Late on Saturday night, August 17, 2013, Robert Bellfleur, 78, was shot and killed during an armed confrontation outside his home in Grindstone by Officer Seth Burnes of the East Millinocket Police Department. It is the responsibility of the Office of the Attorney General to determine whether the officer was acting in self-defense or in the defense of someone else at the time he employed deadly force. Facts
Brian and Marlene Badger reside on the Frazier Road in Grindstone Township, a seasonal residence from which they have operated a bear hunting guide service for the past three years. Their closest neighbor was Robert Bellfleur, Sr., 78, who lived alone in a residence across the road. Frazier Road is a dead-end road and the two residences are at the terminus.
On Saturday evening, August 17, 2013, the Badgers’ attention was drawn outside to the flashing of headlamps from what turned out to be Mr. Bellfleur in his vehicle at his residence. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Badger looked out the window and observed Mr. Bellfleur staggering up the steps to the Badgers’ front door. Mr. Bellfleur fell on the steps, got up, and continued to the front door. Mrs. Badger opened the door and was met by Mr. Bellfleur, who immediately started yelling and cursing at Mr. and Mrs. Badger over the hunting practice of baiting bears. Mrs. Badger could smell an odor of intoxicants emanating from Mr. Bellfleur. Mr. Bellfleur threatened to kill the Badgers and burn their house down. Mr. and Mrs. Badger had seen Mr. Bellfleur intoxicated on many occasions during the three years they were neighbors, but on this occasion he was more agitated than before. Mr. Badger told Mr. Bellfleur to go home. Concerned about the tenor of Mr. Bellfleur’s behavior, and especially the threats to kill the Badgers and burn their house down, Mr. Badger directly telephoned Patricia McLaughlin, a Penobscot County deputy sheriff, for advice. The call was made at 8:39 p.m. Deputy McLaughlin said that she would come to the Badger residence to be sure that Mr. Bellfleur had in fact left.
At the time she received the call from Mr. Badger, Deputy McLaughlin had been assisting East Millinocket police officers Seth Burnes and Brad Fitzgerald with a traffic stop. Deputy McLaughlin requested assistance from the two officers with Mr. Bellfleur because she knew from past information and experience that Mr. Bellfleur could be aggressive toward law enforcement. For example, as recently as April 2013, Mr. Bellfleur called the Penobscot County Regional Communications Center after having been issued harassment warnings by the Sheriff’s Office and said that he would shoot any officer who came to his house and attempted to arrest him. At 8:42 p.m., Mr. Badger called Deputy McLaughlin back and told her that Mr. Bellfleur had left the residence. Mr. Badger asked her not to respond because he was concerned that a police presence might anger Mr. Bellfleur even more, causing him to follow through with the threat to burn their house down. However, at 8:49 p.m., Mr. Bellfleur returned to the Badger residence, and again threatened to kill the Badgers and burn their house down. He also continued to harangue them over their bear hunting practices. Mrs. Badger called Deputy McLaughlin back and informed her that Mr. Bellfleur was back and was continuing his threats.
At approximately 9:00 p.m., Deputy McLaughlin and the two East Millinocket police officers, Seth Burnes and Brad Fitzgerald, arrived at the Badger residence. Each officer arrived in separate, marked cruisers; all three officers were in uniform. Deputy McLaughlin illuminated the front of the Badger residence and observed Mr. and Mrs. Badger on their porch attempting to persuade Mr. Bellfleur to leave their door step and go home. Deputy McLaughlin approached Mr. Bellfleur, who she observed to be very intoxicated, instructed him to leave the property, and told him not to return or he would be arrested for criminal trespass. Mr. Bellfleur argued with Deputy McLaughlin and she ordered him at least four separate times to leave the Badger residence or face arrest. Mr. Bellfleur, in preparing to leave, stated that if any of the officers went onto his property, they would be shot. As he was leaving, he yelled, “This isn’t going to be another Ruby Ridge! You are not going to shoot me in the back.” The officers watched Mr. Bellfleur walk out of sight in the direction of his residence.
