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FINDINGS OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL ON POLICE USE OF DEADLY FORCE
April 18, 2003
Attorney General Steven Rowe announced today that two York County deputy sheriffs, Sergeant David W. Dumond, 39, and Deputy Steven K. Thistlewood, 29, were legally justified when they shot and killed Dale S. Pelletier, 33, of Milton Mills, New Hampshire, on the afternoon of March 7, 2003, in Acton, Maine. The Attorney General also said that Sergeant Dumond was legally justified when, at prior points in time, he discharged his weapon at Pelletier and used his cruiser to ram Pelletier’s vehicle.
The Attorney General's investigation focused on the issue of whether the use of deadly force by the deputies in the particular situation was legally justified. The Attorney General is required by law to review all occurrences in which a law enforcement officer uses deadly force in the performance of the officer’s duty.
Under Maine law, for a law enforcement officer to be justified in using deadly force for purposes of self-protection or the protection of third persons, two requirements must be met. First, the officer must actually and reasonably believe that unlawful deadly force is imminently threatened against the officer or a third person. Second, the officer must actually and reasonably believe that the officer's use of deadly force is necessary to meet or counter that imminent threat. (Maine law defines deadly force as physical force that a person uses with the intent of causing, or which the person knows to create a substantial risk of causing, death or serious bodily injury. With respect to a firearm, intentionally or recklessly discharging a firearm in the direction of another person or at a moving vehicle is also deadly force under Maine law.)
Attorney General Rowe determined that, based on his office's investigation and legal analysis, Sergeant Dumond and Deputy Thistlewood actually and reasonably believed that unlawful deadly force had been and was being used by Dale Pelletier against them and others. A short time before being shot and killed by the deputies, Pelletier, who was fleeing the police in his vehicle, fired his handgun at Sergeant Dumond and, subsequently, at Deputy Arthur Titcomb, also of the York County Sheriff’s Office. After his vehicle was forced off the road, Pelletier fired his handgun at Deputy Thistlewood, Sergeant Dumond, and other officers. Thistlewood and Dumond returned fire that resulted in Pelletier’s death.
The investigation and legal analysis also determined that Sergeant Dumond and Deputy Thistlewood, themselves being fired upon by Pelletier, actually and reasonably believed that deadly force on their part was necessary to protect themselves from death or serious bodily injury. The same was determined with respect to Sergeant Dumond’s earlier use of deadly force against Pelletier when he shot at Pelletier after being shot at himself by Pelletier, and when he used his cruiser to ram Pelletier’s vehicle in order to stop Pelletier. Therefore, both requirements of law having been met, the use of deadly force by Sergeant Dumond and Deputy Thistlewood was legally justified.
The Attorney General reported the following findings from his office's investigation:
At around noontime on Friday, March 7, 2003, Pelletier, armed with a 9mm semi-automatic handgun, engaged in a course of conduct while driving his pickup truck in the Milton, New Hampshire area that included two separate random acts of shooting at another driver. In the first incident, the vehicle operator was not struck. However, in the second incident, the vehicle operator suffered a gunshot wound to the left arm. Investigation of these shooting incidents by New Hampshire authorities culminated in an intensive search for Pelletier in the Milton area by the Milton police and others in an effort to locate and arrest Pelletier. Because of Maine’s proximity, the Milton police chief, Mark McGowan, alerted the York County Sheriff’s Office and the Maine State Police of the shooting incidents and requested that Maine authorities join in the search for Pelletier.
At about 1:15 p.m., York County Sheriff’s Deputy Jeffrey Wolfahrt observed a pickup truck on the Fox Ridge Road in Acton matching the description of the vehicle that Pelletier was believed to be operating. Wolfahrt alerted other deputies and began a slow speed surveillance of the vehicle that led from Acton into Lebanon and then back into Acton. At one point, based on his observations of Pelletier’s movements inside the vehicle, Deputy Wolfahrt concluded that Pelletier was either accessing or concealing something beneath the vehicle’s seat. It was later confirmed that Pelletier was in fact the driver and sole occupant of the vehicle. Maine State Police trooper Jeremy Forbes, learning of the vehicle’s direction of travel, attempted to set up a roadblock with a spike mat on the Goding Road at its intersection with the County Road in Acton. Milton Police Chief McGowan joined Deputy Wolfahrt in the slow speed surveillance of Pelletier as he traveled towards Forbes’ position. Those two officers were joined in the moving surveillance of Pelletier by York County Deputy Sheriff Steven Thistlewood. Upon the approach to Trooper Forbes’ stationary position, Pelletier’s vehicle accelerated and Pelletier extended his right hand, holding a handgun, out the open driver’s window of his vehicle. Deputy Wolfahrt shouted over the radio to Trooper Forbes that Pelletier had a gun.
