A police vehicle blocks Knight Farm Road in Turner on Feb. 12, 2021, as an investigation was underway in the deaths of Troy Varney, 52, and his wife, Dulsie, 48, in their home. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal file

TURNER — On a Thursday evening last February, as wary family and neighbors stood by, Androscoggin County sheriff’s deputies said they could not do anything about a troubled tenant who had locked himself inside his apartment and refused to come out.

Patrick Maher, 24, hadn’t specifically threatened to harm himself or anyone else but he had been “acting strange” all day, several people familiar with the case said recently.

One of his landlords, Troy Varney, was among those worried about what Maher would do if authorities couldn’t take him into custody or get him into mental health treatment.

But deputies, who had already spoken with Maher earlier in the day when they got a call about him standing in front of the local high school, could not find any legal grounds to remove Maher from his home after a couple of hours of trying to sort out the difficult situation.

They finally gave up and said they had to move on.

“When he kills somebody tonight, it’s on you,” Varney told one of the lawmen, according to state Sen. Jeff Timberlake, a Turner Republican.

Troy and Dulcie Varney in younger days. The Turner couple was murdered in their home last year, and a local lawmaker is hoping to empower law enforcement with new tools to prevent a similar situation in the future. Submitted

Early the next morning, on Feb. 12, police and prosecutors say Maher broke into Troy and Dulcie Varney’s nearby home, slipped into the bedroom and stabbed the couple to death.

Maher remains in custody, awaiting a trial that could lead to spending the rest of his life behind bars.

Maher pleaded not guilty last spring to two counts of intentional or knowing or depraved indifference murder.

Timberlake said the horrific crime exposed a legal flaw that he would like to find a way to fix, something that would allow police officers to take someone into informal custody for a few hours when they have good reason to think a cooling-off period might prevent mayhem.

“I call it the ‘Varney Bill’ because it starts there,” he said, but at this point the measure contains no language at all, just a vague wish that authorities find a legal mechanism that would permit officers who sense looming trouble to take an action short of making an arrest or having someone committed involuntarily.

The idea is to provide “a tool to give us the opportunity for a cool-down period,” Androscoggin County Sheriff Eric Samson said.

Timberlake’s bill is slated for a public hearing Thursday. Its conceptual language expresses the desire “to enhance behavioral health services and assist law enforcement officers to better protect the residents of this state.”

Detailed wording has yet to be written and it remains unclear whether the constitutional and legal hurdles involved can be overcome.

Timberlake said there are “tons of complications” involved because the legal system doesn’t readily allow law enforcement to seize people who haven’t broken the law.

Samson said taking people into protective custody is going to pose some serious constitutional issues and some practical ones as well, including where officers would keep an individual safe during a cool-down period.

Timberlake and Samson said what happened in the Varney case is not unique, that other departments in the state have faced similar dilemmas dealing with distraught people who might pose a danger to others but who haven’t crossed the line into making threats to do so.

PRELUDE TO MURDER IN TURNER

Many details of what transpired in the hours before the Varney murders remain murky.

No one from the Varney or Maher family who could be reached for comment was willing to speak about the incident. This account relies on information from police affidavits, Timberlake and two others with knowledge of what happened. Samson declined to discuss any details because of the ongoing legal case against Maher.

Patrick Maher Androscoggin County Jail

In the days before the killing, according to family members and others, the Varneys worried that Maher posed a danger. But it is unclear why they were so concerned.

During the day on Feb. 11, somebody phoned the Sheriff’s Office to complain about a man standing in front of Leavitt Area High School.

He wasn’t doing anything alarming, they said, just standing there on a cold day, an unsettling sight.

The sheriff’s deputy who responded found Maher there and talked with him for a time. He was polite enough that he was allowed to move along though he was probably, from a technical viewpoint at least, trespassing. It wasn’t the sort of situation that typically leads to an arrest.

By evening, Maher was in his rented apartment at 419 Turner Center Road, next door to the school property, suffering from what Timberlake described broadly as “a real emotional breakdown.” He did not offer details.

There were neighbors, a member of Maher’s family and sheriff’s personnel on the scene, talking through a locked door to try to convince Maher to come out and go get some help. He wouldn’t leave his apartment.

Efforts to find a doctor who would sign off on the paperwork to have Maher brought in for mental health treatment proved fruitless, Timberlake said.

The deputies and others kept trying for two or three hours to find some way to get Maher to come outside and seek treatment on his own. He declined.

A BLOODY KILLING

For reasons that are still not understood, Maher left his apartment once everyone outside had departed.

In the middle of the night, he walked down Turner Center Road, crossed the bridge over the Nezinscot River and trudged over to the Varneys’ home at 44 Knight Farm Road, about half a mile from his starting point.

A police affidavit filed in the murder case against Maher said he proceeded to break the couple’s living room window and slip into the downstairs bedroom where Troy and Dulcie Varney, married for 23 years, slept.

Shortly after, their 19-year-old daughter, Shelby, and her boyfriend, Kristian Woodhouse, awoke upstairs to the screams of her mother, the affidavit said.