Standing outside her residence with her husband and the three officers, Mrs. Badger noticed all of the lights in Mr. Bellfleur’s residence go out, which she found unusual. Mr. Bellfleur could still be heard yelling from his residence. A few moments later, the Badgers and the three police officers, all still standing outside the Badger’s residence, heard a gunshot, which appeared to have come from Mr. Bellfleur’s residence. The Badgers ran into their residence and the officers used their vehicles for cover.
Officer Fitzgerald turned his vehicle around and illuminated the front porch area of Mr. Bellfleur’s residence, a distance of approximately 200 feet, with the headlights and spotlight of his cruiser. Officer Fitzgerald could see Mr. Bellfleur standing in his doorway on the porch holding a long gun (rifle or shotgun) in his hands.
Officer Burnes retrieved his carbine rifle from his vehicle, took a position using his vehicle for cover, and focused on Mr. Bellfleur’s front porch. With the area illuminated by Officer’s Fitzgerald’s lights, Officer Burnes observed Mr. Bellfleur step out of his residence onto the porch with the long gun in the “ready position,” which he described as not quite raised at shoulder height, but with both hands on the weapon and pointed directly at the officers. The long gun was later determined to be a 12 gauge shotgun.
Officer Burnes fired three rounds at Mr. Bellfleur and Mr. Bellfleur immediately fell backward through the open door, which shut behind him. It was unknown immediately if Mr. Bellfleur had been injured or if he was hiding in the residence. The officers waited for the State Police Tactical Team to arrive and approach the house in a protected vehicle. It was then determined that Mr. Bellfleur was deceased.
Later investigation determined that one of the rounds missed altogether, one round struck the side of the residence, and one round struck Mr. Bellfleur in the chest. The impact of the bullet caused him to drop his weapon and fall backward through the open door of his residence. Examination of the scene during the subsequent investigation determined that Mr. Bellfleur had stood on his front porch with his right shoulder leaning against a screen door. An interior door was open. When Mr. Bellfleur was shot, he dropped his weapon, fell into his residence, and the screen door closed behind him.
Detectives from the Office of the Attorney General went to the scene in Grindstone to conduct an investigation. They were assisted by several members of the State Police, including evidence technicians and detectives. A later postmortem examination and autopsy performed by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Augusta determined that Mr. Bellfleur died from blood loss as a result of a single gunshot wound to the chest that perforated a lung. It was also determined that Mr. Bellfleur’s blood-alcohol content at the time of his death was 0.146%. The scene investigation and post mortem examination were consistent with the accounts given by the officers and witnesses.
Analysis and Conclusion The Attorney General is charged by law with investigating any law enforcement officer who uses deadly force while acting in the performance of the officer’s duties. The sole purpose of the Attorney General’s investigation in this matter was to determine whether self-defense or the defense of others, as defined by law, was reasonably generated by the facts so as to preclude criminal prosecution of Officer Burnes. The review did not include an analysis of potential civil liability, whether any administrative action is warranted, or whether the use of deadly force could have been averted. Under Maine law, for any person, including a law enforcement officer, to be justified in using deadly force in self-defense or the defense of others, two requirements must be met. First, the person must actually and reasonably believe that deadly force is imminently threatened against the person or someone else, and, second, the person must actually and reasonably believe that deadly force is necessary to counter that imminent threat.
Whether a use of force is reasonable is based on the totality of the particular circumstances, and must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, allowing for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second decisions about the amount of force necessary in a particular situation. The analysis requires careful attention to the facts and circumstances of a particular case, including the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of officers or others, and whether the suspect is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.
Attorney General Janet T. Mills has concluded that at the time Officer Burnes shot Mr. Bellfleur, he reasonably believed that unlawful deadly force was being imminently threatened against him and the other officers, and it was reasonable for him to believe that it was necessary for him to use deadly force to protect himself and the other officers from deadly force. The officer acted in self-defense and in the defense of the other persons present.