Fate of Oxford County sheriff rests with Janet Mills following hearing (2024)

At the second and final day of a hearing on Wednesday in Augusta into whether Oxford County Sheriff Christopher Wainwright should be removed from his elected office, questioning deepened on what county officials have described as his unlawful trade of firearms from the evidence room in 2021.

The decision on Wainwright’s fate now rests with Gov. Janet Mills, who is the only person who can pull a sheriff from office. Former judge Donald Alexander presided over the administrative hearing this week and will make a recommendation to Mills who retains final decision-making authority. The last time a governor ousted a sheriff was in 1926.

Oxford County commissioners in February asked Mills to remove Wainwright for threatening a deputy in 2022 who reported him for asking the deputy to go easy on an acquaintance; for allowing men who were not certified as law enforcement to work as school resource officers despite contracts with school districts mandating certified officers; and for trading guns from the evidence room without telling county officials, conducting an auction or first trying to contact the gun owners as required under Maine law.

Amy Dieterich, an attorney for Oxford County, questioned Wainwright under oath on Wednesday about whether he told commissioners in March 2020 that he was planning to trade guns from evidence. That’s when commissioners said they approved the sheriff trading in service weapons to get new firearms for officers but did not know the sheriff would trade weapons from the evidence room to J.T Reid’s Gun Shop in Auburn the following year.

Fate of Oxford County sheriff rests with Janet Mills following hearing (1)

Wainwright said he believed he told them. “I felt that it was understood, but apparently it wasn’t,” he said.

In her closing statement, Dieterich summarized how the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office didn’t take over duties for the Dixfield Police Department and acquire their weapons from evidence — which made up many of the guns Wainwright traded — until later in 2020. That meant he couldn’t have gotten permission to sell them in March 2020 “unless he was looking into the future,” she said.

What’s more, Maine law allows law enforcement agencies to sell guns from evidence to a federally licensed firearms dealer, but there are rules around how it’s done. They must try to find the rightful owners first, and then there must be an auction. Witnesses testified to the fact that Wainwright discouraged anyone from attempting to find owners, and there was no auction.

The sheriff’s argument that he received permission to sell guns from evidence is a “red herring,” Dieterich said, since “the commissioners no more authorized the sheriff to violate the law than the sheriff could authorize himself to violate the law.”

Wainwright’s attorney, Jonathan Berry, replied in his closing statement that the county was making a “creative” argument to separate the trade of service weapons in 2020 with the trade of guns from evidence in 2021 when they were really the same deal. He said selling guns from evidence was consistent with the historical practices of Oxford County.

On the first day of the hearing on Monday, Wainwright described how the sheriff’s office had traded guns from evidence — including those that went through the forfeiture process, were abandoned or used in suicides — under three different former sheriffs, Lloyd “Skip” Herrick, Wayne Gallant and James Theriault, without holding auctions. The last time they had an auction was around 2000.

Berry said the sheriff, who faces the challenge of dealing with a full evidence room, traded weapons to offset costs to the county of buying service weapons for officers. The sheriff’s office also gave weapons to J.T. Reid that were unsafe — such as those with a sawed-off barrel or no serial number — so they could be destroyed.

Dieterich replied that the county’s argument about why Wainwright should not have unilaterally sold guns from evidence was not “creative.” Rather Wainwright’s actions were “illegal,” she said.

When discussing the two uncertified school resource officers, Berry said the problem originated with Wainwright’s predecessor, Theriault, who hired the men several months before Wainwright became sheriff, in 2018, and did not submit their notices of hire to the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, which requires the paperwork and completed tests to certify officers.

When Wainwright became aware of the problem in 2023, when the Bangor Daily News called him about it, he spoke with the academy and resolved the matter within four months, Berry said.

One of the school resource officers, Percy Turner, is Commissioner Tim Turner’s brother, so it is implausible that Wainwright conspired to hide information about his certification status, Berry said. Percy Turner is now certified, and the other school resource officer, Michael Kaspereen, has retired. The kids of Hiram-based School Administrative District 55 and Rumford-based Regional School Unit 10 are safe, he said.

“It was technically illegal. It was technically a violation of law,” Berry said. “But it was a mistake.”

Dieterich responded that Wainwright’s facts don’t line up. That’s because he told the academy that he initiated the process in 2021 to have the men recertified, though that didn’t happen until 2023. He signed their contracts with the school districts every year, starting in 2019, that said the schools would receive certified officers. He did not submit the men’s names on required annual roster reports to the academy. And he gave them guns.

“Allowing them to do so, however competent they were, is a clear violation of law and presents a tremendous liability risk to the county, the department and the sheriff personally,” Dieterich said.

In terms of asking for leniency toward a woman ticketed by a deputy in 2022 for consuming alcohol in a vehicle on a public way, Berry described Wainwright’s intentions as benevolent.

When the deputy, uncomfortable with the request, reported it up the chain of command, the sheriff then called him and another deputy to tell them he had the authority to shred any ticket he wanted, and he knew that because the attorney general’s office had told him so.

During questioning, Dieterich had Wainwright read part of an internal investigation that the county had ordered into the sheriff’s actions. In it, Brian MacMaster, the former chief of investigations for the Maine Office of the Attorney General, told the county’s investigator he never told the sheriff it was OK to shred tickets, and that the sheriff’s actions were not illegal but were unethical.

“Sheriff Wainwright has apologized. He regrets ever having those conversations. If he could take them back, he would,” Berry, Wainwright’s attorney, said. “He’s acknowledged his behavior, and he’d like to move forward.”

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Fate of Oxford County sheriff rests with Janet Mills following hearing (2024)


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