A man scheduled to appear in court to face gun charges Wednesday killed a sheriff’s deputy in Maine, stole his cruiser and robbed a convenience store, officials said.
The fatal shooting of Somerset County Cpl. Eugene Cole around 1:45 a.m. on U.S. Route 2 in Norridgewock triggered an intensive manhunt for the shooter in and around the heavily wooded rural community about 60 miles (96 kilometers) west of Bangor.
Law enforcement officials vowed to maintain a heavy presence overnight and urged residents to remain vigilant as the search continued for 29-year-old John Williams, of Madison, Maine.
“Many times we’re able to say that there is not an ongoing threat, but that’s not the case today,” State Police Lt. Col. John Cote said. “There certainly is an ongoing public threat. He’s considered armed and dangerous.”
Cole’s death is believed to be the first killing of a law enforcement officer in Maine in nearly 30 years. The last time someone killed an officer in the line of duty was in 1989, according to the Maine Department of Public Safety.
Helicopters, armored vehicles and numerous police cruisers were spotted around Norridgewock, and schools were locked down as federal, state and local law enforcement poured into the region to look for Williams.
Police said Williams is 5-foot-6, 120 pounds with blue eyes and brown hair in a ponytail.
Law enforcement officials said he had arrest records in Maine, Tennessee and Massachusetts. In Tennessee, he faced drug and drug-related charges dating as far back as 2008 and was revived from an overdose at least once, according to the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office.
Last month, Williams was arrested in Haverhill, Massachusetts, and charged with improper storage and carrying a firearm without a license. He was found with a 9mm handgun and a 16-round magazine after he told the police that he dozed off and drove into a ditch.
An officer wrote in the report that Williams appeared tired and impaired, but denied having consumed any alcohol or illegal drugs.
Williams posted bail on March 31 and was due to return to court on Wednesday for a probable cause hearing.
That image contrasts with Williams’ days at Skowhegan High School, where a yearbook showed he once served as a class officer. “When in school he was a nice, funny and an all-around good guy,” said classmate Casey Sprout-Costa.
Another classmate, Alex Stetkis, said Williams was a popular honor student who was class president in his junior year. But things went downhill when he started picking fights with other classmates and getting into drugs.
“Most could not believe it,” Stetkis said of the news that Williams was suspected in the killing.
“He was always kind and could have gone anywhere in life if he hadn’t gotten into drugs,” he said.
Williams’ Facebook page features photos of him smiling at a graduation ceremony as well as other photos of him hiking, hanging out with friends and dressed in a suit at a wedding party. His last post in 2017 noted how he was starting a new job in nearby Anson, Maine.
Residents in Norridgewock, a town of about 3,500, were stunned Wednesday as state police and federal agents investigated a blue-grey home believed to be where Williams lived with his girlfriend. Overhead, a helicopter buzzed low over trees.
“We’re a little on edge. It’s unnerving knowing there’s a guy running around out there,” said Tasha Raymond, who was home with her two children.
Gov. Paul LePage expressed his “deepest condolences” to Cole’s family in a tweet. “If you live in Somerset County and the surrounding area, please cooperate with law enforcement and stay safe,” the Republican governor said. LePage also directed all U.S and state flags to be flown at half-staff for at least three days.
Cole has a son who also is a Somerset County deputy. Sheriff Dale Lancaster called Cole, a 13-year veteran of the department, an “outstanding employee, one of the finest deputies.”
A relative described Cole as a lover of music who was well-known throughout the community for his generous and peaceful ways.
“He was one of the most caring and considerate people that I had the pleasure to know,” said Madison resident Scott Bishop, whose mother had been married to Cole’s brother.