Aroostook sheriff wants charges dismissed in Mars Hill hostage shooting lawsuit

4 weeks ago

The Aroostook County Sheriff’s Office says a Mars Hill woman waited too long to claim excessive force when she was shot while being held hostage.

Lena Gerber filed suit in August with U.S. District Court in Bangor against the sheriff’s office, Deputy Isaac Ward and her former attorney, Jeffery Pickering, arising from the fatal shooting of Jacob Wood on April 14, 2021.

In the 26-page lawsuit filed by Willey Law Offices of Bangor, Gerber claimed Ward used excessive force by shooting through her to kill Wood, while Wood held her hostage. Gerber and her attorneys demanded a jury trial. 

Attorneys from Wheeler & Arey of Bangor, representing the sheriff’s office, issued a motion on Oct. 9 to dismiss some counts of the lawsuit largely because Gerber was too late filing her claim. The lawsuit was filed beyond the two-year statute of limitations, according to the motion.

In addition, Gerber did not sufficiently state the occurrence of excessive force in her complaint, the motion stated.

The motion asks that four of nine charges in the suit be dismissed: that Ward, the sheriff’s office and other deputies failed to protect Gerber; that their actions caused Gerber significant emotional distress; that the sheriff’s office failed to properly educate and supervise Ward and other deputies on handling “suicide by cop” situations; and that the sheriff’s office is liable for the harm Gerber suffered.

The lawsuit also charged that Gerber had a right not to be shot by police as a hostage victim, and that her rights were violated under the Maine Civil Rights Act and the Fourth and 14th Amendments; that law enforcement did not use non-lethal means to negotiate with Wood; and legal malpractice on the part of her former attorney Pickering for failing to file her claims before deadlines expired.

Sheriff’s office attorneys first asked to dismiss the charges on Sept. 5. Gerber didn’t notify deputies of her claims within the required time, they said.

Under Maine law, people must notify a governmental agency of claims against it within one year, and in cases of exceptions within two years.

Gerber’s attorneys opposed the motion on Sept. 20. They alleged Ward and deputies violated requirements for use of excessive force, including there being an immediate threat to them or to the public and giving a warning before shooting. 

On the night of the incident, Wood was at Gerber’s home in Mars Hill and stated he wanted to be killed by police, according to both the lawsuit and the attorney general’s report on the shooting.  

Deputies, including Ward and Sgt. Erica Pelletier, found Wood holding Gerber in front of him with a knife to her throat. Deputies repeatedly told Wood to drop the knife, but he did not. Ward shot twice, killed Wood and also hit Gerber, the reports stated.

Gerber suffered a graze wound to her left side as well as another shot through her chest, fracturing her sternum. The injuries caused the woman permanent physical and emotional injury, according to the lawsuit.

Two days after the incident, Gerber told an attorney general’s office detective that Deputy Ward had tried to protect her, according to documents the Bangor Daily News obtained through a Freedom of Access Act request.

Detective Michael Durham interviewed Gerber on April 16, 2021, in the hospital. She had bandages on her left arm and upper torso, he said. 

Gerber told Durham twice that it wasn’t Ward’s fault, because he was trying to save her. Wood was high on methamphetamine and drinking, and wanted suicide by cop, according to the interview report.

Wood had asked Gerber to kill him earlier, she said. Wood stabbed himself in the leg and cut his wrists, chest and neck. Gerber and Wood were outside fighting over the knife when police arrived, the report stated.

The attorney general’s office also provided in its reports detectives’ interviews with Ward and Pelletier that were conducted on April 16, 2021.

Pelletier said she and Ward ordered Wood to drop the knife and step away from Gerber. Wood told deputies “I’m going to do it if you don’t,” which she took to mean he would kill Gerber. Gerber was crying that he was going to kill her, Pelletier reported.  

Pelletier aimed her handgun but didn’t have a clear shot at Wood. She heard “more than one shot” from Ward and saw Wood fall. Gerber said her left chest hurt. Pelletier called for an ambulance, according to the interview.

Ward told a detective he arrived at the scene to see a blood-covered Wood holding a knife to Gerber’s throat. He ordered Wood several times to let the woman go, and later exchanged his pistol for his higher-accuracy rifle, he reported.  

Ward commanded Wood for about 15 seconds to let Gerber go, but the man continued to hold the knife to her throat. Believing he had a clear shot, Ward fired twice. He found out Gerber had been shot and told her he was afraid Wood would kill her. Gerber replied “I know, I know,” according to the interview.

An excerpt from Ward’s body camera footage was also obtained through the Freedom of Access Act request. The clip shows various images of the car’s interior and Ward’s hands. Gerber and Wood are not visible. 

“Hey, let me see your hands, man. Let me see your hands,” Ward calls. “Does he have a knife?” Ward hollers “Let go of her” six times and his rifle can be seen. He orders, “Put your hands up” and a woman is heard screaming, then the clip ends.

The Maine attorney general’s office exonerated Ward in February, saying he acted in Gerber’s defense. 

The attorney general investigates all cases of police use of deadly force to determine if the officers’ actions were justified, but it has never found an officer unjustified.

No response to the Oct. 9 motion for dismissal has yet been filed by Gerber or her attorneys.