The day Danny died

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SUMNER – Jan. 21, 2000, was bitterly cold. Daniel Bennett II was wearing only slipper moccasins, sweatpants and long johns as he followed his familiar 10-mile trail through the woods between Buckfield and West Sumner.

The route through the hilly forest would be a haul even on a nice day. But the 32-year-old Bennett was oblivious to the distance, the weather and, seemingly, anything else.

“Danny,” as his family and friends knew him, had something eating at him.

Hours later, he was dead.

Shot eight times by Oxford County Sheriff’s Department deputies in his grandmother’s aging farmhouse. A blaze of gunfire ended one life and forever changed dozens more.

Questioning who he was

For years, Danny Bennett had wrestled with mental health problems, including depression and bouts of psychosis. Two months before he died, a relative upbraided him for being a failure, telling him, “There’s not a drop of Bennett blood in you.”

That statement, which the relative later apologized for and said he regretted, prompted Bennett to question the identify of this father and to tell his mother he felt his birth resulted from an extra-marital affair.

His mother, Arlene Bedard, told him that simply was not true.

Bennett was often depressed, sometimes angry, prone to emotional outbursts, unexplained crying and just a desire to be left alone. As an adult he spent time in the county jail and psychiatric wards of local hospitals, including what was then the Augusta Mental Health Institute. He was even sent for a short time to the state’s maximum-security prison in Warren after being charged with assaulting his mother.

The charges eventually were dropped and Bennett was freed.

Nobody seems certain why he left his second cousin’s house in Buckfield on Jan. 21 to trudge home – brooding – through the woods that day in January. He had been working with an uncle in the woods the previous few days and seemed all right, his mother said.

But a little after 2 p.m. his mother called police saying she needed help at the family’s ramshackle farmhouse on Upper Sumner Hill Road.

His family was afraid

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Bennett arrived home slightly before his mother made that call, then used a baseball bat to beat a dog that had followed him home.

His grandmother, 80-year-old Isabel Bedard, lives with her daughter and called Arlene Bedard in nearby Canton, where she was working. The elder Bedard said she was afraid Danny would hurt himself because he was pacing and speaking incoherently.

Arlene Bedard rushed home, but Bennett would not or could not explain what was bothering him.

“He just told me to get out of there, he’s going to kill me,” Bedard told a 911 operator a little after 2 p.m. “So I came out here to call you,” she told the operator, adding that he had killed a dog.

Later, Oxford County Deputy Cpl. Christopher Wainwright told state investigators he believed the dog was still alive when he arrived at the home sometime around 2:30 p.m. “The dog started in, I mean just an ungodly moaning and whimpering,” Wainwright said.

Unable to make contact with Bennett, who had tucked himself into one of the farmhouse’s two kitchens behind a door locked with an eye-and-hook latch, Wainwright and other police officers decided to evacuate everyone from the building.

Standing out in the cold

The temperature outside was plunging. “It was extremely cold and windy,” Arlene Bedard said.

Because the house was heated by only a Franklin-style wood stove and kerosene heaters, both Bedard and her elderly mother knew the water pipes would freeze within a few hours if no one maintained the stoves. They froze before the night was out.

While the women stood outside, officers worked on getting a mental health counselor or a probation officer familiar with Danny to come and talk him out. They also had asked for the Maine State Police tactical team to come to the farmhouse with a trained negotiator.

“Plus, I told them we needed some units because it was just so goddamn cold that we just couldn’t survive outside very long the way we’re, you know, the way we’re dressed,” Wainwright told a state detective from the Attorney General’s Office later that night.

The police also knew that Bennett might have access to at least two firearms – an old rifle and an old shotgun. Bedard insists the rifle was inoperable. She had taken the clip from it and there was no ammunition, she said. The shotgun was in a place where Bennett would be unlikely to find it, under a pile of clothing on a bed in a back room, Bedard said.

At one point, another sheriff’s deputy, Capt. James Miclon, called the local district attorney to ask if they could get a search warrant for the house. The warrant was needed for the state police tactical team to enter the building.

The district attorney’s office suggested that the evidence of criminal activity at the Bedard home wasn’t sufficient to issue that warrant. Miclon was radioed back: “We have nothing criminal here. … Stay back and observe.”

