A Somerset County sheriff’s corporal was shot and killed Wednesday morning on U.S. Route 2 in Norridgewock — the first killing of Maine police officer in a shooting in nearly 30 years — and the suspect remained at large as dozens of police joined in a sprawling, frantic manhunt across the region.
The victim was 62-year-old Cpl. Eugene Cole, Sheriff Dale Lancaster said at a news conference Wednesday morning in Norridgewock.
The suspect, who remained at large and is considered by police to be “armed and extremely dangerous,” was identified as John Williams, 29, of Madison. He was described as being 5 feet, 6 inches tall, weighing about 120 pounds, with brown hair and blue eyes. Police said anyone who sees Williams should call 911 immediately.
Several law enforcement agencies — including the Somerset Sheriff’s Office, FBI and Maine State Police Major Crimes Unit — converged Wednesday night outside a house on Jones Street in Madison, apparently to execute a search warrant.
Williams was arrested in Massachusetts last month on firearm charges and was scheduled to appear Wednesday in a Massachusetts courtroom for a probable cause hearing, according to the Essex District Attorney’s Office.
“This still remains a very active investigation,” Lancaster said at a 5 p.m. news conference in Norridgewock. “I do want to assure the community that we will have a large police presence in the region throughout the night. The community needs to be aware of their surroundings until Williams is apprehended. Do not hesitate to call 911 to report anything suspicious. We will be working tirelessly until Williams can be safely apprehended.”
Authorities said Cole was shot between 1 and 2 a.m. and his body was found at 7:15 a.m. Wednesday at 16 Mercer St., which is also U.S. Route 2, in Norridgewock. It was unclear Wednesday under what circumstances Cole and Williams encountered each other during the early morning hours, and authorities declined to say any more, citing the ongoing investigation.
Lancaster told reporters in downtown Norridgewock that Williams stole Cole’s fully marked cruiser, then drove to the Cumberland Farms store, where he reportedly committed a theft. He then fled in Cole’s cruiser.
The cruiser was found abandoned shortly after 5 a.m. off Martin Stream Road in Norridgewock, police said.
“We believe the suspect then fled the vehicle on foot and is presently at large,” Maine State Police said in a news release Wednesday morning.
Cole has a son, David, who is employed as a deputy by the sheriff’s office.
A police procession escorted Cole’s body back to Skowhegan from Augusta, where it had been taken earlier in the day to the Office of Chief Medical Examiner.
“We have lost an outstanding deputy today, who served with great distinction for the last 13 years,” Lancaster said Wednesday of the elder Cole.
Lancaster said a nationwide alert had been issued for Williams and that police did not know of any vehicle Williams might be using after abandoning the police cruiser.
Multiple area schools went into lockout or lockdown as a precaution Wednesday, including those in Madison. Law enforcement officers were joined by the FBI in pursuing the suspect across central Maine, as police armed with rifles stopped vehicles to search them, canvassed neighborhoods and scoured woods along local roads. A helicopter and a drone also were seen aiding in the manhunt for Williams.
Around 11:15 a.m., Cole’s body was taken out in a Maine State Police evidence response truck with a state police cruiser ahead of it, lights flashing, en route to the medical examiner’s office in Augusta. A shoulder-to-shoulder line of police officers stood at attention near the scene, some saluting as Cole’s body was delivered to the waiting state police vehicle.
As the procession left, there was a flurry of police sirens echoing across the downtown. Officers stood at attention and saluted as the body was delivered to the medical examiner’s office in Augusta.
“He was an outstanding employee,” Lancaster said. “He was one of the finest deputies.”
Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, said Cole is the first officer killed in a shooting since Giles Landry was shot in 1989 in an incident in Leeds. However, McCausland said several officers have been killed in the line of duty in the years in between, including, most recently, Nathan Desjardins, a Fryeburg police officer who died from injuries suffered last summer while trying to save a boater’s life in the Saco River.
Williams has a scant criminal history in Maine, where records indicate he was born in Texas.
According to the State Bureau of Information, the agency that maintains criminal records in Maine, Williams was charged with class C felony burglary when he was a juvenile. He was found responsible for the offense Feb. 13, 2006. Williams served 17 days in an unspecified correctional facility, was placed on probation for a year and was ordered to pay $500 in restitution. The date of the offense and his age at the time was not provided. Although most juvenile criminal records are confidential, state law mandates that class C felonies, punishable in the adult system by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine, remain public.
