Domestic violence homicides on the rise in Aroostook County

4 weeks ago

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence and would like to talk with an advocate, call 866-834-4357, TTY 1-800-437-1220. This free, confidential service is available 24/7 and is accessible from anywhere in Maine. 

Last year, Aroostook County residents Jason Donohue, Kimberly Hardy and Jackson Hazell were homicide victims. In each case, a loved one has been indicted in their deaths.  

In 2023, Mariah Dobbins of Easton was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 12 years in prison, with eight years suspended, for the death of her toddler son, Jayden Raymond.

And Bobby Nightingale of Presque Isle began serving two life prison terms for murdering Allen Curtis and Roger Ellis in Castle Hill in what the judge called execution style murders. 

Like most domestic violence-related homicides, the Castle Hill murders were about “power and control born out of jealousy and rage after Ellis gave Nightingale’s former girlfriend a ride and helped her move her things out of Nightingale’s home,” Aroostook County Superior Court Justice Stephen Nelson said during sentencing.

The number of deaths may seem small but the upward trend in domestic violence in sparsely populated Aroostook County has officials concerned. There were eight domestic violence related deaths in the County from 2019 to 2023. In the prior five years, there was one, according to Maine State Police records.

In the past year, Domestic Violence Resource Centers across Maine provided services for 15,147 people, more than in any prior year, according to the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence. The County saw domestic violence calls increase 20 percent from 2022 to 2023, according to Aroostook County Sheriff Peter Johnson.

“I think it’s getting to the point that it’s being reported more,” Johnson said. 

For the Aroostook County Sheriff’s Office deputies, domestic violence calls in the County have become more and more severe, said Johnson. 

“They have become one of the most dangerous calls we respond to,” he said. “To the point that if it’s a domestic violence call our standard operating procedure is actually to send a minimum of two deputies to that call.”

Domestic violence is a form of terrorism, said Julia Weber, a national domestic violence policy and firearms law consultant with Giffords Law Center in California. 

“People are told not to tell anyone, to keep it private; they are isolated. In the heat of the moment, in a high risk situation, incredible damage can be done very quickly to a large number of people,” Weber said, adding that two-thirds of mass shootings have a domestic violence connection.”They put everyone at risk.” 

Losing even one life to domestic violence is a tragedy, said Weber. 

Not to mention the ripple effect that puts law enforcement and the entire community at risk, she said.

When Weber hears law enforcement say these are really scary cases to respond to, she thinks about what the people who are living in that family situation are going through every day, she said.  

The majority of the victims of domestic abuse homicide in Maine are women killed by men with firearms, according to the 14th Biennial Report of the State Domestic Abuse Homicide Panel, a multidisciplinary team of experts in law enforcement, prosecution, advocacy, and prevention. 

Since 1997, the panel has been using detailed information gathered from prosecutors and detectives about each of the state’s domestic abuse homicide cases to identify what could have been done to prevent the killings.

“When there is a firearm present in a domestic violence situation, a woman is 500 percent more likely to be killed,” Weber said. “The presence of a firearm increases the risk of a lethal outcome.” 

Johnson said that in the state of Maine the majority of people they interact with have firearms in their home. Whether or not they are used in the commission of a crime depends on the individual’s circumstances, but that’s always a concern, he said. 

Nightingale was convicted of murder in the shooting deaths of Curtis and Ellis who were shot multiple times through the passenger side of Ellis’ pick-up truck.

On June 16, 2023, Kimberly Hardy, 42, was allegedly shot twice in the head by her live-in partner, 39-year-old Jayme Schnackenberg who was charged with murder. Schnackenberg was arrested after Hardy’s body was discovered in a wooded area near Harvey Siding Road in Monticello, according to Maine State Police.

On March 17, 2019, 14-month-old Quinten Leavitt, was shot to death by his father, Matthew Leavitt in a murder suicide inside their Presque Isle home.

In the County’s other recent domestic abuse-related deaths, Jason Donahue, 30, of Caribou was allegedly killed by Susan Kochanowski, 34, who was charged with arson and murder. Kochanowski, who recently pleaded not criminally responsible because of her mental health disorders, told investigators that she started the fire that killed Donahue in a trash can inside the apartment where the couple lived, according to court reports.

On Nov. 13, 2023, Stanley Hazell of Fort Fairfield  was indicted on one manslaughter count in the death of his 7-month old son following a year-long investigation by Maine State Police. On Thursday, he pleaded not guilty. 

Maine was given a near failing grade on the Giffords Law Center Prevent Gun Violence 2023 Scorecard. According to the report, the state lacks stringent domestic violence gun laws that keep guns out of the hands of abusers. 

Maine’s lack of basic gun safety laws puts its residents at grave risk, and lawmakers owe it to their communities to stand up to this crisis, the scorecard said.

Even though a person may be temporarily prohibited from possessing a firearm in a domestic violence situation, the state does not require the surrender of firearms or ammunition, according to the Gifford Law Center.

Like federal law, Maine law prohibits anyone from possessing a firearm if they have a court order that restrains the person from harassing, stalking or threatening an intimate partner or that partner’s child, according to the scorecard.

In Aroostook County, it’s standard protocol for sheriff’s deputies to complete a risk assessment and a referral to DHHS for all County domestic violence calls. The risk assessment is submitted to the district attorney’s office and also given to the bail commissioner, Sheriff Johnson said.

The risk assessment scores people on specific areas that have been known to increase the risk of the likelihood of a homicide, he said. 

The state panel that has been monitoring domestic abuse homicides for more than two decades found that when police conduct a welfare check a victim may be left at risk if the officer does not take stock of all individuals present in the home. 

In their biennial report released in January, the panel recommends that police identify all residents present and visually confirm their welfare.

Johnson said it’s not as easy as knocking on a door. 

“We do our best to make contact with everyone,” the sheriff said. “The difficulty comes if someone doesn’t want to answer the door or answer the phone. Unless there is probable cause to believe there is a crime being committed in the home, we can’t force them to open the door.”

Johnson said they investigate other things during a welfare check: Did the person check in with their job, did they go to church, if they volunteer, did they show up? Each one of the things they normally would do, that they are not doing, increases the validity of the report, he said. 

A big part of the solution, Johnson said, is teaching young people about healthy relationships because many of them may not have good models to learn from. He said they need to be educated about the signs of someone who may be abusive and controlling. 

“Also if you see things or hear things – yelling, things being broken – report it to law enforcement. Even if it’s just something you just don’t know for sure, it’s better to call. We will at least look into it and it may not be,” he said. “At least you’re not left wondering, ‘what if I had called?’”