to the shootings. His brother later told police that Card had told him that Joey Walker, a manager at Schemengees, had “called him gay.” Walker was one of the shooting victims.

Family told police that two other businesses near his house — Gowell’s Shop & Save in Litchfield and Mixers Nightclub & Lounge in Sabattus — might be targets because Card also thought they were broadcasting information online that he was a pedophile.

Outside of a few brief exchanges with reporters in the first hours after the shootings, members of the Card family have largely receded from public view and avoided the throngs of local and national reporters that descended on Bowdoin on Oct. 26. Multiple phone calls, social media messages and visits to homes owned by members of the family have gone unanswered. When Press Herald reporters have come face to face with Cards, they’ve received a clear message: Get off our property and leave us alone.

Several people around town declined to talk about Robert Card, except to quietly express their sympathy for the family he’s left behind — one still living in a community that will forever associate the Card name with the massacre in Lewiston.

“They are beside themselves with grief, guilt, and shame,” said one resident, who refused to pass a message from the Press Herald to the Card family. “They can’t even go home right now out of fear of retaliation.”

Bowdoin is a tiny community of just over 3,000 people — when asked where people in town come together to hang out, residents scratch their heads before suggesting the town store, a cramped convenience store that’s home to a couple of hot food items and a single gas pump. Now linked to a second heinous crime in less than a year, many residents are feeling especially protective of their neighbors and their privacy.

Brubach, the neighbor, said he and Card weren’t friends or anything, but they’d known each other 20 years.

“He was always a loner, ever since we moved in,” he said. “I think I was the only neighbor who ever talked to him.”

Their interactions were always cordial, but Brubach hadn’t spoken to him since the spring. He noticed Card had hearing aids but figured his military and firearms background might have contributed to hearing loss.

Card recently had built a big two-bay garage on his property for his “toys,” Brubach said. He could often be heard target shooting on his property, but that wasn’t unusual in the rural community.

Brubach remembered once seeing a police car parked across the street from Card’s house. He thought it was August but now says it must have been mid-September. The only time he saw Card after that was driving away from his house on occasion.

When he saw a photo of Card after the shootings, he was surprised to see him with a beard because he had always been clean-shaven.

— — —

In the aftermath, many unanswered questions persist.

How much follow-up did Card get after he was released from an in-patient mental health hospital over the summer?

Why did his family assure police that they would take his weapons away if they weren’t equipped to do that?

If Card didn’t come to the door during that Sept. 17 visit from sheriff’s deputies, why didn’t they wait him out, take him into protective custody when he emerged, and then see about seizing his guns?

Joshua Horwitz, a professor in gun violence prevention and advocacy at Johns Hopkins University who helped establish the concept behind red flag laws that exist in 21 states, said if Maine’s law was stronger, this tragedy might have been averted.

“There were so many opportunities to intervene,” he said.

Maine’s law sets a high bar and can only be set in motion when someone is in protective custody with probable cause that they may be mentally ill and pose a likelihood of serious harm. Then, there must be a mental health evaluation. And finally, an order from a judge. Only after these steps can weapons be removed.

Red flag laws, which exist in many other states, have a lower bar and usually allow family members or others to petition a judge. Card’s family didn’t have this option, though who knows if they would have used it.

“This is something that may be hard for people to hear, but this was a policy choice that (Maine) officials made, and they clearly made the wrong choice,” Horwitz said of Maine’s weaker law.

Sauschuck, Maine’s public safety commissioner, said during a radio interview last week that he thinks the yellow flag law is working, but he also acknowledged it probably could be improved.

The various investigations that have been launched in the wake of the shootings likely will fill holes in the narrative. Some may even lead to changes meant to prevent this from ever happening again, although the country’s track record on that score has not been great.

The person with the most important answers about what led up to the shootings is dead.

Yet the details that have emerged have been damning in their consistency: Card’s mental health had become debilitating, and he was threatening acts of mass violence. He wasn’t stopped, despite glaring warnings and pleas from nearly everyone in his life.

Press Herald staff writers John Terhune and Rachel Ohm contributed reporting to this story. Reporting from previous stories about this case also was used.

(c) 2023 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine)

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