On Wednesday, a man murdered 18 people and wounded 13 more in Lewistown, Maine. Then he disappeared.
Entire towns and communities were soon put on lockdown as law enforcement from every level of government descended on the area. As time moved on, we learned more about the suspect’s background. He had been hearing voices, according to family members. He threatened to shoot up the base he was stationed at as part of his non-combat service in the army reserve and was subsequently taken to a mental health facility by police. He was then committed for two weeks before being released.
He was armed with an AR variant that he bought a short time before that commitment, which he reportedly wasn’t legally allowed to keep possession of but did anyway. Those details raise far more questions about how this could have been allowed to happen that still need to be answered in the days and weeks ahead.
But, in the hours that followed the horrendous attack, the most crucial question for people in Maine was: Where did he go?
That one was followed closely by a handful of others. Is he still armed? Will he try to hurt anyone else? Will he come after my family?
Having lived through this experience a few weeks back when a murderer escaped from a Pennsylvania prison and ended up just outside my mother’s farm, I think it’s important to try and help people understand what that experience is like.
The two manhunts were similar. A murderer on the loose in a rural area armed with a rifle and a huge band of police in pursuit.
The people in Maine had it worse, though. While those of us in Pennsylvania had to deal with somebody who had a .22lr, best for plinking or squirrel hunting, those in Maine had to worry about somebody with a 308 Winchester, best for distance shooting and deer hunting. And though the Pennsylvania escapee had brutally stabbed his girlfriend to death, the Maine suspect had shot dozens of people with the exact gun he had disappeared into the wilderness with.
Plus, the guy in Maine had some form of military training and was reportedly a firearms trainer of some sort. So, there was even more reason to think he had the skills to be effective at range with his rifle.
And I can tell you the fact the Pennsylvania escapee had a rifle added a whole nother layer to the stress involved in trying to defend a home against him. When a bad guy can reach out and touch you from several hundred yards or more, that significantly complicates whatever you try to do to protect yourself and your loved ones.
It takes your already elevated stress levels and pushes them off the charts. Looking out onto a rural tree line in the dark becomes tantamount to staring into the abyss. Something evil is out there, and there’s good reason to think it intends to do the people you love harm.
The police response, as overwhelming as it might sound in a press conference, doesn’t feel all that reassuring. After all, if they knew where he was, they’d already have him in custody. The Pennsylvania convict evaded police for nearly two weeks and traveled about thirty miles from the prison he escaped from.
In Maine, police surrounded the home of one of the suspect’s family members and ordered him to come out. He wasn’t there.
Similarly, police claimed the escapee was inside a perimeter towards the end of that manhunt. But they were flying helicopters and planes well outside that area at the same time. Now, thankfully, they turned out to be correct. But, in the moment, it wasn’t very reassuring.
Add all that to the assumption that the man on the run is likely traveling at night, and you end up with an equation that will keep you up at night. All night long. Potentially for many nights in a row.
Every rustling of leaves or motion light activation or unrecognizable noise puts you on edge. You feel the overwhelming desire to check each one. It probably isn’t him, but it certainly could be.
And the truth is that one person can only stay at that heightened level of vigilance for so long. After the 10th time the motion light goes off, you might not actually go and check it. But every time you don’t take your own rifle and check to make sure the killer isn’t suddenly standing outside the door to your grandparents’ home, you feel guilty. Your stress levels increase that much more.
Your mind becomes cruel to itself. Did you just get a family member killed because you didn’t have the energy to check another false alarm at 3:45 a.m.? How will you live with it if that’s the case? How will you explain that to others, let alone yourself?
The Pennsylvania escapee only stayed in each area for a few days and was only armed for the last couple of them. So, the torment of trying to protect friends and family from him was mercifully brief. With Maine being much more rural than even Pennsylvania horse country, it seemed like that search could drag on past the dozen days ours did.
Thankfully, officials in Maine announced on Friday they had found the suspected shooter about two days into the search.
The suspect had died from what they suspected was a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was no longer a threat. People could move on from the fear and anxiety of the manhunt to the difficult work of mourning the lives lost and trying to heal their community the best they can.