They grabbed guns and ran down the stairs, where Woodhouse told police he saw Dulsie Varney stumbling toward her bedroom and Troy Varney lying on top of Maher at the bottom of the stairs.

Timberlake said Shelby Varney raced for her mother, saw blood gushing from her slit throat as she lay in bed, and tried in vain to staunch the flow.

“Just a horrible thing,” Timberlake said.

The police affidavit said Woodhouse and Troy Varney, bleeding badly, restrained Maher until deputies arrived after receiving a 911 call at 1:32 a.m. Varney later died.

Maher, covered with blood but largely uninjured, was taken to the hospital and soon charged with the murder of the Varneys.

State Sen. Jeff Timberlake Submitted photo

LOOKING FOR ANSWERS

Timberlake said the murder “really breaks my heart.”

Two friends are dead, he said, and a young man “with some serious problems who should have got help” is instead “going to spend his life in jail.”

He said the law doesn’t give police enough leeway to deal with situations like the one they encountered with Maher that evening.

“I feel bad for the sheriff,” Timberlake said, because there wasn’t authority in the end for anybody to act. They “had to let him go” and to move on, whatever their misgivings.

If they’d been able to take Maher into temporary custody, he said, the crime “could have been easily stopped” before it unfolded into a night of horror.

“We’ve got to figure something out,” Timberlake said. “I don’t pretend to know what the solution is.”

He said he wants input from experts who can help craft something that navigates the tricky line between violating constitutional rights to be left alone and protecting both the public and troubled individuals themselves.

“We’re trying to come up with something that is palatable to everybody,” he said. “I’m trying to work with all sides.”

The idea of a cool-down period, Timberlake said, comes in part out of his own experience as a young hothead with “a wicked temper” who sometimes needed to be told to back off and chill out.

EASIER SAID THAN DONE

Timberlake said there are “tons of complications” involved in writing a new law that might offer more options for police officers.

He said he doesn’t want to give government undue power – a cardinal belief for a conservative who is inherently skeptical of government – but at the same time he wants law enforcement agents to have the ability to protect people.

A cooling-off period might help, Timberlake said.

But Darlene Patrick, a Farmington resident with a 33-year-old son who is incarcerated in a New Hampshire prison’s mental health unit, said that a cooling-off period is unlikely to do the trick.

“My gut is that it’s a little useless,” she said.

Patrick, who’s been struggling to help her son for many years, compared a cooling-off period to putting somebody in a cell to sober up before sending them on their way, a common scene in old television shows.

The reality, she said, “ain’t Andy Griffith. Mental illness doesn’t end when you wake up.”

Her son Peter has paranoid schizophrenia, she said, and has had many run-ins with the police as a result.

In testimony to the Legislature last year, Patrick said that “family members, friends and myself have called for a ‘well person’ check multiple times over the years for Peter, knowing that he is on the verge of causing an incident or being unable to care for himself. No matter the urgency, few have resulted in any type of treatment” because officers decided he did not pose a threat to himself or others.

The incident that landed her son behind bars occurred after he took off in a car with a cardboard license plate he made that read COVID and eventually wound up in deeper trouble in New Hampshire, his mother said last week.

Police took him to the hospital, which put him in a secure area of the emergency room, Patrick said. He proceeded to smash every piece of glass he could find, which led to his five-year sentence that is providing him with care, something of a relief to his mother.

She said the only thing she’s sure would help in troubling situations is the involvement of trained mental health workers who have the necessary insight to cope with what they see unfolding.

A NEW LAW ALREADY LOWERED THE BAR

Last year, legislators revised a longstanding provision that allows a law enforcement officer to take someone into protective custody for a mental health evaluation if an individual “presents a threat of imminent and substantial physical harm to that person or to other persons.”

That was the law’s language when sheriff’s personnel talked with Maher last winter.

Now, because of that change, the law allows them to act if someone “poses a likelihood of serious harm,” a standard meant to be easier to reach.

It’s a change that the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s Maine chapter endorsed.

“Throughout many years working within crisis services across the state, the guidelines that are currently in place have allowed for individuals who are potentially at risk of harm to themselves or others to fall through the cracks, at times resulting in catastrophic and heartbreaking results,” it testified last year.

But the group also said it is “imperative that any alterations in the standard for assessing risk of serious harm ensure against the risk of previous unintended mistakes, which resulted in mass institutionalizations of individuals with mental health challenges” in years past.

Samson said the new standard will probably help.

But, he said, he understands why Timberlake wants “to give us the opportunity” for a less formal process that would create a cooling-off period.

How it would work is uncertain. Samson said he’s not sure where somebody would be taken to cool down, for instance.

The one thing that is clear is that nobody wants to see crimes like the one that took the lives of the Varneys happen again.

Timberlake said his bill “doesn’t have a lot of meat on it” yet, but perhaps in the end, it will offer something that might help save lives.

“We’re trying to come up with something that is palatable to everybody,” he said.

The online Judiciary Committee hearing is slated for 9 a.m. Thursday. It can be accessed through the Legislature’s website.

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