LEWISTON — The whole thing went down in just about 20 minutes: Three police officers responding to what sounded like a routine call instead encountered a nightmare scenario that haunts them nearly 30 years later.

If the murder of police officer David Payne has one grand lesson to impart, it’s that for police, things can go from dull to deadly in no time at all.

“There were a lot of little things that built this nightmare,” said retired Lewiston Police Lt. Don Mailhot.

Early Tuesday night, Mailhot was back in the woods on River Road, describing to a group of locals the horrors he encountered there on July 23, 1988.

That’s the day Payne was gunned down by Nicolo Leone, a career criminal who at the time was free on probation after shooting another man three times in the face. Mailhot believes Leone was a truly evil man.

“You could tell just by looking in his eyes,” Mailhot told the group in the woods. “There was nothing there, just gray. Just a reflection.”

The former lieutenant wasn’t reliving the death of David Payne because he likes talking about it. He was on River Road to help educate two dozen people who joined up for the Lewiston Citizens Police Academy. He was describing that day in horrific detail because there were lessons to be learned.

“After he was done, I thanked him,” said Rick White, a member of the academy. “I thanked him because I know it must have brought on a lot of bad memories.”

On that hot day in July 1988, officers Mailhot and Payne had stopped at Dunkin’ Donuts near the end of a second day of double shifts. They talked about a motorcycle they were going to pick up when they finally got some time off. It was a day like any other.

When the call came in, it didn’t sound like much at all, Mailhot said. A mail carrier had reported that a man was bleeding next to a disabled car on River Road. Just another car crash, they figured. One more routine call to end the long shift.

“They did not know what really had happened down there,” said Pauline Gudas, a former probation officer who had been desperately trying to get Leone back into jail in the days before the killing. “They did not know who the driver was. They did not know he was armed. They didn’t know anything at all about what they were facing.”

Gudas and Mailhot cannot stress this enough to the members of the academy, who rode a donated Northeast Charter bus to the scene of the crime, taking the same route the young officers took in 1988. This teachable moment is the reason officer Joe Philippon invited Mailhot and Gudas to share their painful memories.

“I think most people can get their heads around the idea of a police officer getting shot when he’s responding to a bank robbery or something like that,” Philippon said, “but this was just a report of a car off the road.”

What Mailhot, Payne and a third officer encountered that day on River Road was a bleeding and desperate Nicolo Leone. He knew the police were looking to put him back in jail for a probation violation after a long life of crime. He had accidentally shot himself in the leg and he had used copious amounts of cocaine to ease the pain.

And he was armed with a .44 caliber revolver, a gun he would use to shoot Payne in the kidney and the heart.

On the very spot where Payne died, Mailhot took the group Tuesday night on a grim journey back in time. He described in painful detail every step that led to the death of the officer and the ultimate arrest of Leone. When he was done speaking, the woods fell eerily quiet as members of the Citizens Police Academy absorbed the sad tale.

“Being able to see some of what the officers saw that day, it was surreal,” White said. “It gives a clearer picture of what they have to face every day. It gives me a lot of respect for what they do.”

Mutaz Abdelrahimi couldn’t help but consider the technological advances that have been made since 1988. When Mailhot and Payne responded to River Road that day, they were in a dead zone where their police radios barely worked. There was no fast way to summon extra help to the scene when bullets started flying.

“I think about the limited resources and how difficult their job was,” Abdelrahimi said.

But mostly, the Payne story made him think about how fast things can happen in the police world — then and now.

“They had to make those judgment calls in just seconds,” Abdelrahimi said. “And that’s how they have to do it still, in spite of newer technology. Their job is still difficult.”

Leaving the woods along River Road, Cathy Turbyne had follow-up questions for Mailhot. She wanted to know in which direction Leone was running when the officers started chasing him. She wondered if the path she was on was there on the day that Payne was killed.

“It’s just such an interesting scenario,” Turbyne said. “I was really curious about how it all happened.”

Which is good, said Philippon, the community resource officer who runs the Citizens Police Academy. He wants his students to be curious. He wants them to ask questions and learn things. When he was a young officer just joining the department, Philippon had similar questions. There were plenty of lessons from the Payne murder awaiting him.

“The presence of the fallen officer is still felt in the halls of the station,” Philippon said. “It’s always there as a reminder that you need to stay on your toes — always.”

The death of David Payne: an account from The State of Maine vs. Nicolo Leone

“The record reveals that on the afternoon of July 23, 1988, Leone parked a car in dense undergrowth off a secluded stretch of the River Road in Lewiston. When he attempted to drive out of the area, he discovered that the car was stuck. While waiting for a passerby, Leone accidentally shot himself in the leg with a .44 caliber revolver in his possession. He then asked a passing mail carrier to call a tow truck. Observing what appeared to be blood on Leone’s jeans and shirt, the mail carrier went to a residence on River Road and called the Lewiston police.

“Lewiston police officers David Payne, Donald Mailhot and David Chamberlain responded to the call. From his vantage point in the brush at the side of the road, Leone saw a police cruiser pass by and ran into the dense woods, taking the holstered .44 revolver with him. Officer Payne, the first on the scene, left his cruiser and ran after Leone as the other officers were arriving. Some moments later, Chamberlain and Mailhot heard Payne shout over his radio, ‘Look out, he’s got a gun, he’s got a gun,’ followed by six to ten gunshots. Payne then called into his radio, ‘I’m pinned down, I’m pinned down,’ and ‘I’m hit, I’m hit.’ This was followed by a scream.

“Chamberlain and Mailhot entered the woods. As they moved through the dense undergrowth in the direction of the shots, they heard Leone calling out repeatedly, ‘I give up, don’t kill me.’ Officer Mailhot instructed Leone to throw out his gun and keep his hands in the air. The officers identified Leone’s voice as coming from behind a large pine tree. Mailhot crawled around one side of the tree and Chamberlain the other. Chamberlain then called for Leone to throw out his gun and keep his hands up. In response to Chamberlain’s demand, Leone threw something into a nearby stream and held out his empty hand. By this time, Mailhot could partially see Leone through the undergrowth and observed that he was holding a cocked revolver upright behind the tree with his finger on the trigger. Mailhot called this information to Chamberlain and then ordered Leone to drop the gun or be killed. Leone complied, and the officers handcuffed him.

“Officer Payne was dead at the scene, having been shot twice in the right chest area. Leone had been shot in the left buttock with the bullet traveling upward through his body and lodging behind his heart. Emergency medical technicians arrived, treated Leone at the scene and transported him to St. Mary’s General Hospital.”

Each year on July 23, the anniversary of the death of David Payne, current police officer Jason Johnson organizes a memorial run in which participants jog from River Road, the scene of the crime, to Gracelawn Cemetery in Auburn, where Payne is buried. The event concludes with a breakfast to honor police Officer Paul Simard, who was slain in 1958.

For more information, visit Lewiston Police Department’s Facebook page at facebook.com/LewistonPolice.

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