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Lewiston shooting commission hears heart-wrenching testimony from victims' families

Nancy Lowell-Cunningham (left) and Rachel Sloat, Lewiston shooting victim Peyton Brewer Ross’ sister and fiancee, respectively, testify at a commission hearing on Thursday.
Patty Wight
/
Maine Public
Nancy Lowell-Cunningham (left) and Rachel Sloat, Lewiston shooting victim Peyton Brewer Ross’ sister and fiancee, respectively, testify at a commission hearing on Thursday.

Members of the independent commission reviewing the Lewiston mass shootings heard emotional testimony Thursday morning from victims' family members, who say their pain remains overwhelming and their sense of safety has been lost. For those who witnessed the shootings, there are regular nightmares and survivor's guilt.

Several described their struggles to get information about their loved ones, waiting hours or even longer for confirmation of their deaths.

It was especially hard for those in the deaf community. Four of the 18 people killed were playing in a deaf cornhole league at Schemengees Bar and Grille. But it wasn't until the next day that Megan Vozzella said police showed up at her house with an interpreter to deliver the news that her husband, Stephen, was dead.

Speaking through an interpreter, she and Elizabeth Seal, the wife of well-known interpreter Josh Seal, said better communication and better access to communication are needed going forward. These are the issues that Josh was so focused on, Elizabeth says. As the director of interpreting services for the Pine Tree Society, Josh was best known for his work signing for Dr. Nirav Shah at regular CDC briefings during the pandemic.

"With Josh not being here, I feel like I need to take this on in his stead to do something. We need to do something about this," Seal said.

Rachael Sloat, the fiancee and 15-year partner of Peyton Brewer-Ross, said she was rocking their daughter to sleep when a friend called to ask if Peyton had been playing cornhole at Schemenegees. She spent hours trying to reach him and repeatedly called the hospital. But she said it wasn't until 1 p.m. the following day that she received official confirmation that Peyton had been killed. During the hours in between she said her phone was blowing up with texts from people offering their condolences.

Peyton-Ross would have turned 41 years old this week. He was a brother, a friend and a new father whose daughter, Elle, had just turned two years old before he was killed.

"I want people to know how much his daughter meant to him," Sloat told the commission. "She was a daddy's girl. He would move mountains for her ... They used to play a game together. She would stand at the top of the stairs at bedtime and she'd say, 'Daddy, where are you?' and he'd call out, 'Here I am!' And he'd pop out at the bottom of the staircase. And she still does that on occasion, and he doesn't pop out, and she doesn't understand why.

"I want those words, 'Where are you?' — I want that to resonate in the ears of anybody who hears this, every politician, every member of law enforcement, every registered voter in this country," she said. "I want you to hear those words, 'Where are you?' Because my fellow Americans, where are you? We failed my little girl. That's all I have to say."

Others also expressed anger and frustration that police and the Army Reserve failed to take weapons away from the shooter, despite receiving warnings that his behavior was erratic and threatening in the weeks and months before the shootings.

Kathleen Walker was bowling at Just In Time Recreation with her husband, Jason Walker, and friends the night of the shootings. She described to the committee how as soon as Robert Card fired his first fatal shot, Jason was yelling to her to get down as he and his best friend, Michael Deslauriers, rushed Card when his gun jammed, providing just enough time for her and others to escape.

She said Jason worked at trying to kick the gun away as Mike came up on him from behind. But Card's weapon unjammed and both were fatally shot. On top of her profound grief at the loss of her husband, Walker says the carnage that she saw that night haunts her.

"I no longer feel safe," she says. "I lock every door. I installed cameras at my home. When I go out I carry a firearm. I always look over my shoulder and I flinch at loud sounds. I need to check on my kids each time I hear a siren because I could not bear anymore grief," she says.

Stacy Cyr, the longtime partner of Deslauriers, was also at the bowling alley that night. She says no one should have to see or feel what she did, and she has not gone a day without crying and is haunted by survivors' guilt.

"I feel guilty that I didn't run to be by his side instead of running out of the building. The thought of him dying alone torments me," Cyr says. "This horror could and should have been prevented."

Kathleen Walker noted that there were several opportunities that Robert Card's weapons could have been taken away from him. Card had been hospitalized over the summer for two weeks in New York state while training with his Maine-based Army Reserve unit after exhibiting erratic and aggressive behavior. And later, in September, just weeks before the shootings, a fellow reservist warned superiors that he thought Card was not improving and that he "was going to snap and do a mass shooting."

Maine has a "yellow flag" law that provides a process for taking away guns from someone in a mental health crisis. But police say they are limited in what they can do and must balance public safety with individual rights.

"The system failed and we can't allow this to happen again," Walker says.

This was the third meeting of the independent commission reviewing the events leading up to the shootings and the law enforcement response to it. Former Chief Justice Dan Wathen, the commission's chair, says their role is to determine that what was done was all that could be done under current law.

State police are expected to appear before the commission at the next meeting on Feb. 15.

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