His only other offense is a misdemeanor theft he committed in June 2007 in Fairfield. He pleaded guilty a month later, served two days in jail and was ordered to pay $200 in restitution.
Massachusetts state troopers found Williams and a female companion from Mercer on March 22 on the side of Interstate 495 shortly before 4 a.m. in Haverhill, Massachusetts. They were in the breakdown lane. When police stopped, Williams and the woman were acting frantically, according to a police report. Their car had run off the road, and there was significant damage to the right rear wheel, the trooper wrote. As troopers talked with Williams, they conducted a pat-search and found in his pockets several small plastic bags with a white and tan powder residue.
Williams told troopers he fell asleep at the wheel.
Police searched the car and found more bags with powder residue, including in the possession of his passenger. In the trunk they found a loaded 9 mm Smith and Wesson magazine loaded with 10 rounds. Nearby was a black pouch containing a black-and-silver 9 mm handgun that had the slide portion of the weapon separated from the frame, along with more ammunition.
Although Williams told troopers he was permitted to carry the gun legally in Maine, troopers charged him with improper storage of a firearm, carrying a firearm without a license, unattended ammunition, possession of a large capacity firearm (9 mm Smith & Wesson with a 16-round magazine), marked lanes violation and negligent operation of a motor vehicle.
The passenger also was written a summons for possession of half a Percocet tablet.
According to the Essex District Attorney’s office, Williams was arraigned later the same day, and a Massachusetts judge imposed $7,500 bail. Five days later during a bail review hearing, bail was reduced to $5,000. Williams posted the amount at 5:10 a.m. March 31.
COMMUNITIES IN LOCKDOWN
By early Wednesday afternoon, a large police presence engulfed the area around Williams’ last known address in Madison as officers searched the neighborhood.
The heavy police presence left many people sheltering in place and locking their doors.
A neighbor in that area, Rick Bishop, said his nephew has a friend who is a Williams family member. That family member reportedly was texted by Williams, who claimed to have a high-powered rifle and said he would not go to prison and would not be taken alive, according to Bishop, who said his family relayed that information to police immediately.
Rick Bishop’s brother, Bobby Bishop, who lives right across from Williams’ last known address in Madison, said his wife was inside as police swarmed across the neighborhood Wednesday.
“My wife is home, locked inside the house with the dogs. … She’s OK,” he said.
In Oakland just before 10 a.m., near a railroad crossing on Oak Street, a state police trooper and sheriff’s deputy were stopping vehicles and speaking with the occupants.
Police armed with long rifles searched the area of Martin Stream Road, which connects Norridgewock and Fairfield. Armed police from multiple jurisdictions were deployed in an all-out manhunt Wednesday afternoon.
The Maine State Police Major Crimes Unit will investigate the homicide, said Lt. John Cote, currently the second in command at state police and soon to be sworn in as colonel and chief of the Maine State Police.
“We’ve issued a nationwide bulletin now for Mr. Williams, seeking contact with him for information,” he said. “Many times we say there is not an ongoing threat, but that is not the case today. This certainly is an ongoing public threat. He does continue to pose a risk. It really is all hands on deck right now — a very concentrated effort, because we believe right now he remains fairly local.”
Joseph Raymond, 33, lives in the house in Norridgewock that was listed as Williams’ address when he was a teenager during the times he was arrested in 2006 and 2007. Raymond said that when he and his wife bought the home in 2008, the seller was a woman also named Williams who had a son about high school graduation age.
“We met (her) once at the signing, but we didn’t meet her son. But I remember her saying her son was about 18 or 19 at the time, and he had a history of breaking into her bedroom,” Raymond said.
“When we moved in, there was broken wood around the door frame where he probably tried to bust in.”
Police and civilians in safety vests continued to direct traffic away from Main Street in Norridgewock late into the afternoon Wednesday. All of the downtown area was closed to traffic.
Lancaster said during the news briefing that there was no vehicle associated with Williams and police still consider him to be on foot. The manhunt was being coordinated with Maine State Police, the Sheriff’s Office, the Forestry Service, the Maine Warden Service and police and sheriff’s departments from all across central Maine. The U.S. Marshals Service and the FBI also are involved in the search for Williams.
Staff writers Amy Calder, Rachel Ohm and Emily Higginbotham contributed reporting.