Michael conveyed that information to other officers, but three officers were already inside the house. Although they came and went at various points, they retained a presence in the building.

For the next two hours, Wainwright, Deputy Matthew Baker and Maine State Police Trooper Timothy Turner alternated, guns drawn, covering two doorways on either end of a narrow kitchen.

Opposite one of the doorways and across the living room was another door and short hallway leading to where Danny had settled in, ignoring the officers’ shouted offers to help.

“We had a foothold in the house, and it was decided that we wouldn’t advance anymore in the house,” Wainwright told the investigator. “We were in the kitchen and were kind of in a defensive area, you know, we had some cover with the doorways.”

An attempt to negotiate

Using his hand as a note pad, Wainwright jotted down the name and phone number of Bennett’s sister, Laurie Hart (then Laurie Heap) and said he would call the family once officers had taken Danny into custody.

That call never came.

But Miclon went to Hart’s home to question the family about the location of firearms in the house. He obtained a rough sketch of the home’s floor plan, noting where the guns were.

Turner said they tried to talk Danny out. Danny emerged once with a roll of toilet paper, but seemed surprised to see the officers in the house with their weapons drawn.

He poked his head out again and looked at Baker. The officer was armed with an AR-15, a civilian version of the military M-16 assault rifle that Wainwright had given him. He had swapped his duty shotgun for Wainwright’s personal rifle.

“I didn’t really know, you know, what we were going to get into or, or how far away we were going to be from the house, or what we were going to end up doing, so I had the shotgun (at first),” Baker said.

Bennett poked his head out again, then backed behind the door and never responded as Baker and Wainwright called to him.

“Chris hollered at him. He still didn’t, he didn’t say anything; he just, he closed the damn door again,” Baker said.

He’s got a gun

The third time Bennett came out from behind the door, he was armed, Baker said.

“When he started through the door I saw he had a gun, and he started to… He had, he started to pick the gun up but he didn’t have it, he didn’t have it tucked in, you know, but he started to bring it up,” Baker said.

The officers yelled for Bennett to stop and drop the weapon.

“I told him to drop it. I told him to stop and put his hands over his head. And I just kept screaming at him to drop it. And I went behind this wall, and I told, I just hollered out, ‘He’s got a gun; he’s got a gun.’ I don’t know how many times I said it, but I remember just screaming it because he wasn’t stopping,” Baker said.

But, by the look on Bennett’s face, Baker said he could tell Bennett wasn’t going to stop.

“Right after I hollered he’s got a gun, I heard shots go off,” Baker told the investigator that night. He also said he could not tell how many shots were fired or who fired them, but he would testify during a deposition in November 2006 that he saw Bennett fire first.

“When the shotgun went off, I saw the smoke come out the end of the shotgun,” Baker said. “I skooched behind the wall. I felt the pellets go around me like a vacuum sound. I stood back up into the doorway and I fired my rifle. What confused me was, I didn’t hear my rifle go off. I heard Sergeant Wainwright’s handgun going.”

Wainwright and Baker fired more than 20 shots at Bennett, hitting him eight times, according to an autopsy conducted later by the state medical examiner.

Another state trooper and emergency medical crews worked to keep Bennett alive, but the damage from the gunshots was extensive.

One bullet from Wainwright’s .40 caliber handgun hit Bennett in the top center of his head, another shot passed through his left temple above his left eye and exited just below his right eye. “That wound passed through that level of the face breaking the various bones that form the orbits of the eyes, the eye sockets and edges of the nose area, and it actually disrupted both eyes,” medical examiner Dr. Michael Ferenc said during deposition in September 2006.

Ferenc did not sort out which shots hit Bennett first, and said he could not tell which shot killed Bennett. He did say the shot to the center of the head and another to the chest area, which hit a portion of Bennett’s heart, “would have been independently lethal or very likely lethal.”

Conflicting chain of events

Just under a month after the shooting, the officers involved were cleared of any criminal wrongdoing by the Attorney General’s Office. But Arlene Bedard began to doubt the officers’ story. She was troubled further when she removed a water heater from the bathroom several months after the shooting and found yet another hole in the wall behind the appliance.

A bullet hole in the water heater itself wasn’t a surprise. “We knew that was there,” Bedard said recently. But another bullet hole was found low in the wall behind the heater, unaccounted for in any of the investigations done by either the Attorney General’s Office or an internal review of the incident by the Oxford County Sheriff’s Department.