Pelletier was successful in avoiding Trooper Forbes’ partially deployed spike mat. When Pelletier passed Trooper Forbes, who had taken protective cover outside of his marked State Police cruiser, other officers observed Pelletier point a handgun out of the open driver’s window directly at Trooper Forbes, and then accelerate away.
Once Pelletier had passed Trooper Forbes’ position, Deputy Wolfahrt and the other officers activated the emergency lighting and sirens on their marked police vehicles. Pelletier ignored this attempt by the officers to stop his vehicle. Learning that Pelletier and his pursuers were on the Milton Mills Road in Acton, Sergeant David Dumond of the York County Sheriff’s Office set up further along on that road a second roadblock with a fully deployed spike mat across Pelletier’s anticipated lane of travel. On his approach to Sergeant Dumond’s stationary position on the Milton Mills Road, Pelletier accelerated and drove his vehicle into the opposite lane of travel as if intending to collide head-on with Sergeant Dumond’s stationary cruiser. However, just prior to reaching the cruiser, Pelletier steered his vehicle back into the proper lane of travel.
The Pelletier vehicle, upon reaching the spike mat, slowed to a near stop. After passing over the spike mat, Pelletier leaned out of the open driver’s window in a backwards direction, pointed his gun at Sergeant Dumond, who was crouched by his cruiser, and fired at least one round at Sergeant Dumond. Sergeant Dumond, who was not struck by the discharge, then fired one round at Pelletier. Later investigation determined that this round did not strike Pelletier. After discharging his handgun at Sergeant Dumond, Pelletier ducked back into his vehicle and accelerated away at a speed greater than the 25 to 30 miles per hour that he had been previously been traveling during the pursuit.
The number of police vehicles now pursuing Pelletier expanded to include both Trooper Forbes and Sergeant Dumond. As Pelletier proceeded west on the Milton Mills Road, the officers observed school buses on the road. York County sheriff’s deputy Arthur Titcomb had attempted to reroute one bus, but the bus driver apparently misunderstood Deputy Titcomb’s instruction and drove east on the Milton Mills Road, heading directly into the path of Pelletier and the pursuing police officers. Deputy Titcomb, who was operating an unmarked police vehicle equipped with emergency lighting and siren that he had activated, pursued the bus, and was able to bring it to a stop at the same time that Pelletier passed that location. As Pelletier drove by the bus and Deputy Titcomb’s cruiser, he leaned out of the driver’s open window and fired his handgun directly at Deputy Titcomb. Later investigation determined that the round struck Titcomb’s vehicle.
Sergeant Dumond assumed the primary pursuit position immediately behind Pelletier’s vehicle with the intention of ramming Pelletier’s vehicle for the purpose of stopping it. However, the approach of the school bus and Deputy Titcomb’s vehicle initially precluded him from doing so. After Pelletier went by the school bus and Deputy Titcomb’s vehicle, Sergeant Dumond executed a ramming maneuver of moderate impact to Pelletier’s vehicle. The maneuver resulted in Pelletier losing control of his pickup truck, and the truck coming to rest with its front end on top of a snow bank at the intersection of the Milton Mills Road and French Street in Acton, about 400 feet from the New Hampshire state line.
Sergeant Dumond immediately brought his cruiser to a stop, opened the driver’s door, and, using his door as cover, directed his weapon at the Pelletier vehicle. Deputy Thistlewood, who was following Sergeant Dumond, also stopped his cruiser, emerged with his weapon at the ready, and advanced on foot from his cruiser toward the rear of the disabled Pelletier vehicle. At the same time as these actions by the deputies were taking place, Pelletier attempted to open the driver’s door of his vehicle but could only partially do so because of the snow bank. Within seconds, Pelletier began firing his handgun directly at the deputies through the opening between the driver’s door and the cab. Both Deputy Thistlewood and Sergeant Dumond immediately returned fire. Several of their rounds struck Pelletier’s pickup truck; two rounds struck Pelletier.
Later investigation and a forensic examination determined that Pelletier died almost immediately as a result of two gunshot wounds to the head. An investigation by Dr. Margaret Greenwald, the state’s chief medical examiner, found that the trajectory of each of the fatal gunshot wounds was consistent with the observations of the deputies and at least one civilian witness who from a nearby residence observed Pelletier’s physical position in his vehicle, and saw Pelletier fire on the officers and the officers’ immediate response.
Emergency medical personnel on the scene within minutes of the shooting determined that Pelletier was deceased. The entire episode, from the point that Deputy Wolfahrt first observed and started following the Pelletier vehicle to the point that Pelletier was shot and killed, took place in less than a half hour.
Six detectives from the Office of the Attorney General went to the scene of the shooting in Acton to conduct the investigation. They were assisted in the investigation by detectives from the State Police and members of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. The New Hampshire State Police also assisted in the investigation. The York County Sheriff’s Office cooperated fully with the investigation and is conducting its own departmental review of the incident.
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