AUBURN – An off-duty Lewiston police officer was credited Tuesday with tackling a man accused of assaulting a clerk and attempting to steal an elderly woman’s purse at Wal-Mart.

As it turned out, the suspect the officer knocked to the ground is a convicted murderer.

Police said Officer Ken Strout tackled 34-year-old Christopher Fitch of Norway after Fitch grabbed the 85-year-old woman’s purse, pushed a clerk and tried to flee from the store.

“He tackled the suspect and held him until we showed up,” Auburn police Lt. Scott Watkins said. “He did a great job.”

Strout was shopping with his 4-year-old daughter when he heard yelling from a nearby aisle. When he rushed over there, he saw two other shoppers trying to catch the fleeing suspect.

“It was tricky with my daughter there. I had to make sure she was out of the way,” Strout said. “I ran over and these other two citizens were trying to get ahold of him. I grabbed onto him and we took him down.”

When Auburn police arrived at the store, they arrested Fitch, a man with an extensive criminal record that includes a conviction for the 1988 murder of farmer Lucien Frechette, 82, of Norway.

Fitch had a small knife in a back pocket when he was patted down, police said. Strout said he identified himself as a police officer but the suspect kept struggling.

In 1992, Fitch was sentenced to 12 years in prison for the killing, but was only ordered to serve five. He was out by 1996.

On Tuesday, Fitch was charged with robbery, assault and refusing to submit to arrest. He was being held Tuesday night at the Androscoggin County Jail. Bail was set at $10,040.

The drama began about 3 p.m. when Fitch tried to snatch a purse from the woman shopping at Wal-Mart, police said. The woman began to scream and tried to hang on to her purse.

A Wal-Mart clerk tried to intervene and force the suspect back with a shopping cart but was instead assaulted by Fitch, police said.

“He grabbed the clerk and pushed her down,” Watkins said. “The off-duty officer saw what was happening and he ran over and tackled the guy.”

Strout typically works the morning watch for the Lewiston Police Department. His superiors did not learn of his heroics until later in the day.

“He did the right thing,” said Lewiston police Deputy Chief Michael Bussiere. “There’s an expectation by the public that their police officers are going to help them whether they are in uniform or not. A police officer is never really off duty. Sometimes, you have to act even when you’re not on the job.”

Strout has been a police officer for approximately 15 years. He started in Portland, worked for a time in Auburn, and then was hired in Lewiston three years ago.

“He’s a great guy,” said Watkins, who worked with Strout on the Auburn police force.

None of the officers realized that the man apprehended at Wal-Mart was the same who was convicted of the 1988 murder, in which Frechette was shot and robbed.

According to Bussiere, Strout would have jumped into help no matter whom he was dealing with.

“Sometimes an off-duty police officer is put in a situation like that where they have to act,” Bussiere said. “You can’t just walk away.”

Strout said he thought the man’s name sounded familiar, but he did not know Fitch was a convicted killer until he was told hours later.

“I didn’t know anything about him,” Strout said.

He commended the two men who helped snag the suspect. Their identities were not available Tuesday night.

Strout downplayed his role, saying he did what he is trained to do when another person is in peril.

“Any one of the officers on the force would have done the same thing,” Strout said. “It’s expected of us.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.