The sheriff’s office, Bedard said, never even came back to the house as part of its investigation. The shotgun that Danny is said to have fired was never returned to the family. And part of the autopsy report stating his body was delivered to the state’s lab accompanied by a bag with his sneakers in it also seems wrong, Bedard said.

“He didn’t wear sneakers,” Bedard said. “It was slippers or work boots. When I saw him last in the house he was in his stockings,” she said. Other things didn’t add up either. Every other time the police had come for Danny he had gone with them peacefully, she said.

Filing a civil action

Bedard and her family are suing the county and the law officers involved in Bennett’s death, not for money, but because they want to know what really happened, Bedard said.

“I was just going to let it go, but I couldn’t because things didn’t add up,” Bedard said. “All I want is the truth – I don’t know if I’ll ever get it.”

The civil lawsuit is currently under review by a federal magistrate in Portland. Attorneys for the county and the officers involved have asked that the case be dismissed. They say the shooting was justified because Bennett drew his weapon on police and fired first. They also say Bedard essentially invited the police into her home when arrived, responding to her call.

But, in an affidavit filed by Arlene Bedard, she says she told police Danny did not even know where the guns were. She said her family now believes Miclon had a different reason for wanting a map to the guns.

“Now, of course, we believe Dan was already dead (when Miclon visited the sister’s house) and they needed to find the gun for cover,” she said in her sworn testimony. She also swore that Miclon during that visit “was trying to tell us even more, and appeared to look ashen, stressed, pained, anxious, fearful, shocked.”

He told them things were moving too fast and the officers involved at the house seemed too gung-ho, she said.

In a 2006 deposition, Miclon said he couldn’t remember what precisely he said to Bedard and her family, but was sure it would have been truthful. “I think I updated them on what was going on. I was encouraging them to get this information and that sort of thing. I don’t remember exactly what I said,” Miclon explained.

In his deposition, Miclon also stated that he had, on numerous occasions in the course of his career, talked barricaded people out of tense situations. Shortly after the incident the sheriff’s office was reorganized and Miclon left the department to take a position as the director of the county’s emergency communications center.

Civil rights violation

The family’s lawsuit essentially claims the civil rights of Danny Bennett and his immediate family members were violated by police when they entered and “held” the house. Further, the suit maintains that Bennett’s right to equal protection under the law was violated because police knew he had mental health problems and had successfully controlled him in the past, according to Thomas Connolly, the Portland-based attorney representing the family says.

Connolly hopes the suit will shed light on a police culture that he says is too centered on a paramilitary-type response. He believes the effort of the officers to hold space in the Bedard kitchen, the removal of Bennett’s immediate family members, coupled with Bennett’s general fear of police based on previous bad experiences, escalated his emotional response.

Had they backed out of the house, given Bennett time to calm down and allowed his family to remain nearby, it’s more likely he would have gone peacefully with police as he had done in the past, Connolly said. Instead, Bennett – already in an agitated state – became fearful and then violent when he realized he was in the house alone with the armed officers.

“He was pressed by the circumstances forced upon him,” Connolly said.

That more than 50 percent of those shot or killed by police in Maine also suffer from mental illness is a clear sign that police need better training on how to respond and handle situations like the one that led to Bennett’s death, Connolly said.

Key facts in the case also tell a story far different than the one portrayed by police, he said. He hopes a jury will be allowed to see all the evidence and decide whether the killing of Daniel Bennett was justified.

But attorneys for the police officers involved say their clients are not cold or uncaring killers. In fact, they are quite the opposite, said Peter Marchesi, a Waterville-based attorney representing Oxford County and its officers.

Marchesi portrayed his clients as heroes willing to go into a deadly situation in an attempt to help people. It didn’t work out that way for Bennett and his family, Marchesi said, but given the circumstances, he said there was little the officers involved should have or could have done differently.

“It couldn’t have been handled any better,” Marchesi said. “They really had no option but to return fire after they were shot at by Mr. Bennett. There was no choice. It was that simple. If there had been a choice it never would have happened.”

No one involved disagrees a tragic event occurred, Marchesi said. And the weight the officers involved will carry for the rest of their lives is not a light one, he suggested.

“They, like everyone else, live forever with the consequences of that day.”

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