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Army reservist’s family describes struggle to get help before mass shooting in Maine

Published: May 16, 2024, 10:50am
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The eight people who were killed last October while bowling at Just In Time Recreation are memorialized on a table top at the bowling alley, Wednesday, May 1, 2024, in Lewiston, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F.
The eight people who were killed last October while bowling at Just In Time Recreation are memorialized on a table top at the bowling alley, Wednesday, May 1, 2024, in Lewiston, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty) Photo Gallery

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Family members of an Army reservist who killed 18 people in Maine gave an emotional apology on Thursday and said Army officials and law enforcement frustrated their efforts to get him mental health care before the deadly rampage.

Hearing public testimony from Robert Card’s family for the first time, an independent commission investigating the mass shooting opened with Card’s sister, Nicole Herling, and her husband James Herling. They described a months-long struggle to get help as Card’s mental health declined.

“Our family will never forget your names,” Herling said, adding that pictures of the victims are on the walls of his family home. “There is no way to express the sorrow that we feel.”

With his head in his hands and wife leaning into his shoulder, James Herling described how Card became increasingly paranoid in the months before the tragedy. The family sobbed as Herling recalled the moment when the couple realized the shooter’s identity.

The commission has already heard from police, victims and their families, and other Army reservists about the deadliest shooting in Maine history. The 40-year-old reservist killed himself after opening fire with an assault rifle inside a bowling alley and a bar and grill in Lewiston in October.

In the aftermath, the legislature passed new gun laws for Maine, a state with a long tradition of firearms ownership. Among other things, they bolstered the state’s “yellow flag” law, criminalized the transfer of guns to prohibited people and expanded funding for mental health crisis care.

Card’s family had kept a low profile, other than releasing a statement in March expressing deep sorrow and disclosing an analysis of Card’s brain tissue that showed evidence of traumatic brain injuries. Card had trained others in the use of hand grenades, and the family blamed that exposure for his mental decline.

His relatives vented their frustrations on Thursday, against the military, law enforcement and media coverage. Herling singled out the Army Reserves for declining to answer the phone or return their calls as they sought help. Card’s ex-wife, Cara Lamb, accused police of ignoring or dismissing warning signs.

Nicole Herling said military personnel deserve better protections: “It’s unjust to continue training with explosions and sonic booms until there are protective gear and standards ensuring the safety of all of our soldier’s brains.”

“This is not an excuse for the behavior or acts that Robbie committed,” James Herling testified. “It was a wrongful act of evil. My brother-in-law was not this man. His brain was hijacked.”

The Army said previously that Card’s brain injury shows “the Army’s need to do all it can to protect soldiers against blast-induced injury,” and urged people not to jump to conclusions until its own investigation and an independent probe by the Army inspector general are completed.

Lamb said their teenage son was so concerned about Card’s growing paranoia and access to guns that she shared his worries with a school resource officer in May 2023. This should’ve been a “flashing sign that we have a problem here,” she said.

Fellow Army reservists witnessed Card’s deterioration, to the point that he was hospitalized for two weeks during training last summer. One reservist, Sean Hodgson, told superiors on Sept. 15: “I believe he’s going to snap and do a mass shooting.”

The commission issued an interim report in March saying law enforcement should have seized Card’s guns and put him in protective custody based on warnings, using the existing yellow flag law. A full report is due this summer.

Police testified that the family had agreed to remove Card’s guns, but the commission said leaving such a task to them “was an abdication of law enforcement’s responsibility.”

One family member accused a deputy of pressuring the family to take responsibility for the guns so that he could wrap up his investigation and go on vacation. By that time, Card was already estranged from most of his family, according to Thursday’s testimony.

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Lamb said she herself encouraged officers not to confront her ex-husband for fear of escalation, but now questions that approach.

“I keep wondering if the right thing to do would’ve been to say, ‘Damn it all, damn everyone’s feelings and repercussions,’ and go scream at the police — ‘What do we have to do?!’” she testified.

Commission chair Daniel Wathen thanked the family, acknowledging that “the spotlight you’ve been placed in is not something you wanted.”